I was glad when Junot Díaz broke the lid open on that issue, not because I thought we would be anywhere near a solution, but because I knew we would be closer to a conversation. And indeed, many folks chimed in with testimonies about dealing with the indignities and injustices of being the only writer of color in their workshops. I attended two MFA programs from 1992 to 1997, and I didn’t have to point out how “lily white” my cohort was because many of my fellow students called it out as a shortcoming. At the time I didn’t think I could do anything about it, let alone protest, but I was grateful that someone other than me voiced the glaring absence of diversity. I was lucky I had instructors and classmates who were well-read, and this made all the difference. I didn’t have to explain too many of the cultural references and contexts in my work. But sometimes I felt as if they were too kind to me—complimentary to the point of condescension. I’ve learned since then that easy praise usually means laziness. Since my work was so “different,” its difference merited approval. It was terrific getting these pats on the back in the classroom, but when I went home to revise I sat there puzzled about how to improve the writing aside from the minor cosmetic changes others had suggested. It was then that I realized I had to educate myself by becoming a better reader of their work and learning from their weaknesses and strengths. It hardly seemed fair, didn’t it?
Once I became an instructor and workshop leader myself, I was surprised to encounter other kinds of diversity—aesthetic and sexual orientation, most notably. And I saw a familiar dynamic taking shape, one that left “the Other” at the margins of the workshop conversations. Suddenly I realized something about the workshop culture—how a dominant sensibility creates community, but at the same time excludes those who don’t quite fit in. What Junot called by name is that that dominant sensibility is shaped by whiteness. How could it not be? Most of the writers on the faculty are white, most of the literature being introduced into the classroom is written by white writers, most books being anthologized and celebrated by the publishing industry are by white writers—even as agents, publishers, award organizations, writing programs, etc. tout their commitment to diversity, change has been slow.
But change will come. I currently teach at the Rutgers-Newark MFA program and the majority of writers on the faculty are people of color. Year after year, about 50% of our incoming students are people of color. Diversity was achieved a lot faster when the administration hired people who could attract minorities to apply to the program. Easy as that. Once in a while I will get an email from some well-meaning friend in a mostly white writing program letting me know that they’ve been trying hard to attract minority applicants but it’s been useless. What can they do? I let them know that first they have to hire more faculty of color, and not just one, but a critical mass—otherwise, good luck with retention. Afterwards, they don’t have to announce their commitment to diversity in print because it will show on their ads, websites, and brochures.
This hiring practice as a strategy is threatening to many. And naysayers will ask, what does it matter if the faculty is white or black or Latino? Well, it matters to students like me and many others who sought guidance from those who could also be our role models, our literary ancestors, members of our tribe. It matters to shape a community that more accurately reflects the changing demographics of this country. It matters to speak of literature as an inclusive landscape, not a white one that’s supplemented by weak reading lists with the heading “minority writers.” It matters to break apart the insular and claustrophobic definition of “American.” Can an all-white faculty and all-white classroom have this too? Maybe. But I wouldn’t know—I’ve never been in one. There isn’t such a thing when I’m in the room. And everyone in there with me knows this.
All this is to say that Junot and I attended an MFA program during a different time—decades ago. I’m certain there were explanations for the dearth of minority faculty and students then. Well, it’s 2014. Whatever excuse made will come across quite brittle. MFA programs need to catch up to the times, not to serve one particular population or group, but to serve all of its populations and groups, including the white one.