In an article called ”Return to the MFA: A Call for Systemic Change in the Literary Arts”, which Poets & Writers published in its September/October issue, writer and scholar Namrata Poddar says that she’s not interested in writing “yet another story about how rough I had it in my MFA program as a brown immigrant woman. [This] is, instead, a story about a greater reality of MFA programs that begs for a reevaluation.” That greater reality—and she is, of course, correct that it calls out loudly for reevaluation—is the way in which (here she is paraphrasing Claudia Rankine) “creative writing programs, with their white majority faculty and students, work to maintain whiteness as the workshop’s unspoken norm.” The rest of the article connects this work to other systemic oppressions worldwide and argues that dismantling the “white nationalist, Judeo-Christian, hetero-patriarchal space” of the MFA program, particularly “in its aesthetic ideology,” needs to take place in the context of efforts to dismantle those other oppressions. As is all too often the case, however, Poddar’s argument erases antisemitism as one of those forms of oppression.
I wrote a response that Poets & Writers decided against publishing and so I am posting it here:
I read Namrata Poddar’s “Return to the MFA: A Call for Systemic Change in the Literary Arts” with interest and with care. I was disappointed to note, however, that her critique of whiteness, like so many I have read recently, elides entirely the fact that, at least as it is constructed in the United States and Europe, whiteness is Christian. As a result, Poddar fails to include antisemitism among the “forms of systemic oppression” that she argues need to be reckoned with.
In characterizing the traditional MFA as “a white nationalist, Judeo-Christian…space” (my italics), for example, Poddar overlooks the fact that there is nothing Jewish about the term Judeo-Christian. At its core, for Christians, it signifies the appropriation of the Hebrew Bible into and its supersession by the New Testament. It is, to put it plainly, a colonizing term, and so the relationship of Judeo-Christian anything to a specific, historically situated Jewish identity is not fundamentally different from the relationship between whiteness and BIPOC identities Poddar foregrounds in her piece. She implicitly acknowledges this when she characterizes her presence in the “white nationalist Judeo-Christian space” of the MFA program as that of “a non-Christian, non-passing brown woman.” What matters in that space, in other words, along with the fact that Poddar is a woman and is not white, is that she is not Christian, not that she is not Jewish.
Indeed, Jews, Jewishness, and antisemitism are almost entirely invisible throughout the essay. Poddar does not, for example, count Jews among those whose oppression intersects with racism. This despite, just to name three examples, the chants of “Jews will not replace us” at Charlottesville; the shootings at the Tree of Life and Poway synagogues; and how white supremacists are actively promoting conspiracy theories blaming the COVID-19 pandemic—which, Poddar is careful to note, has disproportionately impacted communities of color—on the Jews.
This near-invisibility is framed by the presence of the white Jewish man Poddar critiques in her introduction. Her critique, of course, is valid. His inability to empathize with the Indian protagonist of her story does bespeak a deeply rooted white privilege. However, because Poddar does not acknowledge the Christian nature of whiteness, the complexity of his, of any white Jew’s relationship to whiteness is left out of her larger analysis. If we take seriously the fact that the (Christian) white supremacist ideology that underpins so much of United States culture very explicitly labels Jews as not white, the double bind in which whiteness catches those Jews whose skin color marks them as white becomes clear. The only way to be white is to assimilate, giving up the specifically Jewish identity the term Judeo-Christian serves to erase.
Figuring out how to live and, since we are talking about MFA programs, to write within that double bind in an anti-racist way is white Jews’ responsibility, and we need both Jewish and non-Jewish communities of color to hold us accountable for that. Turning a blind eye to this double bind, however, as Poddar does, only serves to perpetuate it further, further enabling the antisemitic hatred in which it is rooted. Figuring out how not to do that is the responsibility of those, like Poddar, who take on the necessary task of undoing what Christian whiteness has wrought.