Nina Sharma: “Year One”
“Tell me, Nina, have you experienced any racism before, really?”
Over the expanse of two Staples-variety folding tables, I looked up at the professor, a blue-eyed white man, and saw in his open, waiting face that he really did want an answer.
This was the third workshop of my first semester in my MFA program. I had been workshopping a series of essays that were, generally, explorations of various aspects of my identity. I reflected on my experiences as a South Asian American woman, as a Jersey girl, and as a married woman, with an eye especially toward what it means to be in an interracial marriage. My husband is African American and the bulk of what I handed in to workshop discussed him as much as it discussed me.
All through the semester I had seen the professor bump against my project.
In one particular piece, I reflect on the stereotypes of the “problem” and “model” minority as terms which, in their opposition, speak to a shared history of racism and disenfranchisement between me and my husband. In margin notes, he responded to this section, writing, simply: “how does opposite = shared?”
During our conference, when, against my better judgment, I began to talk about the ironies of “brown peril”—the madness of being praised as a model citizen sometimes and feared as a terrorist-affiliate others, he cut me off to say: “Listen, each immigrant group is called something, it’s part of the process of assimilation, I mean, Irish people are called alcoholics.” And then, back-tracking, “I guess that’s not the same as being called a terrorist.”
And in class, he most often just said that my story was “nothing new,” it had been told already. Sometimes, even by him. He has some writing, I can generally say, that reflects on race relations in America.
All to say, I should not have been surprised by his line of questioning. I should have known, I feel, on some level, that four months of this would lead to: “have you experienced any racism before, really.” And I think I did. It was that “really,” really. The carelessness of it got to me. I wasn’t sure whether it was a postured “really” or truly felt. Though he was in his mid-fifties, he had something boyish about him that made it hard to read one way or another.
I fumbled to reply. I don’t even remember what I said. But he was quick to fill in the gaps—
“You just must be sensitive,” he said.
I am not writing to take this man to task. He was just the gateway into a year where I heard myself and others being accused of being too sensitive, too ideological, and too political in our writing or in our thinking. “Really”-ed at every turn. It was the year, simply put, that I had learned the shorthand of disbelief.
That same fall, the first Indian Miss America was crowned, another Nina. And not more than a split-hair of a second after her crowning did the tweets start coming in—“Miss Terrorist,” “Miss 7-11.” After which Nina said, “I believe myself to be first and foremost an American.” Her reply mystified me and continues to. What did she mean by American? Did she mean “assimilated,” like my professor said? Not foreign-born? Was her American like my American? Was she, like me, named after the All My Children soap opera character Nina Cortland? Did she, like me, have two older sisters who protested a mother’s choice of Uma? Or was the name bestowed by a parent, an auntie, or an outlaw uncle? And I wonder how else we might walk together.
When I discussed how I felt about this professor to a workshop classmate—a woman who because of shared cultural heritage I naïvely thought I could get close to—she just turned to me and said, “Really? I wouldn’t have known, you are so nice!”
Perhaps, in my fumbling to speak, I come off less me and more beauty queen, Miss Congeniality, waving pageant-style, arm-arm-wrist-wrist, in the face of disbelief. But more than anything else, I was struck by this woman’s own disbelief. “I get it, but come on though, he’s a nice guy,” she added. It was not unlike the disbelief which I observed in the responses of so many of my peers, even peers of color. I didn’t hear him say that. I didn’t think of it that way. I didn’t think you would think of it that way. “You are nice, not like me: mean,” this woman said to me again just recently at a welcome back party. And I can’t fault her for wanting to place us in opposition, existing in an environment that does not seem to want to foster more complex engagements with or between their students of color.
That first year in my MFA program, more than learning about writing, I learned something about performing. How to carry yourself in a place where your existence is ceaselessly negated. How to keep conversations short and bland with people who you’d rather not let in. How to not let things get to you if you get drawn into something deeper, or at least know that, like a cold or seasonal bug, the icky feeling will pass in time. How to flag the “really-s” and “come ons,” and all else in the lexicon of disbelief.
This to me is what the MFA of color looks like, or the education we receive by default. What that space should look like is the harder and more worthwhile question. I wish for an MFA of color, in color. A program where inclusion is not contrived by way of a collection of books, some-odd classes, a club or quota of students. I wasn’t the only one of two people of color in my workshop—out of the nine of us, six were students of color, and yet the conversation always felt to me overwhelmingly white.
The true remedy lies in addressing the concerns of not only writers of color, but all groups fighting institutional marginalization, in concert, at all times. This ultimately means eliminating workshops and seminars where race, gender, sexuality, social and economic class difference, and disability are treated as niche concerns and proliferating those courses that consider culture as part and parcel of the craft of writing, as fundamental as anything else. This intention should be held no matter what the makeup of the student body is.
The professor was not asked back to teach. I came to learn that, of all things, this was an evaluation-based decision. The news was surprising to me. I was convinced that I was the only one having problems in the class; my classmates seemed to get along with the professor. But on the last day of class, as I hastily circled numbers on the evaluation form, maybe my peers sat and wrote some thoughtful, honest comments about their workshop experiences. Maybe we had all been beauty queens, waving arm-arm-wrist-wrist in the face of disbelief. Maybe we were all forced to feel alone on the other side of a Staples folding table as a blue-eyed, white man presented himself as the authority of our lives. Maybe we all suffered, really.