‘Folie au Blanc:’ The Shared Psychosis Between White Writers and White Critics
The ignorant and frankly onerous attitudes of some white critics has risen to the surface in the wake of the backlash represented by the Trump administration, and it expresses itself in both the conservative and ‘liberal’ arena. White critics of literature embrace white writers who appropriate other cultures in their writing — and often do so in highly superficial ways which fail, often miserably, in conveying the authentic experiences of people of color. Though it is possible to write from another person’s (inclusive of identity) point of view, it is extremely difficult, a difficulty which is magnified when the social differences include the negotiation of power. As a society, we rely on critics to sift quality and authenticity from the wide range of subpar writing and bogus attempts at ‘ethnic’ writing, and if the critics are as ignorant about privilege as the writers, they will not be able to recognize authenticity.
The fact of the matter is that most white people have no clue what racism feels like and are often writing from a superficial standpoint which they perceive as authentic. White writers who co-opt the stories of people of color and proceed to do a bad job (this is the case most of the time) are not recognized as mediocre by white critics because they are all looking through the same lens of white privilege. This shared psychosis can be summarized by the psychiatric phenomenon called ‘folie au deux.’
Folie au Deux = Folie au Blanc (White) in the Publishing World
In an article published on the National Institutes of Health website, ‘folie au deux’ is defined this way:
Shared psychotic disorder (Folie a deux) is an unusual mental disorder characterized by sharing a delusion among two or more people who are in a close relationship. The (inducer, primary) who has a psychotic disorder with delusions influences another individual or more (induced, secondary) with a specific belief. It commonly presents among two individuals, but in rare cases can include larger groups, i.e., family and called folie a famille.
The relationship between white critics and white writers is a ‘folie au deux’ at a collective white level; that is, a ‘folie au blanc,’ or white. Ultimately, when white critics refuse to see that promoting superficial books as substitutes for the real experiences of people of color comprises participation in white supremacy, they foster its continued expression. Because white women dominate in the publishing field, white critics often gush about white women and their writing from a perspective which is as naïve about racism as the white writer herself. This ‘blind-leading-the-blind’ shared psychosis fosters a vicious cycle of continued promotion of this superficiality which continues to marginalize people of color AND the genuine contributions to actual, embedded experiences of racism which POC’s attempt to convey.
Two Examples: Cummins and Zink
Jeanine Cummins and Nell Zink are two such examples. I offer an example from my niece’s (a close family friend’s child) experiences in writing classes: as a mixed-race woman of color (Asian/Middle Eastern/British), she wrote a story from a WOC’s point of view. This story was presented to two classes in which there were an aggregate: two white female professors; eleven white women; two white men. In one section, she wrote that her character’s (white) friend was wrapped in a package that was an automatic advantage. Almost all of these people pointed this part out and asked what it meant; some ignored it completely, and when the question was asked, nobody else knew the answer. I took this piece of writing and presented it to my WOC group of five, and all five knew what it meant upon reading it. ALL FIVE, including me. Being wrapped in a package of automated advantage = having white skin.
The above is an anecdotal example which illustrates the reasons these settings must be diverse: POC’s will not be heard if our experiences seem foreign AND if those classes remain as homogeneous as they are now. My niece, in her twenties, is afraid of bringing this up formally due to backlash by a majority white-female student body and staff which has already displayed defensiveness, but the reality is that these facts must be exposed. One time, she implied that there may be a problem, and one of the women in her class became immediately defensive and launched into a loud discussion about the centuries during which white women have been oppressed and the fact that white women have done the most (??) work with regard to feminism. I note that this angry defensiveness is a form of bullying, a term Dr. Koritha Mitchell calls ‘know-your-place aggression.’ (https://muse.jhu.edu/article/715439) Indeed, my niece felt bullied: she shrunk backwards and no longer brings up the topic. The result? Her views are often inaccurately perceived and, as a result, she is marginalized.
It is not impossible to write from another’s point of view, but it is extremely difficult to do it well. Another way of saying this is to say that it is often done poorly. In these cases, the likely motivation is opportunism. In other words, why does this white person think s/he/they can write about an experience she doesn’t have better than the person who actually has that experience? The profound arrogance in taking this on is apparent, so the next question becomes: why? Why not just write about one’s own experiences? To many POC’s, this is pure opportunism=taking resources that belong to POC’s. Cummins got a hefty seven figures that most people of color will never have the opportunity to obtain, and Zink brags about her advances and trips to ‘Karen’-like stores such as Lululemon. As an anecdotal observation, both of these facts have provoked anger in our group as we watch the flippant way that these women brag about their benefit without ever acknowledging the significant role of their privileging in ‘earning’ both publication and money.
In particular, when a person in a social position of power (white people) attempt to address racism, they come from a place of ignorance. No amount of sincerity can compensate for being positioned socially as an oppressor and simultaneously trying to capture the experience of being oppressed. Because white critics are as clueless, generally speaking, about racism as most white people, the superficial writing of other white people seems to have depth and value. They are all skimming the surface of our social reality because they are all racially privileged. Continuing to allow this is active support of white supremacy.
- Nell Zink: Ms. Zink published a book called Mislaid in 2014. In this book, white people take on the identity of black people; the result is a superficial treatment of African-American suffering. Zink, apparently faced with the dilemma of a decades-long failed writing career, realized that she and the famous white male Pulitzer-prize winning writer Franzen shared in common a love for birds. She reached out to him and begged him to promote her books, which just weren’t selling on their own merit. Then, when he did — launching her career through cronyism — she claimed that it must be her writing.
Not surprisingly, most white critics gushed over this book, which was already associated with Franzen due to Zink’s efforts at accessing his white male advantage (ie, white supremacy). A number of POC’s including me, a nonblack WOC, find Mislaid offensive and poorly written. I will not go into detail re: the individual reviews, but any evaluation of these indicates that many white critics missed the vulgarity involved in Zink’s flippant treatment of the topic and the fact that she brags about writing it in only a few months (presumably meant to convey her natural prowess as a writer). As if it isn’t ugly enough that she has co-opted this point of view, she actually brags about how little time she spent thinking about and writing it.
White Women and Damsel-in-Distressism: Ms. Zink, whose career was otherwise dragging, begged a rich, successful white male to help her. He admits in interviews that she badgers him relentlessly, yet he continues to promote her. White critics, seeing the exalted Pulitzer winner (the Pulitzer Board: what’s going on here?!) Franzen support Zink, does nothing other than immediately parrot his views (no pun intended). Note that, in keeping with white supremacy, there is almost always a white male hero saving the white female damsel in distress (from her subpar-mediocrity). FOLIE AU BLANC, epitomized.
2. Jeanine Cummins: Cummins recently published a book called American Dirt. This book was extremely well-received by mostly white critics — including her own special DinD savior, Stephen King — and immediately criticized by many ACTUAL Mexicans with an authentic history of racism and ethnocentrism. This racism or ethnocentrism, generally speaking, plays against a backdrop of white supremacy and centuries of privileging.
Parul Sehgal, one non-white critic, hit the nail on the head when she wrote: “The deep roots of these forced migrations are never interrogated; the American reader can read without fear of uncomfortable self-reproach… I found myself flinching as I read, not from the perils the characters face, but from the mauling the English language receives…What thin creations these characters are — and how distorted they are by the stilted prose and characterizations.” https://www.nytimes.com/2020/01/17/books/review-american-dirt-jeanine-cummins.html
Lauren Groff, a famous white female writer, is a perfect example of privileged white female ignorance as elaborated in the publishing world. Initially, she tweeted “American Dirt is one of the most wrenching books I have read in a few years, with the ferocity and political reach of the best of Theodore Dreiser’s novels.” Then, when she caught wind of the controversy — and realized that her stance may result in the fact that she will not be perceived as the ‘nice white woman’ — she reacts through her Twitter feed. “I give up,” she tweeted. “I wrestled like a beast with this review, the morals of my taking it on, my complicity in the white gaze.” She removed her original statement from her Twitter feed, essentially shirking any responsibility for the expressed reality of her ignorance.
Note the sense of victimization she conveys — -‘I give up’ and ‘I wrestled like a beast’ are statements that assume she is the one working hard — and then mentions ‘my complicity in the white gaze.’ https://newrepublic.com/article/156282/not-write-book-review She admits that the review should have gone to somebody else, yet insists on erasing evidence of her ignorance AND writing yet another review which she dunks in chlorine in order to clean it adequately of any racism which, she now realizes, she may not even be aware of harboring. In all of her musings, she fails to admit that the real victims are women of color who aren’t getting a chance to tell their genuine stories because women like Groff are the ones with the power; instead, she is the victim. This is typical white female centering, and our tolerance for it is thinning significantly with each privileged display.
Groff epitomizes ‘folie au blanc,’ and the ignorance that, coupled with opportunism, continues to support white success, publication, acquisition of money, and white supremacy. She proves herself too ignorant as a white person, admits it, but insists that her own words be erased because they make her look bad in public. Then, as if all this isn’t bad enough, she garners even more publicity by playing the damsel in distress — she wrestled ‘like a beast.’ The women of color with whom I discuss these items are shocked at these constant attempts at centering herself while, once again, people of color are overlooked. But we shouldn’t be surprised: this is the typical behavior of the studied ‘ignorance’ of maintaining white supremacy.
Folie Au Blanc Supports White Supremacy
White ‘critics’ reviewing books written by white people attempting cultural appropriation cannot, generally speaking, work in any sort of comprehensive fashion. Though there may be a few white people willing to be honest about their lack of experience with racism, very few are willing to admit that they benefit from their whiteness in pragmatic fashion; for example, willing to say that ‘their’ advance belongs to somebody else. Though there are a few people who can write well from a point of view very different from their own, it isn’t common.
Thus, there is a subconscious reason to continue to center themselves, to continue to promote other white people; specifically, white women. Clearly, like Groff, these women don’t admit that there is a problem until they must, and even then do not want to take full responsibility. Ultimately, Groff insists that her ignorance be erased from Twitter and promptly centers herself.
In order to disseminate authentic stories by POC’s, there must be a large enough cache of POC critics to do this accurately. Most white critics are just as ignorant about the experience of racism as are white writers, and white women just as ignorant as white men about their profound racial privilege; indeed, they often play the victim in ways which white men do not. Regardless of the skill these critics have at writing, they are socially privileged, and this privilege allows limited access — if any — to the real experiences of racial oppression.
Socially privileged people are virtually always, at some level — whether it be conscious or not — defending their right to maintain their power. This power is maintained through ignorance, elevation of the ‘embattled’ and ‘victimized’ white woman (immediately evident in Groff’s words), white men ‘helping’ their white female damsels in distress in typical historical white supremacy fashion, and a decidedly superficial approach to the genuine suffering of peoples of colors.
If we are to have genuine, quality writing, we must have genuine, quality people with the embedded experiences of racism and ethnocentrism at the level of the writing critic, the publisher, the general public, AND THE WRITER. The general public will never know what is authentic if we continue to spoon-feed superficial experiences as conveyed by opportunistic white people looking for a seven-figure advance (whether they meant it this way or not.) Impact is more important than intent.
Generally speaking, white critics embody the same white ignorance that privileges white people by elevating the same white ignorance and mediocre writing. In order to address this, people of color must be better represented at all levels of this field, from undergraduate programs to publishing companies to critics.
Most importantly, it is critical that, as a society, we start publishing and promoting authentic value so that the superficial soap operas promoted by people like Zink and Cummins are not mistakenly perceived as real experiences or real quality when they are neither. This elimination of constant privileging might allow actual authenticity an actual opportunity and allow for actual forward movement.