White Women and Literary Appropriation 3: Cummins and Opportunism
In this series of essays about white women dominating the publishing industry, Jeanine Cummins is the third of the Nell Zink-Lionel Shriver trifecta. In summary, the publishing industry is grossly dominated by white women at both managerial and executive levels, which may explain the disproportionate number of books published by white women. White women prove to be just as enthusiastic participators in white supremacy as their equivalent white male cronies, capitalizing on opportunism and negotiating their participation through active self-deception known, in coddling fashion, as white ‘ignorance.’
The context in which white women appropriate the cultural experiences of people of color (POC), offer superficial and inauthentic stories and then capitalize by ‘earning’ the most money and fame result in the further marginalization of POC’s. As a result, opportunities in the publishing world — both at the corporate world and in publication — are significantly attenuated or altogether eliminated for POC’s with authentic stories to tell. As a result of publishing white women stories as substitutes for the actual experiences of POC, white women are more likely to win awards and further privileging/money, thus creating this toxic vicious cycle of opportunism. While Shriver admits to her conservative/libertarian leanings and Zink overtly reports her own enthusiastic participation in cronyism (seemingly without admitting it to herself), Cummins requires actual schooling in the form of bluntly-stated facts before she acknowledges her privilege.
As a non-Latinx mixed POC, I will not comment in great detail on the writing itself; this has been covered expertly by both Myriam Gurba and David Bowles, and I strongly recommend both essays.
Pendeja, You Ain't Steinbeck: My Bronca with Fake-Ass Social Justice Literature
When I tell gringos that my Mexican grandfather worked as a publicist, the news silences them. Shocked facial…
This essay is about the core motive for cultural appropriation: the opportunism which these white females (eventually) express. It is about attaining money and fame even when depiction of their actual experiences could never do so. In the final analysis, the behaviors which characterize majority dominance are no different for white women than they were for the white men these same women criticized just decades ago, and to the present. White women in publishing participate in cronyism such that quality is always in question; if one is constantly privileged, how can a genuine assessment of quality be made? This consideration, often obvious to people of color (POC) who are creating value which is subject to disregard due to the ongoing persistence of white supremacy, is dismissed by white people with the same sort of studied ‘ignorance’ which characterizes any other industry. In contrast to most large corporations, publishing is dominated by white women. Given that we operate in a white supremacist society, replacing WHITE men with WHITE women might not seem a real solution. As reality informs us, it isn’t. White supremacy isn’t just patriarchal: it’s white. White women are recipients of unjust enrichment, in particular in the world of publishing.
When Cummins published American Dirt after receiving a seven-figure advance, her book was received by many in the Latinx community as false, superficial, and a cogent example of white cultural appropriation. Perhaps the most overtly negative review came from Myriam Gurba, a Mexican-American author who wrote an article indicating the different ways in which Cummins’ book is both inauthentic and superficial, and whose article was accepted by Ms. Magazine conditional upon catering to a white woman’s fragility: “[The editor] wrote that though my takedown of Dirt was ‘spectacular,’ I lacked the fame to pen something so ‘negative.’ She offered to reconsider… if I wrote ‘something redeeming.’” (https://lbpost.com/hi-lo/american-dirt-backlash-is-about-revolutionizing-the-publishing-industry-says-myriam-gurba) This request to coddle a white woman — by avoiding the truth — though pointedly ugly is, however, only part of the story.
Gurba points to the obvious fact that Cummins — regardless of research she may have done — simply does not have the experience of being non-white by her own admission. Yet, she “believes she’s important, and expert, enough to represent ‘faceless’ brown people,” expressing the fundamental nature of white supremacy: that white people feel they can speak for others. (https://lbpost.com/hi-lo/american-dirt-backlash-is-about-revolutionizing-the-publishing-industry-says-myriam-gurba) This sentiment echoes Kipling’s profound white supremacist condescension, as if POC”s are ‘half-burden and half-child.’ https://www.enotes.com/homework-help/who-kipling-referring-first-stanza-white-mans-648145 White people make the assumption that POC’s can’t possibly tell our own story, despite the fact that, unlike them, we’ve actually lived it. White women should avail themselves of the fact that this stance isn’t any less racist for them than it is when white men do it.
Gurba hits the nail on the head when she points to the core reason for this behavior: the fundamental opportunism involved which reflects, at an individual level, the collective behaviors of most white people. Gurba points out that Cummins reported “‘I don’t want to write about race,’” in a 2015 New York Times op-ed. “What I mean is, I really don’t want to write about race…I am white… I’ll never know the impotent rage of being profiled or encounter institutionalized hurdles to success because of my skin or hair or name.” (https://www.nytimes.com/2016/01/03/opinion/sunday/murder-isnt-black-or-white.html)
As Gurba points out, “ a careful look at chronology reveals how she operates: opportunistically, selfishly, and parasitically. Cummins identified the gringo appetite for Mexican pain and found a way to exploit it.” Gurba, Pendeja, You Ain’t Steinbeck: My Bronca with Fake-Ass Social Justice Literature
Why, then, did she opt to participate in this cultural appropriation after admitting she isn’t qualified? As Gurba points out, “ a careful look at chronology reveals how she operates: opportunistically, selfishly, and parasitically. Cummins identified the gringo appetite for Mexican pain and found a way to exploit it.” Note how similar this is to Nell Zink’s behavior: she noticed a market — a way to make herself money and fame — and proceeded to write a superficial book about race as ‘agent bait’ which she brags about only spending several months to write (at least Cummins avoids expressing this degree of impunity with regard to her white privilege, asserting that she spent years doing research.) At its core, cultural appropriation is not only about white people and their patronizing condescension towards all POC’s, it is also about opportunism: about making money by capitalizing on the pain and anguish of others.
Like Zink, Cummins has her own white male ‘knight in shining armor’ in Stephen King, who like any constructed white male must always preserve the fame and integrity of the white woman. King, who has produced his own color-blind racist gaffes (https://www.theguardian.com/books/2020/jan/14/stephen-king-oscars-diversity-criticism), does for Cummins what Franzen did for Zink: launch, elevate, and otherwise guarantee career success regardless of the absence or presence of authenticity or quality, because they’re white. Like any properly constructed white male, he must remind himself that, yes, both genders belong on top. As long as they’re white. White men can’t stand to see mediocre white woman fade into obscurity because it reminds them that white supremacy may not work forever. Meanwhile, writers of color are figuratively tossed into the third-world pile of inferiority even though, unlike white women, we have the GENUINE experience.
The positive reviews Cummins received are “especially harmful because authentic stories by Mexicanas and Chicanas are either passed over or published to significantly less fanfare (and for much less money).”
“What’s wrong is erasing authentic voices to sell an inaccurate cultural appropriation for millions.”
Bowles, Cummins’ Non-Mexican Crap
Despite the fact that many Latinx writers have commented negatively upon the book, Cummins made the money and the fame, and this parasitical opportunism should not be allowed to fade while the also-important issue of cultural appropriation is being discussed. Bowles, theMexican American writer whose story’s link is provided above, also targets the bottom line in his essay when he states that the positive reviews Cummins received are “especially harmful because authentic stories by Mexicanas and Chicanas are either passed over or published to significantly less fanfare (and for much less money)” and ““What’s wrong is erasing authentic voices to sell an inaccurate cultural appropriation for millions.” He explores the intrinsic superficiality as well, making statements similar to those of Gurba; for example, he summarizes Cummins’ book as “harmful, appropriating, inaccurate, trauma-porn melodrama”. But this core aspect — the opportunism — is also underlined. (https://medium.com/@davidbowles/non-mexican-crap-ff3b48a873b5)
The opportunism with which these white women participate reflects white supremacy in its most basic form: resource distribution rightfully belonging to POC’s shifted to the laps, shelves, pockets, and bank accounts of white people. https://medium.com/@davidbowles/non-mexican-crap-ff3b48a873b5
Cummins herself states she “wished someone slightly browner than me would write it”. (https://www.washingtonpost.com/nation/2020/01/22/american-dirt-cummins/) This grossly condescending statement reveals her profound white privilege in the assumption that brown and black people aren’t writing. The problem is not that POC’s aren’t writing, it is that when superficial and inaccurate books which compromise authenticity are published by white women chiefly because they are white, POC’s who are writing genuine stories do not get opportunity. There are plenty of books being written by people of color of all kinds, but as long as the publishing industry remains white AND white people continue to actively foster denial so as not to admit their opportunism, POC’s do not get a chance. The core problem is that white people continue to take from POC’s, not that POC’s aren’t producing value.
Cummins finally hits the nail on the head — while simultaneously contradicting herself — when she states “I was never going to turn down money that someone offered me for something that took me seven years to write,” she said. “I acknowledge that there is tremendous inequity in the industry, about who gets attention for writing what books.” (https://www.theguardian.com/books/2020/jan/24/publishers-defend-american-dirt-claims-cultural-appropriation-jeanine-cummins-oprah) Her words convey the toxic behaviors of the typical white liberal: she is NOT responsible for racism, so why shouldn’t she grab the money? Cummins refuses to acknowledge that when she appropriates the stories of others, wraps it in white women’s idea of trauma (and what will sell), and then capitalizes on the ACTUAL anguish of a nonwhite peoples, she participates in white supremacy. Any anti-racist action would require that she acknowledge her behavior, when exhibited in a white supremacist context, would necessarily lead to her fame because she is white. Cummins behavior replicates collective white supremacy at a personal level: she simply steals from POC’s and then claims she ‘earned’ it ‘meritoriously’ while distracting from the fact that this comprises stealing opportunity + stealing money and fame from POC’s.
Cummins, like Zink, in typical white female liberal fashion, is primarily focused on everybody else’s racism while instituting vigorous denial — AKA, white ‘ignorance’ — and color-blindness with regard to their own opportunism. Participating in white supremacy by allowing mediocrity and a lack of authenticity dictate one’s ‘success’ is a form of racism.
Cummins, like Zink and Shriver, are white women opportunists who have gained money and fame through participation in white supremacy. ‘Whiteness’ was invented with the expressed purpose of domination, to subordinate others in order to steal resources, ie, fame, awards (ego food) and money (actual food). Writing cheap and superficial novels about POC’s from the highly privileged stance of whiteness and then allowing oneself to capitalize on it — the behaviors of this trifecta — is the very definition of white supremacy.
If white women are truly interested in bringing the difficult stories of POC’s to light, one approach may be to take a position at a publishing company and promoting POCs/WOC’s. Of course, this authentic approach would mean that Zink and Cummins put aside their own plans to be rich and win awards in favor of letting POC’s have opportunity. As Cummins states, she knows there is inequity. But too bad for POC. She’ll be taking the money anyway.
Like most white women, she’d rather just participate in white supremacy.