‘To Be Polite By Ignoring the Obvious’: Jess Row on Unpacking Whiteness in Literature

“I was looking for texts that seem to go the extra mile in hiding something — texts that almost seem to be begging to be interpreted in terms of what’s not being said.”

Morgan Jerkins | Longreads | September 2019 | 10 minutes (2,662 words)

Despite the recurring cycle of conversations on topics such as the need for fully-funded MFA programs, the financial challenges of sustaining oneself as a writer, and the lack of diversity in all levels of media, the issue of whiteness in publishing — and the privileges that come with being white in publishing — continues to justify our scrutiny. We are aware that white people hold much of the power in the literary world, but how do we assess this fact critically, understanding that whiteness is not just a factor in the economics of writing, but in the writing itself? Novelist Jess Row investigates this question in his latest book, White Flights: Race, Fiction, and the American Imagination. In his own words, “American culture has evolved a theory of the white psyche that rarely, if ever, considers racism as a direct or even proximate cause of its disorder and distress.”

Writing about race, whiteness, and the literary imagination is not new for Row. In 2014, he published a book called Your Face In Mine, the premise of which is that a white, Jewish man undergoes “racial assignment surgery.” Online, he’s also written about these topics in The New Republic and The Boston Review, among other publications. An instructor at The College of New Jersey and New York University, Row has also won a Guggenheim Fellowship, NEA fellowship in Fiction, and a Whiting Writers Award.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

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Morgan Jerkins: I wanted to talk about [Aimee Bender’s short story] “The End of The Line” that you mention in your book. A man buys a little man and, quickly, the relationship becomes abusive. The man tells the little man that he just wants to know about his world and the little man tells him ‘no.’ Do you come across other writers and scholars who see it as a story about race relations? Because I thought that this is the history of white and black people in America in a nutshell.

Jess Row: Honestly, I’ve never read any criticism or reviews that talk about that story in particular. There may be some out there, but I haven’t encountered them. But I agree with you — it’s a brilliant and revelatory story!

There’s just so little critical discussion about short stories, period…they rarely get mentioned when critics write broad pieces about “the state of American fiction.”

Why did you choose to speak about that story in particular at the beginning of your book?

It seemed to me a perfect example of how white U.S. writers are actually writing about race, but in ways that rarely get noticed — and sometimes in ways that the writers themselves may not be aware of! What a terrifying thought, but there it is. Toni Morrison says in Playing in the Dark that she feels certain that all writers are aware of power relations in their work on some level, not just marginalized writers. And I think that’s true. “End of the Line” is a good example, whether or not Aimee Bender intended to make it explicitly a story about race.

I’m interested in surveillance, which is the undertone in this story. The little man is marginalized and the big man is desperate to be a part of his world. When it comes to writing, I feel like when writers discuss their identities, particularly Black writers, it’s super hyper focused, and with White writers, their identity is almost…invisible even though we all know what it is. Is that amnesia or some unspoken agreement amongst white writers to be as general as possible?

I think “unspoken amnesia” or maybe “willed amnesia” would be a good way to describe it; but there’s also just the awkwardness so many white writers — and white people generally — feel about identifying themselves as racialized subjects, as people who are designated white and who identify as white. In the book I talk about Emily Apter’s work on the idea of the “politic” and the “impolitic,” where to be politic is essentially to be polite by ignoring the obvious power relations and hierarchy in any human situation. So much of the literary world is governed by this practice of “politic” relations, of a kind of politeness that manifests itself as very limited, constrained, anxious conversation.

It isn’t up to white writers to say that American literature shouldn’t be racialized or can transcend race. That way of thinking is the worst kind of bad faith.

Now that’s news to me. From my perspective as a Black writer, I and my colleagues can read certain texts and realize, “Whoa, this piece is super white,” even if the writer is trying to depict a world that is so vast and limitless in possibility. I never thought it was “polite” willfully ignorant might be better. But isn’t politeness a form of “white” behavior?

To answer the second point: I don’t think politeness is a form of “white” behavior in general; all cultures have practices of decorum and respect that may or may not be racialized. But in an American context, of course, politeness and gentility are racialized as white. About the first point: can you say more about that feeling of recognition, “this piece is super white”? I write about the association between whiteness and vastness or limitlessness in the book, but I want to hear your perspective — what sets off your radar?

I can use the example in your book: Annie Dillard’s “An American Childhood.” Immediately, I’m like, “An American Childhood” means “A White American Childhood” or “A White Middle Class American Childhood.” As Toni Morrison said, when you’re a POC, if you’re American, you’re a hyphenate. And the quote you use, “Like any child, I slid into myself perfectly fitted, as a diver meets her reflection in a pool…” I was like, “Nope, mm mm.” Every child isn’t the same. Some don’t go in the pool at all. In fact, in my community, a lot of black children had anxieties about the water.

Yes. And the other piece of that is that I identify with what Dillard is saying very closely, because I grew up swimming and doing water sports from a very young age. Then, later, when I was an Outward Bound instructor, I learned firsthand that my feelings and relationship to nature were not shared by all the children I worked with. Not at all. This was, and is, a huge issue in the outdoor recreation and teaching field, as I’m sure you know.

Absolutely. I still can’t do the woods like that. But that’s what I think about as a Black woman and writer, everything I write has to be activated with a responsibility that white writers do not have. I’m always asked if what I write is political and I feel like I don’t have a chance. My art cannot transcend the political whereas with white writers, it’s almost imperative, which is strange to me.

I stumbled across an Orwell quote the other day, which I’m paraphrasing as: “The choice to believe that art is not political is itself political.” That’s basically why I wrote White Flights in a nutshell. It isn’t up to white writers to say that American literature shouldn’t be racialized or can “transcend” race. That way of thinking is the worst kind of bad faith.

You mention in your book that it was Kant himself that said Africans aren’t capable of having universal judgment. But no one is God! How can anyone have universal judgment and what good would an artist, especially a white artist, have on the world if they pretended as if they did?

This is a key point, and I think one that academic literary scholars understand, but many American writers don’t: unlike, say, contemporary literature from Europe, or Asia, or Africa, or South America, U.S. literature — especially white U.S. literature — is still heavily rooted in Romantic ideas, which are informed by Kant, of course. White American writers are still so influenced and inspired by Whitman, Thoreau, Emerson — the idea of the frontier, the innocence of the natural world, the limitlessness of Whitman’s optimism, the idea that democracy is the natural state of man, etcetera. And those concepts are all racialized in a way that puts the white imagination in the center. Even David Foster Wallace, who was so self-analytical and self-critical, had a Romantic side. Hence the title Infinite Jest and his overwhelming interest in infinity.


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I agree. But the white imagination seems…boring? You argue in your book that for white artists, they write from a disinterested perspective. Their way of being has to be flattened into a generality but they are seen as “realists.” I don’t think I can recall a Black writer whose work reviewers called “realist” even if what they are writing about is indeed rooted in reality. It feels like phenomenological distortion? Even me talking about this openly feels like I’m not making sense by calling out the imbalance in artistic critique between white and black writers.

Exactly. In the book I use a term from Bertolt Brecht, “formal realism,” which basically means that you’re writing something that feels like realism but doesn’t actually do what realism purports to do, which is to describe the world in front of you. I like that term, phenomenological distortion! There’s one place [in White Flights] where I talk about how absurd the idea of “write what you know” is. Because how do we know what we know? What counts as something “known”? The imbalance in critique is another one of the main reasons why I wrote White Flights. It’s very rare to see a critic talking about the formal properties of a text by an author of color.

I think the imbalance is rooted in surveillance, and this is a discussion that I have with my Black writing peers. We know we’re being watched. We know who controls the power in the publishing world. But for some reason, I get this sense that white people don’t realize or severely underestimate how much Black people look right back at them and study them very, very well.

That is absolutely true. One of my teachers in grad school, Reginald McKnight, used to teach a class on that subject: white people as seen by Black people.

But also, what I appreciated in your book, is that you talk about the white psyche and how racism is not seen as a direct cause of the disorder and distress of America, and I liken that to this kind of “research” on white people, if you will. If you call a white person out especially in literary circles on their ignorance or oversight, you run the risk of that person having a meltdown and it’s like, why are you reacting to the truth in this way?

This is where the idea of “white fragility” seems very useful to me. When I read Robin DiAngelo’s original paper where she coined that term, there was one sentence that stood out to me: “white people are not taught to feel that the absence of people of color in their lives is a problem.” But it is a problem! It’s an enormous problem! Because, among other things, being isolated in an all-white world means that you’re never being held accountable for your words and your actions. If you’re used to feeling accountable, and you have active relationships with people of color, then acknowledging your faults won’t feel like the whole world is collapsing. I think one of the reasons this is obvious to me is that I grew up in a highly politicized, activist scene in high school, where acknowledging your own racism, as a white person, and your misogyny, as a man, was just seen as a basic requirement.

That was definitely not my environment. But I wanted to know, when you wrote this book, how was the reception from both white and black readers from you as a white man writing about white writing?

The book has only been out for a month, so I’m still riding the waves of reviews and responses, and so far, I’m humbled by how many people of all racial backgrounds are reaching out to me to tell me what they recognize and identify with in the text.

Toni Morrison says, It takes so much effort not to see.

How were you able to pull together all of these literary texts if you’re talking about white writingI mean, where does one even begin with that? Because if by your argument, white writers tend to be elusive when it comes to power dynamics, how does one pull the veil back with so much of that elusive writing that is considered to be the standard?

A great question, and one I struggled with a lot. Toni Morrison — again, in Playing in the Dark — says, “It takes so much effort not to see.” So I was looking for texts that, in one way or another, seem to go the extra mile in hiding something — texts that almost seem to be begging to be unpacked and interpreted in terms of what’s not being said. Raymond Carver is an obvious example; Annie Dillard; Marilynne Robinson; Lorrie Moore. And then there are white writers, like Richard Ford, who actually talk about race all the time, in really problematic ways — but critics very rarely focus on that aspect on their work. And when Colson Whitehead did critique Ford’s racism explicitly, Ford spat at him.

But there are so many other writers I would have liked to talk about but didn’t get a chance to, because the book could only be so long. Like Annie Proulx, Ann Beattie, Susan Straight, Russell Banks.

Were you also worried about your own blindspots as another white writer even though you do this kind of special work? And if so, how did you check yourself?

Yes. Yes, yes, yes. But look, if I were to say, I’m not doing this because I’m afraid of missing something — that would negate the whole point of the project. As you said, writers are not supposed to have some kind of universal consciousness.

Partly I tried to check myself by taking time and doing the writing slowly. Also through the input of my wife, Sonya Posmentier, who is a woman of color and a scholar of Black literature; and through conversations with many other friends/colleagues/admired writers, like Victor LaValle, Yahdon Israel, Fred Moten. And my editors at Graywolf also reached out to another editor there, Yana Makuwa, for her perspective during the editing process. I am so grateful for all the people who put up with me while I asked them to engage with this project! It could never have happened otherwise.

Are you thinking of doing more books along this same kind of theme?

My next book is a novel, tentatively titled The New Earth, that is partly — largely — about a biracial woman who doesn’t learn the truth about her biological father — a Black man — until she’s a teenager; and then she withholds this knowledge from her own children until they’re adults. So white denial, and amnesia, plays a very important role in the story.

When I come back to writing nonfiction, I’d like to write more about the relationship between fiction and society, or what we think of as the “real” — nonfictional — world. I’m fascinated by how people get so caught up in narratives —like say, the end of Game of Thrones — almost as if they were real, or more important than the horror of the actual politics we face everyday. There’s this deep human longing for endings that we can predict and control, which is what stories are, essentially — like life, except with a knowable, explicable ending. Stories are like models of how we wish life would be. That’s always been fascinating to me.

Or, in some cases, stories are models of how we fear life is going to turn out — hence the current interest in dystopian and apocalyptic fantasies.

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Morgan Jerkins is the author of This Will Be My Undoing: Living at the Intersection of Black, Female and Feminist in (White) America. She is based in New York.

Editor: Dana Snitzky