Ferguson, Whiteness as Default, & the Teaching of Creative Writing

David Mura | October/November 2016

David Mura


...what does this phenomena tell us about the literary world? As writers of color, we don't have video recordings; the word is all we have. So why wouldn't a similar disbelief confront us in the creative writing classroom, whether in terms of our actual writings or the views we express in class discussions?

It has been more than two years since the unarmed Michael Brown was shot and killed by police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri. This event set off a series of demonstrations across the country and brought to prominence the Black Lives Matter movement, which started after the killing of Trayvon Martin. In a Pew Research Poll taken last year before Brown was killed, forty-six percent of Americans said they believed changes needed to made for African Americans to have equal rights. Today, a Pew poll put the number at fifty-nine percent, a thirteen point increase. Much of this increase has come from the white population. In 2014, thirty-nine percent of whites believed racial equality had not been achieved. In 2015, fifty-three percent of whites, an increase of fourteen percent, believed this. A Gallup poll found similar results.1

Reading these results, I had several thoughts: First, how have the past years changed the beliefs about race among creative writers? Second, if you did a poll of creative writing teachers and students and asked them whether racial bias or racism was present in their experience of creative writing classes, how would the responses break down along racial lines? My guess is that you would find a stark difference between the beliefs of white writers and writers of color as to whether racial bias or racism is present in the teaching of creative writing in America (take a look, for instance, at the responses to Junot Diaz’s introduction to Dismantle, the anthology from the VONA conference for writers of color, “MFA vs. POC,” which was reprinted on the New Yorker website).

Among the factors contributing to the increased white belief that racial inequalities exist (at least in policing) has been the presence of video recordings. With these video recordings, whites have been forced to believe what blacks and people of color have been saying for years. Only the visual proof of such bias, mostly the killing of unarmed black men, could convince many white people of this fact. In other words, whites did not believe the word of blacks and other people of color.

So what does this phenomena tell us about the literary world? As writers of color, we don’t have video recordings; the word is all we have. So why wouldn’t a similar disbelief confront us in the creative writing classroom, whether in terms of our actual writings or the views we express in class discussions?

In Diaz’s “MFA vs. POC,” he says that he’s talked to hundreds of students of color who have related to him incidents of racial bias in their creative writing classes. I myself have talked to a similar number. Here’s some of Diaz’s examples:

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.

My examples would include: On the first day of my black friend’s first MFA poetry class, the white professor took my black friend aside and advised my friend that she should go over to the remedial English center for some instruction, since there were grammatical errors involving verb conjugation in her poems. My black friend explained that the poems were written in black vernacular. The white professor responded that if my friend continued to write in that way her poems would not be published. In another program, a Filipino American student brought in a poem, which made a reference to Mindinao and Tagalog. A white student responded that no one knew or cared about either. The creative writing teacher made no correction or critique of this white student’s remarks. When a Chinese American student critiqued what she believed were repeated stereotypical representations of Asians and other people of color in her workshop, she was warned by her creative writing instructor that such critiques ran the risk of saying “only women could write about women” or “only people of color could write about people of color.”

What if all these students had recorded these encounters? Would white writers believe our claims of bias? Or would they interpret the videos with their own racial lens, in terms of their own racial experience and education? Where we writers of color see bias, do most white writers see racially neutral practices? In what ways would such videos be similar to police videos? In what ways would they be different?

Richard Wright long ago implied that white Americans and black Americans are engaged in a struggle over the description of reality. Certainly part of that struggle involves literature, the written descriptions of our reality.

...one place for white writers to start would be to attend readings where they as white writers were in the minority, not the majority.

I have to say I was never more aware of the division between whites and people of color in this country than I was during the offsite events that happened simultaneously during AWP’s annual conference in 2015 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. I attended four off-site readings. Three were at the Loft—the African American writers’ conference, Cave Canem fellows’ reading; the Loft Equilibrium Spoken Word poets reading (mainly Twin City poets of color along with headliners Patricia Smith and Reggie Cabico); and the VONA reading (the conference for writers of color I teach at each summer). On that Thursday night I attended a reading for four small presses because a black poet friend of mine was reading.

At the three readings by the writers of color, there were mentions of Freddy Gray, Baltimore, Michael Brown, Ferguson, Tamir Rice; there were poems about politics and history; poems about race and ethnicity; poems about growing up poor; poems about police shootings and missing Native Americans, about being called a terrorist. The EQ reading had an amazing diversity of readers—black, East and South Asian, Native, Latino, West and East African, Arab. It was one of the best readings I’ve attended in my life, and it completely belied the popular white image of Minnesota as the land of Garrison Keillor’s Lake Woebegon (over seventy percent of the students in the Twin Cities are students of color).

At the Thursday night reading of four small presses, there was my black friend, twenty-five white poets, and one Asian American poet. There was no mention of the events of the last year dealing with race, no mention of anything political or historical, or even about community. There were only poems about individual experience and perception.

At the three readings with writers of color, there was shouting, anger, laughter, tears, wild applause, an audience that was actively engaged, a sense of community. At the reading of almost all white poets, there was golf applause (and people waiting to read their poems and their friends waiting to hear the poems of people they knew).

I’m sure all the poets at the small press reading believe our justice system is racially biased. But none of them thought to write a poem alluding to any of the events over this past year, which have changed our national racial dialogue. None of them thought the topic of race was something they needed to address. The white poets heard the same news that the writers of color heard. But the realities that news alluded to? It wasn’t part of their (white) sense of what literature means to them.

Several years ago, Major Jackson wrote an essay in the American Poetry Review examining the fact that few white poets write about race. Among the causes he listed, one of the most telling was this: Most white writers had few, if any, black friends. My own subjective sense of this—certainly it’s what I witnessed at AWP’s off-site events—is that in the time since Jackson’s essay, little has changed in this area. Now perhaps most white writers who have no or few friends of color feel vaguely uneasy about this. But would they understand that this lack might be caused by the way that white writer processes his or her racial identity, that people of color would sense that an authentic friendship with such a person would be difficult at best, if not impossible?

Still one place for white writers to start would be to attend readings where they as white writers were in the minority, not the majority. But how many white writers actually do this? Whereas writers of color constantly attend readings where they are in the minority or even the sole person of color.

I wish I had a video recording of these four off-site evening readings at AWP. They would tell anyone how much race divides American literature and its writers. They would tell anyone with half a brain that most white writers live and write from a very different reality, a very different social and cultural and political epistemology from writers of color. Most white writers have very little experience or knowledge of our realities or experiences. And, in the end, most white writers don’t care that this is the state of the writing and writing practices in America’s literary world.

Given all this, what would you expect would happen when these white writers try to teach students of color?

I am a Sansei, a third generation Japanese American. Like certain middle-class suburban Asian American kids, I grew up very white identified, which meant I didn’t want to be associated with other Asian Americans, much less other people of color. When, in high school, a white friend would say, “I think of you David like a white person,” I thought, “Great, that’s exactly how I want to be considered” (and, less consciously, “that is what I want to be”).

It wasn’t until I was in my late twenties that I began to challenge such thinking. Partly it was the gathering evidence—years of experiences—which told me I was not white. Partly it was that the best poems of mine were related to my ethnic identity. But the most conscious trigger was reading Frantz Fanon’s book on the psychology of race, Black Skin White Masks:

In the Antilles.... in the magazines, the Wolf, the Devil, the Evil Spirit, the Bad Man, the Savage are always symbolized by Negroes or Indians; since there is always identification with the victor, the little Negro, quite as easily as the little white boy, becomes an explorer, an adventurer, a missionary “who faces the danger of being eaten by the wicked Negroes”.... The black school boy in the Antilles, who in his lessons is forever talking about “our ancestors, the Gauls,” identifies himself with the explorer, the bringer of civilization, the white man who carries truth to savages—an all-white truth. There is identification—that is, the young Negro subjectively adopts a white man’s attitude. He invests the hero, who is white, with all his own aggression—at that age closely linked to sacrificial dedication, a sacrificial dedication permeated with sadism.

After years of wanting to be white, of trying to get others to see myself as white, I read this passage and thought, “Oh shit, that’s what I’ve been doing.”

And my world changed.

I began reading black writers and discovered in them a language to write and talk about race, a language that I had not found in white writers. Until then, I’d gone through five years of English grad school, had read through the white Anglo-American canon, but other than a handful of poems by Amiri Baraka, I had read no writers of color. Among other things, what this means is that most writers of my generation had a similar education. Things are different today, but how great that difference is is up to debate (I’ve talked to too many younger Asian American writers who clearly have little background in anything other than the white canon).

Artists of color, who are both reenvisioning the past and creating our future, know what it means to be a racial minority in America.

I went on to read Asian American writers and other writers of color. I started to write essays about and speak about issues of ethnicity, race and identity. At a certain point, in the early ’90s, I got into a series of debates with white writer friends about Miss Saigon, both in terms of the yellow-face casting in the Broadway production and of the Orientalism that infuses this musical. Though I had read by that time Said’s Orientalism, my white writer friends had not. At the same time I was arguing with these white writer friends, I was giving readings at college campuses where I talked about the necessity of examining race in literature and society. After these readings, not just Asian American students, but black, Latino, and Native American students would come up to speak to me and ask questions. I realized the exact things I was saying that were pissing off my white writer friends were drawing these students of color to me.

In the time since then, my perception is that this dynamic is still at work when I read and speak at colleges or to literary audiences. But then too the ways I speak of these issues has deepened and become more challenging to the literary status quo. History does move on.

My friend, the poet Marilyn Chin, has talked to me about her time at the famed MFA program at the University of Iowa in Iowa City. Marilyn related how she, and Sandra Cisneros, and Joy Harjo, two other writers of color, never felt part of the program, how their work was seldom workshopped, and how she, Marilyn, drifted to the program in translation where there were writers from other countries in order to find an environment which wouldn’t be unbearably alienating. Sandra has talked about how she and Joy would keep waiting for their poems to be workshopped but their poems always ended up at the bottom of the pile.

I’m of the same generation as Marilyn Chin, Sandra Cisneros, and Joy Harjo, and as a young poet in my late twenties and early thirties, I dreamed of my poems appearing in the anthologies of the future. Now the white male poets of my generation also had the same dream. And yet their dream was different. When the white male poets looked at the anthologies of the 1950s and ’60s and ’70s, those anthologies were overwhelmingly white male. And so they saw themselves in anthologies of the future where the faces and photos were white males, just like the anthologies they grew up with. But when, as young poets, Marilyn Chin, Sandra Cisneros, Joy Harjo, and myself envisioned the anthologies of the future, we did not envision anthologies made up almost solely of white males. We had to imagine anthologies that contained writers of color and women. In this way, as Cornell West might say, we were prophetic; we knew we were writing for a future that would differ from the past, and our visions have proven true. The white male writers of our generation looked at the past and thought the future would mirror that past and themselves. They were wrong.

Jeff Chang is the Asian American cultural critic who wrote the hugely influential Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation. His new book is Who We Be: The Colorization of America, and it examines the issues of race over the last fifty years within the context of culture and cultural changes; it goes over the moments like the Black Arts Movement, multiculturalism and its subsequent backlash from the right, the so-called culture wars, the use of the term post-black within the context of the art world; the election of Obama and the proclamation, and quick disavowal, of a postracial America; the shifts in demographics and immigration politics and the battles over textbooks and ethnic studies. This book is a must read for anyone involved with either the issues of race or of culture. In the book’s introduction, Chang writes:

Here is where artists and those who work and play in the culture enter. They help people to see what cannot yet be seen, hear the unheard, tell the untold. They make change feel not just possible, but inevitable. Every moment of major social change requires a collective leap of imagination. Change presents itself not only in spontaneous and organized expressions of unrest and risk, but in explosions of mass creativity.

So those interested in transforming society might assert: cultural change always precedes political change. Put another way, political change is the last manifestation of cultural shifts that have already occurred.

As is commonly proclaimed, sometime around 2040 or sooner, we will no longer be a white majority country. No racial group will constitute the majority. Artists of color, who are both reenvisioning the past and creating our future, know what it means to be a racial minority in America. This knowledge is embedded within our imaginations and identities, and we speak from that knowledge. That knowledge is out there for white artists to share, but whether they want to avail themselves of that knowledge is another question, one they will have to answer if they are to prepare themselves for the America that is surely coming.

So what would be involved in the literary, historical, political, and theoretical knowledge white writers would have to possess in order to be able to teach students of color? Certainly it would entail reading more thoroughly in the canon of writers of color—African, Latino, Native, and Asian American.2 It would entail a broader range of global writers as well as their history (the poets of Negritude, for instance). In order to confront the writings of people of color, the white writer must also be familiar with the cultural, intellectual, historical, and political contexts of these writings. Du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folks with its classic take on double consciousness, Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin White Masks, the essays of Baldwin, bell hooks, or Audre Lourde are literary works, but they’re also part of an intellectual tradition of writing about and theorizing race. To understand writers like Baldwin or Lourde, one needs to be familiar with the history of black culture, from Fredrick Douglass to the Harlem Renaissance to the Black Arts and Black Power movements, not to mention the history of black music, obviously including hip-hop; then all that needs to be viewed in the context of various critical works such as Henry Louis Gates’s The Signifying Monkey or the more recent example of Kevin Young’s The Grey Album or Toni Morrison’s Playing in the Dark and its deconstruction of the ways white American writers have written about black characters. Similarly, a familiarity with immigration history is critical to an understanding of Asian American literature. Such literature should also be contextualized through the history and theoretical understanding of Asian American issues, not just a work like David Palumbo-Liu’s Asian American, but also works on colonialism such as Edward Said’s seminal Orientalism and Culture and Imperialism. Such a theoretical context is absolutely necessary to fully understanding say David Henry Hwang’s M. Butterfly or Jessica Hagedorn’s Dogeaters.

One can do reading lists, and they are useful. But what is more difficult to change is the basic mindset of so many white writers, a mindset with both conscious and unconscious components. That mindset assumes that the reality of people of color, their lives and their consciousness, are secondary and minor, are not Universal, are not required understanding, are optional.

And here we come to some very sticky difficult junctures where political, social, and cultural power make themselves present in the world of literature.

That knowledge is out there for white artists to share, but whether they want to avail themselves of that knowledge is another question...

Take for example this standard literary practice: the absence of a racial marker means the character is by default white. The exception to the rule is always the character of color. In considering this convention, what writers and readers often overlook is this: Whiteness here is instituted not only as the norm; no, its very existence must also be kept invisible, unremarked upon. In other words, this literary practice presupposes that the white characters need not be identified racially; race for them is not a significant part of their identity or social reality. It’s presumed that this is a politically neutral stance concerning race. But I would submit, it is not.

What if we step back from this practice and see it not as natural or instinctive—that is, as it is practiced by most white writers—but as a practice that is socially constructed? This literary convention is clearly an example of the racial construction of whiteness; it embodies the way whiteness is defined in our society.

At the same time, the practice also presupposes that characters of color must be identified racially; that race is a crucial part of their identity or social reality.

Two different practices based upon racial identity: Separate and unequal. 

The question arises then: Who benefits from these different practices? And what is missing from the white definition of race that is included in the definition of race for people of color?

Does the contradiction between these two definitions make sense—that is, that whites do not have a racial identity in our society and people of color do? Is it people of color who gave themselves their racial identity? No, it’s historically been white people who have done this. It’s something white people have constructed.

If the very way white writers introduce their characters and the very way writers of color introduce their characters is racialized, how is it that any piece of American fiction, white or POC, escapes being racialized?

What would our literature look like if this rule were not the norm? How difficult is it for whites to identify themselves as white? And what exactly is the cause of this difficulty?

All these are questions few white writers even acknowledge, much less attempt to wrestle with.

So how does a writer of color introduce his or her characters?

Here is the opening of “Drinking Coffee Elsewhere,” the title short story of ZZ Packer’s collection:

Orientation games began the day I arrived at Yale from Baltimore. In my group we played heady, frustrating games for smart people. One game appeared to be charades reinterpreted by existentialists; another involved listening to rocks. Then a freshman counselor made everyone play Trust. The idea was that if you had the faith to fall backward and wait for four scrawny former high school geniuses to catch you, just before your head cracked on the slate sidewalk, then you might learn to trust your fellow students. Russian roulette sounded like a better way to go.

“No way,” I said. The white boys were waiting for me to fall, holding their arms out for me, sincerely, gallantly. “No fucking way.”

“It’s all cool, it’s all cool,” the counselor said. Her hair was a shade of blond I’d seen only on Playboy covers, and she raised her hands as though backing away from a growling dog. “Sister,” she said in an I’m-down-with-the-struggle voice, “you don’t have to play this game. As a person of color, you shouldn’t have to fit into any white, patriarchal system.”

I said, “It’s a bit too late for that.”

In the next game, all I had to do was wait in a circle until it was my turn to say what inanimate object I wanted to be. One guy said he’d like to be a gadfly, like Socrates. “Stop me if I wax Platonic,” he said. I didn’t bother mentioning that gadflies weren’t inanimate—it didn’t seem to make difference. The girl next to him was eating a rice cake. She wanted to be the Earth, she said. Earth with a capital E.

There was one other black person in the circle. He wore an Exeter T-shirt and his overly elastic expressions resembled a series of facial exercises. At the end of each person’s turn, he smiled and bobbed his head with unfettered enthusiasm. “Oh, that was good,” he said, as if the game were an experiment he’d set up and the results were turning out better than he’d expected. “Good, good, good!”

When it was my turn I said, “My name is Dina, and if I had to be any object, I guess I’d be a revolver.”

What I will say here about this passage will underscore the racial context here, but I want to emphasize that the surface of the story isn’t about race. At the same time, I want to open up some questions about how and to what extent this racial context is perceived.

Rather than openly declaring her identity, the narrator of Packer’s story slips in clues to indicate who she is. As freshman in college typically do, the narrator is in the process of discerning her difference from the other students who have chosen to go to the same school. In this case, the school, Yale, brings up certain images of class, intelligence, and educational background—and of course, race. The narrator’s response to the game of trust indicates her wariness towards the other students. But the reference to Russian roulette also reveals more about her state of mind—not simply that she feels antagonism towards the other students but also perhaps that she might be depressed or suicidal. The fact that the narrator uses the phrase “white boys” indicates, of course, that she is not white. It’s not simply the fact that she regards them as an other; it’s also that white people do not generally refer to other white people as “white people” unless race has already been placed on the table.

In contrast, for the narrator, race is on the table. The idea of falling into the arms of four white boys is not Dina’s idea of a fun let’s-get-acquainted game, and the blond—and therefore white—counselor awkwardly tries to acknowledge this (and in the process, with the use of “Sister,” firmly identifies the narrator as a black woman). Though the counselor is attempting to show empathy towards the narrator, the counselor’s remark puts the narrator in exactly the position the whole set of games are meant to alleviate. The purpose of the games is to encourage unity; “we” are all here as Yale students and thus can trust each other. But the racial divide between the narrator and the white boys precludes such trust. Similarly, the counselor’s use of “Sister” would seem to say, “Well, we can at least bond as women,” but the meaning and effect of her words are just the opposite.

The narrator’s answer to the counselor’s proposition to opt out of the “white patriarchal system” is a witty, “It’s a bit too late for that.” The remark references the fact that if she’s chosen to go to Yale, she’s chosen to enter a white patriarchal institution. The deeper implication is that she can never escape the white patriarchal system; she was born into it.

Very self-consciously, the narrator compares herself with the other member of her racial group in a white crowd, and the way that she notes his Exeter t-shirt indicates that she probably went to a public school. The other black student’s enthusiastic response to the games indicates a desire to fit in and a comfort with this crowd of white students that the narrator does not feel. That she is quick to judge him indicates that perhaps she’s also not prone to assume that she has a bond with him simply because they are both black.

Finally, when asked what inanimate object she’d be, the narrator picks up on her mention of Russian roulette and says, “I’d guess I’d be a revolver.” In other words: “I know I’m in danger here and in a site of antagonism, and no games of trust are going to change that.”

As the story unfolds, Dina emerges as a singularly ironic, witty, and intelligent character, someone who rejects attempts by both blacks and whites to connect with her. It’s clear that there are reasons for Dina’s anger and isolation other than that of race. One major reason is that her mother has recently died, a loss that Dina tells no one about at the college, even the therapist she is assigned to after her revolver reply. Another is her sexual orientation. Eventually she begins an ambiguous relationship with a white female student, a relationship that ends in part because the white student comes out as a lesbian, and Dina wants nothing to do with such an identification. There are also a couple small scenes of Dina’s life back in Baltimore which indicate that she’s grown up in an impoverished black neighborhood and feels shame of about that (she hides the exact location of her house from a black boy about her age that she meets).

As the story progresses, the issues of race seem to recede from the prominence they carry in these opening paragraphs. Of course the poverty Dina grows up in cannot be separated from race, and Dina’s general wariness and anger toward the world cannot be separated from her being a poor black female student at Yale. But Packer knows she doesn’t have to emphasize this perspective once she’s established it in the opening paragraphs.

In a world where the epistemology and ontology of Whiteness is not the dominant mode, we feel safer, saner. We can critique each other’s work because we understand the literary, theoretical, cultural, historical and political background of that work.

What these paragraphs do, though, is instruct the reader on how to read Dina and her story through the lens of race. Once Packer has set this up, it is up to the reader to carry on this reading. The reader should understand that race informs Dina’s reading of the world, despite the fact that she is loathe to connect with other black students simply on the basis of race. At the same time, this contradiction is part of what makes Dina such a fascinating and distinctive character. Because of Dina’s personality, the presence of race is everywhere in the story and yet, never articulated directly—except in this opening. But how deeply the reader understands the racial context of this story depends, I would argue, on how deeply the reader understands the presence of race in American society.

How many white creative writing instructors have given any conscious thought to this very basic issue for writers of color? I would argue very few. As white writers, this isn’t an issue for them. (But then neither is Driving While Black.)

To conclude, I want to revisit Dina’s choice of what she would be—“a revolver.” When I read her response, I immediately think of the theory called Afro-Pessimism. Afro-Pessimists argue that the ontology of slavery continues on into the present. In this ontology, Whiteness is defined as human, Blackness as nonhuman; Whiteness is thus equated with being a citizen, part of a nation; Blackness as a noncitizen, part of no nation. As a nonhuman and noncitizen, blacks can be subject to violence without the need of provocation or justification; violence upon their body requires no declaration of war. Further, Blackness is fungible, that is, it can be bought and sold; blacks are property. When I was first introduced to Afro-Pessimism in the brilliant book by my friend, Frank Wilderson, Red, White & Black: Cinema and the Structure of US Antagonisms, my first reaction was a bit skeptical. Since then, I’ve come to feel such a reading explains our justice system and the prison-industrial complex far more adequately than a more benign ontology (much less the idea that we are postracial). In his book, Wilderson also posits an antagonism between the White Settler and the Red Savage, a division Andrea Smith and others have similarly posited too (along with the Oriental/Terrorist and our permanent state of war).

The events of the past year, including the arrest and death of Sandra Bland, as well as the ontology of slavery should force us to see Dina’s response—“a revolver”—with a lens which clarifies and re-positions her. Through this lens, Dina would be viewed as neither crazy nor misguided; her remarks are not simply something blurted out in a moment of social anxiety by an insecure freshman at an Ivy League school. Instead, Dina’s answer goes to the heart of a division that exists in our society and in our literature; it reveals and reacts to how power in America is structured racially as a constant state of antagonism.

In the story, when Dina is forced to see the school psychologist, these sessions do not go well. It’s clear that the white male psychologist is totally unprepared to understand or acknowledge Dina’s reality—which involves the chasm of race (and to be fair to the psychologist, there is Dina’s deep distrust of him simply because he is white—not that she trusts her fellow black students either). But what is less clear is that, by design and on the level of ontology, the psychologist has been trained in a discipline that would exclude race from any profound consideration of who Dina actually is.

Readers may draw their own conclusions as to how much the encounters between Dina and her white male psychologist resemble encounters between student writers of color and their white writing instructors.

Every year, I teach at VONA, the summer writing conference for writers of color taught by writers of color. At VONA we get numerous students who speak of difficult, problematic, and traumatic encounters with racism, bias, and ignorance in their creative writing classes. Students also speak of feeling a sense of safety and sanity at VONA. What so many realize—and what I myself have also realized as part of VONA—is that it is the white world which makes us feel crazy and which acts towards us in insane ways. In a world where the epistemology and ontology of Whiteness is not the dominant mode, we feel safer, saner. We can critique each other’s work because we understand the literary, theoretical, cultural, historical and political background of that work. Just as importantly, we know and understand the experiences and communities from which that work derives.

...what is more difficult to change is the basic mindset of so many white writers, a mindset with both conscious and unconscious components.

For most white writing teachers to provide such education, they must first acknowledge their ignorance, how little they actually know of our world. But that would require a spiritual humility and a dismantling of ego that would go far beyond any reading list or literary instruction I could provide. That would entail a reconsideration of their own work and its worth. And that would entail an investigation into the question of what constitutes whiteness and white privilege; they would have to interrogate the ways their own identity and experiences are intrinsically and deeply structured by race, how their Whiteness and the Whiteness of their characters are not negligible matters that should go unremarked upon but constitute a huge unexamined question, an ontological and political blind spot. In short, white writers would have to begin changing their identities, a process, which Baldwin has told us, involves “a terror as primary as the mortal fall.”

I myself know what it means to enter such a process. It is possible. And eventually, history and demographics will probably force white writers to undergo this process. But in the present moment, it’s easier for most white writers to pretend that their world can go along just as it is for now.3              


David Mura has written four books of poetry and a novel. His two memoirs are: Turning Japanese: Memoirs of a Sansei, which won a 1991 Josephine Miles Book Award from PEN Oakland and was listed in the New York Times Notable Books of Year, and Where the Body Meets Memory: An Odyssey of Race, Sexuality and Identity. The Director of Training for The Innocent Classroom, Mura teaches at the Stonecoast MFA program, VONA.



  1. An Associated Press release indicated that when it comes to the question of police conduct, sixty-six percent of blacks said they rarely or never trust police to right by them, while seventy-two percent of whites said they always or often trust police to do the right thing.
  2. In addition to teaching at academic institutions, I’ve taught for twelve years at VONA, Voices of Our Nation Arts Foundation, which annually conducts a summer conference for writers of color. There I’m constantly learning from colleagues such as Junot Díaz, Christina Garcia, Chris Abani, ZZ Packer, Suheir Hammad, Staceyann Chin, Andrew Pham, Chitra Divakaruni, Cherrie Moraga, Martín Espada, Willie Perdomo, Faith Adiele, Elmaz Abinader, Evelina Galang, Mat Johnson, Quincy Troupe. In my teaching, I’ve had African, Latino, Native American, and Asian American students, and their backgrounds include Hmong, Puerto Rican, Cuban, Nigerian, Kenyan, Trinidadian, South Asian Indian, and South Asian Indian by way of Tanzania, Liberia, Lebanon, Palestine, Iran, Vietnam, China, Korea, Korean adoptee, Ghana, Columbia, Mexico, and Philippines. I feel like I’m constantly running to catch up with this diversity, to replace my ignorance with further knowledge, study, experience (including experiences where I’m encountering new communities or racial situations, where I’m a stranger entering someone else’s village). All the while, I know I’ll never know enough. I have to keep running.
  3. When Black Lives Matter confronted Presidential candidates Bernie Sanders, Martin O’Malley, and Hillary Clinton this August, these politicians had to pay attention to the critique BLM was making of their campaigns and their assumptions about race. These Democratic politicians could not simply dismiss or scoff at the BLM critique because these politicians need the votes of those BLM represents. I’d maintain that the response of many white writing teachers is closer to the response of Jeb Bush when BLM confronted him. Bush didn’t feel he had to pay attention to or honor their presence or their critique; he wasn’t going to get the black vote anyway. Similarly, the average white writer doesn’t really feel that having readers of color is necessary, either to their sense of themselves as artists or to their literary reputation or sales. On the level of consequence, BLM could engage in these disruptions because there wasn’t much that could be done to them by these politicians. Whereas, if students of color engaged in a similar disruption with their white writing instructors, any number of retributions could be forthcoming. In short, a different power dynamic is at work in the political arena than in the literary arena when it comes to the race and, in many ways, that makes the literary world less inclined to deal with these issues, not more.

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