Blinded by the White

White Flights: Race, Fiction, and the American Imagination BY Jess Row. Minneapolis: Graywolf Press. 320 pages. $16.

Novelist and teacher Jess Row has been thinking about racial identity for a while. That idea winds through his two story collections—The Train to Lo Wu and Nobody Ever Gets Lost—and is central to Your Face in Mine, “a novel in which a young white man undergoes ‘racial reassignment surgery’ to become black,” to use Row’s description. In his new collection of essays, White Flights, Row tries to determine how whiteness can be found in language (music and writing both qualify). White Flights is a frantic loop, though, full of strong analyses that are suddenly abandoned while Row takes off into a thicket of references and apologies. The slipperiness of the book may simply mirror the slipperiness of the subject. Using language to find expressions of race in language—which may only exist in language—is a recursive mission. But not an academic one—these terms are crucial to the dominant conversation in American life. In the wake of the Dayton and El Paso shootings, Princeton professor Eddie S. Glaude Jr. spoke about Americans confronting their own history, in the hopes that a real reckoning will “set them free from being white.” If we don’t know what whiteness is, how can we throw it away?

It’s a heavy lift. Row has to confront the fact of actual white and black people, cohorts that are already difficult to define without doing some sort of moral and ontological damage to the actual people. And then these people go and write books! Is a white person writing a book necessarily engaging in white writing? If they are, maybe we can define the white voice and understand the idea of whiteness, the concept that flows from benign existence all the way down to the plumbing of white supremacy that undergirds America and floods its streets. To tease out the whiteness that’s woven into language, Row brings in John Hartigan Jr.’s writing, Marilynne Robinson’s sermons, the music of Sunny Day Real Estate, and much, much more. What Row finds—especially in his readings of Robinson and Raymond Carver, and of emo music—is a white figure stripped of historical details, an unclaimed body at the morgue with no fingerprints. This figure tends toward an atomized sadness: the nomad in the desert, the girl by the railroad tracks, the solo moonshot pilot. It’s something like a ghost, and Row wants to throw a sheet over it, bring it to our attention. But too often, he gets close and then pulls back, distracting himself (and us) in a drifty flurry of name-drops.

Eric Zener, Staying Afloat (detail), 2019, ink-jet print, ink, acrylic, silver leaf, and resin on panel, 33 × 30". Courtesy Gallery Henoch

There’s an odd section about the word “woke,” early on, that is typical of Row’s process in this book. After referencing three contradictory definitions by Urban Dictionary commenters, Row steps in and writes, “Though it’s existed as an idiom for years, ‘woke’ seems completely of this moment, simultaneously ironic and in earnest, unquestionably and critically aware that Americans, and white Americans in particular, have narcoleptic tendencies.” Row could dig into what is so relevant today about “woke,” which is an extremely online update of “PC,” a way of indexing someone’s level of political awareness, with added emphasis on race. But he skips all that, and, in a characteristic moment of word association, moves quickly into quotes about sleep—from Nas (“sleep is the cousin of death,” a legendary phrase that isn’t related to wokeness or race), Freud (about the return of the repressed, not otherwise on the table), Lucille Clifton, and Flannery O’Connor (he also finds a way to mention the Zen school where he practices). Row doesn’t settle into some kind of real engagement with where “woke” comes from or what it means now. He gets distracted by poetic openings while we’re waiting for the subtitle of his book: “race, fiction, and the American imagination.” Readers who want to go deeper should find Toni Morrison’s brief and intense Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination.

When defining “reparative writing,” Row draws from a 2003 essay by Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, “Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading.” He says that reparative writing “invokes the spirit of actual reparations, that is, the return of tangible resources to people who were (and/or still are) denied them: this could take many forms, from literary activism to collaborative projects to work in hybrid forms, which mostly fall outside the scope of this book.” (Congress is outside the scope of Row’s book, and in June, hearings on reparations were conducted by the House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties.) Row tells us that the depressive position “is not what psychotherapists usually call ‘depression’; it’s what happens when a sad person begins to take realistic steps to address the sadness at its source.” Sadness is relevant because, Row writes, “white American writers are almost never asked to bring their own sadness or their own bodies into play when writing about race or racism.” Row draws again on Freud in this section and describes how the melancholic “consumes” a lost object and becomes permanently confused, until she fully grieves. How sadness and grieving work vis-à-vis whiteness as it is framed by blackness is an exciting idea, certainly a promising starting point for an essay or a book. But Row withdraws this framework just as he introduces it. “The depressive and reparative work the white subject can undertake in response to racism is such a poorly understood, understudied subject that I can’t say anything definite about it at all.”

White Flights stays the course sometimes. While discussing his family’s roots in South Dakota, and how they did and didn’t talk about the state’s largely displaced American Indian population, Row cites Derrida’s concept of “white mythology.” “The order of the world I inherited and inhabited, inscribed in white ink on white paper: ‘an invisible design,’ Derrida says, ‘covered over in the palimpsest.’” Row finds that invisible design in (or under) Annie Dillard’s memoir An American Childhood: “Like any child, I slid into myself perfectly fitted, as a diver meets her reflection in a pool,” Dillard writes. “Her fingertips enter the fingertips on the water, her wrists slide up her arms. The diver wraps herself in her reflection wholly, sealing it at the toes, and wears it as she climbs rising from the pool, and ever after.” This passage is an example of what Row calls “epiphanal whiteness, which begins, in the most classic sense, with a blissful state of innocence, an idyll.” Experience, here, leads to an act of identification that moves from the specific to the general. “Dillard is proposing a homology,” Row writes, “a perfect identification, of the child and the child’s reflection, that is, the way the child is reflected by the world.” Dillard’s child is herself a generalization. Row asks, “Is it useful, as an observation, to look at that act of generalization, that expansive gesture, and call it ‘whiteness’?” This gives the reader some concrete ways of finding, and then thinking about, whiteness in writing.

But too often, Row introduces an intriguing idea and then pushes it into confusion. In a discussion that folds in Roman Jakobson’s work on aphasia, Row traces the influence of Raymond Carver’s editor Gordon Lish on several generations of American writing. Row convincingly shows how Lish’s aesthetic establishes a boundary for whiteness, and suppresses—unspeaks, like aphasia—the question of that whiteness. “What concerns me—because I was taught it, and absorbed it, long before I’d ever heard his name—is how his aesthetic so easily translates into a radical practice of shame, rooted in the white body, that makes it so difficult for white writers to recognize race at all,” Row writes. He’s aware that he, too, is immersed in this mode of writing, and steps outside of it enough to offer a new awareness. If we think about how Lish’s aesthetic erases certain details, it becomes clear how Carver’s own history growing up poor in Washington State became invisible. But in Row’s telling, the ways to interpret whiteness accumulate to such an extent that they occlude whiteness itself. If whiteness is both “a blissful state of innocence” and “a radical practice of shame,” what isn’t whiteness?

Ever self-aware, Row fights with himself more than he fights with any of the writers he mentions. Sometimes he undercuts his own ideas. More often, he sketches out a formulation and piles up citations like empty red cups, obviating the chance to settle in and talk. (It is common for a page here to name-check between five and ten artists.) Toward the end of White Flights, there’s a long chapter that combines autobiography and theory. After talking about the stock he’s inherited from his grandparents, “a fortune accumulated on the illegally occupied land belonging to the Great Sioux Reservation,” Row describes whiteness again. “Whiteness, you could say, sticks together without making sense. I would like to unbind the thread and look at each fiber separately.” And then, of his thread, he speaks in pure Charlie Brown: “This is one in a series of failed analogies.”

Row goes on about what he can’t do: “I can’t come up with an encompassing theory that binds enslavement to societal collapse to climate change to the free movement of capital to Enlightenment theories of race to whiteness and white theories of its own demise, except to say this: it may be that a movie like Mad Max: Fury Road has gotten out ahead of more orthodox forms of interpretation in summarizing this era’s worst instincts.” Maybe he keeps deleting his own ideas because of binds like this. Who could do that? Row says early on that “the worst thing a book like this could be is polite,” but in the end it is just that, largely because the only writer Row really goes in on is himself.

White Flights might have done better to leave Sedgwick alone and respond to another queer Jewish genius, Fran Lebowitz. In a 1997 interview with Vanity Fair, Lebowitz answered a question about the “solution” to the problem of talking about race. “The way to approach it, I think, is not to ask, ‘What would it be like to be black?’ but to seriously consider what it is like to be white. That’s something white people almost never think about.” Row does a good job of finding a white body and describing its avoidant orbit. But whiteness, the larger project, is based on invisibility, and at the end of White Flights, it’s still there, hiding in plain sight.

Sasha Frere-Jones is a writer and musician living in New York.