Author Junot Diaz recently published a critique of the “whiteness” of MFA programs in The New Yorker's blogs section. This is a shortened version of his intro to the VONA anthology, Dismantle: An Anthology of Writings from the VONA/Voices Writing Workshop.
Some of the responses to Diaz’s piece in the comment section were reprehensible. The number of ad hominem attacks here certainly gives weight to Diaz’s arguments. When the person of color brings up a critique, the response is often to critique the so-called character or personality faults of that person or to critique the language in which the critique is expressed (too angry, uses too many swear words, the person doesn’t have the right to make this critique because he or she is in some other way privileged, etc.). These critiques are all ways that the dominant culture uses to dismiss concrete and systemic issues.
One key issue here is whether the faculty in MFA programs is well versed in a variety of literary traditions and thought? When I was in an English PhD program, I read a handful of poems by Amiri Baraka and that was it. In my MFA program I was not taught anything about the tradition of African American letters (much less about Asian American, Native American or Latino American, much less the traditions of global writing or postcolonial theory). Many of my students at VONA and other writers of color I’ve encountered also express a similar absence in their MFA training and thus, in the faculty that teach in these programs.
A second issue about the “whiteness” of MFA workshops is addressed not to individual white people but to the literary practices and ways of thinking which are deemed standard in a white dominated society and literary world. For example, the default literary practice in American writing is that white writers do not have to identify their white characters as being white. Is this practice politically and racially neutral or is it a practice which can be examined in light of a literary and political critique? In most current MFA workshops, what would happen if such a critique were expressed? Would it be acknowledged that there are actually at least two sides, if not many more, that are addressing this practice? Or would such a critique be dismissed as too political, as “PC” and therefore not literary? And what would the response be to the student who offered up such a critique?
One way in which power exercises itself is by keeping critiques of the dominant power from ever being voiced. Ad hominem attacks are one such way, ignoring the existence of the critiques are another (i.e., not knowing the literary traditions and thought of people of color), and standard practices of how workshops are run yet another. The motive is to keep the actual debate of the issues outside the classroom or prevent from occurring in the literary world.
I know, as so many suggest, I shouldn’t be looking at comment sections. I can certainly understand the argument that it’s useless to respond to “trolls.”
Still one comment seemed to me to voice a valid concern:
“This is my perspective as a white guy in the academic world...My concern is, if I try to talk about race, people’s reaction is likely to be: nice try guy, but you can’t understand the experiences of people of color. On the other hand, based on Junot Diaz’s remarks, it seems like if I choose to keep silent about matters of race the reaction is: you’re afraid to confront these issues, so you’re part of the problem. I have no doubt that it’s hard for people of color, especially when it seems like their concerns are widely ignored. But it’s hard for me too — I honestly don’t think anyone, person of color or otherwise, wants to hear my perspective on race. I’ve never felt encouraged to join that conversation."
Here’s what I wrote back:
"I can understand how you, as “a white guy in the academic world,” might feel you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t. Many whites don’t think race is a pressing issue so they don’t feel the dilemma in the way you seem to. But your dilemma isn’t the same as POC in the academic world who, when they do voice their critiques about institutional practices concerning race, are met with disbelief or ad hominem attacks or derision (as shown in this commentary section).
I recall talking recently with a young white male writer who said while he knew race was an important subject, he was afraid to write about it because he was afraid of being called a “racist.” So I’m sure there are other whites - writers and academics - who feel like you, that perhaps they’re better off not engaging, remaining silent.
Conversations are, of course, two way streets. But when individuals of different races converse that conversation doesn’t take place in a neutral, ahistorical realm. Richard Wright has indicated that white and black Americans are engaged in a struggle over the description of reality. But one key difference is that that white description has prevailed and dominated our society and culture.
As a Japanese American, I grew up thinking I wanted to be a white person and thought it a compliment when white people told me they thought of me as a white person. I went through twenty-six years of education without really being presented anything like the black description of our social reality and history (much less a Japanese American description). I only got that education after I left grad school. On my own.
So the thing is, when you as a white person enter a conversation about race, most likely there are many things you don’t know–about the cultures and histories of people of color, about the arguments and theories we have of our mutual history and how this society functions, about the lives of people of color. But people of color, if we have gone through your school systems, know we have to know how whites tell their histories to themselves, how they regard themselves and their racial identity (which is often–”whites don’t have a racial identity”). We have heard the white side and view of things; we can’t avoid it. We have read books about white people by white people, seen movies and television shows about white people by white people. We have listened a lot to white people. It is really hard, if not impossible, for us to be successful in this society without listening to white people and often, listening while holding or biting our tongues.
If you are really interested in having a true conversation about race with people of color, then you should realize that historically this has been a mainly one-sided conversation. Since whites have been dominating the conversation so long, perhaps the role for you as an individual white person is, at first, simply to listen, to find out what you don’t know. As Donald Rumsfeld has infamously observed, there are things we don’t know we don’t know. That is often the case when whites enter conversations with people of color about race. Whites don’t actually know how much they do not know about the lives of people of color. The only antidote to this is to be curious and listen. Listening too is part of the art of conversation.
Unfortunately, as so many of the negative responses to Diaz’s article indicate, there’s a sizable number of whites who simply cannot hear people of color describe their experiences. That simple description of one’s life as a person of color so challenges white assumptions about our social reality that the white person cannot even entertain that the person of color may actually be telling the truth about his or her experience.
In Baldwin’s The Devil Finds Work, there’s a great quotation about identity. In it, Baldwin pictures a stranger walking into a village. Encountering that stranger, says Baldwin, should cause one to question one’s identity because the stranger looks at the world and herself and you differently than you, and your identity must now shift to include not just the stranger, but the perspective of the stranger in your consciousness of yourself. But for that to happen, you have to listen to the stranger, you have to learn from the stranger. And that requires you, said Baldwin, to change your robes, to reconstruct your identity. Listening then is dangerous, threatening. But as Baldwin implies, necessary and life affirming.”
At the Stonecoast MFA program, Alexs Pate and I teach a workshop, “Writing About Race.” In it, writers examine literary and other issues that arise from writing about race. The workshop is an attempt to create a safe space for white writers and writers of color to discuss race.
I also teach at the VONA Voices Writers’ Workshop, a writers’ conference for writers of color taught by writers of color. VONA is there for writers of color to examine and discuss their work and the issues that arise from that work. It provides a space where writers of color don’t have to spend a majority of the workshop explaining their work or their lives to white writers or arguing with white writers about our right to tell our truths and lives in our own voices.
We need more of both of these spaces.
David Mura recently published his fourth book of poetry, The Last Incantations (Northwestern University Press). He has written two memoirs, Turning Japanese and Where the Body Meets Memory, and a novel, Famous Suicides of the Japanese Empire. He teaches at the Stonecoast MFA Program and the VONA Voices Writers' Conference. The excerpt is from his blog: blog.davidmura.com