Thanks for this essay! I agree with parts of it.
I agree with your take on publishing and the reason Cummins gets attention, but I admit that I do not believe she is completely innocent in this regard.
Because white people collectively have more power than others, what confers to them is often on the basis of extrinsic privileging. Most people prefer to believe that what they have has been earned (through intrinsic means — talent, work, etc), so humans have a strong tendency to credit themselves even when credit isn’t due. This is more likely to happen to privileged people because they are more likely to be granted unearned gifts on the basis of a society’s extrinsic system of rewards/punishments.
White people are the recipients of these benefits in a white supremacist world. Because they receive more unearned benefit on this basis — and Cummins is only one example — they have a responsibility to overcome their strong tendency to credit themselves where credit isn’t due. This situation — one in which white people automatically assume merit, regardless — is the seed of our problems. It maintains a belief in merit that is less likely to exist for white people simply by definition of privilege. This privilege often takes opportunity from others. People may claim that anyone can write a book, but in reality if a distorted and superficial version is promoted, it will be authentic one which seems less appealing. I believe this is how Gurba and others feel: as if their opportunity has been taken. I agree.
So, whether or not Cummins wrote a book that most people would want to read — whether or not she had genuine pain — is only part of the equation. As a white woman, her existence at a social level — regardless of her personal pain — dictates a higher likelihood of unearned benefit. What we witness — massive advances, etc — are part of the disease of white supremacy: publishing companies are significantly skewed in the direction of white women. White women appropriate on a routine basis, using white privilege to guarantee their success and then crediting themselves with it. See: Nell Zink’s Mislaid (published after she begged Jonathan Franzen to launch her nearly nonexistent career) or Lionel Shriver’s more racist The Mandibles.
The responsibility of white people is to acknowledge this profound unearned benefit at a social level — an objective fact — even when they personally feel anguish or pain, or that their work ‘earned’ the massive prize. The fact of institutionalized white supremacy should have led her (and Oprah, and other fans) to consider the favoritism that will automatically confer to her on an extrinsic basis even if she and other white women want to believe that this is some sort of intrinsic success. The true intrinsic success will virtually always come from the person embedded in the reality, not someone trying to guess or even sympathize.
As for Gurba’s mean-spiritedness, I believe that this is how self-respecting people react when they’ve tried every other option and have noted that the people who oppress them are primarily focused on deceiving themselves so that they don’t have to perceive themselves accurately. After trying and trying and trying — really, for centuries now — to get white people to admit their profound privilege = NOT merit and getting no reaction whatsoever, at some point it becomes understandable that oppressed people will push back in any way possible.
Thanks for a provocative article!