Reviews

The Great Escape

A review of Jess Row's new essay collection, "White Flights."

White Americans dream of an isolation that will reveal their true selves. That’s why, especially in the 1970s, they wrote and devoured tales of fictional, solitary white people “juxtaposed against what Americans think of, vaguely, as ‘nature.’” So Jess Row argues in the title essay of his new collection, White Flights.

In the sociological sense, “white flight” describes white people fleeing racially integrated cities for more solitary suburbs. In Row’s essay, the term also means wishful thinking. These seemingly disparate definitions fit together, though. Scaling a rock face alone, or surveying a sprawling suburban yard, a white person can wish away their whiteness. No one nearby contrasts with it, or sees it at all. 

Row made his name as a fiction writer, most notably in the 2014 speculative novel Your Face In Mine, about a world in which people can switch races through “racial reassignment surgery.” Like his novel, the seven essays in this collection explore race in the white American imagination through a mix of literary criticism, sociology, and memoir.  They connect the literary fiction of white American writers with the fictions woven into white American culture: America is a meritocracy. Slavery and Native American genocide are “in the past.” Whiteness is innate, not socially constructed and learned.

Row writes: “[T]he political struggle against the resurgent forces of white supremacy has to involve some understanding of the reality of whiteness itself.” He quotes extensively from existing literature on whiteness and race—including Toni Morrison’s 1992 Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination and Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “The Case for Reparations“—and contributes  insights from his own experience reading and living as person “taught to be white.”  

Row and his sources paint a portrait of whiteness teetering on its axis, inherently unstable. For one, monolithic whiteness is an illusion. Most family trees, if not all, involve racial mixing. Row’s great-grandmother, a woman of Azorean descent, achieved whiteness with makeup—race is more look than heritage. For another, the illusion of whiteness hurts to maintain. He argues that early ’90s emo, as a white attempt at the blues, is sonic evidence of “the white body trying to escape itself” and “[t]he sterile tent of ironic defensiveness” that white culture can resemble. The appearance of whiteness may pay privilege dividends, but it silences and damages the people living inside it.

These might sound like hot takes, but in Row’s hands, they feel cool and contemplative. His essays read less like arguments than meditations on the themes of race. Row digresses; he teases out; he peppers his essays with almost-epiphanies that he promptly complicates. He poses questions and questions himself, hyper-aware of his own subjectivity.

More than he generalizes, Row zooms in. His essays overflow with block quotes. He know that some readers won’t remember, or wish to remember, the “surgical precision” with which Jonathan Franzen cuts people of color from his novel The Corrections, creating the “illusion of panorama.” So Row includes the passage from the novel where it’s most painfully obvious, in which two white women chat in the empty streets of an allegedly diverse neighborhood. 

When Row doesn’t quote, he lists examples. He includes no less than twelve examples to back his assertion that in the ’70s, white American fiction fixated on solitude in nature.

Sometimes, the density of Row’s secondary sources feels like a defense of his right to his subject. Writing credibly about the white imagination, after all, requires a person to have read extensively from white and non-white authors, as well as to have thought critically about racial issues—not something white people are known for.

It’s unclear if Row is personally known for it, either. Not everyone understood Your Face in Mine the way he intended. Some white writers called it “brave,” he noted in a 2016 essay called “What Are White Writers For?”, but others questioned his right to write it. In White Flights, he observes that white readers often tell him stories of anti-racism’s futility, assuming he’ll enjoy such narratives. He does not, and the way he dwells on this genre of anecdote suggests discomfort. 

Whiteness often involves a desire to control how readers read our writing, and observe our lives, which are their own kind of text. White authors’ desire to control how they’re read runs throughout White Flights. It manifests in the rootless sadness of emo, and the desolate fictional landscapes of Cormac McCarthy novels. White writers don’t want to tell the full story of how they relate to people of color, or their own whiteness. It’s too risky. Who knows how it would read?

In this collection, Row tries to tell the full story. Still, in passages of White Flights, he continues trying to control how he’s read. He refers to the South Dakota hills where his father grew up by their Lakota name, Kȟe Sapa, and he writes:

When I say Khe Sapa, instead of “Black Hills,” what does that mean? Is it a self-conscious and ludicrous performance of guilt, a necessary corrective, an attempt to Indianize myself? Maybe I sound like Kevin Costner in Dances with Wolves, running around the Hollywood version of a Sioux hunting camp, poking his fingers away from his head and shouting “Tatonka! Tatonka!” I’m good with that… I don’t know another way to rupture the mythology I was raised in. 

This gesture recurs: I know how this looks. I know what you’re probably thinking, and I’m okay with it. I’m in control. 

It’s hard for Row—or for anyone—to completely abandon this pose of self-knowledge. But Row argues that white people need to abandon it, along with the attached myth that self-knowledge is a private pursuit. “When you refuse the presence of others, you refuse the ability be seen by them” and “relinquish the possibility of self-knowledge,” Row argues. It only rises up out of messy coexistence with other people. It involves ceding some control of your story to them, even when they read you in ways you never anticipated.

NONFICTION
White Flights
By Jess Row
Graywolf Press
Published Aug. 6, 2019

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