In the novel Flight, by Sherman Alexie, there is a visible current in which the author establishes the white person aesthetic as “beautiful”, in contrast to the “ugliness” of Indians. As it is common in American (U.S.) society for whiteness and white people to be held aloft as the standard by which all else be judged, this current became clear to me almost immediately.
The main character is a half-Indian, half-white teenager named “Zits” – a nickname he adopts for the fact that he has a severe case of acne. The character defines himself by his worst physical quality, but also his “Indian-ness”, in spite of his blended heritage. That Indian-ness and ugliness should be mutually inclusive, at least in the narrator’s mind, is established early in the story.
I’m ashamed of … being tall. And skinny. And ugly. I’m ashamed that I look like a bag of zits tied to a broomstick. […]I wonder if being Indian causes acne. […] I’ve inherited his [my father’s] ruined complexion and black hair and big Indian nose. (p. 4)
This self-identification with Indian-ness and ugliness is juxtaposed against the other side of his heritage, which he regards as beautiful. We are first exposed to the “white is beautiful” theme as Zits speaks of his mother and mourns the fact that he did not inherit her qualities.
She was a white woman. Irish I guess. I have a photograph of her, too, and she is gorgeous. My eyes are green, like hers, but I’m not pretty. I wish I looked more like her. (p. 5)
Throughout the story, Zits has the unusual opportunity to occupy the bodies and circumstances of other people throughout time. The pretext for this “time-jumping” is that he experience the universality of human brutality, but the equally ubiquitous – if only less common – instances of compassion. But there is a subtext tucked within this main premise wherein the character also has the opportunity to be “beautiful” by inhabiting the bodies of white people. The first is Hank Storm, an FBI agent who serves on the front lines of some sort of shadow war against Native Americans. When Zits first notices his new body, he thinks:
And so they had to take my zitty teenage Indian mug and replace it with a handsome white guy’s face. Yes, I am looking at a very handsome white guy in the mirror. His hair is blond. His eyes are blue. His skin is clear. (p. 40)
Here we notice two things: first, that Hank Storm has blond hair and blue eyes, two qualities that are quintessentially “white”, those regarded as pristinely beautiful for the fact that they belong almost exclusively to white people. Second, the man has clear skin, another way the narrator notices how different – that is, how beautiful – this white man is compared to himself.
Later, while Zits is still occupying Hank’s body, we meet his wife, who again is clearly described as a white woman, and also the most beautiful woman he has ever seen.
I can’t believe this woman is my wife. She is beautiful. Black hair, blue eyes, pale skin. She is maybe the most beautiful woman I have ever seen in person. (p. 58)
For their prevalence, it is my impression that Alexie is drawing intentional parallels between white and beautiful, Indian and ugly. Also for the emphasis he places on features that are unmistakably white versus those that could also belong to people of a different race.
During another time-jump he inhabits a pilot named Jimmy – who also has pale skin, blond hair, and blue eyes. Jimmy has relationships with two women, one of which is his wife, and the other a younger acquaintance. Zits describes the mistress, Helda, as:
Red hair, green eyes. And she’s pretty. Very short and very curvy. Cheerleader curvy. (p. 115)
There is a connection drawn between Helda and Zits’ own mother, who had earlier was identified as white – specifically, Irish. Helda’s features automatically speak to her whiteness even were the connection to the mother not made, as red hair and green eyes are second only to blond and blue in identifying a person as white. Both are described as beautiful. In contrast, Zits describes the wife – Linda – as:
…older, gray-haired, a little bit pretty and a little bit chubby. Her brown eyes are huge. (p. 117)
Linda’s race is left ambiguous, although for Jimmy and Helda’s ultra-whiteness, the reader might assume that she is white as well. I get the sense that the ambiguity is intentional, because Alexie does not miss any other opportunity to identify a character by ethnicity. Linda has features that could belong to any other race or ethnicity, and perhaps for those features she can only qualify as “a little bit pretty”, not for the overwhelming beauty of Helda or the other quintessentially white women in the book.
One of the last instances of tethering beauty to whiteness comes towards the end of the book, as Zits finds himself back in his own body, just seconds before he made the lethal choice that set the book in motion – to shoot and kill random strangers in a bank, and to be shot in the head himself. Visiting this choice a second time, he takes a particular interest in a woman and her son.
He is maybe five years old. He has blue eyes and blond hair. He’s wearing good shoes. A jean jacket. Khaki pants. Blue shirt. He’s beautiful. A beautiful little man. (p. 158)
Again the emphasis on blond hair and blue eyes. Alexie even verges on hyperbole by saying beautiful twice, and by making the child’s clothes blond and blue – Khaki pants, blue shirt – as if to punctuate the statement that white is beautiful. If there is beauty in compassion and ugliness in brutality, then perhaps this child is also the punctuation on Zits’ decision not to carry out mass murder a second time.
Throughout the text, Zits makes it clear that he regards himself as ugly, in contrast to the beauty of the many white people he encounters. When in his final time-jump he occupies the body of an Indian man – and not just any Indian man, but his own father – we are again presented with an unappealing physical image.
Not only do we know him to possess the features that Zits regards as ugly in himself, but Alexie adds an extra veneer, of dirtiness – the man is homeless, drunk, and has vomited on himself – and bloodiness – he is ill, vomiting up blood. He meets a couple of strangers, a couple who are, at least ostensibly, of the white liberal ilk that in spite of the most benign of intentions (they call the homeless man an ambulance and the woman even goes so far as to say he is important to them) try to smother all the nuance of racial and social dynamics beneath a pretext of compassion. Alexie shows us the kind of rage the white liberal attitude can provoke, but instead of recognizing it as justifiable, he paints this man as ugly both inside and out, the point being not merely to cast Indian as ugly and white as beautiful, but to identify this current as one of self-hatred.
Self-hatred is explicitly named on page 137 – “Maybe I can defeat her with my rage and self-hatred”, as an answer to a white woman’s display of compassion towards him – and again on page 156 as Zits’ father affirms his own father’s low opinion of him, repeating “I ain’t worth shit!” over and over again. It is the same self-hatred and rage that underlies Zits’ predisposition at the start of the book, and ultimately his violent actions that set the story in motion.
But in the end, Zits makes the “beautiful” choice and rather than killing the people at the bank, turns himself in to the police. He is in turn offered a chance at redemption, but more importantly a chance to love and find beauty in himself.
This shift in self-image and potential – a word Zits sneers at early in the story – is punctuated by his new foster mother telling him that he is handsome, and showing him how to remove the acne from his face. The story ends with Zits insisting that his foster mother refer to him as Michael, his real name.
Where I am left wondering, however, is in how redemption and self-love are still necessarily facilitated by white people and via whiteness. It is the white cop, his white brother, and white sister-in-law, who foster Zits and who offer him not only to wash away those physical traits that he identifies as ugly, but also to participate in the quintessentially “American” – that is, white – experience, living with them and going to baseball games.
A psychologist early in the book tells Zits that he’s “never learned how to be a fully realized human being”, something she connects to mainstream U.S. (white) culture, things like wearing a tie and having newly shined shoes. Zits, while strongly identifying as Indian, rejects these norms, but at the end of the story seems to embrace them. It is interesting too how he distinguishes between Indian-ness and American-ness, the latter interchangeable with whiteness for all that it seems to be inclusive of people of color in the United States – which is to say, not very inclusive at all.
A baseball game! Jesus, how American. Next thing you know, Dave and the firefighter and I will be playing catch in the backyard. (p. 176)
In Flight, Alexie seems to be asking whether or not self-hatred can be neutralized through assimilation – that is, can Zits’s hatred of his own Indian-ness be dissolved into a claiming of his whiteness? Indeed whiteness itself is a product of assimilation, with Irish, Italian, German, and other European ethnicities blending within the “melting pot” to create a new racial paradigm. Alexie clearly recognizes the construct of whiteness – an institution that transcends individuals – identifying it explicitly when Zits occupies the body of his own father:
Jesus, I wonder if this homeless guy understands the difference between white and whiteness. And then I wonder if I should be so condescending, considering I am this homeless guy. (p. 136)
Yet in spite of this clear acknowledgement of whiteness, at the same time Zits becomes Michael he embraces his white foster family and their “American” cultural norms. It seems Zits is on the verge of the same assimilation. Should, then, his father have accepted the compassion of the white liberals rather than demanding their respect?
Could there be salvation or redemption in assimilation? Just who is redeemed in such a situation – the person of color who by default is excluded from the mainstream American experience only to be invited in by the sheer grace of white people? Or is the redemption for the white people themselves who seek to alleviate the guilt they possess for how their own institutionalized supremacy has caused such exclusion? Alexie may be hinting at this question, if not its answer, on page 177:
[Officer Dave] is trying to save me. And he’s smiling about it. I guess that’s okay. Maybe I can save him, too. (p. 177)
Is Alexie’s message, then, a more saccharine one, that through some sort of joint effort people of pallor and people of color can come together and redeem each other or their collective society? I sincerely doubt it. I think Mr. Alexie, known for his wit and subversiveness, is taking aim and laughing at the idea.