The Student of Color in the Typical MFA Program
In the landscape of the literary world, one dramatic shift has been the rise of MFA creative writing programs. There are now more than three hundred in the United States and Canada. Back in the late eighties, the first Associated Writing Programs annual conference I attended had about 350 attendees. This past year, the attendance was over 13,000.
Despite these numbers, if a student of color enters one of these MFA creative writing programs, he or she will be in a small minority. The director of the program will most likely be white, as will most of the professors. Of course, this situation isn’t very different from that of most undergraduate colleges. But by its nature, creative writing is subjective and personal; so is the judgment of that writing. This makes it a far different course of study than math or science, where the correct answers are objective and have been objectively proven.
Since writers are a liberal lot, the white faculty and students in these institutions profess progressive views on race. Generally, they see themselves as without racial bias. Racism and racial bias might still be found in the United States, but it would be in the Republican Party or the Tea Party or the alt-right, not in a population of liberal white artists.
Unfortunately, that is not the experience of many MFA students of color. Personally, I have heard dozens—if not hundreds—of stories from individual students of color that would indicate otherwise. So have colleagues of mine.
Although the essay below focuses on MFA creative writing programs, the issues and arguments it depicts occur everywhere in American society, in educational institutions, in businesses, in political institutions, in the justice system. When issues of race come up in these other areas, the treatment of the person of color by whites in that institution is not essentially different from what happens in an MFA program.
There are, though, a couple of telling differences: In an MFA program, the unconscious ways that whites perceive people of color are more likely to appear, since creative writing comes out of the unconscious. In other classes, race and racial issues can sometimes remain hidden or silenced. That is, it is more likely that problematic racial perceptions will emerge in student writing than in assignments undertaken in math class.
In American society, the divide between the way whites and people of color see the social reality around them is always present. Often, though, this divide remains invisible or obscured, especially in places where issues of race are often avoided rather than discussed. But creative writing involves the very description of social reality, so the gulf between the vision of whites and that of people of color is present right there on the page. Moreover, the judgment of these descriptions can also reveal a gulf between whites and people of color. Conflict then ensues. Such conflict is societal, not individual, though creative writing’s focus on the individual writer may camouflage or obfuscate this.
In other words, I will argue here that what the MFA student of color experiences in a predominantly white institution is not simply an obscure or numerically insignificant occurrence. Instead, it is symptomatic and revelatory of the ways the voices and consciousness of people of color are suppressed in our society.
This essay was written specifically for student writers of color, to let them know they are not crazy, that what they perceive concerning the ways they and their work are received is real. It was written to let them know that what they experience as an individual is both a social practice and a political practice that involves a clash of power between two groups, whites and people of color. It was written as a manual for battle and survival.
Here is an all too common scenario MFA students of color face in their mainly all white MFA programs:
A white student brings in a piece with racial stereotypes or which presents people of color in a manner that negates their humanity as three-dimensional individuals. Later, in the same class, other students, usually white, also present pieces with similar problematic representations of people of color.
Confronted with such a piece—or pieces—the writer of color must decide whether to voice an objection to the stereotypes or two-dimensional portraits of people of color or the problematic racial approach of the white student’s piece.
Since such situations have played themselves out for so many MFA students, we know that invariably neither the white professor nor the other white students will formulate and express a critique of the piece like that of the student of color.
Thus the student of color will be the sole person voicing her critique—if the student chooses to do so.
If, and when, the student of color voices her objections to the piece, more often than not neither the white professor nor the other white students will respond to the actual critique, nor will they inquire further into why the student of color is making that critique.
Instead, the white professor and the other white students will generally first invoke some notion of the freedom of the imagination (perhaps echoing something like Henry James’s donnée: one must grant writers their starting premises). They will emphasize the subjectivity of all responses both to the reality around us and to a specific text.
At best, the white professor or other white students will argue that the problems with the white student’s piece may be caused by technical deficiencies—namely, it is not really a racial issue.
At the same time, what is actually going on in the class is the following:
The white professor and the white students start with the assumption that none of the white people in the class are racists and none consciously or unconsciously subscribe to any elements from an ideology of white supremacy. To challenge this assumption is treated as blasphemy, as an act of aggression or delusion.
To maintain this belief in the absolute absence of white racism, what must be defended is the freedom of white writers to write about people of color without taking into account the critiques of people of color.*
As part of this defense, the student of color is subtly or openly charged with acting as a censor—despite the fact that the student of color obviously has no or very little power to affect the freedom of anyone in the room to write. If the student of color is identified as a censor, then of course her or his critique must be suspect, since censorship is always the enemy of any writer.
To help in this defense, the debate will then be formulated as occurring between the individual subjectivities in the class, which means that it is framed as the subjectivity of the one person of color against the seven, ten, twelve white students along with the white professor. Framed in this way, the outcome of such a debate is already predetermined.
Thus the argument will not be formulated as a struggle between groups—between whites and people of color. It will not be placed within a history of the racial debate, literary, political, and otherwise, over the nature of our social reality. It will not be placed within the context of arguments made by other writers of color concerning the depictions of people of color by white artists. Instead, the focus will be limited to the subjective vision or opinions of the individual student of color.
Another tactic the white professor and white students might take is designating the argument as political and thus beyond the bounds of a literary class.
Yet only when the argument is considered a racial antagonism between whites and people of color can the true nature of the conflict be revealed.
But unfortunately the discussion in many MFA classrooms is deliberately constructed and guided so that this never happens.
At the same time, on an emotional and often unconscious level, something else is occurring in the class.
To entertain that the white student’s work might contain racially problematic or racist elements is to entertain the possibility that the work of other white students and even the white professor might contain such elements.
Therefore, the white professor and the other white students will feel at some level that they too are being critiqued by the student of color.
Given this feeling of threat, and given their investment in the racial status quo, the whites in the class, on a conscious and/or an unconscious level, will react to the student of color’s critique of the racial bias in the white student’s piece with fear and/or anger and outrage.
How does this process occur?
Some white members of the class will feel that the student of color’s critique is simply wrong; these members will dismiss the student and his or her critique without much thought. If the student persists, these white students will feel annoyed, then angry.
But some white members of the class may begin to feel guilty, may find a part of themselves wondering if the student of color is right. They may even sense that by critiquing the racial portrait in a white student’s work, the student of color is also challenging the general portrayal of people of color in the society, the negative stereotypes that the individual white student has never had to deal with.
These feelings of guilt will conflict with the white students’ belief that they are not racists. Rather than explore the possible reasons why they might feel guilty, most whites will cling even harder to the belief that they are not racists and, therefore, should not feel guilty. This is unfair, they will say to themselves and perhaps to fellow classmates. I am being accused of something I did not do. (Such thoughts can occur even if the student of color never mentions the word racist or makes any such accusation.) The white student will begin to feel angry at the student of color for treating the white student unfairly, for making the white student feel guilty. The white student—or the white professor—may even begin to feel that he or she is the victim of the student of color.
Thus the white professor and members of the class will begin to feel antipathy toward the student of color making the critique. Either silently or vocally, the student of color will be deemed a troublemaker, someone who is overly sensitive, paranoid, or overly aggressive. A political agitator. A censor. Or worse.
Occasionally the white professor and other white students might possibly admit on a theoretical level that the student of color might have a basis for critique that the white people in the class may not have sufficient knowledge to understand. But very rarely will the white professor and other white students take this critique as a springboard to consider further how the student of color’s critique is connected to the tradition of literature, literary theory, and political thought of people of color—a tradition that the white professor and white students are often unaware of or have never sufficiently studied.
Very rarely will the white professor and other white students begin to examine the limitations of their own experiences. Very rarely will they begin to inquire what it means for them to be “white”—that is, rarely will they take the student of color’s critique as a call to examine their own ignorance of the way racism and white supremacy function in society. They will not ask themselves, “What does it mean for me to be a white person in this society? How did I learn I was a white person? How did I learn what whiteness means to me and to others? How is the way I am feeling or acting toward the critique expressed by the student of color shaped by unspoken definitions/constructions of what it means to be white? What are the practices and beliefs that undergird a certain construction of white identity?”
Instead, the focus of emotion and discussion will center on the student of color; this focus will soon begin to spill over into a critique of the student of color’s character and her motives for “disrupting” the class. It will also focus on the student of color’s challenge to the white professor’s authority and superior knowledge, the student’s “attitude” toward the professor and fellow students.
If the student of color persists in making such critiques, she will develop a reputation in the MFA program as a troublemaker, a malcontent, perhaps even someone with psychological problems, as someone who is not supportive of the other students, as disrespecting her professors.
If the student of color persists in making such critiques, she will find herself increasingly isolated socially and shunned in various ways by the other students and professors in the department—and this may very well also include even other professors of color, who often feel that their own position in the department is quite precarious and open to challenge. These professors of color are then cited as evidence that none of these matters involve actual racial antagonisms.
After two or three years of such treatment, if the student of color persists and graduates, she will have fought a literary, psychological, and political battle that none of her white counterparts have had to face. The price of the student’s ticket is not the same as theirs; the toll she has paid is far higher.
All this negative focus on the student of color, all the forces arrayed against her, is rarely seen for what it is.
It is one example of how American society fights to maintain the racial status quo. It demonstrates how this society maintains the privileges that whites enjoy by virtue of their whiteness, how it polices any threats to the system of white privilege and white supremacy. Such policing is far easier if whiteness, as a group identity, is never acknowledged or even allowed to be discussed. This is a tactic and approach often employed more consciously in the political realm.
In other words, while each individual in this scenario believes he or she is acting as an individual, the actions of the white professor, the white students, and the MFA program toward the student color have been preprogrammed.
That is why this scenario takes place over and over in MFA programs all across the country.
At the same time, in most MFA programs, the subject of race and writing about race is never considered an essential area of study for all writers in the program regardless of color. It is never a requirement, always an elective—that is, if it is even mentioned.
This is not surprising since the majority of the white faculty do not believe that such a study is essential to their own writing or to their own pedagogical practices.
This ignorance regarding the lens of race or the works of writers of color does not occur by accident. It is both a result of the racial inequalities of power in our society and a cause of it. It is part of the way the system of racial inequality maintains itself.
If all this is preprogrammed, if the events of this scenario inevitably play themselves out in so many MFA programs, what is the student of color to do?
That is, should she voice her criticism or not?
And if she does voice her criticism, how often and how vocally and to whom should she voice it?
What danger does she put herself in by making such a critique? What strategies should she employ in dealing with the social and power structures designed to protect white privilege and supremacy?
The answers to these questions in part depend on the individual and individual choice.
But I cannot emphasize strongly enough that the scenario I’ve described is not an individual scenario but a societal one—that is, it is a scenario dictated by the race and racial position of the actors within it, dictated not by individuals but by society’s imperative to defend the racial status quo from any direct challenges.
Because of the nature of this struggle, I believe there are certain things the student of color should consider. One is The Art of War by Sun Tzu:
Now the general who wins a battle makes many calculations in his temple before the battle is fought. The general who loses a battle makes but few calculations beforehand. Thus do many calculations lead to victory, and few calculations to defeat: how much more no calculation at all! It is by attention to this point that I can foresee who is likely to win or lose.
It is the rule in war, if our forces are ten to the enemy’s one, to surround him; if five to one, to attack him; if twice as numerous, to divide our army into two.
If equally matched, we can offer battle; if slightly inferior in numbers, we can avoid the enemy; if quite unequal in every way, we can flee from him.
Thus the student of color might consider whether this is a battle she can win. Given the forces and numbers of the opposition and given the fact that she is a student, the student of color is clearly not in a position of superior numbers or superior power. This battle is therefore probably one that the student will lose if she continues to fight.
One problem for the student of color is the feeling that if she is silent about a piece of writing that is racially problematic or insensitive or simply racist, she will be condoning such writing.
Moreover, the student may believe that to be silent is to be a coward.
At the same time, if the student of color persists in her critiques, she will be increasingly attacked and begin to feel isolated and powerless. The student may feel then that to persist with her critiques is an attempt to maintain or regain power.
But Sun Tzu teaches that to retreat or lay low in times when one does not have power or sufficient numbers is not weakness; it is wisdom.
Sun Tzu teaches that taking time to build allies and gather forces is not weakness but wisdom.
Sun Tzu teaches that taking time to obtain information about the enemy and identify the enemy’s weaknesses is not weakness but wisdom.
Sun Tzu cautions people not to fight battles they know they are going to lose. The object is not to win a particular battle but to win the war.
Or as I wrote to one such student, being an activist artist is not a sprint. It is a marathon. Artists need to plan and strategize and build their forces for the larger battles to come, to fight from strength not weakness.
At the same time, there is the option of organizing, of making these issues public in a larger way. But such an option does put a burden on the student of color that she or he should not have to deal with. Moreover, one’s talent as a creative writer does not necessarily translate to political organizing. The two tasks require different skills.*
What I am saying here ought to be clear by now: Students of color, you are not crazy or misperceiving what is before and around you. You are in hostile territory. You are in a battle. In many MFA programs, your presence, your mind, and your creativity represent an alien presence, at odds with the powers that be.
You can choose not to fight certain battles. You can wait until you are in a more secure position or a position of power.
In the meantime, keep writing. Stay strong. You’re not alone.
* As I’ve pointed out in my introduction, Toni Morrison argues that historically white fiction writers have not imagined a nonwhite audience for their work, even when that work involves characters of color. Hence, it isn’t surprising that white writers might not imagine the critique by people of color of their work or what that might entail.
* I say this as someone who has done his share of political organizing, especially around cultural issues and issues of racial equity.