Note: This piece originally appeared on Medium.
Time for some Real Talk. If you happen to be coming from my How To Apply To A Writing MFA Program article, this is the part where I say a bunch of things that a lot of other people cannot get away with saying. When it comes to applying to a writing master’s program, it is not the same for us.
Why? Junot Diaz and David Mura say it best in “MFA vs. POC“ and “The Student of Color in a Typical MFA Program.” For minorities, I would consider these mandatory reading, so you are fully aware of what you are up against. A taste from Junot Diaz:
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.
Here’s a testament of my own — simply over watching a movie, not even in class. If you’ve seen Bend It Like Beckham, you might recall that Punjabi Sikh girl Jesminder (“Jess”) sneaks out of England, where her parents live, to play soccer with her team in Germany. I was one of three Indians who spent ten minutes trying to convince one white girl that Jess would never have put a toe on that soccer field. Why? Because her parents would have personally flown to Germany, retrieved their daughter, and ended her soccer career themselves.
If three Indians can’t change one white girl’s perception of what an Indian would or would not do, under what circumstances does anyone believe the “token” POC in an MFA workshop stands a chance against eleven white people?
Now, some of you are reading this article because you already know this. Why else would anybody type “writing mfa for POCs” into a Google search, the way I did out of desperation a year and a half ago? Something is off and you already know it and you don’t know how to navigate it, so you try to look at what your predecessors have done.
Except when I did that, I found almost nothing. No advice. Validation, yes; recommendations, no. The situations described in Mura and Diaz’s articles would have caused me to clamp up, and I’m one of the most outspoken people I’ve ever met. If I can be shut down this easily, what would this do to others? Testaments like these made me realize that some MFA programs would have killed my writing.
Writing is hard enough. That’s why I’m in a master’s program. I came here to learn how to tell my stories, not to convince people that the stories are valid, or that my depiction of my culture is accurate. It makes me wonder if I am left to learn how to write minority characters only from minorities.
So for all you POCs (and minorities in general), here are some tips for the the extra work you will need to do to ensure yourself a welcoming environment. It is your responsibility to ensure that environment, for the world sure as hell doesn’t do it.
Change your search process
I was forced to ditch my prestige-based search process.
The good news is, filtering programs becomes insanely easy when all you do is go to the faculty page, and see how many currently-teaching POC faculty exist in a certain program. A mention to one Asian faculty member two years ago or an African American guest speaker this year doesn’t count, because they can’t help you write your POC character in your day-to-day learning experience — and I already spent a second semester trying to figure this out.
The bad news is, filtering programs becomes insanely easy when all you do is check the faculty diversity ratio, and that’s pretty messed up. Being a software engineer is a pretty nice gig, and I am currently on a team that I love-love-love, so I would only consider pausing my career for the most prestigious MFA programs. Thus, I researched top tier colleges and low-residency options. In the end, there weren’t many colleges I applied to, because there weren’t many colleges left. A disheartening number of the top tier colleges I wanted to apply to fell out in Step 1. I’ll leave it to you to find out which ones.
Research the Faculty
It disappoints me to have to say this, but the student body is difficult to ensure in diversity. This means the impact of minorities in a college will have to trickle down from the faculty. Given what you want to write, are there faculty members who can provide you a sounding board, a model, and when nobody believes you in your workshop, an “I second that” to back up your opinion? You’re already going to be working extra hard to write what you write; you don’t need to make it harder for yourself.
On the bright side, a diverse faculty attracts diverse students. Yaaaaaay!
Interview Faculty and Students
I explicitly asked to interview students in my demographic: minority, female, young.
I explicitly asked to Skype with the faculty who were minorities.
Don’t be shy; you have neither the money nor the time to leave yourself uninformed. Ask your interviewees what the program is like for minorities. Was there a pregnant pause? The silence says everything.
(One of my candidate programs fell out in this step.)
Play That Color Card
Let me be the first to say how much I hate, hate, hate this phrase so much. It reduces everything we are doing to a matter of using minority status to gain an “advantage” in something. We’re not trying to gain anything: we are trying to climb out of a hole to even out with the majority.
Furthermore, there isn’t enough minority representation in Western literature to begin with, and there are too many other issues we (each type of minority) are facing on a daily basis. My policy when it comes to minority status and womanhood is the same: considering all the disadvantages I have to deal with, if I am given any ”advantage”, I will not apologize for taking it.
And I aim to take every opportunity I am given to pave the way, wherever I am, whatever I am doing. I empower you to do the same.
Code by day, prose by night, Snigdha Roy tackles issues of feminism, gender roles, and minority / race in any medium, be it rap, essay, personal narrative, poetry, or fantasy and science fiction. She won first place at Carnegie Mellon’s Adamson’s Awards for her essay, Arranged Marriage: A Borderland’s Perspective, as well as an Honorable Mention for her humorous travel article Dhaka in Transit. She is currently (lonely) married to her master’s program (the beloved Goddard College MFA), and is in the midst of two series on Medium: How to Get Into a Writing MFA Program and The Craft of Race: On Writing Minority Characters.
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