This book was hard to read. It is full of raw pain. I so appreciate Rankine’s willingness to expose her vulnerability. I am struck by how hurtful it is for a black woman to live in the culture of the United States. She is brave to expose herself this way.
Rankine, a professor at Yale teaching classes on the history of whiteness in the U.S. wonders one day,
“What it would mean to ask random white men how they understood their privilege. . . . I found myself falling into easy banter with all kinds of strangers except white men. They rarely sought me out to shoot the breeze, and I did not seek them out”(20).
We follow Rankine through her life and live inside her head as she analyzes and attempts to metabolize various experiences. We are with her as she wonders how she is being perceived and tries to see through the lens of the other. All of this she relays to the reader — her feelings, frustrations and pain included.
“Just recently, a friend who didn’t get a job he applied for told me that, as a white male, he was absorbing the problems of the world. He meant he was being punished for the sins of his forefathers. He wanted me to know he understood it was his burden to bear. I wanted to tell him that he needed to take a long view of the history of the workplace, given the imbalances that generations of hiring practices before him had created. But would that really make my friend feel any better? Did he understand that, today, 64 percent of elected officials are white men, though they make up only 31 percent of the American population? White men have held almost all the power in this country for four hundred years”(22).
Throughout the book, Rankine fact checks herself with footnotes in the Kindle/eBook and on the opposite page in the print book. The concept is effective and offers the reader an exhale from the main text while it simultaneously deepens the dialogue Rankine is having with herself. With this form, she gives space for her quotidian self, her inner voice, her beliefs, her feelings, and accumulated facts to commingle, build and layer in an intensifying spiral of pain. As the reader follows the information in the footnotes or fact check pages, the “proof” to back up her feelings or experiences becomes data that highlights the underpinning of racism throughout history, culture and everyday life for black Americans. She is footnoting her own pain. Fact checking her broken heart.
And yet her voice and her heart are compassionate throughout. We get to feel that. We get to live that with her.
“I knew that my friend was trying to communicate his struggle to find a way to understand the complicated American structure that holds us both. I want to ask him if his expectation was a sign of his privilege but decided, given the loss of his job opportunity, that my role as a friend probably demanded other responses”(22).
An especially painful section in the book with this kind of self-reflection, questioning and hurt is the chapter “ethical loneliness.” Rankine describes going to the play Fairview written by black playwright Jackie Sibblies Drury, with a white friend— a seemingly very good white friend. The friend does not go up onto the stage when the black actor asks all the white people in the audience to do so. To go up to the stage while all the black actors go to the audience, to allow the black people to be held in the audience by the white people on stage in a way they are not held in our culture. Her friend does not budge. She sits there and ignores the plea while other white people in the audience participate and do as the playwright has asked.
Rankine burns with anger for days and weeks, even months after this.
“My tension begins to couple with a building resentment against my white friend. I feel betrayed by her”(190).
As a white woman reading the book, I want to believe that I would have acted differently than her friend. I wonder too why the woman did not participate. As I attempt to imagine into Rankine’s friend’s place, I can feel into a sort of apathy and also shyness that might prohibit me, maybe (?) under such circumstances. I don’t know and I also know that I cannot know what I would have done in that moment but I am allowed to feel how it affected Rankine and it hurts to read it. I don’t want her to hurt and I want to believe I would not hurt her. But I also know inevitably, at some point, I would, as she shows me how she “regularly has to negotiate conscious and unconscious dismissal, erasure, disrespect, and abuse”(22). All of that invisible to me, a white woman. Thus I, and the likes of me, are often nothing but a bull in the china shop of her torment.
Rankine shows the chapter to the friend as she is writing it and the friend responds in an honest and non-reactive way. The friend also writes her back, about her own feelings at the play when she was asked to go to the stage. It is a very heartfelt and honest letter where the reader is also let into the complexity of that moment for her friend.
I am yet sitting with mixed feelings around what was said in that letter. But I do know that chapter stayed with me and made me think in a way I have never thought. It opened me and softened me and I felt grateful, for moments like these are not often found in current cultural dialogues.
This chapter and book offered me a quiet moment to acknowledge our intense vulnerability to one another. How terribly complex everything is. How one moment builds on another, one time builds on another, one movement builds on another and how we bring all of that to the table, always, in every encounter.
And yet we do not walk softly through this forest of experience with one another. We just keep on hurting one another. This Rankine reveals eloquently as she moves through these pages, these chapters, her life with such an open and asking heart. How can we honor this? We must honor this. I choose to honor this.
Claudia Rankine is a poet, playwright, essayist, and professor. She is the author of multiple books and has received many awards and prizes including a 2016 MacArthur Genius Grant. She co-founded the Racial Imaginary Institute. Learn more about her at her website here.
Rankine flies frequently. She often has first class seats. She describes standing in line and having a white man step in front of her.
“He was with another white man. ‘Excuse me,’ I said. ‘I am in this line.’ He stepped behind me but not before saying to his flight mate, ‘You never know who they’re letting into first class these days’”(23).
Apparently this happens to black women all the time. And Rankine has the footnotes and images to back that up.
Rankine has decided to ask one of the unknown anonymous white men she flies with about white privilege.
“What I wanted was to know what the white man saw or didn’t see when he walked in front of me at the gate. It’s hard to exist and also accept my lack of existence”(33).
At the gate for another flight she finally gets up her courage to ask a white man about his experience of privilege. This happens during a conversation in which he reveals he is upset because his son has not made the cut of the early application process into Yale (where she teaches). He actually has the gall to say to her, “It’s tough when you can’t play the diversity card”(42). And yet she compassionately pursues her question.
In the chapter “social contract,” she describes being at party with all white people and bringing up race, then being silenced by the hostess pointing everyone to the dessert.
“I’m aware my question breaks the rules of social engagement. I’m aware I will never be invited back to this house, back into the circle of these white people. I understand inadvertently causing someone to feel shame isn’t cool. But: Am I being silenced?”(145)
“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. They are not allowed to point out its causes. In ‘Sexism—a Problem with a Name,’ Sara Ahmed writes that ‘if you name the problem you become the problem.’ To create discomfort by pointing out facts is seen as socially unacceptable. Let’s get over ourselves, it’s structural not personal, I want to shout at everyone including myself.
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 into their day-to-day lives, come with the continued outrage at rage”(146).
The above are but small examples from a much larger tapestry that Rankine is examining and reflecting upon in this book. She longs to have real conversations but there is so much in the way. The book breaks through by showing how things get in our way, keeping us from being real with one another.
My wish is for you to experience this book.
Claudia Rankine is a #NastyWomanWriter and Activist.
©Theresa C. Dintino 2020