Report from the Field: Racial Invisibility and Erasure in the Writing Workshop
In a novel excerpt I turned into workshop, my narrator uses the word “chinky.” My narrator is a Korean American woman speaking to a successful Chinese American woman, accusing her of being a sell-out. One of my peers in the workshop, another woman, white, circled that word—“chinky”—and wrote in the margin: “Really? Seems too harsh.” On another page, next to a description of the narrator expressing anger at impossible beauty standards, which for Asians can mean looking more white, she wrote: “What?! Wow! Really?” After class, reading this, seeing the circles and arrows drawn on the page, I felt a discomfort that I’ve grown too accustomed to, a feeling that was once paired with shame, later with anger, and now with annoyance. It’s triggered when I’m confronted with a person who is confused or surprised that my racial background and immigrant family would make my experience different from her own, or when a person is surprised or in disbelief that racism exists, affects people’s lives, or that I think it shouldn’t be tolerated.
This same woman, throughout our first year in our PhD program, repeatedly exclaimed that she was the only woman in the program: “Where are all the women? I’m the only woman!” she said. Our incoming class was comprised of eight women and two men; four of the women creative writing students and four of the women literature students. Telling me that she is familiar with Koreans and Korean culture, she says, “I taught at a school for international students from Korea. I almost moved to Korea to teach English!” She wanted me to take her out for Korean food. When I was surprised that she had never eaten it before, she said, “They served Korean food in the cafeteria but I never tried it because you could smell it seeping out of the kids’ pores.” Our cohort includes an international student from Seoul. To this woman (who speaks perfect English) she speaks slowly, her voice raised in pitch and volume, as if she’s speaking to a child. It’s painful to watch, almost comical in its stereotype, as if I’m on the set of a terrible sitcom. In our requisite first-year theory seminar, in which half the class was from the American Studies department and mostly queer or people of color (poc) or both, much of the discussion was about race, ethnicity, and white supremacy. Those students angered her. They were too aggressive, she thought, too confrontational. “Why does everyone just want to talk about racism? Do you think that racism is a problem in America? Why are we only reading theory about cultural studies?” she said.
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I used to get along with white people very well. Growing up in a white upper-middle-class town, I was the token. It was the eighties and the nineties. I assimilated, didn’t talk about race, made friends with white people who tolerated racism (if they were not racist themselves) as if it was a failing you had to excuse, like how you put up with that friend who’s perpetually late. I ignored microaggressions, insults about my race and my working-class immigrant parents, insults about other pocs, hatred towards women of color—from both white people and pocs and people of my own race, from all socio-economic classes, from both men and women. Immigrant families are often not equipped to understand racism, especially when they had never been confronted with it before coming to America. Some immigrants don’t acknowledge racism—it’s too painful, causes too much shame and feelings of powerlessness—and thus, their children learn to also deny racism, and this denial is confirmed by Americans everywhere—on television, in film, in politics, in universities, in the workplace, in sports, in music, in everyday human interactions with friends and strangers. Pretending that racism is not a problem is how you assimilate, I had learned. Denial of grief and the history of the trauma that got you here—that’s how you make it in a country where you are a perpetual outsider. Smile, keep your head down, do your work. It’s not just pocs. White people do it too. A white person might recognize a comment, an action, or another person as racist, but not acknowledge it. It’s easier to stay quiet and do nothing, particularly if the offense doesn’t personally affect you. She may not want to believe that something or someone is racist, or she doesn’t want to rock the boat. White people want to fit in too. While they don’t have to worry about issues of race, what takes the place of their anxieties is status and class striving.
I had always been an angry person, but at some point the anger became conscious; it became all that I thought about, and thinking about it meant trying to figure out where it came from. It was a gradual process. It started in my twenties and took nearly a decade to get where I am now. It involved grieving, breaking up with denial, examining my own culpability, and ending many friendships, not all with white people. I’m almost forty, and I would say that I’m still changing, and hopefully I always will be.
I talk about race in nearly all conversations. I don’t care if I make someone uncomfortable, if it costs me something—a connection, a job, a fellowship. Not talking about it costs me more. I write fiction about race and its intersections with gender, class, and sexuality. Now I feel a tension when I talk to white people. Often, I detect fear, intimidation, and anxiety of my judgment. Paired with this, I sense bitterness and envy. White people have told me that they feel left out of the conversation on race, that pocs assume their ignorance, that they feel attacked, and that they’re disadvantaged and missing opportunities because (they fear that) institutions and the publishing industry are trying to promote diversity and fill minority gaps. Never mind that these institutions still are and have always been dominated by white people. For example, nearly ninety percent of full-time professors are white, nearly ninety percent of the publishing industry is white, and nearly ninety percent of books reviewed in the New York Times were authored by white writers—according to Roxane Gay’s 2012 study. It is now difficult for me to make white friends. The majority of my friends are similarly-minded pocs, queers, and mixed race people who have made the conscious choice to not pass. I do have white friends and straight white cis-gender friends. My partner is a straight white man.
My first semester in my PhD program, I signed up for a fiction workshop, as one does as a fiction student in a graduate creative writing program. I was excited. It had been three years since I had finished my MFA, and after working a full-time job as a grants officer in the CUNY system, I was ready to make up for lost time, to finish my novel, and immerse myself in reading and writing. Almost immediately, I felt uncomfortable in that workshop, and regretted not having signed up for the other workshop offered. The workshop was led by a writer of color, a man, and though the other workshop was led by a woman, she was white and I thought that a writer of color would be able to better relate to my writing. I did not have a problem with the professor. He was a good reader and I consider him someone I can trust. My discomfort arose from the fact that the class was comprised of all men. Five, counting the professor. The women, it seems, had decided to sign up for the class taught by the female professor.
From the same novel, I submitted a different excerpt about a Korean American family experiencing racism in Napa, California. There was a scene where an adolescent brother and sister are practicing tennis with their mother at a country club. Four white middle-aged women are playing doubles on the adjacent court—two of them are blonde, tall, and thin, and one of them attacks the mother verbally with racist and misogynistic slurs. A tan, blonde bully, towering over the small Korean immigrant mother, both with rackets in hand.
One of the men in the workshop—T, I will call him, white, I should mention—took issue with this. “This is such a stereotype!” T exclaimed. “This would never happen. It’s totally unbelievable. This kind of racism would never happen to this family on a tennis court in Orange County. There are so many Asians in Orange County! This is such a stereotype!” T repeated. He went on: “I play tennis and there are all kinds of minorities playing tennis, not just white people, and nothing like that ever happens! Anyway, if somebody acts racist like this, then they’re just low class.” T was shouting and waving his arms.
The room was quiet. I was in shock. As the person being workshopped, you’re not allowed to speak, but even if I had been, I was too shocked to have had a response. The professor looked surprised and said, “Are you serious?” a couple times. One student looked down at his hands, his face bright red. Another student, a friend of T’s, said, “But this doesn’t take place in Orange County. It’s in Napa.” T looked at me. I said, “It’s true, this is in Napa. Not in the current time, but in the eighties. It’s all in there. And this is the only Asian family. This is a white town. A white country club.” In my head, I thought, As if there being a lot of Asians would mean no racism, yeah right. Another student said, awkwardly, “Um. I think we can all agree that racism exists in the tennis world. Look at the Williams sisters.”
After things calmed down a bit, T turned to me and said as an aside, his voice lowered, “Maybe it would help if you wrote from the point of view of someone who’s not so close to yourself. Like try writing from the perspective of a man. Who’s not your own race. And if you want to have race in there, then write from the perspective of a white man who dates a black woman and everyone has a problem with it. His parents don’t approve.” In his written comments to me, he wrote, “I don’t know how to respond to this piece. I don’t know if this is nonfiction or fiction.” Let me repeat: This was a fiction workshop. I was angry when I read that. The woman I describe in the opening of this essay also repeatedly confused my fictional narrator with myself, making it clear that she was reading my fictional novel as memoir. Critics, readers, and writers tend to believe that writers of color are only capable of writing autobiography, that the land of imagination and creativity is for white people.
David Mura writes: “[T]he divide between the way whites and people of color see the social reality around them is always there in our society. But this divide often remains invisible or obscured, especially in our current climate where the issues of race are avoided rather than discussed. But creative writing involves the very description of that reality, and so the gulf between the vision of whites and people of color is very present right there on the page. Moreover, the judgment of these descriptions again reveals a gulf between whites and people of color. And so, conflict ensues.”
I have far too many examples of workshops in which my peers have expressed aversion to writers engaging with issues of social justice or race. I won’t include them here because I don’t want this essay to turn into a list of grievances. My point is that in my experience of having attended a prestigious MFA program in creative writing and having finished coursework in a prestigious PhD program in creative writing, the majority of fiction writers feel that a writer should only be concerned with aesthetics and form, i.e., the territory of true, high art. Sadly, not only is this common in fiction workshops in general, but among writers of color in fiction workshops. At first, this is surprising. But it makes sense. Who wants to get attacked in a workshop for writing about race or social justice in a predominately white institution when you can easily “pass” by not revealing a character’s race, never mind the fact that everyone knows that this means the character ultimately reads as white? Who wants to be an outsider if they don’t have to be?
In this way, the voices and experiences of people of color are suppressed in writing programs, mirroring the way in which the voices and experiences of people of color are suppressed in American culture. Refusing to view society or the work of writers of color through the lens of race is not just ignorant; it’s purposeful. Mura writes, “It is both a result of the racial inequalities of power in our society and a cause of it. This ignorance is one way the system of racial inequality maintains itself.”
A friend of mine committed suicide last year. She jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge. She was a public defender, a generous person, a happy person. I had never heard her complain about anything or voice a negative opinion about anyone. She had no history of mental health problems, or at least had never been diagnosed with one. She left no note. Before she jumped, she finished her work at the public defender’s office where she had been employed for ten years. Cases that could be completed, she closed, and for those that needed to be passed on, she wrote scrupulous notes and relayed the files to coworkers. Everything was taken care of and in order. She drove six hours, from Southern California to San Francisco, parked in the Golden Gate Bridge’s visitor parking lot, and walked along the pedestrian walkway to the middle of the bridge, the rust-colored columns illuminated by the streetlights, headlights, and night sky. I imagine it was cold. The video surveillance footage shows her walking calmly, alone. Her long black hair is whipping in the wind. She climbs over the barricade and disappears. I wonder, often, what it was like for her to stand up there—whether she felt fear or a sense of calm.
My friend was Indian American. In several studies that specifically examine the incidence of suicide among Asian Americans, and particularly Asian American women, research shows that there is a far greater incidence of suicide, suicidal thoughts, and suicide attempts among Asian Americans than among other ethnic and racial groups. According to a 2009 study by the University of Washington, almost 16 percent of all U.S.-born Asian American women have contemplated suicide in their lifetimes – compared to 13 percent of all Americans. The study also found that U.S.-born Asian American women are more likely to attempt suicide than other groups. In a 2007 case study, the American Psychological Association found that suicide was the second leading cause of death for Asian Americans aged 15-34, and the 8th leading cause of death for Asian Americans (compared to 11th for the national average). Both elderly Asian American women (>65) and men (>85) have the highest suicide rates compared to other groups.
At Cornell University, 13 of 21 student suicides between 1996-2006 involved Asian American students, prompting the university to create a task force to examine the intersection of mental health and Asian American racial identity. In April 2014, Jiwon Lee, a dental student at Columbia University and New York City comedian, left a note before she killed herself. The note read, “Not living up to expectations.” Lee’s body was found in the Hudson River.
My grief for my friend and her family overcomes me at times, with no warning. Assimilation, that whole model minority myth—it’s a way for white America to uphold one community of color at the expense of others, to reinforce racial hierarchy, and render discrimination against Asian Americans invisible. Assimilation requires the denial of grief and pain—the traumatic history that brought us to America, experiences of racism, and having to settle into the role of an invisible minority that rarely stands in positions of power while being assigned the label of the “model minority” at the expense of other people of color.
The need to make race invisible is damaging to the psyches of people of color. The erasures of our histories, our experiences of discrimination, and the trauma of how we got here cause gaps in our identities and consciousness. It heartens me to know that more people are talking about this in the media. In the creative writing community, recent work includes the above-referenced David Mura piece, Junot Diaz’s essay “MFA vs. POC” in which Diaz writes about the problem of MFA programs being “too white,” and the onslaught of responses from the poc writing community regarding the Best American Poetry Yi-Fen Chou scandal when it was revealed that a white male poet, Michael Derrick Hudson, had been writing under the pseudonym Yi-Fen Chou to prove that he would publish more poetry by posing as a Chinese woman. In the general media, we have seen many responses to Nicholas Kristof’s New York Times piece “The Asian Advantage” in which Kristof, a white male columnist, perpetuates the model minority myth. The conversation among pocs can be followed here, here, here, and here.
Let’s keep the responses coming. Let’s make ourselves be heard.
LISA LEE’s work has appeared in Ploughshares, North American Review, Sycamore Review, Gulf Coast, and elsewhere. She is the recipient of a 2016 Pushcart Prize for her novel excerpt “Paradise Cove.” She has received fellowships and awards from the Jentel Artist Residency, the Inprint-Brown Foundation, Kundiman, the Korea Foundation, the Korean Studies Institute, and the EASC Association for Japan–U.S. Community Exchange (ACE) Nikaido program, and was named a 2012 NYC Emerging Writers Fellow by The Center for Fiction. Lisa received an MFA from the University of Houston where she was a Nonfiction Editor of Gulf Coast, a B.A. from U.C. Berkeley in English and Music, and a J.D. from Santa Clara University in Public Interest and Social Justice Law. She is currently a doctoral fellow in USC’s PhD program in Creative Writing and Literature.