By Thea Lim
From “Smart Conversations about MFA Programs” – though I believe you can apply Danielle Evans’ thoughts to many different academic programs:
4) We should be able to have real conversations about privilege
We should be able to talk about both privilege within MFA programs and privilege that MFA programs grant attendants in the world at large. In workshop, I have seen women get talked over by men with louder voices, people of color pegged as militant for fairly pointing out a racist element in a story, even if they are echoing a critique made by white students, men praised for their empathy and ability to channel women’s voices in stories that would be dismissed as chick lit if they were turned in by female writers. More often though, I’ve seen a sort of benign neglect of work that gets pegged as “exotic,” – because of the author or characters’ class or ethnic background. I’ve seen people be very hands off on stories that needed a lot of work, because they weren’t quite sure what to do with them. It can be hard to get critical feedback from people who lack familiarity with the world you’re writing about…
I’ve also seen people argue with native speakers about words and phrases in other languages. Someone who had taken a few years of Spanish once insisted the word mija did not exist. For problems that are literally issues of the writer and the critic not speaking the same language, there might not be much we can do beyond acknowledge it. However, at the level of character motivation, we can be more insistent that workshop readers not assume the character’s race/class/sexuality explains why they make decisions the reader would never make, and not let demographic details stand in for actual characterization. MFA programs didn’t invent hegemony, but that doesn’t mean they’re not an important place to look for ways to stop reproducing it.
Race, Culture, and Identity in a Colorstruck World