Claudia Rankine’s Quest for Racial Dialogue

Is her focus on the personal out of step with the racial politics of our moment?

Claudia Rankine
Yael Malka

When Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric arrived in the fall of 2014, shortly before a St. Louis County grand jury decided not to charge Darren Wilson for Michael Brown’s murder, critics hailed it as a work very much of its moment. The book-length poem—the only such work to be a best seller on the New York Times nonfiction list—was in tune with the Black Lives Matter movement, which was then gathering momentum. How, Rankine asked, can Black citizens claim the expressive “I” of lyric poetry when a systemically racist state looks upon a Black person and sees, at best, a walking symbol of its greatest fears and, at worst, nothing at all? The book’s cover, a picture of David Hammons’s 1993 sculpture In the Hood, depicted a hood shorn from its sweatshirt—an image that evoked the 2012 murder of Trayvon Martin. Rankine’s catalog of quotidian insults, snubs, and misperceptions dovetailed with the emergence of microaggression as a term for the everyday psychic stress inflicted on marginalized people.

In fact, Rankine was ahead of her time. Citizen was the result of a decade she had spent probing W. E. B. Du Bois’s century-old question: How does it feel to be a problem? In answering that question, she deployed the same kaleidoscopic aesthetic on display in her earlier books, most notably 2004’s Don’t Let Me Be Lonely. Rankine’s experimental poetics drew from first-person reportage, visual art, photography, television, and various literary genres, modeling fragmented Black personhood under the daily pressure of white supremacy. Meanwhile, starting in 2011, she had been inviting writers to reflect on how assumptions and beliefs about race circumscribe people’s imaginations and support racial hierarchies. The project, which she collaborated on with the writer Beth Loffreda, culminated in the 2015 anthology The Racial Imaginary. If Citizen seemed uncannily well timed, that was because our politics had finally caught up with Rankine.

A lot has happened since 2014, for both the nation and Rankine. In 2016, she joined Yale’s African American–studies and English departments and was awarded a MacArthur genius grant. The fellowship helped fund an “interdisciplinary cultural laboratory,” which she christened the Racial Imaginary Institute, where scholars, artists, and activists have been expanding on the work of the anthology. Rankine also began exploring the ways in which whiteness conceals itself behind the facade of an unraced universal identity. Her new work, Just Us: An American Conversation, extends those investigations.

Yet this time, Rankine might seem less obviously in step with a newly zealous discourse on race. Employing her signature collagelike approach, she avoids polemics, instead earnestly speculating about the possibility of interracial understanding. She sets out to stage uncomfortable conversations with white people—strangers, friends, family—about how (or whether) they perceive their whiteness. She wants to discover what new forms of social interaction might arise from such a disruption. She interrogates herself, too. Perhaps, she suggests, concerted attempts to engage with, rather than harangue, one another will help us recognize the historical and social binds that entangle us. Maybe there is a way to speak convincingly of a “we,” of a community that cuts across race without ignoring the differences that constitute the “I.” In contracting around the question of interpersonal intimacy, rather than structural change, Just Us puts Rankine in an unfamiliar position: Has the radical tone of our racial politics since this spring’s uprisings outpaced her?

Rankine’s intent is not simply to expose or chastise whiteness. She has something more nuanced in mind: using conversation as a way to invite white people to consider how contingent their lives are upon the racial order—every bit as contingent as Black people’s are. “I was always aware that my value in our culture’s eyes is determined by my skin color first and foremost,” she says. The same is true for white people, of course, however unaware of that reality they may be. As she puts it, “To converse is to risk the unraveling of the said and the unsaid.”

Her experiments began in the fall of 2016, after she arrived at Yale. Unsure whether her students would be able to trace the historical resonances of Donald Trump’s anti-immigrant demagoguery, she wanted to help them “connect the current treatment of both documented and undocumented Mexicans with the treatment of Irish, Italian, and Asian people in the last century”: It was a way of exposing whiteness as a racial category whose privileges have emerged over the course of American history through the interaction with, and exclusion of, Black—and brown, and Asian—people, as well as European immigrants who have only recently become “white.”

In Just Us, Rankine the poet becomes an anthropologist. If her mode of discomfiting those whom she encounters strikes readers as unexpectedly mild, it might be because the strident urgency of racial politics in the U.S. escalated while her book was on its way toward publication. She chooses her words carefully as she engages, positioning herself in the minefield of her interlocutors’ emotions so that dialogue can happen. While waiting to board an airplane, for example, she initiates a conversation with a fellow passenger, who chalks up his son’s rejection from Yale to his inability to “play the diversity card.” Rankine has to resist pelting the man with questions that might make him wary of being labeled a racist and cause him to shut down. “I wanted to learn something that surprised me about this stranger, something I couldn’t have known beforehand.” Above all, she is curious about how he thinks, and how she can raise the issue of his privilege in a way that prompts more conversation rather than less.

In another airplane encounter, this time with a white man who feels more familiar, she is able to push harder. When he describes his company’s efforts to strengthen diversity and declares, “I don’t see color,” Rankine challenges him: “Aren’t you a white man? … If you can’t see race, you can’t see racism.” She leaves the interchange satisfied that the two of them have “[broken] open our conversation—random, ordinary, exhausting, and full of longing to exist in … less segregated spaces.” The book presents this exchange as an achievement—a moment of confrontation that leads to mutual recognition rather than to rupture.

But interactions with less rosy outcomes complicate Rankine’s optimism. She and a good friend, a white woman with whom she talks every few days and who “is interested in thinking about whiteness,” attend a production that “is interested in thinking about race,” Jackie Sibblies Drury’s Pulitzer Prize–winning 2018 play, Fairview. It builds to a climax in which white and Black audience members are asked to self-segregate, the white spectators going up onstage while the Black spectators stay put. Rankine’s friend doesn’t budge. Confounded and furious, Rankine tries to sort out her “own mounting emotion in the face of what I perceive as belligerence.” Is this “a friendship error despite my understanding of how whiteness functions? I thought we shared the same worldview, if not the same privileges. Be still my beating, breaking heart?” She probes her “unbearable feelings,” spools through her friend’s possible motives, and then shares the dialogue they eventually have, in the course of which her friend explains her unease with situations “manufactured specifically to elicit white shame, penance”: She resists the thrill of “riding the white emotional roller-coaster,” impatient with the notion that being chastised, as Darryl Pinckney once put it, constitutes actual learning—that it accomplishes anything.

Both Rankine and her friend are surprised, by the play and by Rankine’s anger. Their mutual surprise is productive: They emerge unsettled but still talking. The opposite happens during an encounter Rankine has at an otherwise all-white dinner party. In a conversation that turns to Trump’s racism, she feels herself becoming stereotyped as an angry Black woman, only to have another guest step in to steer everyone’s attention to dessert. When Rankine demands to know if she is being silenced, the party closes ranks around the woman. “Knowing that my silence is active in the room,” Rankine writes, “I stay silent because I want to make a point of that silence. Among white people, black people are allowed to talk about their precarious lives, but they are not allowed to implicate the present company in that precariousness.”

Rankine is wary of not only foreclosed conversations, but also the sclerotic language that prevents conversations from advancing understanding. Rankine’s own husband—a white man—disappoints her when, in response to her reports of frustrating exchanges with strangers, he falls back on well-worn keywords. “ ‘They’re just defensive,’ he said. ‘White fragility,’ he added, with a laugh.” This diagnosis is not enough for Rankine.

This white man who has spent the past twenty-five years in the world alongside me believes he understands and recognizes his own privilege. Certainly he knows the right terminology to use, even when these agreed-upon terms prevent us from stumbling into moments of real recognition.

Yet Rankine herself defaults to Robin DiAngelo’s concept on several occasions, which can’t help feeling stale at a juncture when White Fragility is under fire as a book that coddles white readers. It substitutes consciousness-raising for concrete policy changes, critics argue, and in the process creates a caricature of Black people as hapless victims.

Indeed, the very idea that drives Just Us forward—the notion that racial inequality can be challenged by fostering social intimacy and uncovering the reality of white privilege—risks seeming somewhat regressive. Why should one care about audience responses to a Black playwright’s breaking of the fourth wall, for example, or about arguments over Trump’s racism at a well-heeled dinner party? Unlike the Rankine of Citizen, this Rankine can often sound—at least to someone who’s followed, and felt, the anger of the spring and summer—as though she’s arriving on the scene of a radical uprising in order to translate it into language white readers will find palatable. Even Rankine confesses to a similar impatience as she sits in silence at that party, feeling shunned for shaming a fellow guest: “Let’s get over ourselves, it’s structural not personal, I want to shout at everyone, including myself.”

But Rankine’s probing, persistent desire for intimacy is also daring at a time when anti-racist discourse has hardened into an ideological surety, and when plenty of us chafe at the work of “explaining” race to white people. As she goes on to write, after expressing that urge to shout about systemic racism:

But all the structures and all the diversity planning put in place to alter those structures, and all the desires of whites to assimilate blacks in their day-to-day lives, come with the continued outrage at rage. All the perceived outrage at me, the guest who brings all of herself to dinner, all of it—her body, her history, her fears, her furious fears, her expectations—is, in the end, so personal.

The personal, Rankine suggests, is an unavoidable challenge along the path to structural change. It’s not just her white interlocutors, after all, who are discomfited by the exchanges. Rankine is a Jamaican immigrant and first-generation college graduate who travels in largely white professional and communal spaces. In one essay, she slips into overidentifying with a wealthy, Mayflower-pedigreed friend’s class identity, but catches herself: The two of them might have arrived at the same place, but they’ve traveled dramatically different routes. “I begin to remember all the turbulence and disturbances between us that contributed to the making of this moment of ease and comfort,” she writes, aware of how much she, too, responds to “the framework of white hierarchy … behind the making of a culture I am both subject to and within.”

Just Us is most interesting when Rankine leans into this self-examination. In these moments, she suggests that the myopia of “whiteness” is not necessarily an attribute limited to white people. It becomes a circulating ethos of willful ignorance, the right to live a life whose fundamental assumptions go unobserved. Upon meeting a Latina artist who contests Rankine’s tidy narrative that Latino people are “breathless to distance themselves from blackness,” Rankine is forced to acknowledge her own blinkered perception as a woman who has ascended into the upper echelons of white culture. The artist proceeds to explain that “the Latinx assimilationist narrative is one constructed by whiteness itself.” The tension that Rankine perceives between Latino and Black people is born of a “monolithic focus on black-white relations in the United States” that has obscured more complex conceptions of race. She continues to “believe antiblack racism is foundational to all of our problems, regardless of our ethnicity.” Yet she’s failed to recognize how Latino people’s lived experiences are erased by America’s narrow racial categories, the same categories that threaten to erase her.

Rankine’s readiness to live in the turmoil and uncertainty of that misunderstanding is what separates her from the ethos of whiteness. As the country confronts race in a newly militant spirit, her need to deal in the personal while public protest thrives may not seem cutting-edge. But tireless questioning is never out of date, and she freely faces up to the limits of her own enterprise, embracing a spirit of doubt, mingled with hope, that we would all do well to emulate. “Is understanding change?” Rankine asks toward the end of her book. “I am not sure.”