Why I Dropped Out of Art School
In 2005, I began school as a hopeful illustration major at the Maryland Institute College of Art. I was once of very few students of color in a school populated by upper-middle class white students located in the heart of a poor Black city. I encountered racism at every turn, especially in my illustration class in particular. There was one student who was regularly bringing in racist caricatures of people of color and calling it art. When I tried to speak to the professor about it, she had a hard time understanding the racist nature of the illustrations. When I spelled it out for her, she replied, “I see what you’re saying, but I really feel it’s a kind of ‘benign racism.’ I mean, it’s not like he’s part of a hate group or something.”
I realized that as a woman of color in an institution that refused to see racism (and it’s inherently non-benign nature) I would be fighting an exhausting uphill battle all four years I had planned to spend there.
I went to the Office of Multicultural and International Student Affairs to speak to their the school’s one staff member assigned to deal with “race issues.” She seemed extremely confused by my presence in her office, perhaps because she thought I was white. She talked over me as a tried to tell my story, repeated everything I said back to me in a dubious tone, and could not understand why I was so upset by racism. When I finally explained that my dad was black and my mom was white, something seemed to click for her. Her response? To suggest I check out a Black Student Union meeting. “We have students from Africa, Venezuela, we even have one student that’s just like you!” I left her office in tears.
The only person that helped me deal with racism at MICA was the person whose job it was to convince me not to leave. He didn’t try to convince me to stay, he didn’t even make me recount my experience of racism at MICA as justification for why I wanted to leave. He just let me go. That was the biggest favor any one could have given me at the time, not having to explain racism to one more person on my way out.
Since leaving MICA, I have transferred and completed my BA in Ethnic Studies. I have had the privilege of graduating from an institution where I did not have to explain racism, and was surrounded by other politically astute students and faculty of color, who accepted me and my stories without question.
But as I begin to re-enter art-making spaces, I am remembering that the arts can be a hostile place for women of color, and queer women of color in particular. If you want to talk about racism, transphobia, or anything of substance, it will be an uphill battle. People will tell you it won’t sell, it’s a “niche” market, that people want art to entertain them, not challenge them. It is these kinds of messages that make it so women of color in the arts become disheartened and give up, and their stories don’t get heard. I think this is why it is all the more important that I pursue my dreams of becoming a political queer woman of color film-maker, so that our stories will no longer be suppressed, and that non-queer, non-female, non-people of color audiences can start to understand what it is we go through.