Oprah Winfrey's Empathetic, Ignorant Approach to Immigration

Oprah Winfrey's Empathetic, Ignorant Approach to Immigration

When the controversy over Jeanine Cummins’s novel American Dirt first started to take shape, Oprah Winfrey positioned herself as a mediator between the work’s detractors and the book itself. Cummins, a white woman who identifies as Latina (she says she is a third-generation Puerto Rican), wrote a romanticized story about a woman migrating from Mexico to the U.S. that sparked outrage among Latinx communities for its use of stereotypes and its whitewashing of Mexican culture.

Oprah, on the other hand, was so strongly moved by the book that she added it to her book club—an endorsement that typically sends sales skyrocketing—and has been defending it since its release date. After the book’s release prompted a barrage of Twitter comments, a petition, and the formation of the Latinx authors activist group #DignidadLiteraria, Oprah promised that she would have a discussion, which would include “voices from all sides.” That discussion went live on Apple TV+ last week as a two-part special and includes two episodes. The first is devoted to a discussion with Cummins and three Latinx writers about critiques of the book, although the voice of Myriam Gurba, whose critique of the book spearheaded this reckoning, is painfully absent. The second episode, likely intended as a helpful primer on immigration, comes off as an afterschool special—an introductory lesson to the crisis designed by Oprah. The show comes in at around two hours but it certainly doesn’t take that much time to fully understand the depth of Oprah’s willful ignorance.

Though the first episode purports to discuss American Dirt’s framing as a quintessential immigrant story, participants—which include Reyna Grande, Julissa Arce, and Esther Cepeda, three Mexican authors who have previously written on immigration—weren’t given much time to devote to that task. Winfrey’s defense of the book shifted the blame toward its publishers: Representatives from Macmillan Books and Flatiron Books, the publishing house and imprint responsible for printing and creating the book jacket for American Dirt, were conveniently seated in the front row of the audience ready to apologize and grovel. Cummins told Winfrey that she regretted using the term “faceless brown mass” in the novel’s afterword, one which has been repeated in the book’s reviews and rebukes. Grande, Arce, and Cepeda also spoke about the difficulties of getting their own works published—true stories of immigration, based on their own personal experiences—and a publishing industry that has “systematically silenced” Latinx voices by keeping them off the bookshelves.

Oprah is speaking to people like herself, who can watch news stories about family separation and ignore Them

While the conversation spent a great deal of time rightfully lambasting the publishing industry, it failed to address many issues with the book itself. There were moments of well-placed anger, like when Cepeda said she was frustrated that writers like Cummins could write anything, but writers with “our last names can only tell stories about immigration.” Of course, there was a sprinkling of apologies from Flatiron, for flavor. Any poignant questions that may have been directed at Cummins were left on the cutting room floor, and she sat pensively crafting response after response to distance herself as much as possible from the sins of her publishers. While Cummins voiced her regret to Winfrey, she delivered no apologies to her fellow authors. Nor were they offered to the members of the Latinx community at large, who have voiced their hurt over the book’s framing of immigration and depiction of Mexico. The panel seemed only able to agree on one fact: The problem is much larger than just Jeanine Cummins.

By the second episode, I was still hanging onto a false hope that a more earnest discussion could be had, as Winfrey pivoted to a different group of experts in the room for a discussion on migration. Jeanine Cummins looked on stoically and tried not to cry as Oprah prompted pre-selected immigrants in the audience to praise her book. It was an exercise in patience to watch Winfrey while she learned about U.S immigration for what seemed like the first time in her life. In a pre-recorded segment played for the live audience, Dr. Luz Maria Garcini, an academic with a focus on trauma, guides Winfrey through an elementary-level lesson on immigration from Mexico. Garcini and Winfrey take a car ride and a stroll next to the border wall in Nogales, Arizona, where Dr. Garcini shares her story of migrating to the United States as a young woman and working through her own wounds to make a life for herself. They discuss the lifelong mental and emotional damage that stays with a person who takes the journey from Mexico into the U.S., and Garcini explains to Winfrey that “even when they [migrants] have twenty years in this country, the fear of losing your life, of losing everything you have” is one that looms overhead every day. Oprah asks Dr. Garcini her thoughts on the idea that filming at the border, might be considered “trauma porn.” Dr. Garcini pushes back, saying it’s important for people to see the wall itself not just as a concept but as a physical thing with a dual purpose.

Yet in the clip, the border serves as little more than a set-piece: It looms in the background as the two women speak, the patch of desert where they walk is still, completely quiet. Although they discuss what happens at this juncture, the suffering and death are removed from this scene. It’s a place that comes across as tranquil if you don’t look directly at the barbed wire.

Much like the content of Amerian Dirt, this portion of the episode feels pointed directly towards people like Oprah, who are removed from the realities of immigration, and thus feel as if they’re peering into another dimension by reading a novel or watching a televised special that grapples at all with the country’s southern border: Oprah is speaking to people like herself, who can watch the news stories about family separation and ignore them as a far off concept. At some point, Winfrey says, “We’re in the middle of a humanitarian crisis and people are still shopping,” with shock, as if the realization has not crossed her mind until that moment. Winfrey also says that when she first started seeing reports about family separation she felt “so frustrated and so helpless, I literally didn’t know what to do.”

Like thoughts and prayers, empathy without work is meaningless

Plenty of people don’t know what to do, nor would they have the resources to do something should an idea occur to them. But Oprah Winfrey isn’t the average American—she is a multi-million dollar global symbol of hope and prosperity wrapped into a single woman. By her own admission, she shared the book because she wanted people to feel what she felt when she first read it: empathy. She wanted people’s eyes to be opened to the situation, just as she said her eyes were opened by Cummins’s work. But all of this empathy that Cummins and Winfrey have gathered has yet to lead to tangible action from either party (although Cummins claims that she has donated much of her book earnings to the organizations she visited while researching her book). Like thoughts and prayers, empathy without work is meaningless.

By the midpoint of the episode, when the topic switched to border patrol officers, I had given in to my desire to scream. Winfrey and Garcini took the there-are-good-people-on-both-sides attitude, arguing that some officers were lifesavers while others have been recorded destroying gallons of water left for migrants by humanitarian groups. Winfrey asked how the two different views of border patrol agents could be reconciled. Garcini responded that the only way to move forward is to create a “mutual understanding” between officers, their critics, and their supporters. Certainly, if everyone understood each other then it wouldn’t matter that there is a zero-tolerance policy in place for migrants.

Back in the studio, in Arizona, it’s just everyone’s luck that in the audience are two more immigrants who really enjoyed American Dirt. One woman, Luz, shares her story about being repeatedly raped by different men in her attempt to cross over into the U.S, a journey she made twice (the second time was to seek medical treatment for her son). Luz now has documentation allowing her to live in the U.S and is applying for citizenship next year. She tells a teary-eyed Cummins that she saw a lot of herself in the novel’s main character, Lydia. Another audience member, one protected under DACA, sits in his seat in the first row, looks up to Cummins—still seated on the all-white elevated stage by Oprah’s side—and says, “Thank you, Jeanine, for writing this book. It’s not a perfect book but I’m sure Oliver Twist wasn’t perfect in its time.” Dickens weeps.

By bringing in exceptional Latinx people to advocate for the work, Winfrey seemed like she was trying to prove that she hadn’t made a mistake in placing American Dirt on a pedestal. Winfrey still seems to believe that this book can do the heavy lifting that decades of Latinx activism and lobbying has not been able to do. She wants America to care because now she has decided that she cares, thanks to the work of Jeanine Cummins.

What escapes Winfrey and many people who laud Cummins’s book as anything other than a novel meant to thrill and not inform, is that we–Latinx people—have been writing, talking, and trying to get the nation to care about immigration en masse long before it became a trendy thing to care about in 2016. (ICE, for instance, was founded in 2002 under the direction of President George W. Bush). In the 20-plus years that Oprah’s book club has existed, zero Mexican and four Latinx authors have made it onto the coveted list of 83 titles. When questioned about these numbers by the author panel, Winfrey said she didn’t include more stories from Mexican writers because she didn’t know they existed. Reyna Grande asked, “Why didn’t you know,” looking to make a point about the publishing industry. Before she could make the point, Winfrey said, “I didn’t know because I didn’t know.”

When Oprah sits on a stage and implies that American Dirt is needed to garner empathy in this country she erases all of the Latinx voices that have been pointing to the southern border and screaming for aid and attention. But even more than that, she’s telling on herself and other rich and powerful folks who are detached, people who can afford to spend their whole lives ignoring the “faceless brown masses” that are shoved into the character of Lydia. She’s normalizing this idea that it’s forgivable—okay, even—to spend such a long time being uninformed.

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