MFA So White: Racial Bias in the Arts

A photo of a hallway at Trinity College.

MFA so white they say “I love him” when you talk about Toni Morrison. MFA so white they think AAVE is an acronym for an artisan beer. MFA so white they think code switching is a Call of Duty move. MFA so white that you are the only black student in a program of sixty; you think there may be a black faculty member (someone mentioned it once in passing), but you’ve never actually seen them and so are still unsure. MFA so white your classmates think it’s OK to say that your characters seem too stereotypically black, though they aren’t black and no one in their family is black, but they have one or two black friends and listen to rap which makes them an authority on blackness. MFA so white that white males (on multiple occasions) think they can submit works with the word “nigger” in it to a class full of white people for no discernible reason. MFA so white you hear about it from someone else after the fact and it makes you wonder what would have happened if there was a black person in the class; would they still have submitted it? Would you have to sit there and hear an argument about free speech, too uncomfortable to speak? Or would you speak out and try not to be an “angry black”? Does what you may or may not have done keep you up at night? MFA so white you’ve been told you will be the one to pave the way for others, and you can’t help but think of the Little Rock Nine or Rosa Parks and is this still the Civil Rights era? Have we ever left?

Your first semester here was hard. You almost didn’t come back in the spring. It was hard to make friends. You felt like there was no one you could talk to about the things that mattered most. Luckily for you, your mom is white and you grew up in a predominantly white city suburb, so you know a thing or two about the Beatles, own a pair of New Balance sneakers, and have watched indie films like Garden State. You are able to make friends and blend in by maximizing this side of you and minimizing the other. You wonder if they heard the way you talked when you were at home, or if you showed up in a do-rag or satin bonnet, if they would still be your friend. You start to wonder if you’re even a good writer. Are you only good because you give a glimpse of the black experience in your writing? Because you use AAVE in dialogue? Because your characters say “nigga”? You remember when you first started writing short stories, how there were never any black characters, how you were writing stories like what you had always read, how you were writing what you thought people wanted to read. You think about how every time you open a book you automatically assume the characters are white. You think it’s sad how this has been the default in your mind for so many years, and you try to fight this in your writing. Your characters are black. Very black. And you start to wonder was that person right? Are you perpetuating stereotypes to let the reader know your characters are black? What are stereotypes? Your family really does play dominoes and eat fried chicken, and aren’t these details accurate and important? Are you letting society’s stereotypes of your people dictate your writing? You don’t know anymore.

You’re writing this for a class assignment, and you want nothing more than to give this a happy ending. You want to say how it was all worth it, how it all worked out in the end, how at home you feel here. But the truth is you agonize over your workshop submission, you get the shakes before your workshop and you cry after, you are exhausted at the end of every day trying to be the person that fits in, you just want to hurry up and skip to the end and get the diploma. You want to tell potential black students, Yes, it is worth it! You should totally come here! But you don’t want anyone else to feel the way you do, and you honestly don’t know if it will be worth it. You look up statistics for black writers. You read things about publishing’s diversity gap. You learn that blacks have had most success self-publishing, that only four percent of black novels are published by the Big Five. A part of you already knew this, already suspected that you may have to do this yourself like your people have always done.

MFA so white they’ll read this and think you want special treatment, even though you don’t. All you want is to feel seen and heard. You won’t quit the program, won’t let your anxiety of what other people think of you stop you from finishing your novel and getting your degree. You remember seeing an interview with Toni Morrison where she said, “If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” You are here to write that book and you won’t let anything stop you.