It Starts with Education….
Dear The Sugars, Almond and Strayer:
I am writing belatedly to thank you, sincerely, for your column published in August of 2018, in which you point out the importance of acknowledging white privilege. Appropriately, you ask that white people as a group consider their privilege, rather than burdening people of color with this task. That is certainly refreshing. You also ask that, as a group, privileged white people consider what they may do in society to address this privilege. My suggestion to you is that you consider this yourselves, if you haven’t already, within arena closer to home.
Let me explain: my ‘niece’ L., who is the daughter of a close, long-time friend, recently received her MFA in creative writing in 2018. She is mixed-race (Chinese/Nigerian/Dutch/Lebanese) and considers herself a ‘mixed-race person of color.’ She has encountered a homogenous environment in every single one of her classes each semester for the two years of her MFA. In virtually every setting, she is the only person of color or one of only a token few; this is replicated in the population of professors/advisors, in which she has noticed: one large group of white people and a few black people from Africa. In the instructor population, African-Americans and Native Americans are completely absent, and one Asian (Indian) male made a guest appearance as a visiting professor several times over the course of those years. Unfortunately, both anecdotes (friends at other programs) and official statistics indicate that her program is typical in its overwhelming homogeneity.
Drilling down to individual experience of this circumstance, the result is that some of the themes that enter L.’s writing are not appreciated, because as you point out, white ignorance is the norm for many white people. As a result, her thematic issues — which should be woven into character, setting, etc, even according to her own professors — are sidelined because of a lack of perception of the material and its import. This leads to marginalizing both her and her material in these classes, and as a result, she receives less attention. Her voice, though not completely silenced, is quieted on a relative basis. She matters less.
From an economic standpoint, she has noticed both homogeneity (that is, relative wealth among the students) and a tendency to give scholarships to those very people who already have privilege. This recruitment tack seems strange given the program’s officially expressed agenda, which is to increase diversity. Gradually, and on a casual basis, she realized that those receiving scholarships were the very same people who are already over-represented with few exceptions. In her case, she has some economic advantage even if she has a racial and ethnic disadvantage. During one dinner conversation, eight of ten people at the table had received a scholarship, seven of whom were cis-gendered professional white females with postgraduate degrees. She noted a distinct absence of people of any race with significant poverty in their backgrounds. She has no access to formal numbers, but this microcosm of homogeneity reflects the persistent homogeneity in the classes and among the population of professors/instructors.
Sugars, this makes it matter more to me, as an older person of color who has witnessed over a half century of Mr. White Privilege courting his spouse, Mrs. White Ignorance, at the expense of me and other people of color. I do not want to see the same behavior replicated in the life of a person I am close to who is more than a generation younger than I. Of course, the ‘Mr’ and ‘Mrs’ are not specific, concretized people — they are symbols of the larger power of white supremacy; as writers, I am sure you have already guessed this. Our society should note a shift in time that illustrates actual change, not the same situation which I dealt with decades ago. Acknowledging real diversity requires real representation, not just lip service, including at the educational level.
The fact that our experiences of derogation are replicated at the educational level sets the stage for continued (wealthy) white privilege and the maintenance of a white supremacist culture. As you know, generally speaking, our society is structured such that education means money means success. In addition to this, writing programs lead to careers which allow for expression of voice and point of view. A stance which either supports our current system of homogeneity or does not actively work against it results in two major issues:
1. POC’s aren’t given the same opportunity;
2. POCs’ voices aren’t heard;
3. POC’s matter less.
These items, rolled up into one, are called white supremacy. This has been my niece’s experience during the same period of time as your column has been published.
This form of institutionalized derogation is particularly penetrated for writers because this is the arena in which one’s individuality and individual hardships can be exposed and revealed to others through a written voice. Exposing only one group’s experiences to the world while depleting opportunity for others (through lack of representation) gives only one group of people a voice: the privileged white ones about whom you’ve written.
Here are some possible solutions which we’ve brainstormed:
1. Give the scholarships to underrepresented peoples, especially since this is the overtly-stated goal of the program. This could be done by bundling a few together to make a larger scholarship. This may include poor white people who, according to my niece, are also underrepresented. POC’s are underrepresented across the board.
2. Require that all staff take courses in white privilege and the way in which the institutionalization has created a disparity in representation. Too often, when POC suggest that they are being marginalized, defensive reactions are used to silence that person. Defensive tactics are psychological gags placed in the POC’s mouth that defend the status quo from the very points of view they need to hear.
3. Consider different approaches to recruiting. For example, must everybody have a specific type of undergraduate degree? Are there other degrees that can be used as prelude to the MFA? Etc. Traditional approaches favor people who have had a historical advantage from an educational standpoint, so unique approaches may ameliorate this effect.
4. There should be at least ONE representative person from a region as large as Asia and other large regions, and hopefully more than just this token. Asia encompasses the Middle East, North Africa, and all the East Asian countries. It is wonderful that some programs have 3 professors who are white male fisherman from remote regions in the US, but if this sort of representation is allowed, shouldn’t there be a minimum of one who represents any country in Asia? This fact should not require further elaboration.
5. Last but not least: in the US in particular, African-American and Native-American voices must be heard. These are the groups with the longest-standing, deepest forms of oppression specific to the US. Our country cannot heal without serious consideration of these unique voices. The ‘substitution’ which has become increasingly popular in the US — which is that white people write from others’ point of view — should take a second seat to the voice that the person with the actual lived, embedded experience can provide to the world. For this specific reason, these two demographic populations must be aggressively recruited because these are voices that all of us, as Americans, will benefit from hearing. Where are they?
Please, Sugars, do not consider this specific criticism of you. In fact, this is not specific criticism of any particular student, professor, or postgraduate program. It is about educational institutions and the way in which, despite what is apparently official effort, they remain homogenous due to historical (current?) exclusion.
I appreciate your efforts and recognize your good intent. This issue may be closer to home for you, but as writers, you already know how important it is for individuals to have voice. Education and writing together produce that opportunity. We need action at the educational level. Hopefully, as a result of actual action, people of color will also have the opportunity to be writers for the prestigious New York Times columns one day.