Being the Only Black Student in Your MFA

Picture it. Spring of 2014, on the floor of my shitty college apartment checking my email. I’d been stalking my mailbox outside waiting to hear back from one of the MFA programs I’d applied to but so far, nothing.

And there it was, sitting right in my inbox. An email from a top ranked program offering me a funded spot in their Fall 2014 incoming MFA in Fiction class!

3 years later, I’ve graduated and moved back home. Looking back, I can’t say that doing the MFA was a good option for me as black woman. I can say, without a doubt, that the school I ended up choosing was a horrible choice.

What I experienced is summed up perfectly in an essay by David Mura. It’s a MUST READ for POC interested in MFA programs: The Student of Color in the Typical MFA Program

Going into my program, I honestly didn’t know what to expect. So if you’re a POC in the application process right now or considering getting your MFA in the future, here’s some stuff to consider:

1. Culture Shock

One thing you should know about me is that I’m used to being the only black person in the room. I grew up and lived around a lot of POC but in my classes, I was either the only black student or 1 of 2.

The MFA program I was chose was in the rural state of Indiana. My first day there, I had never experienced such whiteness. There were days where I didn’t see another black person. MANY MANY DAYS. The black student population was less than 10%. The black grad student population? Even lower.

I want to say that after awhile I got used to the whiteness. But I never liked it. At all. I never considered living in that town or staying after graduation.

The location of your MFA program matters.

2. Workshops Can Be a Drag

In undergrad, I LOVED workshop. I loved my classmates, I loved my professors, I loved reading work, I loved giving feedback, I loved sharing my stories and listening to my peers discuss them.

But the major difference between those workshops and my MFA workshops was the diversity. Undergrad had students of all colors and backgrounds.

The MFA, like basically all MFA’s, was alarmingly white.

I didn’t gain much from workshop. There were a few moments where I’d get some helpful advice from a peer but being the only black student in the program and my target audience being black, I was not getting what I needed.

Some of it stemmed from certain peers not knowing how to critique work or even trying to understand a culture other than their own, but most of it was because I was writing for an audience that was not there.

How can a group of white people help me write a novel about black people living in a black culture in black situations?

It’ll be easier for you as a POC to help your white peers because white culture is easily accessible. Stories written about the white experience are not going to shock or confuse you because you already know all about it.

Expect that unless you’re writing the white experience, too, or about worlds where race doesn’t exist, you’re going to be giving a lot more than you’ll get from your workshops.

3. You Might Not Find a Mentor

In the MFA, your mentor will be the professor you click with, not just on an academic level but a personal one as well. If you like your professor’s work but you think he’s a dick as a human being, that’s not gonna be your mentor.

This position is important to have in the MFA because you’re going to need guidance in your writing career. You’re going to need a thesis advisor to oversee your novel.

However, you can’t force it. And as a POC, you’ll probably have a harder time finding a mentor because chances are none of your teachers will share your life experiences. They’re not going to know how to support you because they don’t fully understand what it took for you to get to the MFA program.

I had a serious issue with all three of the fiction professors in my program. The biggest problem was with one professor but, as you may very well see, professors tend to close ranks. It got so bad that I opted to work with my mentor from undergrad (a blog post for another time).

4. Another Black Person is Not Going to Save You

I know that sounds bad but whatever, it’s the truth. If there’s another black student or even professor in your program, don’t get your hopes up.

We’ve all that had experience where our white friends tried to hook us up with literally the ONLY other person of color that they knew. And they really expected you to hit it off because you’re both minorities and that alone is enough to sustain a relationship, platonic or romantic.

It’s not.

If you’re surrounded by white people, you might see another black person as a life saver. You’ll just be happy you’re not the only one. So happy that you might forget that there’s more to this person than just being black.

Hell, they might be a serial killer or something. I didn’t have any black classmates in my MFA but I did encounter a couple of black professors.

Don’t expect them to help you. Even if they’re nice, 9/10, they’re not going to help you. David Mura summed it up quite eloquently in his article, but in lamens terms; they’re not about to fuck up what they have going for them at that school messing around with you and your problems with the program. They may be very kind, they may be very sympathetic, but they work for the school that’s causing all of your distress.

If they cared enough to do something about the negative environment, they probably wouldn’t be working there in the first place. Unless they’re trying to dismantle the program from the inside out but that’s probably never going to be the case.

5. Racism…duh

It doesn’t matter where you go, you’re going to experience racism. In your MFA program it probably won’t be as overt, but there will be subtle and not so subtle things that make it clear that one or more of your classmates/professors feels some type of way about you because you’re black and/or about your work if it contains black people/culture/situations.

You’ll be frustrated and no one will really do anything about it. As Mura states in his article, if you call out your classmates on their racism or tomfoolery in general, you’ll be labeled the problem student.

Whether that happens to you or not depends on the type of person you are. Some people can take BS and keep it moving. Other people, like me, we need to address it and we refuse to be compliant with the fuckery. It’s just not in our DNA.

6. You’re Gonna Graduate With Even More Motivation to Succeed

Graduating from your MFA as a POC can lead down one of two paths. The first path? You let them get under your skin. You let your program shake your confidence and you change how you write, how you act and how you think. You become a lesser version and a lesser writer. Or, you give up writing altogether.

The other path is when you take that negative energy and use it to fuel your writing career. There’s nothing that inspires me more than someone purposely standing in my way or trying to make the road more difficult for me than it already is. You might take a lil break to clear your head space of the BS but you come back to your writing and you put everything you have into it because you didn’t endure that awful program for nothing. In short, you win.

In Conclusion…

Would I recommend my MFA program to a POC? To another person in general? To a fish? To an empty can of Coke Zero? HELL no.

Would I recommend black writers pursue an MFA in creative writing in general?

Meeehhh, not unless they met a few prerequisites.

The MFA for a black student is good if you want to teach, they offer a good funding package, you have a support system back home and with you at school, you like English, you have absolutely nothing better to do and of course, you have realistic expectations of the chicanery you’re about to experience.

Overall, I think the main reason a lot of POC get mistreated in their MFA programs, even after they ask for help or address the issue, is because we’re baby writers. We don’t have a book published. We don’t have status in the university. Besides not believing you, in their eyes, you’re not important enough for them to really care. You’ll graduate and there will be new POC to take your place. Or not. You’ll be out of their hair and they’ll be grateful for that. They’ll think it’s all over.

Until you write that New York Times Best-selling novel and people start to know your name. They start to care what you think. They start to pay to read what you have to say. Then one day, someone at a book signing or conference asks you where you got your MFA.

And you spill all the tea.

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