Miss Blacklisted SMFA
Written with support from anonymous students
Art by Zed van der Linden
It was the afternoon of October 18, 2022, five months after I had graduated from the Masters of Fine Arts program at the School at the Museum of Fine Arts. It was my day off from work, so I wasn’t expecting anyone to come to my house, yet someone knocked at my apartment door. I opened it to find two Tufts University Police Department officers wearing regular black suits. They served me a “No Trespass Order.” It states that I am “forbidden to enter any property owned by or under the control of Tufts University”—otherwise I will be arrested. They did not give me any explanation, and when I asked for one, they told me to contact the police chief myself. Right after TUPD left, I closed the door and broke down. I felt severely threatened because the TUPD officers knew where I lived and could come to my home unannounced. I never contacted the police chief to ask why, because I know the university has always seen me as a threat. Since the day I arrived in Boston, I have been navigating my sense of security while coping with the power that Tufts/SMFA had over my life.
As an SMFA graduate student, I came in excited to learn about and make art. I was not expecting to deal with so much discrimination. By week one of fall 2020, my first year, I was already hearing racist and transphobic remarks from a group of white students at the SMFA. After I arrived, their attention shifted to me. When my white housemate brought someone from this group to our shared home, I expressed that I felt unsafe with that individual in our home and would appreciate having boundaries implemented in order for everyone to feel safe, such as being informed when the individual would come over or not inviting them back. This seemingly fair request from me unfortunately created tension with the housemate that then spiraled into aggressive accusations. I felt the school ended up siding with them without having any proof. For my safety, I ultimately decided to use my financial aid to help me move out.
The same group of white students continued to terrorize trans students and students of color. When the students who faced discrimination made art about these experiences in their designated studio spaces, the former dean of SMFA asked them to stop. When we then advocated for changes to protect us, the administration told us to keep our heads down and graduate. Throughout my first year, I had countless meetings with the administration, but they led to very little to no change and distracted me from being a student.
Terracotta Clay Incident
In the fall semester of 2021, my second year, I wanted to refocus my energy on my upcoming MFA thesis. In a ceramics class, I decided I wanted to work with terracotta clay to reconnect with my ancestral roots in Mexico. My plan was to make a terracotta piñata for my brother as part of my thesis. Terracotta clay has been used widely across Indigenous cultures globally. A studio manager told me that I couldn’t use terracotta clay because it would contaminate the white clay. I kept fighting and reached out for support from other faculty who have wanted to use terracotta clay in their curriculum. This effort finally granted everyone access to the clay, but it came with a severe cost.
During class, I was asked to work in the back of the studio while other people using white clay had access to the rest of the space. The studio manager told us to “segregate” the red and white clay. They put up several posters that prohibited red clay from areas such as the sink reading, “!!!NO RED CLAY IN SINK!!!” Red is not just the color of the clay, but has also been historically used as a physiological racial classification by the colonizers to categorize Indigenous people in the Americas. The differential and exaggerated treatment of the red clay echoes the historical exclusion of people of color and their cultural identities in predominantly white institutions, further exacerbating feelings of alienation. There were Indigenous students who told me they felt unsafe being in the ceramics department because of these posters. I decided to email academic deans, the head of the department, faculty of color, my advisors, and some of the division of student diversity and inclusion centers to inform them about these posters and the harm they created. The posters were removed and students continued to use terracotta clay. However, it came at the price of my connection to the faculty. It felt to me that the faculty who had previously championed the effort of change ultimately put their positions of power over student needs and concerns. They stopped responding to me altogether and started treating me differently in class and around the school.
Facing Retaliations at the SMFA
The terracotta clay incident was just one of many harmful experiences I have had at the school. When I tried to speak up against these discriminatory experiences, instead of receiving the protection and care I needed, the school only made it worse for me with distrust and gaslighting. I started to face retaliation not just from students, but from the administration, faculty, and deans, too. I learned from other students that their advisors warned them to not work with me or else they wouldn’t get funding for their projects. Multiple faculty that I had worked closely with also started to ignore me. They would even avoid making eye contact with me when I saw them in the hallway. In class, one professor would not call on me even when I raised my hand. I had considered this person a mentor from the day I arrived on campus. It felt like I was being punished by the university for speaking up, even though all I did was to advocate for myself and my community’s needs. After that, I felt even more uncomfortable, paranoid, and unsafe in these spaces.
After I graduated in May, I was ready to move on and heal from my traumatic experiences at the SMFA. I did not expect the school to send TUPD officers to my own home and completely ban me from campus as if I were a threat. Tufts/SMFA was never held accountable for any of the wrongdoings they committed (of which I have only listed a few), but I was the one facing suspicion, retaliation, and eventually, exclusion.
Our Voices are Powerful
What I experienced at Tufts/SMFA was nothing new. I grew up with an understanding that enacting change came with a lot of heavy burdens, but the power of unification and students coming together is really important. At the end of the day, the school is supposed to give us an education without racism and transphobia. However, the reality is that the school failed to do that. I want people to know that our voices have so much power. Without our money and attendance, this school is nothing. I don’t need people to step up for me. I need people to step up for the Tufts community because I’m not the only one affected by institutional and cultural racism. We are all interconnected, and we have a shared responsibility to create an environment that is safe for all of us. The recently published results of the 2022 DEI campus climate survey findings show that a significant portion of Tufts students with marginalized backgrounds reported less than positive experiences. I’m part of that group, and so many others have been saying this for so long, but why does it take a survey for you to believe us? Why can’t you just trust your students when they say “I feel unsafe” without imposing retaliation?
I want to thank everyone who has either contributed to or signed the open letter to the university president and TUPD. It made me feel very validated, seen, and allied in this experience. I hear so many situations where racism is prevalent in students’ experience but, even when they speak up, they’re shoved under the rug by the university. A lot of people do not think that my experience with racism at the SMFA is valid because it sounds so “ridiculous” that it must be false. The racism is so “ridiculous” that people don’t believe it. We need to start shifting what we think racism and white supremacy look like and start listening to the truths of trans people and people of color.