MFA in Creative Writing and Racism

Before I tell you about my experience in an MFA program in creative writing, I must first talk about America’s double-helix Original Sin: slavery and genocide. The United States was born in a Jeckyl-Hide nest: we wrote up the most brilliant theory of democracy on file, built a government on it; we also made people property, sold and bought them, and built the democracy on their free labor. We killed off an entire people to take the West Coast.

The structure some of our ancestors put in place so long ago still holds firm. The four hundred year long American bloodline of racism infects us all, places us where we are supposed to be, allows a white culture to enjoy administrative positions, while brown folk sweep floors, pick grapes, slaughter chickens, clean toilet bowls and walk four-thousand-dollar dogs through tidy neighborhoods.

The same structures that keep the country in a racial cast system affect, nearly control, the individual’s psyche. For the ones who benefit from systemic racism, it doesn’t bother them in the least; in fact, if they stay with their own, they don’t really need to consider racial issues at all. Others are always thinking about the system. They have to, to survive and to reap a modicum of success.

The ones who enjoy access to power—they might not be rich; but because of their lack of melanin, they have more opportunities—also dictate certain norms and beliefs. Take, for example, the arts, specifically, literary art. One glance at the demographics of MFA programs in Creative Writing gives it all away: the schools prize the work of white people over brown.

Some argue that they just don’t have as many students of color because they don’t get many applicants. They lay the blame elsewhere, and in part, rightfully so—our school systems are insanely racist (just follow the scholastic money trails, one that goes to Compton, the other straight into Beverly Hills); they open doors for some and slam them closed for others.

But to blame the lower grades is a cop-out. The creative writing professors, especially in the more elite programs, own an Aesthetic Supremacy. They are the arbiters of beauty; and they consistently pick the art from one block of people over that of another. What they choose is a white beauty, and truly, it is art; and yet, being white, it winnows—there are few, few people of color in the faculty and student body of the elite MFA programs in the country. I hear that some are trying, really hard, to change that. But twenty years ago, they weren’t.

Now I can speak of my experience in an MFA creative writing program, which I will do in an upcoming post.

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