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Jess Row’s ‘White Flights’ Examines Avoidant Rituals of Race in American Literature

"White flights" for Jess Row denotes the "postures of avoidance and denial" about whiteness — as a privilege, a cultural norm, and a burden — adopted by white authors, academics, and critics.

White Flights: Race, Fiction, and the American Imagination
Jess Row
Graywolf Press
Aug 2019

Jess Row, author of the novel Your Face and Mine (Riverhead, 2014) and the story collections The Train to Lo Wu (Dial, 2005) and Nobody Ever Gets Lost (FiveChapters, 2011), offers a complex, personal meditation on whiteness in White Flights: Race, Fiction, and the American Imagination. The recipient of a Whiting Foundation Creative Nonfiction Grant, White Flights is a collection of seven essays that comprise a literary and personal examination of the retreat from the subject of race in the work of post-Civil Rights Movement American white writers, including Don DeLillo, Annie Dillard, Richard Ford, and David Foster Wallace. Row’s fans will recognize some of these essays from earlier versions in the Boston Review and the New Republic, although they are revised for this publication, and they work together nicely as a volume.

In White Flights, Row identifies two parallel literatures in the United States: one in which race is a core, explicit component of characters or narratives, and one in which race appears to be insignificant or even nonexistent. The latter tradition, of course, stems from the seeming invisibility of whiteness in the work of many white writers. Often used to denote the fleeing of the white middle-class from urban centers to the suburbs or gentrified areas, the phrase “white flights” for Row denotes the “postures of avoidance and denial” about whiteness — as a privilege, a cultural norm, and a burden — adopted by white authors, academics, and critics. This avoidance is not a question of ignorance or lack of consciousness; rather, Row argues, “white people, for the most part, know very well what it is to be white”, and therefore the subjective position of the white author is “not actually unconscious.”

“White flights” in writing are thus “ritualized postures”, essential enactments of “the desire not to have one’s visual field constantly invaded by inconveniently different faces—relationships that are fraught, unfixed, capable of producing equal measures of helplessness and guilt.” The “deracination” of these works is, Row muses, “fascinating” and “deeply telling”, especially given the growing racial and ethnic heterogeneity of the United States, and it is particularly troubling “in situations, like the American present, that have to do with unresolved historical and present culpability bearing down, in a disastrous way, on the daily lives of its citizens.” These “white flights” result in the literary and scholarly perpetuation of ideas and images of whiteness as “normal, neutral, and central”, and ultimately in the maintenance of racism.

Row subjects himself to interrogation, as well. His ancestors were both “settler colonialists” who displaced the Lakota and the Cheyenne in the 1870s, and mixed-race immigrants from the Azores. This autoethnographic approach adds several dimensions to Row’s concept of “white flights”. In addition to its general demographic definition and Row’s use of the phrase to refer to certain forms of post-1960s literature, it also describes his parents’ generation’s escape from “scenes and situations of ritualized violence”, such as the urban riots of the 1960s (his mother vividly remembers the arrival of National Guard troops to her Washington, DC, neighborhood in 1968), and their concurrent “abandonment of the ideals of integration, coexistence, brotherhood, [and] racial harmony.”

But the phrase also refers to a “flight toward a kind of perverse ideal” that was “overwhelmingly white”, allegedly color blind, and “somehow innocent” despite its very clear “culpability” for racial wrongs. The juxtaposition of personal and literary subjects allows Row to range widely; although the core subject is literature, Row also discusses Edward Hopper’s painting Pennsylvania Coal Town, the films Harold and Maude (Hal Ashby, 1971) and Mad Max: Fury Road (George Miller, 2015), and 1990s emo bands, among other popular texts.

Row does not excuse himself as a writer from the “white flights” he examines, and he is self-reflective on the question of whether or not white American writers can ever transcend the “horror of performing within the family romance of whiteness.” “Could fiction,” he asks, paraphrasing Nina Simone, “be a way of knowing what it feels like to be free?” Row means for this combination of self-examination and cultural criticism to help make way for a more inclusive fiction; writing, he argues, can be part of the endless process of reconciliation, a “reparative act” that helps writers of fiction “to approach each other again.” As examples of how this process might work, Row discusses interracial love in the works of James Baldwin, Dorothy Allison, and James Alan McPherson.

White Flights is, at times, a bit self-indulgent, particularly in the final entry, “White Out”, which is more of a collection of thoughts than a coherent essay. But ultimately, Row has produced a thoughtful and timely meditation that serves as a call to white writers to consider the questions: “What’s next? What can we do with the time we have?”

RATING 8 / 10