Update: Columbia Journal has responded to this open letter, titled "Open Apology to Yasmin Belkhyr and the Writing Community". Yasmin has also written another response, titled "Open Letter to the Whole Wide World".
December 27, 2015
An Open Letter to the Columbia Journal & Columbia University,
Last night, I came across a post on a Writer’s Market Facebook group advertising an open call to the Columbia Journal writing contest. I was initially very interested and checked out the website, happily noting that the journal was looking for work “on the cusp of change,”that “strained against the limits.” Unfortunately, I soon found that all three writers that the Journal has asked to judge this year’s contest are men. Two of them are white men. I questioned this decision on said Facebook post by asking why all the writers chosen to judge were men, and why two of these men are also white, trying to understand the process involved in choosing such a uniform, historically unsurprising panel. I was not quite sure what kind of response I’d receive, but honestly, what came after was terribly unprofessional, uncalled for, and irresponsible.
As you can see from the photos, your social media editor, a presumably white woman, deemed it appropriate to respond by implying that minorities are chosen for editorships and judging roles simply because they are minorities. She also complements her response with a gif of a scene from Mean Girls, in which a white woman berates another white woman for asking yet another white woman why she is white when she says she is from the African continent (whole lotta racism in that alone, but that’s for another time). Minutes later, the social media editor deleted the Mean Girls gif and left just a bland paragraph which served to dismiss and silence me. She later deleted the entire post and sent me private messages accusing me of attempting to incite a “flame war,” saying that I was trying to start a “political argument,” which clearly made her feel uncomfortable. I wonder what shade of rose-colored glasses one must be wearing to view my frustrated attempts to understand why there is such a blatant lack of diversity on the judging panel as my attempts to begin “a messy flame war.”
Obviously, there is something deeply disconcerting about what this shows about Columbia University and the people you choose to represent you on social media. Writers of color and women are not chosen for judging roles because of their 'minority status' as your editor so eloquently put it. They have been chosen because they are very good at what they do and deserve as much and even more of a seat at the table as the cis white men who have dominated the literary industry by oppressing the voices of WOC for centuries. Female writers of color like Roxane Gay, Claudia Rankine, Tarfia Faizullah, Morgan Parker, Fatimah Asghar, Franny Choi, Jamila Woods, Aziza Barnes, and Natalie Diaz (and these were just off the top of my head) are actively contributing to literary discourse, so it obviously can’t be that you weren’t able to find fantastic women of color to judge - it’s that you weren’t looking.
Plus, the ridiculous $15 entry fee. I know that it’s the norm but the norm is bullshit. With the federal minimum wage being $7.25, $15 per contest is exhausting, especially when the return on this investment is a form rejection 99% of the time. NYU was recently called out for racism and classism when a representative responded to a question regarding a fee waiver by telling the potential applicant, who is a black person, that they should consider not applying at all. What of the writers who cannot afford $15 entry fees? Is their work less important than the writers who can pay these fees? The wage gap between women of color and white men has been discussed extensively. I pose this question: how many women of color will not have their work read by this year’s judges simply because they cannot afford the fee? Privilege is a powerful currency. Racist and misogynistic structures grow stronger and stronger when writers of color, especially women, are shut out of opportunities that are granted to their white peers. Literature becomes uniform. New voices, the same new voices you claim to want to hear from, are locked away. If marginalized writers are not given the chance to represent themselves and their work, then the same aesthetic of writing from the same white male writers is published and praised, even in mediocrity. It’s a vicious circle and you are doing absolutely nothing to stop it.
I firmly believe that if a journal cannot absorb the cost of very necessary fee waivers, then it is simply not financially stable enough as an organization to host a contest. However, you clearly are - Columbia University boasted a healthy $9,600,000,000 endowment this year. Lee C. Bollinger, the president of Columbia University, also a white man, made just over $3,000,000 in 2012. And yet, your literary journal seems underfunded. This is indicative of larger problems within Columbia University, the American university system, and the United States, in general.
As I said to Columbia Journal’s social media editor, it is journals based in academia that are holding back real progress in the literary world. It is journals like Columbia University’s journal that actively contribute to hideous racism, misogyny and classism when you dismiss a genuine question from a brown woman with something as mindless as a racist gif from Mean Girls. You actively contribute to oppression when you grant roles of authority and persuasion to cis white men. You actively contribute to oppression when you demand high fees from student writers just so you can offset costs. While your social media editor stated that she deleted the post because she doesn’t want to be seen as a representative of Columbia University, as a white woman privileged with a position of authority at your influential Ivy League school, she absolutely is one. Her private messages to me indicate that she has never had to consider that my anger and confusion could be valid. She represents the ignorance that seems to thrive at Columbia University.
In your mission statement, you claim that you're interested in "pieces on the cusp of change, that are changing, that aim to change us," and "work that is broadening the horizons of art, straining against the limits, and ultimately unveiling human experience in new and profound ways," and yet you’ve decided that the same people who have held the keys to the literary world for hundreds of years will be able to find these pieces of work. As I said in my initial response, I have nothing against the three guest judges - I'm sure they're all brilliant in their own right. However, as a brown woman, I am sick of white men considering the worth of my work. I am not writing for them. Their perspective, which has so heavily influenced the literary world, is no longer one that is needed. What is needed are the voices of women, of dis/abled people, of queer people, of people of color. What is needed is that which has been silenced for so long. Instead of being complacent in white supremacy, and the systemically oppressive structures that are so rigidly embedded into the backbone of academia-based literature, you need to put your money where your mouth is and actively seek the change that you claim to want so badly.
As I said in my response to your editor, I call bullshit. I’d like a response, as soon as possible, on what you will do to ensure proper representation of women, people of color, and other marginalized people on your editorial panels, as well as how you will approach a solution to your oppressive entry fees.
Edit: An earlier version of this letter misgendered Joshua Jackson, the Brown student who called out NYU. Joshua uses "they" pronouns. We apologize deeply for this mistake.