Writer Claudia Rankine On White Blindness, The Black Body, and the Freedom to Live

NOTE: The following is an interview conducted by one of Los Angeles’ great journalists and native Angelenos Lynell George.

Bernard K. Addison, Simone Missick and Leith Burke perform in the stage production of "Citizen: An American Lyric." | Photo: Ed Krieger.
Bernard K. Addison, Simone Missick and Leith Burke perform in the stage production of “Citizen: An American Lyric.” | Photo: Ed Krieger.

On the American “stage” — within mainstream media and in public discourse — the discussion of race and racism is often defined by spectacle: an event that we can collectively point to that plays out on our screens, large and small. It might be the grievous roll call of black lives cut short by raw acts of violence; or it might take shape in next week’s headlines — a bungled arrest or denial of dignity — that eerily mirrors incidents of three generations ago.

While those high-profile, super-charged moments are indeed odious and shameful, they are indicative of a deeper malady affecting the American psyche, writer Claudia Rankine argues in her most recent book, “Citizen: An American Lyric.”

Often, Rankine notes, these high-profile conflagrations — New Orleans post Hurricane Katrina, the murder of Trayvon Martin — are viewed with confusion or are categorized as aberration by those who don’t move through life with black skin. For those who navigate daily through fraught territory, the belief or assumption that racism is largely “behind us” is both a powerful articulation of privilege and a violent act of erasure.

“Citizen” — Rankine’s keenly alert and incisive collection of poetry, prose and imagery — was named a poetry finalist for the 2014 National Book Award and was the winner of the National Books Critics Circle Award. The text is now finding another life as a stage production at the Fountain Theatre in Hollywood.

“Citizen” carefully catalogs the ways in which casual racism permeates our day-to-day interactions — both spoken and unspoken; those “Did that really happen?” moments. These are slights, dismissals and elisions that are deeply ingrained. They are reflexive gestures — judgments — enacted upon another: the door that is not held open, the seat that is not occupied, the fumbled or “mistaken” identity. Each slip, each cut, is an obliteration.

While “Citizen” articulates this paradox — this notion of people of color rendered at once invisible and hyper-visible — Rankine’s goal was not to enumerate pain, but to expose and address “white blindness.” If we don’t — or refuse to — see it, we can’t engage in a dialogue to disassemble it. Untended, these quiet, repeated microaggressions, denials of full personhood, continue to be the contaminated roots from which these larger conflagrations grow.

Ultimately, Rankine’s book requires that we dig deeper to understand what it means to be a 21st century “citizen.” We must acknowledge what it takes to build stronger, inclusive and thus more meaningful alliances across racial and cultural lines. What is our collective responsibility? What is it that will help us to move beyond that quasi-magical-thinking wish of “moving on” and rather how to move us all collectively and meaningfully forward.

Rankine is the author of four other books including “Don’t Let Me Be Lonely: An American Lyric,” a meditation on death and currently serves as chancellor of the Academy of American Poets. She recently departed from Pomona College in Claremont to join the faculty at USC and will begin teaching writing workshops and poetics in the English department beginning Fall 2016.

Artbound recently caught up with Claudia Rankine in a wide-ranging discussion on the stage adaptation of “Citizen,” the microaggressions of daily life, and “racial silencing.”

Lynell George: We now have a word for these small moments, the slights — microaggressions — but when you were first encountering these acts in your early years, how did you categorize them? What did you do with them when they landed?

Claudia Rankine: I think the way that I metabolize microaggressions as I was growing up — and I include my 20s and 30s and 40s in my growing up — is that I just listened. I took it in. It wasn’t a situation in which I didn’t hear what was being said. It wasn’t a situation where I was under any kind of misunderstanding around the intent or the source of the statements that were coming at me. I understood them as an assault and I felt them as an assault, but I didn’t respond to them. And that’s part of what drove me to want to write about them.

It’s the sense that there was another thing in play, and even when we know what’s happening, we don’t feel empowered to call it out. And I think we are brought up to be good and have good manners. To not make other people uncomfortable and to understand that by putting our own comfort in the forefront we might create a situation that is uncomfortable. But the consequence is that you carry a lot of stress in your body and all of a sudden your digestive system is given the role of metabolizing it. So I think that I had to grow into the recognition that it was actually okay to feel that my own comfort was worth the attention. Click Here For Rest of Article

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