Searching for the Right Home for Right Now: That MFA Life

Recently, I received one of what will be dozens of emails from program coordinators asking me to share information about their super stellar one-of-a-kind MFA programs with current BA students. This year, I decided to write them back, and ask them to answer a few questions before I hit that “forward” button. These are questions that many MFA students want to ask, are likely afraid to ask, didn’t think to ask, wish they had asked, and questions that program administrators can reflect on and respond to, preferably on their program’s website, to offer students a comprehensive gaze into their program. These questions are not a call-out, they are not shaming any program. They are questions from one administrator (and several generous collaborators!) to another.

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Please do share widely with MFA program directors. And directors: please avoid “yes” or “no” when responding to these questions. Take time to actually engage with the questions. The health of your program truly depends on your ability to reflect and engage with these questions.

(If you have additional questions, please post them in the “Comments” section and I’ll add them to the list!)

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Do you have tenure-track POC faculty in the MFA program?

 

Do you have tenure-track LGBTQIA faculty in the MFA program?

 

What is the campus climate in regards to transgender students?

 

What is the campus climate in regards to students of color?

 

Are workshops productive, safe spaces for POC students? Are faculty well-read in POC literature and able to work with students who are writing from different worldviews? Do MFA reading lists/syllabi and featured readings include POC and LGBTQIA+ writers?

 

Are workshops productive, safe spaces for students who are LBTQIA? Are faculty well-read in LGBTQIA literature and able to work with students who are working through queer lenses?

 

What is the mediation/conflict resolution process when a student experiences discrimination and biases, from an advisor, peer or professor?

 

How are flexibility/extensions decided upon if a student suddenly faces financial hardship, family crisis or life tragedy? How is the student supported to navigate these circumstances while not having to quit school/ be pushed out?

 

What kinds of accommodations do you offer for students who are differently abled, and how accepting are the program’s faculty and staff about implementing these accommodations? Do faculty receive annual ADA training?

 

How does the college support unauthorized immigrants? How does the college support refugee populations?”

 

Do you admit and support middle-aged and senior students? What kind of support systems do you and/or your university have in place for single parents and/or working parents?

 

Does *every* TAship come with tuition remission and insurance benefits? Does the health insurance include Rx for chronic illness? And dental? What mental health services are covered under the health insurance, and what additional mental health services are offered on campus?

 

Is there attention to and support for addiction resistance/recovery efforts on campus? What’s the climate like…–frank discussion of problems or denial?

 

Is the schedule flexible enough that individuals who work have class times to choose from that meet their needs?

 

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“If you don’t understand white supremacy/racism, everything else you understand will only serve to confuse you.”

If June is a typical travel month for me, July is a typical month of reflections. I’m thinking, now, about that standard white person & their standard comeback when they feel accosted by a person of color’s real life experiences with racism. It goes something like this: “That’s a very generalized, broad view & not all white people are like that.” or “This isn’t a fair representation of white people” or “A few bad apples don’t actually spoil the bunch!” The former is pretty much what a white woman typed to me, recently, a stranger, someone who I may or may not have chatted with in this thread or that in a regional FB group. She’d read my post about a common experience I’d had at artist retreats, an experience fueled by race, an experience that I’d heard other POCs talk about, and an experience that other POCs validated in response to the post. The woman said I had “displayed hatred” and was “the racist in these circumstances”*.

“Every white is not a racist,” she said.

To unpack that statement, one would need to lay out the history of race, the formation of white supremacy, the history of capitalism, the history of imperialism, the history of globalism, the history of patriarchy and so much more. And for that information, one need go no further than the library/bookstore/college. You see, a fairly common form of deflection is reversal: “I’m not the racist, you’re the racist!” And it’s often here, that the Old Stall is its most effective. Pushed into a corner, POC start pulling out articles, books, podcasts, beseeching white people to read, to listen, to learn, to please please please just get informed. But what happens to the initial conversation, the one in which the POC laid bare the racist attacks they’d endured?

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It’s amusing, isn’t it, how whitefolks will defend racist stereotypes (“stereotypes are based in some kind of reality!”) and simultaneously deny being racially biased? Think, for example, of the hashtag Blue Lives Matter nonsense, a simultaneous act of denying racial profiling while also suggesting that the cop in question feared for their life (of, often, unarmed citizens).

I’m always amused that I don’t see white people rushing to be the first to proclaim “Not All Black People” or “Not all Muslim People” or “Not all Mexican People” etc. What better way to exemplify that one actually believes “Not All {insert racial/religious/ethnic adjective} People”?

Part of the problem in the U.S., I imagine, has to do with the notion of “universal” experiences. This is not simply a problem of the high school essay (to find the theme), but one of everyday, lived experiences. What do our individual experiences mean to those who are not us? What is the universal lesson that we have to offer? For whitefolks, racism is not something that happens to them, it is something that they create; so, to hear stories of individuals being accosted by racists is to excise the white person from the picture. Or rather, to excise them as the quintessential good guy.

POC are often told that a racist attack is “unusual” or “not the norm” or “I can’t believe that happened!” or “I don’t know what to say”. These comments are a way to not only dismiss and diminish the incidents, but to acknowledge that they themselves are not subjected to racist attacks. And while many white people may encounter POC who have prejudices or biases against white people, prejudice and bias is not the same as racism.

Last year, Michael Norton and Samuel Sommers co-wrote an article on the increase in the number of white people who think they are subjected to racism, or what Sommers & Norton are careful to refer to as anti-white bias. As this crash course in implicit bias makes clear, understanding the differences between prejudice, bias, stereotypes and discrimination is crucial in actually getting to the roots of racism.

Shaking off white people’s ignorance and stupidity is not easy to do, although I wish it were. But it’s a sticky, stinky invisible substance, like spit in the wind or worse, like those parasites that bore into the skin and uses your body to throw parties and leave the beer cans in your organs. We have all kinds of language, now, to help us explain why it’s hard to shake off racism and racist attitudes, terms like microaggression and gaslighting. We have studies about racism as post-traumatic stress. POC carry these encounters with us. We are, in a way, the epitome of The Bag Lady (Erykah Badu‘s version). And while I, personally, often forget the names or faces of those who have harmed me, I never forget the situations, the words, the energy, the tone and mood. I never forget that people whose ancestors corrupted this country through the annihilation of its original peoples and the enslavement of peoples brought over from other places are the very people who are now pointing their very crooked fingers into the faces of POC and calling us “racists”.

Ever wonder if they call white people racists? Because I surely do.

As always, I encourage you to share your experiences, in the comments box and/or in your own blog posts/essays.

 

*The thread of that exchange is here:

(White woman who doesn’t know me): I was reading your fb page (trying to figure out if you were close by). I do hope that you have some really positive experiences here in NC. Every person in the south is not the same. Every white is not a racist. Your statements are very bold and broad. I would suggest you consider to never lump every race, nationality, religion or color into one “adjective”. Our foster children deserve our very best. God bless.

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Metta Sáma
Metta Sáma Huh? This post is about respite. If you want to chat in a different thread about the hundreds of essays I and others have written on the workings of racism in the U. S. & across the globe, feel free to start a new post.

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Kathryn Stinson Harris
(White woman who doesn’t know me): Writing about racism and bold statements about whites and hating the south do not sound like any Foster parent I know.

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Metta Sáma
Metta Sáma As I said, Kathryn, start a new post, to talk about your hashtag Not All White People angst. This post is for respite.

Edit

Kathryn Stinson Harris
(White woman who doesn’t know me): No thanks Metta. You have already displayed your hatred, which has no place in fostering. If you hate the south – move. Everyone is not the same. You are the racist in these circumstances. No foster child should be raised by someone with such a level of hatred. It’s wrong.

I didn’t come here for this: Writing Retreats & POCs

My thoughts are jumbled.

I want to go home.

I always get to this place in a stay at an artists’ residency/retreat: I want to go home.

And it’s not that I want to go home but I want to go away.

But I left home to go away. & here I am: away.

Hooray.

What is it like to be a white person at an artists’ retreat?

But that’s not why I’m here, logged into this blog.

I didn’t come to a writer’s retreat to write about being at a writer’s retreat, but here I am. Sitting in this chair that sinks in between the springs. In this town miles away from the retreat. Surrounded by all of this outside noise. Because the retreat has its own array of noise.

White noise.

I didn’t come here for this.

I came here to work on a 5-years in the making manuscript. A rather complicated work about power and coercion and brutality and temptation and the deep need for change. But here I am writing about yet another white person encounter, another “soft attack”.

“Where are you from?”

“Tennessee.”

“Definitely not here.”

“No, Tennessee.”

“Well, hmmm, your ummm” (points at his throat)

I’ve been here so many times I knew what he was asking before he opened his mouth. I knew what he was asking when he heard me speak for the first time and raised his white man eyebrows. The Southern gent encountering a foreign presence. As always, I tried to think of where he’d been, who he’d talked with, how many Black people he’d spoken to.

I waited.

“You ahem ahem your voice it’s uh very distinct”. He flounders, as they all do, trying to locate my distinct voice. He begins to rattle off a list of places outside of the U.S., places he can imagine Black people may live and interact with intelligent life. I can see him crossing out the entire continent of Africa, even as his mouth moves to make some noises that sound like countries in Africa. He also shakes his head to erase all of the Caribbean countries, as he tosses them over his shoulder: “Jamai no no ummm”. I let him spin himself into a state of geographical confusion before I cut him off.

I tell him the same story I’ve told to countless whitefolks.

“Oh ah ok I see well I was going to say hahahahaha that you uh have very very proper very good English yes very good English I was really surprised but ah ok ok I see.”

Yesterday a colleague, who is at the same retreat, asked me if I’d like to have dinner tomorrow with her and one of her old grad school friends, who is also at the retreat. Before I can say yes, she says “And Kurt’s in, as well, I mean, I don’t want you to feel pressure to go just because everyone else is going, but I didn’t want you to feel left out, I mean, I wanted to be sure to invite you.”

I close my mouth before it gapes open. I allow my mind to travel back to that encounter with Kurt, where my colleague stood next to me, absorbed by my story. Perhaps she, too, had wondered about my voice. When I finish the story she tells her own story of being a Louisiana Southerner shipped off to boarding school in the Texas Southwest, a story of being teased and getting rid of her own accent. I look from her to Kurt to the other white person, Alex, who replies, good-naturedly, “Well, I don’t have an accent.” Alex is from Jersey and sounds like someone from Jersey. Here I am trying to connect to these white Southerners and this white Northerner, on a vocal geographical level, but they’ve missed the other, more essential point: being a Black person from the South who has a Southern accent is a double whammy: on the face of things, you’re seen as stupid. When you open your mouth and out comes the South, it’s just a confirmation of your stupidity.

I blink at my colleague, remembering that Kurt is just a few feet away, typing quite rapidly in his room, completely unaffected by our encounter from the day before. “Yeah, sure, I mean, I’m heading to Aberdeen for a concert on Friday, so I’m not sure that I’ll want to eat out and have drinks twice, but I’ll see”.

A few minutes before her invitation, Kurt had walked past me, and stopped to chat.

“What are you reading?”

I show him the book.

“What do you think about it?”

“Meh.” I want to tell him how racist the narrator is, but really how racist the author is, since the racist statements aren’t inserted as racist statements. I want to tell him what it’s like to just want to read a simple mystery, but then be accosted by the one black person who is talked about, a memory that is brought up, about pure evil. In this white world, I want to say to Kurt, where there are no characters other than white characters, & in the real world, where evil is so incredibly WHITE, why bring up a black person, who is only a paragraph of memory? What is the significance of this? And also, I would continue if Kurt weren’t Kurt, when the narrator recounts the sheer number of human bones in the world, when she lists the trajectory of human life and death, beginning with cave men of all people, why does she move from cave men to native americans to early settlers and then ends her list? Why doesn’t she mention, also, the enslaved Africans?

“I think I know who the murderer is, which is never a good thing.”

Kurt frowns and raises his shoulders. “Have you seen my books?”

He goes on to talk about his work and actually invites me to read his books. This Kurt who thinks my English is really really good wants me to read his books.

Every artist residency is the same. Some white person puts their foot in their mouth.

Some white person continues to make art while some Black person is somewhere eating a tuna melt and stewing.

I recall a passage in Toi Derricotte’s The Black Notebooks, where she’s at an artists’ colony, and has an encounter that is racist. She didn’t go to that colony for that shit, either. And it affected what she was able to get done, too.

The last residency I attended was four years ago, at Millay Colony, and as expected, I was the only person of color, and the white people were whitefolks. Some mornings, during my morning power walk, a deer would appear on the path, and we’d stare at each other. After awhile, I realized the deer was an invitation to turn my race-based encounters with the other residents into art. Here, too, a deer has shown up. Once on the first day, the day of the Kurt-encounter, and then again this morning, the day after another Kurt encounter and after the invitation from my colleague, who likely thinks Kurt didn’t mean anything by his racial insult. So I’m listening. I want a cleared mind, a mind that can focus on the work I came here to do, not the work put on me by these white writers who won’t mean much to me in a few years.

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How many stories are out here?

How many whitefolks have tried to ruin our retreats?

Share your stories.

Maybe if there are enough of us out here willing to interrupt our own creative work to share these stories, these insensitive, indecent, life-thwarting whitefolks will put a shoe in their mouth to keep themselves from putting their naked foot in it.

 

The Month of the #BlackIn replacing the #BlackOut

Well. It’s always interesting to NOT hear your non-Black friends say something so simple: Black Lives Matter. & in the Age of the Unpresidented President who detests people of color, immigrants (excepting the ones he marries, although who knows, he may detest them too), lgbtqia folks, women, people who are financially impoverished, people who have disabilities, believers in climate change, lovers of the earth, politicians (I know I’m leaving out so many groups), it’s really important to love on people who have been historically oppressed, subjugated, brutalized, terrorized by whitefolks.

Hundreds of thousands of people showed up to the Women’s March & the photos and videos were astounding. Every single state repped & countries across the globe repped. Supporting women is, these days, a no brainer. Women matter. However, often when we show up for women, we’re showing up for white women and white women aren’t often showing up for us. How quickly the organizers for the Women’s March turned to the oft-used comeback “It’s not about race!” when Women of Color stepped in and asked for some intersectionality. Despite having a Woman of Color as one of the organizers, the event seemed to focus only on women (and a very narrow definition of women, excluding by omission transgender women, nonbinary, genderfluid and gender neutral folks) and thus worked to eradicate us of race.

Needless to say, the Women’s March went without a hitch (for the most part; some reports of sparks in DC and other major cities); people had fun, took loads of selfies, enjoyed conversations with strangers, and all the while protested, by their presence, the incoming administration who would, undoubtedly, work diligently to take away as many rights that U.S. women have as possible.

We all know the statistics. Women’s reproductive rights, when violated, disproportionately affect women who live in financial impoverishment and women of color (and  women who are financially impoverished are, disproportionately women of color). While women, in general, make less money than men, women of color make less money than white women. Etc Etc Etc

Intersectionality. Without it, we have a very skewed understanding of the world.

Without it, we don’t realize that a march that was overwhelmingly attended by White people was peaceful. Yes, there was police presence, but some of those officers were wearing pink pussy hats & the others seem to have gone unnoticed. In comparison, the rallies, marches & protests for Black Lives Matter have hardly ended without someone getting hurt by the police.

Here we are in February, Black History Month, and we have yet another president who thinks the best way to celebrate is by either ignoring the month, calling upon MLK as the stand-out Black, insulting Black people by talking about soul food, or worse, ignoring the actual issues plaguing this nation: the continued depression of Black people’s power, genius & talents.

So, this month, I’m on a #BlackIn campaign. Every day, I’m devoting time to my social media newsfeed to put Black people on pedestals because I actually think Black People Matter. Our Minds Matter. Our Hearts Matter. Our Psyches Matter. Our Spirits Matter. Our Bodies Matter. & to remain silent about not only the violences against Black people, but to also remain silent about the accomplishments of Black people exemplifies why the #BLM movement is so urgent and timely.

Many of us have decided to not pressure our White friends about sharing their thoughts about violences meted out against Black people, particularly Black people murdered and targeted by police. However, Black History Month is intended to honor, to pay homage to Black people, so why the virtual silence?

There is much more to say & much that has already been said by others (and easily searchable). In the meantime, I wonder if you know about Dr. Patrica E. Bath who invented laserphaco, a surgical device to treat cataracts.