The Whiteness Of Writing Workshops

Two decades ago, when Junot Diaz arrived at Cornell to pursue his MFA in creative writing, he confronted “the standard problem of MFA programs”: “That shit was too white.” He notes that, in his experience, not much has changed:

It’s been twenty years since my workshop days and yet from what I gather a lot of shit remains more or less the same. I’ve worked in two MFA programs and visited at least 30 others and the signs are all there. The lack of diversity of the faculty. Many of the students’ lack of awareness of the lens of race, the vast silence on these matters in many workshop. I can’t tell you how often students of color seek me out during my visits or approach me after readings in order to share with me the racist nonsense they’re facing in their programs, from both their peers and their professors. In the last 17 years I must have had at least three hundred of these conversations, minimum. I remember one young MFA’r describing how a fellow writer (white) went through his story and erased all the ‘big’ words because, said the peer, that’s not the way ‘Spanish’ people talk. This white peer, of course, had never lived in Latin America or Spain or in any US Latino community—he just knew. The workshop professor never corrected or even questioned said peer either. Just let the idiocy ride.

Another young sister told me that in the entire two years of her workshop the only time people of color showed up in her white peer’s stories was when crime or drugs were somehow involved. And when she tried to bring up the issue in class, tried to suggest readings that might illuminate the madness, her peers shut her down, saying Our workshop is about writing, not political correctness. As always race was the student of color’s problem, not the white class’s. Many of the writers I’ve talked to often finish up by telling me they’re considering quitting their programs. Of course I tell them not to. If you can, please hang in there. We need your work. Desperately.

Eric Nelson sees a diversity deficit in publishing, too:

I have frequently presented books as an editor to a room full of only white people. And even from the sixteen books I’ve sold in the past twelve months, less than a third were by women, and only two were by non-white writers. The lack of diversity really is that bad.

But he also finds cause for hope:

[T]oday the market is already demanding a wider variety of books, and with the rise of electronic publishing, self-publishing, and so many websites that provide traffic and social media metrics, it’s harder than ever to ignore what the market is saying. … [I]t only makes sense for so long to promote exclusively books by and about white men, when clearly there is a huge appetite for a much wider range of material. My point, ultimately, is that—in publishing, at least—the camp for diversity and the market are now pulling in the same direction.

And what will be the argument when, sans gate-keepers, the diversity problem remains? Another definition of racism?