First year, Guest post
Comments 57

The MFA Vs. Everyone Not a Straight, White Male

I am a black woman. I consider myself lucky that I chose a program that houses other black women, making me not the token for the first time in my experience of higher education. I chose a program that even has black men, and other types of people of color in it. I chose a program that has people in it who fight for the voices of marginalized populations as their daily bread, in and out of what they do for writing or for work.

However, even paradise (which I consider my program to be) has its flaws. I came to the program brimming with enthusiasm, and ready to write. My first fiction workshop made me self-conscious. I was the only black woman in that class. I, coming from a predominantly white institution for undergrad, have been known to carry the weight of race. I felt conflicted. I didn’t want to submit something for workshop that was urban or street fiction. I felt that gritty urban fiction was something my peers expected me to be able to come up with. Instead, I wanted to try something new. This challenged me to write a piece about love and marriage after miscarriage.

There were many times that I wanted to drop out of the program. I felt like I wasn’t being afforded the same opportunities. I felt like I wasn’t being heard. I felt like people weren’t actually reading my work in workshops. I felt like people kept asking arbitrary questions about authenticity because of my race. All of this happened in paradise. I stuck it out. I argued with people. I made myself be heard. It is exhausting always having to teach people. I don’t owe anyone anything. I don’t owe you an explanation about why your stereotypical portrayal of blacks in your piece didn’t wow me. At the same time, you don’t owe me an explanation of why you wrote it that way.

Also, I noticed something about literature. There’s a lot of literature written about straight white males complaining. Some of it is brilliant and some of it isn’t. I see the tremendous value placed on this type of literature and I see the way other works by people of color or non-straight people are separated and categorized under headings. If you are a professor, please assign some variety in your readings. I’ve been blessed again with professors who have inundated me with various types of literature of all kinds but I know that’s not the case everywhere.

Race, class, gender and sexuality are issues that carry a heavy weight. In my first class in the program, we were guessing scenarios based on dialogue in Playwriting and I offended someone. I argued that their piece was love between a man or a woman. She rolled her eyes and told me it was love between a woman and another woman. Further conversations with this woman have occurred. I told her that it was instilled in me, even as queer person, to think that love only happens between men and women. She told me that she felt that this program was very straight and that she was glad to know that there were more LGBT folk around than she had previously known.

There are things that are instilled in us from childhood. There are things that are institutionalized and relegated as normal. Ask yourself before asking someone if their memoir piece is realistic or authentic enough—why am I asking that? Is it because they are of a different race or sexuality than me? Ask yourself, am I not reading this workshop piece because it makes me uncomfortable? Not acknowledging these issues will keep these problems resurfacing. Colorblind is still blind no matter how you spin it.

Image: Zhu

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Sarah Francois is an MFA candidate at LIU Brooklyn. She resides in Brooklyn. She has poetry published in Poetic Diversity, Downtown Brooklyn, Brooklyn Paramount and Visceral Brooklyn. She waxes poetic on her blog and on Twitter.

If you’re interested in contributing a guest post to The MFA Years, visit our submissions page.

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57 Comments

  1. I think it’s so unfortunate that there ever was reason for stereotypes to build about individuals in society who are different or the minority. It’s shocking that still to this day people get uncomfortable when you say the word racism. What is that about? It’s like if someone actually had racial prejudices I’d truly respect them more for recognising that it’s there and that it’s a bad thing.

    I feel that the worst thing about discrimination in general is that we all have our prejudices that manifest themselves when least expected and that’s because of what we see in the media and in society as a “normal” way to act and talk. I’m not saying there aren’t exceptions, but it’s just such an internalised thing and in my opinion can be a power greater than intelligence (at least for some)

    Great post, I look forward to seeing more of your blogging!

    Steph x

    Liked by 3 people

  2. All we’ve got, each one of us, is our own personal experience to stand on–both while we’re writing and while we’re judging others’ work.

    To read is to learn but the learning is up to the individual. We can only decide for ourselves how much we will alter our perception of the world given new information. You can’t force people to grow, not even to save their own lives.

    The best you can do is be an inspiration and beacon to those who are ready and lead them if you can. And you’re doing that.

    You go, girl.

    Liked by 3 people

  3. Lobita says

    Smooth read. I’ve noticed an increasing amount of discontent expressed on social media surrounding diversity in MFA programs. Junot Diaz has also written some great short stories on the feelings of alienation he experienced. I wanted to touch upon an idea you referenced – the acknowledgement that a large body of literature exists written by straight while males complaining. I recently viewed a reading list for a suburban high school in a midsize town in Oregon. Commonly-seen names: F. Scott Fitzgerald, J.D. Salinger, Nathaniel Hawthorne. This acknowledgement is not to say that these authors did not write great works – they did! – but I did not see a single author of color (either female or male) on the list. Thanks for sharing.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Junto Diaz is so fun to read and listen to. I just read the article you are referencing. Also, in my own MFA program, someone was talking about their frustrations with reading Gettrude Stein, but they followed by saying at least it wasn’t another DWM. I can relate to her, despite being a future DWM. I love being opened up to new reads of past and present through school, and thankfully I’ve read many works that have been new to me and sometimes even newly rediscovered works from the early 20th century by women who seemed to be passed over.

      Like

      • Lobita says

        I have a huge amount of respect for Diaz, for both highlighting the lack of diversity in MFA programs and for writing three heartbreakingly perceptive (and wildly vulgar) novels. I suppose it comes down to this idea of representation. Individuals coming from diverse backgrounds have both a need and a write to see their stories reflected in literature. We acknowledge that diverse stories are missing and, as such, there is an increasing need to create (and force, really) a culture that will support the telling of stories, moving us away from this idea of “the other”.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. As a straight white male, I wish to share some of your exasperations with academic culture. Sometimes I just think professors are in the bubble to long and forge how much life is going on outside the realm of ideas! Thanks for being honest!

    Liked by 3 people

  5. Hope life marches on for you even as lone drummer at times. I had a friend who did her PhD in English Literature at one of Canada’s largest and oldest universities.

    GAWD. She was the Asian-Canadian doing a PhD in that faculty at that time. She felt some people doubted her because they perceived English wasn’t her first language.

    When I did my undergraduate degree, Canada’s 2nd largest university in English lit., I was the only Canadian student of Asian descent in a faculty of 400 students. Yes, sure, I felt abit isolated. This was in the late 1970’s.

    I was born in Canada and have lived here all my 56 yrs.

    Liked by 3 people

  6. We have so many judgments and perceptions that we need to throw out of our little brains in order to truly listen and appreciate another. Authenticity is a challenge…and a challenge when writing. So many personal elements rush in when I am writing…and fear. I always found it very difficult to judge another’s writings—especially when forced to evaluate my students’ writings. It is good that you encourage us to look at those things that form our perceptions of others and of their writings. I totally agree with your statement: “Not acknowledging these issues will keep these problems resurfacing.” And it takes great courage to look at them and admit to them and then root them out and redesign our outlook. Blessings to you!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Wonderfully written. Your being there holding your ground is really tough but it is a battle we have to fight to make the others know we also have a view point maybe different and they must listen .

    Liked by 2 people

  8. Reblogged this on sueggna and commented:
    Thanks for carrying the weight of Black people. I know very well how it is like to Carry the weight of being black; the ombudsmen black person in a predominantly white masters degree class.

    Wear that with pride because you earned it and no one will understand the pride and joy of the experience!

    Liked by 2 people

  9. This is really insightful post. As a literature student, my favourite book so far is Audre Lorde’s Zami. It has got nothing to do with ‘white males complaining’ as you put it. I just want to say, that what you’re saying is something I, too, have observed as being an integral part of literature.

    Liked by 2 people

  10. Raw, Interesting and Inspiring blog post. Thank you for sharing this. Unfortunately I think people tend to be unintentionally ignorant of such a concept, myself included. Thank you for being so honest.

    Like

  11. So many personal elements rush in when I am writing…and fear. I always found it very difficult to judge another’s writings—especially when forced to evaluate my students’ writings

    Like

  12. I, too, found myself as the only minority in my writing workshops. Luckily, my peers never made me feel that way. We were a class full of people trying to tell stories. In that regard we were all the same. Even when I wrote about my own personal hardships in Hawaii, I was never singled out as the one Asian in our class. They just wanted to read stories they had never read before. I was just glad I had found an audience.

    That’s what I learned about fiction. We are all equal. Again, I was fortunate enough to be surrounded by people who saw me for what I was trying to do on the page, not the color of my skin or my cultural background. I understand that in most cases, people aren’t quite so fortunate. Thank you for this. This was very inspiring. Best of luck to you in your journey.

    Like

  13. Continue to press forward. Know that which is true lies deep within.

    From a professor who is totally in sync with your experience and sensitive enough to incorporate adjustments in my style of teaching.

    Good Luck,

    Prof. E.

    Like

  14. emnylibrarian says

    Sarah, what a wonderful piece! It makes me rethink about I responded to people’s work in college and how I still respond to the blogs and books that I choose to read.

    Like

  15. You know what your soul purpose is, it kept you on this journey. Your writing and poetry are your swords which you can re-sharpen any time you want. Your voice is being heard and have faith that works are being done to complement your projects and add to the challenges we face.

    People, no matter what race, choose to learn the way they want to learn. People choose to write the way they want to write. Your talent is clear for all to see. It is a learning curve that seems endless trying to figure out the motives of others. Stay focussed on your objectives and your path with your writing swords will keep you at peace. You are a blessing to the writing world!

    Like

  16. “It is exhausting always having to teach people.” – You are speaking truth to power. I have taken a sabbatical from being the token ambassador to all things black and female. Of course, now that makes me ‘anti-social’ and ‘difficult’. I look forward to reading more of your work.

    Liked by 1 person

  17. Mukund Madhav says

    Great one! I still wonder when will it end. When will we be mature. When? How? Why not?….

    Like

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