Writers of color have previously documented their struggle against being rendered invisible, often by the very institutions intending to support their careers. People of color have even had their identities appropriated, stolen and erased. For non-white students in higher education, the university becomes the battleground where many of these racial incidents unfold. Some of it laughable, some of it downright infuriating, those stories have found their way into novels penned by writers who may very well have confronted such experiences firsthand. Their illustrations of the POC figure in academic spaces not only serve as searing critiques but also push back on the idea of the campus novel as predominantly white.
Class of 1873, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where Junot Díaz teaches creative writing in the present day. Courtesy of the MIT Museum.
1) “Security follows you in stores and every time you step on Harvard property you’re asked for ID.”
From “The Cheater’s Guide to Love,” This Is How You Lose Her by Junot Díaz
Díaz sparked the seminal MFA vs POC debate with his introduction to Dismantle: An Anthology of Writing from the VONA/Voices Writing Workshop. Perhaps, he channels into the short story some of his own observations as a creative writing professor at MIT. Here, the narrator, a Dominican-American professor named Yunior, has accepted a teaching gig in Boston. Noting the few students of color in his classes, Yunior feels as if he’s been “exiled” to a city and a campus that do not welcome him (“Why all my black and Latino students leave as soon as they can”) — an experience also familiar to Vassar faculty member, Kiese Laymon.
Drexel University, where Adichie was awarded a scholarship to study communication at the age of 19. © Bonnie Natko.
2) “Thing is, each time you say it, the word hurts African Americans.”
From Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Adichie sets up a scene typical of many American universities: At a Philadelphia school, a history professor asks students to analyze historical representation in the film Roots. Immediately, the discussion turns toward the N-word — specifically who can say it and who can’t. When the Nigerian-born Ifemelu disagrees that the word is necessarily hurtful, she finds herself at odds with both her white and African-American peers. The incident is one of many that forces Ifemelu to examine the chasm between her “Non-American Black” identity and the otherwise black-versus-white binary of American racial politics.
Vintage postcard of Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota, where the main characters attend school and where Lee taught creative writing from 2007-2008.
3) “This author… had no right writing a story about China.” / “So you spent a couple of summers there. So what? You were a tourist. You only saw the culture from a position of white privilege.”
From The Collective by Don Lee
Before Díaz’s essay, there was Lee’s novel, which follows three Asian-American friends from their undergraduate years in Minnesota to uncertain adulthood as MFA students and struggling artists. During an Intro to Creative workshop, the protagonist Eric finds himself among the majority in praising a white student’s short story, which happens to be set in China. Taking an opposite stance, Joshua (Eric’s friend and a Korean adoptee) finds much to criticize in what he sees as exploitative and reinforcing stereotypes. The argument devolves into both sides accusing the other of being “racist.”
King’s College, Cambridge, where Smith studied English literature.
4) “He’s just a black conservative – thinks it’s demeaning for African American kids to be told they need special treatment to succeed, etcetera.”
From On Beauty by Zadie Smith
Smith has elsewhere offered her criticism of elite universities such as Cambridge, where she spent her undergraduate years. In her Booker Prize-nominated novel, set at an Ivy League stand-in known as Wellington College, the topic of affirmative action takes center stage. Caught up in the political storm, a biracial family of academics embodies the ideals and follies of liberalism — whether it’s the philandering professorial father, his born-again Christian son, or the intellectual daughter championing an underprivileged, diamond-in-the-rough type. Taking aim at liberals and conservatives alike, Smith seems to derive pleasure in poking fun at those characters a cloistered environment like Wellington tends to breed.
Phi Sigma Kappa fraternity, at Rhode Island State College (later known as the University of Rhode Island), 1948. The campus is near the town where Lahiri grew up.
5) “The women in the philosophy department were secretaries. The professor, and the other students in her class, were men.”
From The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri
Lahiri touches upon the challenges of being a woman of color attempting to break into the Ivory Tower’s well-known boys club. As a new immigrant and young mother, Gauri must overcome certain hurdles in order to return to school, including the simple logistics of finding childcare. While her scientist husband, Subhash, is free to attend oceanography conferences for days at a time, Gauri wrestles with choosing between her domestic obligations and her scholarly ambitions.
The “cosmopolitan table” inside Foxcroft Hall at a Randall Hall Association meeting, 1914. Harvard University, where Aciman completed his Ph.D. in Comparative Literature. Credit: Harvard University Archives.
6) “I had money problems. There were days when the margin between the haves and the have-nots stood not like a line drawn in the sand but like a ravine. You could watch, you could even hear the party, but you weren’t invited.”
From Harvard Square by André Aciman
A Jewish-Egyptian man looks back on his years as an impoverished graduate student at Harvard in the late 1970s. Removed from the conflicts in the Middle East, he finds himself largely preoccupied with the threat of expulsion after having failed his comprehensive exams. His friendship with an Arab cab driver (who is worried about his green card status) opens the door to a non-Ivy-covered version of Cambridge and becomes the catalyst for examining the immigrant outsider’s experience.
Cornell University, where Crucet attended school as a first-generation college student.
7) “…I learned that students of color struggle more in college than our white counterparts. I learned that, when combined with being from a low-income family — the case for some of us in that room, one specialist said — your chances of graduating college fall to somewhere around twenty percent. They told us to look around and imagine most of the people in that auditorium disappearing…they were imagining me gone.”
From Make Your Home Among Strangers by Jennine Capó Crucet
The daughter of Cuban immigrants, Lizet Ramirez is the first in her family to attend college. And not just any college — an ultra prestigious liberal arts school named Rawlings in upstate New York, seemingly worlds away from her modest neighborhood outside of Miami. In a recent New York Times piece, Crucet recalls her own painfully awkward orientation week at Cornell, as neither she nor her parents had understood what to expect. Likewise, Lizet finds herself ill-prepared to meet the academic expectations set upon her (“Everyone else seems to just know stuff and I – I don’t.”), as well as university life in general. Desperate for acceptance, she allows her dormmates to believe that her high school boyfriend is a “psycho papi chulo” who flashes gang signs — an easy tale to swallow because one of them had “read The House on Mango Street in AP English.”
A scene from Dear White People (2014), now available on Netflix.
Extra Credit: “Black people can’t be racist. Prejudiced, yes. But not racist.”
From Dear White People written and directed by Justin Simien
The satirical film places America’s campus culture wars under a microscope with references ripped from the headlines. Issues of race and privilege collide at the fictitious Winchester University when a primarily white student club wants to throw a blackface-themed Halloween party. In the clip, the story’s heroine, Samantha White, a biracial media arts major, confronts the school dean (played by Dennis Haysbert) about the very essence of racism itself.
Further reading: “We Might Start a Revolution”: POC Voices in MFA Writing Programs.