Wyl Villacres, “Dear White People in my MFA Program” and commentary — coloring books project 2015

Friends — I was just about to post a piece on satire, where I talk about the ways in which satiric writing has become a problematic mode of address for white writers trying to be “edgy” — when lo and behold, here appears a great example of a satiric essay, written from a POC perspective. It’s brilliant. It’s quoted in full on this site.  I will comment on what this means for white writers below. You can also read Wyl’s piece here on the McSweeney’s site:

 

AN OPEN LETTER TO WHITE PEOPLE IN MY MFA PROGRAM.

BY

– – – –

Dear White People in My MFA Program,

Over the last semester, I may have said some inflammatory statements that made you uncomfortable. Inflammatory statements about race — I know, I know, who talks about race in a creative writing MFA program? How gauche. I realize that this was not a good or cool thing to do, that your safe writing space was interrupted by an uppity Latino with a big mouth. So let me apologize for all of the statements that I made:

  • I’m sorry for saying that the one Latin@ character you wrote in workshop was both clichéd and racist. I see now that if you write a maid character, OF COURSE she would need to be Mexican. Have you ever seen a non-Mexican maid? Ha! The concept doesn’t even make sense! And if you have a Mexican maid, she shouldOBVIOUSLY speak broken English. How else would the reader know that this maid character was Mexican — a trait that impacted the story at every turn and wasn’t just because she was a maid. And you’re right, white people in my MFA program, to tell me that it wasn’t really offensive. You would know, after all. And I should be happy that there was Latin@ representation in fiction in the first place.
  • You were right to say that because I don’t have an accent I’m not really Latino, just tan. I was simply holding on to family pictures and stories and accented aunts and grandmothers and the way my cheekbones sit and my preference for salty, garlic-y food and my last name and family trees and you know, that sort of stuff. In fact, I am honored, HONORED, that you’d bestow the title of “White” upon me. It’s really what I’ve wanted for my whole life!
  • Mea culpa! Thank you, THANK YOU, for explaining to me that White Privilege isn’t a thing. I now realize that white people have just as many problems as people of color. Just as many and basically the same kind. We’re all just Jay-Z with our 99 problems (Don’t worry! I won’t finish the line because we are all united in our fight against misogyny — a fight that has absolutely nothing to do with race). I mean, if there was such a thing as white privilege, would we have so many people of color in our program? (We have two. Which is a lot when you think about it. I mean, our program only has, like, 65 people in it.)
  • Lo siento por calling you “Cracker ass honkey gringo motherfuckers” and suggesting that we stop accepting white people into the program until we have a higher representation of people of color. I was hungry when I said those things. And I took some time and thought about your point that I was being “reverse racist” and decided that you are correct in that, too. Oh, and sorry for calling the phrase reverse racism “stupid whitey bullshit that doesn’t exist.” Again, I was really hungry.
  • You opened my eyes when you asked how I could call myself Latino when you, a white person, speaks more Spanish than I do. You are actually way more Latin@ than I am! I’ll tell my grandmother you’ll be taking my place at Thanksgiving this year. She’ll be so thrilled to have a fluent Spanish speaker that she’ll forget all about me. Play your cards right and maybe you’ll get invited to the Christmas photos!
  • Finally, I’m sorry for bringing up race at all. I was just playing the race card. I was being overly sensitive. I am too pale to really be speaking for other Latin@s. Why derail our conversations about bell hooks with talk about being one of the only people of color in the room? I was drunk/hungry/tired/cranky/trying something new/playing devil’s advocate/just messing with you.

Sorry again,
Wyl

==============

commentary:

A couple of years ago I had a sobering conversation with Matt Cornell. Matt is a white cultural critic currently living and studying in Amsterdam, and he is well known in avant-garde circles as the creator/performer of Extreme Elvis. Matt told me that he was convinced that “satire’ as we know it is part of a white, masculinist hegemony that the genre probably can’t ever escape, and that’s one of the many things wrong with shows like South Park.

At first I argued with him about this, because I am a satire scholar, and I’ve written a lot about the history of satire, which I consider to be an important artistic/political anti-form which has called for change in ways that nothing else could.

“People of color have for sure written satire,” I said to Matt. What about The Invisible Man? Then I tried to think of some other examples. And it was really hard to do. Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is a satiric novel. But it is true, that satire has remained very much a male province. And a white one. And there’s not alot of LGBTQ satire out there either.

It’s interesting to me that a number of recent writerly speech-acts have ricocheted when white writers tried to be “satirical”. There’s something about assuming that subject position that creates big problems.

Looking at Wyl’s piece we can see why: When “you” — as a white middle class person — take that subject position, you make yourself into a “Know It All (privileged, heterosexist, CIS, ablest) White Person Making Jokes at Other People’s Expense.”

Satire of course does exactly this. Take a look at “A Modest Proposal’ or Candide. Read Alvin Kernan’s theory of satire on how the satiric speaker always craps on everyone and acts like he is the only “rational” one out there, but then undermines himself. It goes back to Juvenal, a Roman satirist, who was great at being the snarkiest know-it-all in the city.

But that’s the problem. This is where I think Matt may be right.

We are living at a moment where satire’s very real historical grounding as a privileged, male, anglo-european form of address is inimical to what we want to achieve as a truly diverse, egalitarian, intersectional community we all want.

So what do white writers do about this?

First of all — recognize that we have wielded satire in an unfair and hurtful way, if we did it.

Interestingly, and perhaps not surprisingly – the white male writer who seems to have figured this out the fastest is Daniel Handler, of Lemony Snicket fame. You may remember that he made a joke at the literary awards a little less than a year ago kidding one of his African American co-nominees. It was a big mistake. He came across as nasty, racist, and sexist. People yelled at him.

To his credit, Daniel Handler apologized quickly and completely. He said in effect “I blew it, I was out of line, I’m sorry.”

I think it’s worth noting that Handler didn’t defend himself. He didn’t explain that he was satirizing the industry of children’s literature. He didn’t shout “See! Your whole way of making these awards is biased!”. Nope. He just said “I was wrong and I took the limelight away from deserving people.” And that was that.

But I don’t want to write about Daniel Handler.

I just want to suggest that Wyl’s extraordinary piece sheds an important light on what I think may have been the common presuppositions informing white writers’ attempts to be satirical and edgy. These attempts don’t work, because they can’t, given the subject position of the writer.

Next step: I want the rest of us white writers and editors and publishers to think before we decide “gosh, I’ll do something SATIRICAL and make a cool point about our writing community and how flawed it is.”

Third step: Let’s DON’T do satire. If we have a real critique to make, let’s make it, without getting cute about it, and without trying to “teach somebody a lesson” by assuming an identity that is not ours. Probably the best thing to do would be to stop declaiming and give somebody who isn’t white, straight, CIS, abled, young, and middle class a chance. And for God’s sake don’t mock people who – like poor Sherman Alexie – are genuinely trying to make writing world more diverse and more equitable.

And let’s continue trying to find ways to support and publicize and publish writers of color, as well as writers who are marginalized by gender, class, embodiment, age, and religion discrimination.

 

4 thoughts on “Wyl Villacres, “Dear White People in my MFA Program” and commentary — coloring books project 2015

  1. I don’t think it’s a good idea to say to anyone, “Because of your identity, this particular mode of expression is off limits to you.” Rather than advising certain writers to avoid satire, I’d prefer to issue the warning that satire is, by its nature, unfair political discourse. It’s a sort of purposeful bullying, and if the satirist is punching down, rather than picking on targets that are bigger than he or she is, then the satirist deserves to be despised as a bully.

  2. Hi Bruce — thanks for commenting. I appreciate your concern about limits. Satire is a complex genre, which is part of the reason I’ve written about it so much in my scholarly incarnation. According to some thinkers it originates with the verbal insult as a way to “destroy” the enemy without actually killing him. The problem is that it’s a form of Anglo-European writing that has been governed very much by straight, privileged white male writers. Is it a “universal”? type of writing? There’s alot of argument about that, and I’m not sure it is. I suspect as a form of address it’s wedded to Anglo-Europe and to the signposts I indicate in the commentary. I agree that a warning would be good. But who will take it? At this point in time, I think privileged white writers should regroup and rethink and go on a 3 year satire writing hiatus. Let’s try another form of critique and see how we do. Sincerity? it’s a concept. Thanks for commenting. I always enjoy your acumen, even (especially?) when I don’t agree. 🙂

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