Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Andrew Bomback: POC vs. WAF

Six days after the Donald Sterling tape leaked, I read Junot Diaz’s essay, “MFA vs. POC”, which details the difficulties he and other writers of color have experienced in generally all-white MFA programs. Because the only “news” I follow is sports news, even though Junot Diaz certainly wrote this essay well before Donald Sterling’s taped racist harangues went public, I nonetheless read “MFA vs. POC” as a response to what was happening in basketball.

I sneak in pleasure reading at work, usually when I’m walking from one building of the medical center to another. I printed out the Diaz essay in my office and read it during the walk to the building where I’d soon be teaching twenty medical students the fundamentals of acid-base balance. Like most aspiring writers (I assume), good reading leads me to think about trying to write something that approaches what I’ve just read. And so, because I’d just been absorbed in Junot Diaz’s world for ten minutes, including his summation of MFA programs as “that shit was too white,” I thought upon entering my classroom: “I am white as fuck.”

I tossed around that self-assessment throughout the rest of the day and eventually expanded the analysis: “I am married to a Mexican-American, but I am still white as fuck.”

And then, by the time I was ready to go to sleep that night: “I am married to a Mexican-American, but I am still white as fuck, yet my daughter is not going to be white as fuck.” Her Puerto Rican daycare teacher adores her because she is bilingual. They speak Spanish together throughout the day, a secret language that distinguishes them from the rest of the class. One afternoon, when I picked up my daughter and was amused by how much she’d eaten that day, her teacher said: “That’s just how I was when I was her age, with that little panza. My aunts and uncles still call me gordita.” On the weekends, when we take her to the playground in our town, when she is surrounded by gringitas and gringitos, my daughter refuses to speak Spanish with me or her mom. Is she trying to be white as fuck? Or is this conscious decision to hide her Spanish a distinctly non-white as fuck move?

I don’t think I’m entitled to be annoyed, but I am certainly aware of and amused by how the NBA writers on Grantland (all white or Asian) try to sound young and hip, which in turn often has them emulating the language of black NBA players. They refer to Damian Lillard, the star point guard for Portland, as Dame. They seem to have made a pact to (a) love Demarcus Cousins and (b) consistently call him Boogie, decisions that would be forbidden in mainstream (=white) journalism. They frequently use rap lyrics for their headlines. They call veterans who no longer seem interested in the game, whose skills have eroded and are barely making a professional roster, as “Keep Gettin’ Dem Checks Guys.”

Teju Cole, on the afternoon the NBA handed down a lifetime suspension for Donald Sterling, tweeted: “Nicely played, moderate whites.” He may have been addressing the sports media as much as the NBA hierarchy. He might as well have been addressing sports fans, too. In four words, he trumped the countless hours of television and radio and the tens of thousands of words ESPN launched at the Donald Sterling issue.

That same day, David Shields tweeted out a link to a transcript from NPR’s “Morning Edition” that quoted him on “the nitty gritty of how racism really operates.” The reporter mentioned Shields’s book, Black Planet, and said the book is “about race and the NBA.” I am a gigantic fan of David Shields. He has said that each of his books is about something (e.g. Remote is about celebrity culture), and following that lead, I think of Black Planet as his book about living in Seattle (the “narrative” of the book is his following the Supersonics during one of their most tempestuous season). NPR and, I suppose, Shields (if he really wanted to self-promote) should have steered listeners and Twitter followers, respectively, towards Body Politic: The Great American Sports Machine. That title is the David Shields book about race and sports. His essay on tattooed NBA players is burned into my mind. I remember where I was when I read it (waiting outside the Costco auto shop having the tires replaced on my Toyota Prius, white as fuck), and I think about the essay when I watch NBA games, when the camera zooms in on a player shooting free throws. The tattoos all over his arms and neck, to paraphrase Shields in that essay, is the player’s way of saying: “I own my body, not you.”

Coincidentally, I finished Teju Cole’s Open City the same night I was tossing around the idea that I was white as fuck but my daughter wasn’t. There’s a scene, towards the end of the book, where Cole’s narrator, Julius, is mugged just outside Morningside Park. The scene of the crime is just a few blocks from Columbia University, where if all goes well (i.e. if I stay in my current position and my daughter’s preternatural ability to memorize song lyrics is a harbinger of future academic feats) my daughter will be a student someday. The mugging chapter begins with Julius (a half white, half black man) making eye contact with his future muggers (black teenagers) accompanied by a nod with which he presumes a subliminal communication: We are brothers, we are both part of outsider culture. Later in the chapter, the muggers walk past Julius and don’t make eye contact; then, almost immediately, they attack him. In retrospect, what Julius had earlier interpreted as a moment of solidarity was, in fact, two criminals merely sizing up their eventual target. I’ve walked in this exact spot enough times – though not at night, not like Julius – to wonder if I would have been mugged. I might have had my guard up more than Julius if two black teenagers were walking determinedly in my direction. I hope someday my daughter will be just as guarded. The chapter, which I read less than twelve hours after reading “MFA vs POC,” probably wouldn’t have struck me as a chapter about race on another day, at another time.

I’ve never written about race. When I was younger, I desperately wanted to be a short story writer and churned out fifty or so pieces, of which a small number were eventually published. Only one of these stories had a non-white protagonist: an Asian-American who’d just graduated from Harvard, played baseball, and was dating a white girl. The first short story I ever tried to write was in high school and was about a group of privileged white teens who were so obsessed with hood movies (e.g. Menace to Society and Juice) that they referred to each other as “nigga” and, eventually, felt that they had to commit some act of violence to match their cinematic heroes. I am so relieved that I never finished the story and did not keep a copy of the draft.

Hannibal Buress and Tracy Morgan recently held a public conversation at the 92nd Street Y, which is located in Manhattan’s Upper East Side (arguably the most white as fuck neighborhood in Manhattan). When discussing whether white people can use the N-word at karaoke, Buress said: “You can’t pick a song that’s nigga heavy. Like, Kanye’s ‘All of the Lights’ is OK, but YG’s ‘My Nigga’ you should avoid.” Morgan followed up: “When you drinking at the karaoke spot, know how many niggas are in the song.” I don’t karaoke in public but do so in my house, with my daughter. We both love Drake and Kanye. I replace the N-word with her name, which conveniently has two syllables.

“MFA vs. POC” has a happy ending. Junot Diaz reports that, after finding some success with his own writing, he helped found the Voices of Our Nation Workshop for writers of color. In fact, the “MFA vs. POC” essay, which I read on the New Yorker’s website, is drawn from the introduction to a new anthology of writing from this workshop.

Like most parents, I want my daughter to succeed in areas I’ve failed, to accomplish feats I never was able to do, to be the better version of me I always dream about. So, of course, I dream about her becoming a writer. A good writer. A successful and productive writer. In that dream, though, I’ve never considered her a writer of color. After reading “MFA vs. POC,” I realized that my version of her future was, arguably, my most white as fuck move of all. I stare at this offspring of a white as fuck father and a Mexican-American mother and hope that she will someday participate in the Voices of Our Nation Workshop. She will cast a critical eye at her father, at the books he read and the writing he tried to do, and say: “That shit was too white.”

Andrew Bomback is a physician and writer in New York. His work has recently appeared in Hobart and Westchester Review.

1 comment:

  1. Andrew, do you really want your daughter to look at your writing and declare it, "that shit was too white"?
    How about counting on your daughter not being obsessed with facile racial(both those of whites and non-whites) notions of identity. How about counting on her having the brains and the sympathetic powers to appreciate quality English language writing, regardless of the pigmentation of the hand that wrote it.

    And just where do Mexicans fit in in our racial divide here in the States? I mean, if Mexicans are often alienated from white Anglo culture, they're no closer to any of the Black American culture(s). I guess I have big problems with the term "people of color", as if all less than full-on blancos are united in their distaste, resentment, and inability to comprehend and dig "white culture".

    Anyway, Richard Rodriguez has made my argument and many others far better than I can. Let us all of us racially impure- whether by dint of pigmentation or cultural affinities- read the work of a Mexicano who found his voice without having to join a ethnic therapy writing group.