'American Dirt' and the Problem with Good Intentions | Sojourners

'American Dirt' and the Problem with Good Intentions

A new book and Oprah Book Club selection by Jeanine Cummins called American Dirt has caused a stir. Leading up to the release, it had been blurbed as a defining novel of a generation — a Grapes of Wrath of our time, the novel of Las Americas.

The fetes were premature.

The fact that Cummins wrote in the book’s note that she wished somebody “browner” would have written this book about “faceless brown masses” should have given publishers and reviewers pause. 

An early review by Myriam Gurba was turned down by Ms. magazine for being too critical. Gurba, who eventually published her review in Tropics of Meta, wrote that American Dirt was “trauma porn” for a white audience filled with stereotypes and clichés. It was a trite caricature of a telenovela parading around as a novel.

Over 100 Latinx and authors of color signed a statement asking Oprah to reconsider her selection of American Dirt for her book club because it was filled with errors and was guilty of “trauma fetishization and sensationalization of migration and of Mexican life and culture.” LA Times journalist Esmeralda Bermudez wrote “American Dirt has left us with a textbook example of nearly everything we should avoid when writing about immigrants. It’s hollow, harmful; an adrenaline-packed cartoon.”

Two notable online reactions developed. The first was an organized effort that demanded #DignidadLiteraria, or literary dignity, in recognition of Latinx writers and their work within a publishing industry that, overall, remains 80 percent white. As a result of this organizing, the book’s publisher recently agreed to making larger, structural changes. The other, a more sardonic response, was various authors and twitter users writing their #MyLatinoNovel, in overwrought Latinx stereotypes. 

I will not be reviewing American Dirt here, which one New York Times critic panned for its stilted writing. As other critics have made clear, the author’s identity or the issue of cultural appropriation is not necessarily the primary issue. Authors like Debbie Nathan have written on the topic of migration for decades without succumbing to the errors that Cummins makes.

American Dirt is just one of the latest examples of a problematic politics of good intentions that appears across well-meaning institutions and ideologies. The problematic politics of good intentions appear not just in the secular publishing industry, but also in progressive Christianity.

The politics of good intentions are a politics of pity, where awareness of a tragedy produces no action but furrowed brows and handwringing, a situational sympathy that hides institutional indifference. 

Even nonprofit organizations committed to social justice and economic equality face a similar problem. As Itzbeth Menjívar wrote for Sojourners, “the social justice sector has an internal racism problem.” A report from the Building Movement Project shows that that percentage of people of color in high level positions in nonprofits has remained under 20 percent for the last 15 years, even though people of color are more likely to aspire to leadership positions than their white peers. 

The enduring whiteness of the church’s politics of good intentions presents problems for its future in the 21st century. 

Evangelical Christians are 76 percent white, while mainline Protestants — who trend more politically liberal — are 86 percent white. Latinxs, who now comprise the largest minority group in the nation, are nearly a fifth of the population but only make up 11 percent of evangelical Christians and only 6 percent of mainline Protestants.

This is troubling, because studies that measure the importance of faith among believers, find that people of color tend to outpace white Americans in their devotion. African Americans are the most religious group in the nation, followed by Latinxs, but their devotion is not acknowledged or recognized.

Part of this has to do with the overwhelmingly white demographics of Christian publishing. While the gender composition might be changing, because of the growing influence of social media, the women who have received large books deals are still overwhelmingly white.

Rachel Hollis, for example, has built what Laura Turner called “a Pinterest-worthy version of the prosperity gospel” into a media empire. While Hollis doesn’t talk about politics explicitly, she does perpetuate the notion that we are individual actors in the world with the ability to make decisions that will change it. For her, change is personal, not structural. This is more than a contemporary take on free will, but a combination of free will and free markets. You can pursue an individual path to change your world with no effort to change the world. 

Publishers have shied away from publishing more difficult memoirs or narratives of women of color that do not have happy endings. They tend to prefer narrative of completeness that present faith as certain and tidy. The lingering doubts and worries about the mysteries of faith are overlooked in order to focus on the certainties of personal miracles. 

Writer Kathryn Watson has called this “white picket fence faith.” Eventually, that picket fence becomes a border wall. The top two critical issues for white evangelicals are terrorism and immigration. For black protestants, Latinx protestants, and Latinx Catholics, the top issue is health care: access to the basic institutions that keep them alive. 

Reading or enjoying American Dirt or Girl Wash your Face, doesn’t make somebody a bad person, or even a good person. Reading can inform politics, but it can’t be the only political action taken. There are limits to the abstract sympathy discovered in sensationalized fiction or temporary trips. As the statement from the Latinx writers explained, “good intentions do not make good literature.” 

A commitment to justice or equality cannot be purely voyeuristic or touristic. The politics of good intention are found in many Bible studies and mission trips, but good intentions do not make good institutions. Good intentions do not make good neighbors. Good intentions do not create a just world. 

The stories we read and the stories we tell ourselves about the world are important. They have the potential to tell us something is wrong, who are the protagonists, who are the innocent bystanders. But sometimes, those narratives don’t tell the whole story.