Examining whiteness through “reparative writing”

Jess Row asks what happens when alienation turns to rage.

In Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, Toni Mor­rison points to the strange silence about whiteness in American literature. White­ness, she writes, is “mute, meaningless, unfathomable, pointless, frozen, veiled, curtained, dreaded, senseless, implacable. Or so our writers seem to say.” What might it look like to interrogate this muteness, to pull back the curtain? Jess Row, a novelist and essayist, makes a serious attempt to answer her charge.

Row calls what he is attempting “reparative writing.” He uses the term tentatively. This is not a manifesto. Reparative writing, he says, “can’t exist until it exists in a community, as a process of dialogue and exchange.” Still he wants his work to have a spirit of reparation, offering “tangible resources to people who were (and/or still are) denied them.” He has dedicated the proceeds of the book to Racing Magpie, a Native-owned arts collective in Rapid City, South Dakota, on land that belongs to the Lakota by treaty, land that his ancestors were directly complicit in taking.

In a series of interconnected essays, Row demonstrates one form reparative writing might take. He begins with an understanding of whiteness as fundamentally about power and the policing of power. It uses shame and violence to create and enforce boundaries that serve power. Once boundaries have been established, a great deal of energy goes into both maintaining them and pretending that they aren’t there. In the realm of literature, this creates odd distortions and various kinds of “white flights.” It also leads to a deep underlying and unacknowledged sadness that is a true legacy of whiteness—a sense of isolation and alienation among those who are white. This alienation can give way to rage and violence.