Affirmative Action and Art

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

A few readers have lingering thoughts about the Yi-Fen Chou saga. Here’s a literature instructor at an Ivy League university:

The transformation of Michael Derrick Hudson into Yi-Fen Chou says at least as much about reading as it does about race. Or, more precisely, it suggests that race colors our reading to such a degree that the concept of literature as meritocracy is at best a little white lie and at worst a deliberate and pernicious self-delusion.

Since the perspectives of straight white men are accorded the status of neutral default, we can imagine that when Hudson’s poem was presumed to be written by a SWM, it was judged solely on its literary quality. A poem by Yi-Fen Chou, on the other hand, was read through an entirely different lens. The exact same material took on additional, racialized meaning. The poem was no longer judged by what was said, but what was assumed; what mattered was not so much the lines themselves, but what was between them.

In a sense, Sherman Alexie encountered an entirely different poem than the one rejected by 40 journals. His reading was so inflected by ideas about the exotic Oriental other that a second, equally significant transformation was effected: that of a bad poem into a good one.

Though the Curious Case of the Yellowface Caper has been reduced to hashtag issues of cultural appropriation and privilege, the stakes are actually much higher. If reading and race are inextricable, how can we tell a work of art from a piece of crap? Are critics just whistling in the dark and applauding the echo?

Another reader attempts to tally up the gender and ethnic makeup of the poetry collection in question, The Best American Poetry:

Nine Black men, Six Black women, 14 White men, 36(!) White women, one Hispanic man, one Native American woman, one Inupiaq Eskimo woman, one Indian man, one Asian man and four Asian women.

That’s the breakdown as near as I could get it by names and simple Google searches for race, assuming anyone whose race I couldn’t verify by sight or declaration to be white and allowing for my “I’m not getting paid for this” error rate, which could be significant ... it could probably be further analyzed, but it at least shows that the author wasn’t completely excluding whites from his/her(?) choices for the compilation.

White men and white women comprise the two biggest groups, but are overrepresented by about four percentage points in terms of U.S. population. Blacks are overrepresented by about eight. Native American/Alaskan Natives represent about three times their actual population numbers, but that’s talking about two people instead of an impossible 7/10ths of a person. Asians got a bump, being 6.7% of those included in the comp instead of the population's 4.7%. The census doesn’t seem to have data for Indian men, so I don’t know how that pans out. Hispanics seem to have done the worst, representing 1.34% of the accepted while comprising 16.4% of the US population.

At the very least, this shows that the compilation wasn’t built entirely on anti-white sentiment. If it were, Hispanics would not have taken such a big hit. If someone wanted to show negative effects on white men, the data would back them up—there’s about a third as many as you’d expect from census data.

It’s sort of a Rorschach test for opinions on the subject of race: Do white men not like poetry so much, or does the author summarily reject them? Do white women love poetry more than all other groups? Is it random based on number of applications received and certain races had lighter or heavier years? There’s no telling, except that we have at least some confirmed anti-white bias by way of pro-anything-else bias admitted to by the editor.

Even though I've done all this work, I think the only conclusion I’ve come to is that it’s a shame that we are focusing on the sins of the psuedonym-bearing writer rather than whatever portion of the editor’s selection criteria race influenced. I’m not saying this because I’m sympathetic to “the poor white men” in this case, even though I am to an extent sympathetic to anyone rejected in the arts for not possessing desired physical traits. I’m much more concerned that this has supplied no end of ammunition to anyone inclined to believe that minorities in the arts can only hack it if assisted by some form of artistic affirmative action. Indeed, it’s clear that the editor of the book believes that to be true to some extent, or he wouldn’t have bumped a poem to acceptance based on a name that fit his/her racial preferences.

There’s no way to skew the acceptance rates for a particular race or set of races without implying that those races needed the help and don’t deserve their spots on the basis of their work alone. The association paints every other author’s poems in the compilation with unjust suspicion which the authors don’t deserve. It’s a shame.

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