Getting the American Dirt on the Tiger Mother – or What Asian Americans Can Learn From Latinx Writers about Challenging Misrepresentation

Why are certain stories and storytellers amplified while others are ignored or silenced?

Update: Since this went to press, many of the issues discussed in this piece have played out in  the recent Washington Post Op-Ed by Andrew Yang asking Asian Americans to show their patriotism as a way of countering the hundreds of acts of anti-Asian harassment and violence in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. In addition to placing the onus on Asian Americans themselves for anti-Asian racism, Yang’s piece demonstrates the way that mainstream media highlight model minority narratives. Thankfully, there has been a strong response by Asian American writers and organizations, and hopefully, these are being heard.

This is far from the first time this has happened—someone writes a book, and the people whom the book purports to “give a face to” are not thrilled with the face that is painted on them, and in fact, do not even recognize it as their own. Such is the case in Jeanine Cummins’s novel, American Dirt, which was marketed as giving face to the “faceless brown mass” of undocumented migrants crossing the U.S.-Mexico border. This effort, unsurprisingly, was not well received by many in Latinx communities.  Latinx writers argued that it is not that they are unable to represent their own faces, but that they do not receive comparable seven-figure contracts, especially if they refuse to caricature themselves. Most notably, Myriam Gurba wrote a brilliant and scathing critique, saying,  “Cummins plops overly-ripe Mexican stereotypes, among them the Latin lover, the suffering mother, and the stoic manchild, into her wannabe realist prose,” and “aspires to be Día de los Muertos but it, instead, embodies Halloween.”

As an Asian American professor following the American Dirt controversy, I feel both commonalties and differences with the struggles of Latinx critics who are attempting to intervene in racialized misrepresentations while being accused of intolerance, identity politics, and censorship. Asian Americans had a similar American Dirt  moment when Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, a memoir by Yale law school professor Amy Chua on parenting her two children to be high achievers became a controversial bestseller.  

These are two very different kinds of books, one a novel, the other a memoir, yet they raise common concerns for writers and scholars of color regarding race and representation. But there is one significant difference. Cummins identifies as white, and is writing as an outsider. Chua instead claims insider status, both as a “Chinese mother” and as an Asian American. These two identities are not mutually exclusive, as cultural heritage does impact mothering in complex and varied ways. But Chua does not explore these complexities. Instead she performs a self-Orientalizing move by conflating Asians and Asian Americans, and implicates Asian Americans, whether Chinese or not, in her particular version of mothering.

So what to do when such harmful stereotypes and inaccuracies are promulgated from within?  What if Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother were published today? Would it be marketed, received, critiqued any differently? Would Asian American scholars be better  prepared and positioned to respond to it? It can be instructive for Asian Americans to examine the response to American Dirt as it offers insights into the stakes of challenging racial misrepresentations and possible lessons and strategies to do this more effectively. 

A Tale of Two Controversies                            

Here is a rough summary of the two controversies. In January 2020, Jeanine Cummins published a novel about Lydia, a Mexican mother who flees with her young son to escape a drug cartel that murdered her journalist husband. The book was hailed as “a Grapes of Wrath for our times” and “a new American classic.” As Gurba’s and other critiques went viral, Cummins’s promotional tour, which was launched with a book party featuring barbed wire decorations, was canceled supposedly due to death threats, although these reports were not verified.

Rewind almost a decade. Battle Hymn’s 2011 release was heralded by a Wall Street Journal article with the title, “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior.” TIME selected Chua as one of the year’s 100 most influential people. However, Asian American critics called out the book for promoting erroneous and harmful stereotypes. Amerasia partnered with Hyphen to publish a special issue, and the Association for Asian American Studies organized a conference session on the book. But these critiques did not go viral. They did not lead to the cancellation of promotional tours and interviews. They did not change the way most commentators commented on the book, let alone force them to question whether they were, in fact, qualified commentators.

Part of the reason that it was hard for Asian American critics to gain any traction stems from the slipperiness of the model minority stereotype. The same reasoning that justifies stereotypes of Asian math nerds and violin protégés is used to dismiss complaints against the tiger mother–aren’t these “positive” stereotypes? As I wrote earlier, one response I received was, “Wait, you mean, you think it’s bad to be called a tiger mom? I know this one Asian American mom — she’s perfect, her kids are perfect. I call her TM. I thought it was a compliment.”

But in addition to the overall tyranny of model minority discourse, other factors were at play having to do with the specificity of this author and the topics she addressed. The current American Dirt debate sheds light on why it was so difficult for Asian Americans to have their trenchant critiques of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother heard, and offers lessons for how to have our voices be taken more seriously in the future.

Lesson #1: Focus on Authority, Not Identity

The debates about American Dirt reveal how difficult and volatile it is to question the “authenticity” of a writer, even and especially when, like Chua, they are members of the group they claim to represent. Authenticity is a hard thing to prove and it is no guarantee against bad writing, let alone against cultural appropriation. Many people who claim to be authentic members of a group have sold out their own groups. Rather than sussing the authenticity of any writer, it may be more productive to focus on the accuracy and authority by which they speak, the consequences of what they say, and with and to whom they say it. 

Media coverage tried to present Cummins’s identity as a white woman as the reason for the criticism, but most critics did not take the bait; instead, they kept their focus on the content of the book itself.  “A reductive version of the complaints about American Dirt claims that the novel’s detractors believe that a white woman should not write about the experiences of Latino migrants,” as Laura Miller wrote in Slate. “In truth, nearly all of the considered criticism of the novel points out either inaccuracies or stereotypes.”

Despite critics’ focus on the content of the book, the media played up Cummins’s identity as a white woman as the presumed source of the criticism. Cummins wrote 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.” While Cummins identifies herself as white, she also describes herself as having a Puerto Rican grandmother and an Irish husband who was at one point undocumented. These are interesting parts of her biography, and undoubtedly shape who she is and the perspective from which she writes. The issue is not whether or not she has a right to claim an identity as a Latina based on having a Puerto Rican grandmother. There are many people who strongly identify with the ethnicity of one grandparent, if that person had a significant impact on their life. But there are also many people who don’t even know their grandparents, let alone claim their cultural identity. 

Even in the case that Cummins did grow up speaking the language, eating the food, celebrating the holidays, and living in the community of her Puerto Rican grandmother, how does this translate into knowledge of Mexicans crossing the border? Puerto Rico is part of the United States, although many people are oblivious to the fact. This is not to downplay the complicated history and current struggles of Puerto Ricans, but to emphasize that they are different from Mexicans, and that even within national and ethnic categories, there are tremendous variations.  Likewise, even if Cummins went through a long legal process to secure papers for her undocumented white, European husband, what knowledge would this give her of undocumented migrants and refugees crossing the increasingly militarized and unforgiving U.S.-Mexico border?  Again, it is less a question of whether or not Cummins can claim “authentic” encounters with Latinx people or with the U.S. immigration system, but whether these experiences translate into an ability to speak about the current crisis at the border with accuracy and sensitivity.

Unlike Cummins, the issue of identity and authenticity was not raised with regard to Battle Hymn. Amy Chua is clearly regarded as Asian American, identifies as such, and has lived an Asian American experience, albeit a very privileged and narrow one.  At issue is not whether or not she can write “authentically” about Asian Americans, but what are her claims, on what basis they were made, and why her particular message was given such a platform.

While Cummins has been castigated for promulgating stereotypes of Latinx people, Chua herself became a stereotype of Asian Americans, and embraced the casting (posing with a live tiger for the TIME magazine spread). She offered little evidence to support her claims, but instead capitalized on her identity as Chinese, Asian American and the daughter of immigrants, combined with her status as a Harvard graduate and Yale law school professor.

Again, at issue is not whether Chua is Asian American, but the free pass by which she spoke for Asian Americans as a result of claiming that identity. Issues of cultural appropriation are not simply about outsiders taking from a certain culture or group; insiders can easily do the same. Rather than trying to win a no-win debate about whether or not a given person’s experiences are authentic, it is more important to assess what they assert based on their supposed authenticity and the impacts of these assertions.

Lesson #2: Focus on Impact, Not Intentions

In multiple statements and interviews, Cummins has underscored her intentions of wanting to make a positive impact on the humanitarian crisis at the border. But whatever her intentions,  Latinx critics have pointed out that the book is more likely to promote harmful stereotypes of male violence, female victimhood, and imminent invasion by droves of Mexicans seeking escape to el norte. In a letter to Oprah, 142 diverse writers asked her to reconsider American Dirt as her book club pick, saying:

This is not a letter calling for silencing, nor censoring. But in a time of widespread misinformation, fearmongering, and white-supremacist propaganda related to immigration and to our border, in a time when adults and children are dying in US immigration cages, we believe that a novel blundering so badly in its depiction of marginalized, oppressed people should not be lifted up.

In response, Oprah did not withdraw her endorsement, but she recognized the need for broader perspectives, resulting in a series of town hall discussions with Latinx writers and interviews with migrant mothers which were broadcast on Apple TV on March 6.

While Cummins was called to task for the gap between what she intended and what she actually wrote, Chua was mostly given a pass. She repeatedly claimed that she was writing a memoir, not a how-to parenting book and certainly not a work of scholarship. Nonetheless, she positioned herself as an expert, not just on a highly racialized version of Chinese mothering, but on parenting writ large. Her concept of tiger mothering was based on her own extreme form of parenting, such as calling her children “garbage” and threatening to burn their toys, yet she generalized these as Chinese and Asian American approaches.

This slippage negatively impacted Asian Americans, spilling off the page into everyday life. Cara Yang (pseudonym), an Asian American mother commented in an interview, “My understanding is that she (Chua) was mostly trying to poke fun at herself and present her own situation, herself and her family. And at the same time the fact that she did that, it’s like, ‘You’re making it very hard for us Asian American women mothers! Because you’re presenting this image.’” She added, “Society is so lazy about really spending any time looking at you as an individual, they would much rather have it presented to them and say ‘Okay, I already read about this, because you’re Asian, so you are what I just read.’”

As Cara’s comments reveal, at issue is not just who can represent a particular group or experience, but the fact that these representations filter into people’s lives and have very real impacts on how they are perceived and treated. Contrary to the saying, any publicity is not good publicity. Likewise, any representation is not better than no representation, and certainly not better than gross misrepresentation. Conversely, the best representations are most often not those of a singular genius writer, but the collective work of writers, scholars, activists and communities.

Lesson #3: Focus on Collective Responses, Not Individual Spokespeople

As noted above, while certain individual critiques such as Gurba’s went viral, effort was given to organize collective responses, such as the joint letter to Oprah.  In addition, Gurba and other critics offered lists of suggested reading that brought attention to works by Latinx writers that addressed the crisis at the border with greater historical and political context, nuance and urgency. Further, Mari Castañeda, a professor and the associate dean for equity and inclusion at University of Massachusetts Amherst’s Department of Communication, explained that Gurba’s use of “Spanglish spoke to the specific cultural context of codeswitching that Latinos do in their own lives. It was easy to send around and it showed that Latinos didn’t have to wait for an official channel to share their thoughts.” Case in point, the meme, Writing My Latino Novel, took off on Twitter, producing tongue-in-cheek impersonations, “We fled late in the night, or /la noche/ as Mami calls it. I’m always embarrassed when Mami says shit like that, but I forgive her because she’s one of eleven kids and is from /el barrio./”

Cummins, perhaps anticipating such criticism, expressed in her introduction that she wished someone “slightly browner” had written the story, then apologized for her “clumsy” phrasing. In contrast, Chua proclaimed to those who “wonder how Chinese parents raise such stereotypically successful kids,” she had the answers. “Well, I can tell them, because I’ve done it.” In making these claims, Chua made clear that she was not talking to or with Chinese parents, but to those who “wonder” about them.

In response to the tiger mother, the voices that gained the most airtime were not those of Asian American critics, but most often, were white women commentators, ranging from Katie Couric to mommy blogger Liz Gumbinner, bemoaning perceived criticisms of their own mothering. (As an aside, another version of this kind of narcissistic response appeared most recently after J Lo and Shakira’s Super Bowl performance, in commentaries such as “I feel personally judged by J Lo’s body.”)  

The few Asian American voices that were amplified were not the ones with the sharpest critical chops, nor those who referenced a collective sense of Asian American history, politics and scholarship. Instead, they mostly recounted individual feelings and random musings. Wesley Yang’s “Paper Tigers” moved awkwardly from reflections on his own physical features, to commentary on Asian masculinity, to lauding the tiger mother’s “proud defiance” against meekness. Sandra Tsing Loh’s “Sympathy for the Tiger Moms” argued, “The national convulsion over Amy Chua’s parenting has lead people to hate or fear mothers like me. They should feel sorry for us instead.” But were these kind of self-effacing pieces really the best that Asian American writers could produce, or are these story lines more a reflection of what publishers thought would sell and were willing to print? Curiously, Tsing Loh has written much more forcefully on mothering, linking it to topics such as public education to menopause. So in some ways, this demonstrates the point that something about the tiger mother hype dampened critique, whether self-imposed or dictated by publishers.

Ultimately, the question of who gets to tell what stories is not unimportant, but it overshadows more productive and urgent questions about which stories are told, how they circulate, and who they impact. Whatever their claims to authenticity and good intentions, do these writers invoke group membership to reap their own rewards, or to support the communities to which they claim to belong? On a related note, J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy has similarly been critiqued on this site as a “self-serving hustle” that positioned the author as “explainer-in-chief for the nation’s suddenly important underclass.” At the end of the day, it is not just about how a person identifies or whether their experiences are “authentic,” but based on these claims, what do they assert, and how do these assertions live in the world?

Asking why certain individual storytellers are anointed also begs the question of why collective histories and whole bodies of work are ignored. 

The end goal is not just for Asian Americans to be able to critique the books written about us more effectively. It is to have better books written by and about us, books that speak from and to Asian American audiences, and to have those books receive the kind of attention and discussion they deserve.  Luckily, in conversation with Latinx, Black, Native and Indigenous communities and writers, there is a rich and growing list to recommend.

In the spirit of Gurba’s piece, which sought not just to critique American Dirt but to hold up the books that were not receiving the same attention, here is a short sampler of suggested reading. It is not meant to be comprehensive, but simply highlights Asian American non-fiction writing loosely related to themes of mothering, family and race that have inspired me, some hot off the press, some oldies and goodies, along with some additional resources, in no particular order–enjoy!

Note: I hope to add my own book to this list soon – Mother Other: Race and Reproductive Politics in Asian America (under contract with University of California Press)

Miliann Kang is associate professor of Women, Gender, Sexuality Studies at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst and author of The Managed Hand: Race, Gender and the Body in Beauty Service Work.