The Unbearable Whiteness of Literary Fragility

Rick Ayers
Feb 5 · 5 min read

I’ve been collecting the delicious and irreverent explosion of commentary over the literary dust-up of the season that accompanied the release of Jeanine Cummins’ much-ballyhooed novel, American Dirt. This author got a seven-figure advance for her contribution to the growing body of border books — essays, novels, poetry, etc. Cummins assured us that she wanted to “humanize” the story, put a face on the immigrant. In a clueless and patronizing gesture, she assumed that for most people the refugees have no face. She promised a story that would not be “political” — is that even possible in a cookie recipe? Certainly it is impossible in a border book.

Just about everything is wrong with American Dirt, the stereotyping of the “other,” the softening of the oppression, the piling on of clichés. Anyway, you can find the push back everywhere, for instance here, and here. But the real grenade tossed into the tea parlor was the flaming commentary by Myriam Gurba, which for me represents an outstanding example of sharp criticism, more than sharp, eviscerating.

So much great work has been done on this that I have little to add on Cummins or Oprah or MacMillan publishers. What I do want to note is the performance of extreme White Fragility, to use a term explored deeply by Robin D’Angelo. Literary White Fragility comes into play when white people (critics, authors, readers) stupidly or just automatically misread the words that are before their very faces. You know, these literati are supposed to be smart, like they went to Vassar or Swarthmore or Reed and they read thousands of books.

But their lying eyes just can’t understand words on the page when they challenge the white position of dominance. I’ve seen this on social media and in articles. Just to give you a little taste of it, let me quote an opinion piece by Kathleen Parker of the Washington Post. Parker, whose recent book claims that the #metoo movement has been too hard on men, entitles her piece, “American Dirt critics are censoring the author based on her genetic background.” I’m like, are there no editors at the WaPo? WTF? Censorship and genetic gatekeeper: both just wrong claims.

Note. First, no one is censoring. Here is a delightful response to that stupid line of argument by Sympathizer author Viet Nguyen:

Minorities face an always present but invisible censorship that silences them every day — by refusing to publish them, for example. This normative (invisible) censoring matches a normative (invisible) whiteness. But when a minority protests, the majority accuses THEM of censorship.

And when a minority protests against the stereotypes pasted on them in majority artworks — like MISS SAIGON or AMERICAN DIRT — they are again accused of “censorship,” even if these stereotypes, repeated over and over again WITH PLEASURE by the majority, is already pernicious & damaging censorship.

This is why it doesn’t matter how reasonably minorities protest artistic work by the majority that ranges from stereotypical to outright racist. It doesn’t matter how nuanced our criticism is. There will always be people who will cry CENSORSHIP and call for ARTISTIC FREEDOM, which is valuable and which we also need, but which can also be a front for the majority to say and do whatever it pleases without fear of criticism. There can’t be “artistic freedom” without freedom of criticism as well.

And if majority artists or their producers feel silenced, they should think about how all of this is happening quite civilly through words. They haven’t had to deal with suppression that has ranged from outright colonization and violence to structural inequality that keeps minorities shut out of the industries of power. That’s real silencing.

Parker is sad that Cummins willingness to explore the scary underbelly of, you know, Brown people was not celebrated as noble. Instead, she claims, Cummins “became the target of violent threats,” and this “reminds us yet again that freedom is fragile and that democratic ideals of tolerance and fairness dangle by a thread.” OK, a few things to remember when you are criticizing whiteness: Sharp criticism will quickly be called violent; and such criticism threatens our fragile freedoms. Not Trump. Not children in cages. Just . . . . criticism.

The stupidity goes on. People of color are a “special-interest group,” also “sensitivity monitors” and “doing their best to eliminate humor.” Oops, when did humor come in? Who knows? But a gratuitous swipe certainly can be added here, right?

But let’s look at the second part of Parker’s complaint, that the PC police are doing genetic tests to see if an author is worthy of representing someone from another race, gender, ethnicity. I saw this in articles everywhere, the uninteresting quandary of whether authors of imaginative fiction can cross borders. The answer is simple and the debate should end right here: yes, yes they can.

Can we make the challenge that publishers and reviewers have to stop ignoring the incredible writing and art that comes from the people themselves, from those who live under colonial rule, who negotiate the border, without being charged with policing the race of authors? Yes, the publishing industry is a notoriously white echo-chamber and that must be said. So what is the challenge being directed at Cummins? The problem is not that white authors can’t create characters of color. The problem is that you can’t create these characters badly. You can’t just drop stereotypes and inanities, you can’t limit your range to angelic suffering martyrs or devious cackling devils.

I know white authors who have done a wonderful job of crossing borders but this is because they have paid their dues, they actually know something of what they are talking about. I would take Adam Mansbach as an example, an amazing white chronicler of hip hop, tagging, and the ways peoples come together and split apart. Sometimes an author who seems to otherwise get it right stumbles and loses the reader. For instance, I was taken aback by Michael Chabon in Telegraph Avenue when he suddenly had some Black characters in Oakland stop by a “Panther safe house” to pick up a shotgun to commit a murder. Um, there was not a Panther safe house; certainly not one that handed out shotguns. Please.

I could go on and on. There is nothing wrong with re-assessing works based on new perspectives. How about Allen Ginsberg’s famous lines:

I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked,

dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix . . .

How does he know the Black community — as a backdrop, a site of exotic non-conformity for a group of white college students?

But without veering into endless speculation, let me come back to the one and only point I wanted to make in this blog. It is the discovery of how white readers and writers, who should know better, allow their defensiveness and fragility to lead them to totally misread what is on the page. It’s the old hysterical response to a woman who says, “You kept cutting me off in the meeting,” by shouting, “She’s trying to castrate me.” Or the response to a critique of racial micro-aggressions with the charge, “You are so aggressive and hostile.”

It’s a ploy of resisting criticism by casting oneself as a victim. It is gaslighting. And if you found yourself engaging in it, even if you did it in the most mild way (“I wonder if white authors just aren’t allowed any more to create characters of color”) you have to be able to say: “I was wrong, that was racist, I took that discussion to an absurd place in my defensiveness.” To my fellow white people, I say, fess up, look at yourself, you’ll be better for it.

Rick Ayers

Written by

More From Medium

More from Rick Ayers

Also tagged American Dirt

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade