American Dirt Shows Why White People Must Let Go of Our Power

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Screenshot from The Stream on Al Jazeera, January 30, 2020

I have not read American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins but I have watched Femi Oke’s excellent segment about it on the Stream, on Al Jazeera, featuring Myriam Gurba, Dr. Ignacio Sanchez-Prado, and Dr. David Bowles, who cofounded a hashtag, #dignidadliteraria , to demand white accountability. And I read Myriam Gurba’s review, “Pendeja, You Ain’t Steinbeck: My Bronca with Fake-Ass Social Justice Literature”, Tina Vasquez’s excellent article about it for the Boston Globe, “What we’re missing in the controversy around ‘American Dirt’.” and David J. Schmidt’s article, “‘American Dirt’ Isn’t Just Bad — Its Best Parts Are Cribbed From Latino Writers.”

So much to unpack here. I don’t think it is impossible for white artists to make art about people whose experience is different from our own, but we have to do our work of learning how to relate across difference as equals first.

Remember when Sofia Coppola dropped the Black woman character from “the Beguiled” because “I didn’t want to have a stereotypical character that wouldn’t have been respectful to that history… And to not brush over it would have taken another film altogether.”

This is a form of laziness endemic to white people. We don’t want to humble ourselves. We don’t want to invest our time understanding other people’s experiences. We don’t want to engage with- and pay, and give credit to- people who challenge our viewpoint and make us question ourselves and face the parts of us we seek to avoid. We only want to engage with people who share our viewpoint and make us feel good about ourselves. Who reassert that our viewpoint is the correct one.

Sofia Coppola could have engaged -and paid, and given credit to- a Black woman expert so that she could have represented Hallie’s character accurately.

Jeanine Cummins could have engaged — and paid, and given credit to- a Latinx immigrant woman expert so that she could have represented her character accurately.

The publishing industry, the film industry could have demanded more of Coppola and Cummins. They are both capable of so much more. Could have learned more, could have taught more.

But again and again and again, we escape accountability. We just keep doing the same old shit, over and over and over again. Everyone else can see it, except us, and they are TIRED OF THIS SHIT. Don’t even get me started on the Grammys.

White people we need to listen more, talk less. White people with cultural power: we need to let go. Make room for new voices.

For stories unlike our own told by the people who lived them. And we need to buy their books, and read them, and see their films, and listen to them. And vote for them to win, and not stick them in categories we define.

Karen Fleshman is an attorney, activist, and single soccer mom. She is the founder of Racy Conversations, a workshop facilitation company, and the author of White Women We Need to Talk: Doing Our Part to End Racism, available for preorder here.

Founder, Racy Conversations Inspiring the antiracist generation.

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