Claudia Rankine’s Citizen and Race Matters

Last weekend I had dinner with a friend of mine, Joe, who was in town from LA.  He brought a friend of his, Mercedes, along to have dinner with us. During our dinner conversation, Mercedes mentioned that she is a professor, currently on sabbatical, from Pomona College. I immediately referenced the writer, Claudia Rankine, a former professor from Pomona. Rankine wrote the cover article for the August 30, 2015 edition of the New York Times Magazine ,as well as Citizen, and many other works. Recently, however, Rankine, became a professor at the University of Southern California. Mercedes and I talked briefly about Rankine and her work.  As a result of our conversation, I decided to revisit Rankine’s books. Citizen: An American Lyric, the first one I reread, is a lyrical reflection on the status of race in America. As I revisited the book, I met another woman, who heard Rankine speak last year at NYU; she offered details about Rankine’s process in writing the book. The book includes individual accounts, that may appear to be isolated events in an African-American’s life, but each story has a common thread about racial perceptions in America, and the reactions of Americans, white or otherwise to these events. She references every day events that people of color experience while most white Americans do not consider race as a factor in these events.

As I read the individual racial accounts, I knew that I had a story of my own to tell. Race is always a complicated and daunting topic to talk about because of the offense that is often taken and because the communicator does not want to offend.  Often, as Rankine opines, African-Americans remain silent without an utter of thought or without a feeling of freedom of expression. Rankine divides her book into seven sections. In the first section she individually writes about individual citizens of the United States who encounter racism in subtle forms. She simply states the events, leaving the reader with the ability to ruminate on each event. In another section of the book, she talks about Serena Williams, and the perception of her as “the angry black woman.” She discusses the overt and the covert racism Williams experiences either because of her persona or because of her physical size. Additionally, in other sections of her book and in her writings in general, she looks at racial situations in the media, like Trayvon Martin, whose death gained national attention, and she looks at the racial perception of the African-Americans in these situations. A pervasive thought echoes through America, “If only he had not had worn a hoodie.” ” If only he had not worn a hoodie.” If only, if only, if only,……..

Rankine emphatically states in the aforementioned New York Times article that “The daily grind of being rendered invisible, or being attacked, whether physically or verbally, for being visible, wears a body down.” According to Rankine, and I personally know this to be true, that ” There is a belief among some African-Americans that to defeat racism, they have to work harder, be smarter, be better. Only after they give 150 percent will white Americans recognize black excellence for what it is.  But of course, once recognized, black excellence is then supposed to perform with good manners and forgiveness in the face of any racist slights or attacks.” I often wonder if I am worn down by desiring to be recognized for black excellence. I ask, “Does my race really matter when it comes to performance?”  Of course it does! We do not live in a color blind society. I wish we did. I am still challenging myself to see people individually, not according to racial perceptions or stereotypes.

Throughout my fifty years, I have experienced many “subtle racial attacks or racial slights” that most people may not see as offensive. For example, I have eclectic interests and hobbies that I engage in avidly. Recently an acquaintance told me that “I am the whitest black person” she knows. I did not take it offensively, but I remained silent. I should have said that “African-Americans come in many shades and colors, and that we should not be stereotyped.” Similar to the ideas suggested in Citizen, I remained silent for fear of negative comments about my character, about the negative connotations of  the embodiment of yet another angry black woman. Another example of overt racism was when I was at the Whitney Museum with my friend Joe (I never disclosed this situation to him) having breakfast. Only members of the community were invited to the complimentary breakfast. I attended the event with Joe. When my friend stepped away, a white woman approached me and asked, ” Do you live in the community?” I replied “No.” At that moment, my friend approached and I said, “He does.” She quickly scattered like a roach when exposed to the light. If I were white, she would have never approached me. Using the words of Zora Neale Hurston, ” I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background.”

Even as I write this post, I am conscious of how my white colleagues (not my white friends because they know my character and I have shared my thoughts often) will perceive my thoughts.  I hope they, and others, will receive them with the spirit in which I intend. Lastly, when people say that racism no longer exists, I often think, “Where do they live? Oh, I don’t mean the house that they live in…….”

Pick up your copy of Citizen today! We can achieve racial healing through conversation. Let’s talk…

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