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14 October 2020updated 26 Jul 2021 6:07am

Claudia Rankine and the construction of whiteness

In the past decade, the Jamaican-born poet has reversed the way we talk about race by focusing not on black victimhood, but on white privilege. 

By Colin Grant

In the past decade, with works such as Citizen: An American Lyric, the Jamaican-born poet Claudia Rankine has reversed the way we frame and talk about race by focusing not on black victimhood, but on the construction of whiteness. Rankine’s inversion, which she teaches at Yale University, is simple but ­profound, countervailing long-lasting assumptions about race.

In her latest book, Just Us: An American Conversation, she invites readers to stand in for her discomfited students. If you tried out her thesis for yourself, asking white friends, for instance, when they first realised that they were white, you’d likely be met with silence, even bewilderment. But black people are born and live in the “castle of their skin” every day. Not thinking about colour is a luxury hardly ever granted to them.

Just Us explores the underexposed privilege of whiteness. Like Citizen which, when published in 2014, spoke directly to the concerns of the burgeoning Black Lives Matter movement, the new work is a hybrid of prose, poetry, monologues and photographs, such as the idealised 1950s “Caucasian” model who illustrates how “Shirley Cards” determined the “correct” skin tone balance as an industry standard for North American photo labs. The racial bias built into photography may seem a trivial concern but is illustrative of the pervasive bias in society. Have black lives mattered more in the past few years? George Floyd’s murder suggests not.

The book begins with a troubling thought. At this inflection point in our culture of “racial reckoning”, when privileged assumptions are being shredded and long-term structural injustices more rigorously challenged, “What if in the long middle of the wait… nothing changes?” The question is directed squarely at the US, and seems a challenge to Martin Luther King’s assertion that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice”. It is bending surely, but the resistance towards change is still great.

Rankine is the interrogator throughout Just Us, conducting a probing survey of attitudes by inserting herself into the text as a participating observer. She charts the turbulence of the past that now allows, at least among her tertiary-educated friends, for relative ease of black/white interactions. Each page offers richly rewarding anecdotes and insights into the quagmire of race and race relations in the United States.

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[see also: Why Louise Glück is a worthy winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature]

Typical is an altercation with a white airline passenger who jumps in front of Rankine (a frequent first-class flyer) as she queues for boarding. When she informs him that she’s also in the queue, his response (an aside to his friend) succinctly encapsulates the arrogance of privilege: “You never know who they’re letting into first class these days.” Battle-hardened to such exchanges, she’s still rattled days later when recounting the tale to her therapist. On a subsequent flight, another white male passenger in the first-class seat next to her appears alarmed by her proximity. “Seeing his whiteness,” she writes, “meant I understood my presence as an unexpected demotion for him.”

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The term “white privilege” was popularised by the academic Peggy McIntosh in 1988. She listed 46 ways in which she was a beneficiary of white privilege. All are illuminating, but number 36 is particularly so: “If my day, week or year is going badly, I need not ask of each negative episode or situation whether it had racial overtones.” It can be exhausting being black. But Claudia Rankine is indefatigable and has a steely eye for white folk lamenting the shift in social tectonic plates that is undermining their previously unassailable positions. She’s not alone; white allies feature throughout the book.

Whitney Dow is among those Rankine enlists in support of her thesis. Dow, a documentary film-maker, has filmed hundreds of white Americans for an oral history project called “Facing Whiteness”. He tells Rankine: “We are seeing the deconstruction of the white male archetype. The individual actor on the grand stage always had the support of a genocidal government, but this is not the narrative we grew up with. It’s a challenge to adjust.”

That’s clearly the case for one of Rankine’s friends who is passed over for a job and feels victimised for being a white man. She encourages him to take the long view of America’s iniquitous workplace, which still favours white men. She wants to delve deeper and ask her friend “if his expectation was a sign of his privilege”. But she refrains, reholstering her pistol, as it were, remembering that her “role as a friend probably demanded another response”.

The use of “probably” is key. Although Rankine upbraids herself for ungenerous thoughts about white liberals, including her “woke” white husband, there are occasionally, in conversations, comments such as “I don’t see colour” that make her pull “an emergency brake” in her head and try to resist lubricating moments of tough questioning. No one is guaranteed a “pass”, not even her husband.

Rankine quotes the theorist Saidiya Hartman, who argues that the task of “educating white people about racism has failed”. North Americans, Hartman says, occupy a time in which the legacy of slavery is still present, where “the past, the present and the future, are not discrete and cut off from one another”. They live with a sense of “temporal entanglement”. Just Us is an attempt to narrate this process, one instinctively understood by black people.

Rankine’s reflection on the controversial play Fairview is a good example of her approach. Jackie Sibblies Drury’s play, which won the 2019 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, unfolds as a kind of game show interrogation of white perceptions of blackness, performative blackness and white minstrelsy. The play is a challenge for Rankine and a white female friend when they go to see it. Their friendship is put in jeopardy because of the white woman’s mute response and failure, when the theatrical fourth wall is broken at the play’s end, to gather on stage with the shamed white audience when enjoined to do so by a black cast member. Rankine voices her disappointment (bordering on disapproval) of her white friend, and the breach leads to days of silence. But the friendship is saved when Rankine receives an unsolicited written response from the friend, confessing: “I shrink… from scenes where I’m asked… to feel bad as a white person… to feel shame, guilt, to do penance, to stand corrected, to sit down chastised.”

Chastisement should not be confused with learning. Just Us is a provocation and, if read closely, will make difficult demands on the reader. But they’re demands that Rankine is determined not to shirk from in challenging the continuing pathological inequalities of the United States. “Remaining in the quotidian of disturbance,” she writes, “is our way of staying honest until another strategy offers a new pathway, an as-yet-unimagined pathway that allows the existing structures to stop replicating.” 

Just Us: An American Conversation
Claudia Rankine
Allen Lane, 360pp, £25

This article appears in the 14 Oct 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Can Joe Biden save America?