Books-Winfrey-A Novel On Trial

In this Feb. 13, 2020, photo released by Apple, Oprah Winfrey, right, hosts a taping of Oprah's Book Club with Jeanine Cummins, author of "American Dirt," second right, and panelists, from left, Esther Cepeda, Julissa Arce and Reyna Grande in Tuscon, Ariz. (Karen Ballard/Apple via AP)

CHICAGO — There’s a term — “white women’s tears” — that is defined as tears shed, in cross-racial settings, when situations make women frustrated, angry or sad about how hard racism is on white people.

Yes, you read that right.

This is how the phenomenon is explained by white author Robin DiAngelo, the social-justice professor at Washington University and author of “White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism”: “Expressing our heartfelt emotions — especially as they relate to racial injustices — is an important progressive value. To repress our feelings seems counterintuitive to being present, compassionate and supportive ... (but) our emotions are shaped by our biases and beliefs, our cultural frameworks. If I believe that only bad people are racist, I will feel hurt, offended and shamed when an unaware racist assumption of mine is pointed out.”

DiAngelo adds that white women’s tears in racial interactions always happen in the context of an American history in which countless men of color have been incarcerated, tortured or murdered just based on the perception of white women’s distress.

Moreover, when a white woman’s tears occur — again, in reaction to a racial injustice or to being told directly that something they have done is an example of behavior that reinforces racist ideas or beliefs — it is the white woman who then takes center stage and becomes the victim, getting redress or comfort, and pushing the actual person of color hurt by racism to the side.

All of this was running through my head as I was onstage recently with Jeanine Cummins, the author of the controversial novel “American Dirt.” Cummins was seated next to Oprah Winfrey in front of a crowd of seemingly handpicked, well-coiffed women who had gathered to tape a double episode of the new Apple TV Plus show, “Oprah’s Book Club.”

“Don’t cry, don’t cry, don’t you cry your white lady tears” was running through my head as Winfrey started to grill Cummins about what she had done to prepare to write the book, why she had included an afterword in which she wished “someone browner than me” had written the Mexican migration drama, why she had been quoted as identifying as white but then started invoking her Puerto Rican grandmother, and why she had responded to criticism about her experience with immigrants by saying her husband was undocumented — but not mentioning that he’s Irish.

In the green room before the taping, Winfrey introduced Cummins to me and my fellow guests: Reyna Grande, author of “Across a Hundred Mountains,” a novel based on her life in Mexico and later as an undocumented immigrant in the United States; and Julissa Arce, author of “My (Underground) American Dream: My True Story as an Undocumented Immigrant Who Became a Wall Street Executive.”

Despite how Cummins looked on-camera, when she stood in a small room with four powerful women of color, she was tiny. Shrunken, with eyes as wide and scared as a deer in headlights, she swallowed hard and shook each of our hands. I thought she might cry right then.

I’m very thankful that she didn’t, because Cummins’ lack of white women’s tears — and the contempt they inspire in the people who are sidelined by them even when they’re the ones who have been wronged by racism — allowed me to see that Cummins was herself a victim of a majority-white publishing system who has such a blind spot for Latinos that it never imagined its choices would ignite such furor.

It’s a clueless majority-white publishing world that elevated an “immigrant story” from a writer who describes herself as previously unknown because it sounded close enough to real life, based on what most people know (barely anything aside the horrific news headlines) about the border.

Cummins, a woman to whom it apparently did not occur that barbed-wire, border-themed table centerpieces at a book launch party would be offensive — and the white publishers and editors who thought such displays would be a good idea to begin with — are all part of an “educated class” of Americans who don’t have empathy for actual Latinx people because they don’t seem to really know any.

Spoiler alert for anyone who is still planning to watch episodes 3 and 4 of Oprah’s Book Club on Apple TV Plus: At least Cummins and the representatives of the publishing house that released “American Dirt” had the good sense to accept criticism from three Latinas with grace. And no white tears.

© 2020 Washington Post Writers Group

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