In part 1 of this series, I talked about ageism in MFAs; in part 2, I’m going to tackle the issue of diversity within MFA programs, specifically in terms of race.
I don’t have to say it, we all know: MFAs are predominantly white, from the students to the faculty, and it’s problematic. As a writer of colour myself, applying to MFAs was a difficult road because there are so many things to consider. I had to figure out how comfortable I would be in a mostly white arena, how I would, or should, expect white writers to interact with my work, how it would feel to enter a program where all the faculty are white. I had to think through it all before deciding where to apply, my sanity and well-being depended on it, and for me, the latter issue of faculty was the biggest to me.
As I browsed through the various programs out there, I was stunned to find programs in relatively diverse cities/towns and relatively diverse institutions/universities where all the faculty were white, and I continuously wondered, why would a program not want to diversify their faculty? Right now, I’ve nearly completed my first year of the MFA, and generally we’re all in agreement that your cohort is the major contribution to how enjoyable, productive, and safe your time at the program is, both in and out of the workshop. But in terms of actually getting into the MFA in the first place, the faculty is the doorway.
So, one must first examine why programs may have an all-white ensemble. The first may simply be, especially if the program is new, that the faculty of the MFA program were originally undergraduate faculty and when the MFA formed they didn’t make any new hires. The second may be that the university is located in a city/town that is not especially diverse or is in a red state which results in writers of colour not wanting to apply to work in that location, and white people, who are generally comfortable moving anywhere, make up the majority of the applicants and therefore the majority of the new hires. The third may be that the department is not committed to diversity and may, and I hope this is never the case, have an issue of strong bias against hiring people of colour (This is not an exhaustive list of reasons; I’m sure there are more).
Given all this, the question remains, can a program be committed to diversity with no faculty of colour? Faculty put each incoming class together, drive workshops, they mentor writers, and most importantly, they listen to and deal with any issues that their MFA students may have. But I question the ability of a body of professors as a whole that do not have at least one member who is non-white to advocate for a writer of colour when a student, or even a professor, says something problematic, or polices the inherently political nature of their writing or makes them feel like they do not belong. These are all issues that writers of colour face in MFA programs.
Now, I don’t imply that white professors are unable to do these things—listen and advocate—quite the contrary; I only point out that in a racial world, the need for an advocate who truly feels your pain, and the safety that one finds in mutual experiences, is unparalleled. It is important for white faculty to learn from their non-white colleagues, both in terms of how to reach out to writers of colour and in terms of how to make them feel a sense of belonging that the world at large so often lacks. The fear writers of colour have, and rightly so if you read the various essays from MFAs of colour even in the past five years, is that they will arrive at a program and wish they had never pursued their love of art because the enjoyment of improving their craft is outweighed by the stress and pain of doubting and arguing for who they are and the validity of their writing.
And it goes further than that. Once a writer of colour gets admitted into a program, they already expect that most of the other students in their classes will be white—this is almost a given because white is the largest racial demographic in terms of the country and of applicants—but to be the only person of colour in a two- or three-year program is an issue. I personally cannot imagine bringing in a piece that deals with racism into workshop and I being the only person of colour feel comfortable baring a part of my life, of my experiences, of my position in the world with no-one to respond to my work and say, hey, I’ve been there, or the way in which you dealt with this character speaks to the larger issue in a profound way, or this character is not multi-dimensional; you need to make them more complex despite their inherent prejudice. I simply cannot imagine it. Even if there are no faculty of colour, at the very least no writer of colour should be entering into an MFA as a lone wolf.
But therein lies the crux of the problem: with an all-white faculty, how will many writers of colour get through the door?
So, I must say it: I cannot truly believe a program that says that it is ‘committed to diversity’ or that it ‘encourages writers of colour to apply’ when the faculty is all white and all privileged.
Tolu Adeyeye is a first year fiction writer at Virginia Tech. She is the managing editor for the minnesota review.