Claudia Rankine’s latest unsettling of American racial discourse is Just Us: An American Conversation, a book of reflections on her encounters with whiteness as it manifests in friends, therapists, students, and passersby. Rankine, who teaches poetry at Yale and is also a playwright, most recently of The White Card, has been interested for decades in the language we use to build our identities. Just Us is a close reading of the way we talk, write, and think about race. It is thoroughly considered, never complacent, and often puzzling. We talked over the phone about the protests this summer, the responsibilities of individuals, and the use of conversation at all.
NA: So are you done with lyric for now? Does this form speak better to the time or how you’re feeling about the time?
CR: The form of one person talking to another person determines everything in Just Us. We’re in a moment where people can’t talk to each other. People don’t leave their house and say, “Excuse me, why are you marching in front of our house?” They come out with guns drawn. Even among friends, there’s a difficulty in understanding the weathering Black people have been under. Every day, more and more people say, “OK, I see it now.” And yet they still say things to me like, “Are you done talking about racism now?”
NA: You write about the conversations you have with your friends, and then you send it to them and ask them to send you a response. What changes in writing?
CR: The dominant form is the essay; the use of the epistolary format with my interlocutors seemed a good mode of response. I really wanted the responses from the people I had engaged with to hold their own counsel and not necessarily to be in conversation with me. The initial essay communicated what I thought in discussion with a therapist and a fact-checker, and I thought, “OK, let’s hear what they think.”
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NA: Right, the second epistolary dimension is the fact-checker following you throughout the book, sometimes correcting, sometimes confirming. Why this self-consciousness about factuality?
CR: We’re in a moment where facts have been given a bad name. I wanted the book to reengage the archives in ways that could show why someone thinks what they think or feels what they feel. People are not saying things in a vacuum. They’re saying things because they have access to certain information, and I wanted to lay that information bare through the fact-checking.
NA: The title of Citizen refers to the internal definitions of American citizenship, as opposed to the ways that word is imposed externally. In Just Us, you discuss your newfound interest in border politics in America. Has your perspective now changed the way you interpret Citizen?
CR: Citizen was specifically a play on who gets to have it and who doesn’t, inside the world of Black-white politics in the United States. Just Us is about the country at large: the people here struggling to live, the people taking that for granted, and then those actively trying to prevent others from having access to citizenship, access to life. Just Us is an attempt to open out the discussion, to think about white supremacy and systemic racism and modes of power that privilege whiteness under the umbrella of the United States.
NA: I’ll try to encapsulate one of the arguments in the book. You believe that categories like race, gender, sexuality, etc., are inherently constricting, and the possibility to escape them lies in individual interaction. Is that right?
CR: I don’t know if I would use the word “escape.” The only way to fully bring consciousness to our positionality and assumptions and investments and prejudices and biases is to begin to name and speak about things. We’ve been told that there are certain things we shouldn’t talk about, and it leads to an unconscious culture. In this book I’m saying, “Can we just start talking about what we believe, so we can start seeing reality in the same way?” We might not agree on how to move forward even knowing how history unfolded, but right now there are whole parts of history which, when I bring them up, people are surprised that they even happened. The other question is why don’t people know this, if they’re part of American history. I wasn’t born with this knowledge, so how is it that they can live here their whole lives, get multiple degrees, and not know some of the cruel and brutal things this country has done to Black people? That’s another way to think about this, whether it’s a willingness to not know. I don’t want an escape; I want a sense of consciousness around the facts, the history. But also the intangibles—the emotions, the feelings.
NA: You write that without talking to other people, “we’re never going to figure this out”—but there’s an uneven distribution of knowledge of America. People and scholars of color have generally had a better handle on it than white people, many of whom find it difficult to think about, let alone hear from, people of color. You’re articulating a lot of the things that you write in this book in a way that most people can’t, but they’re still more surprising or new for a white audience than for your readers of color.
CR: People of color have said to me, “I know these things, but I don’t necessarily have the argument for this.” The way we all become more agile in these discussions is to begin to have them. The book didn’t really have a person in mind; it was really about the taking apart of conversations that are happening between all of us. I didn’t make these conversations up. I would be surprised when they happened.
The desire to take things apart and to look at them and to see where my feelings were coming from, and where the things I said could be supported or not supported, or where the things that others were saying to me could be supported or not supported, was almost an exercise in bringing language to something that just goes by in all of our lives every day. When a thing gets seen and named, it’s negotiated differently the next time. Repetition relies on unconsciousness, and if we begin to think, “Why is a person always saying this thing, and why am I always feeling this thing?” maybe we can reroute that. Certainly we will end up with other difficulties. I would like to end up with other difficulties—these difficulties have been the same ones for such a long time that at this point I’m willing to try anything. If that means having a conversation, I’ll have a conversation. That seems like a low bar compared to having to die for change.
NA: On that topic, how do you see the conversations in Just Us in connection to the uprisings against police brutality this summer?
CR: The uprisings are not replaceable. I think the grassroots organizations and Black Lives Matter, SURJ [Showing Up for Racial Justice], Say Her Name—all of those things are so necessary and have moved us forward in ways that we haven’t moved forward in a long time. Books like White Fragility or How to Be an Antiracist are books that further the conversations around some of the trouble, but they in no way replace the kind of work that these organizations are doing. Like just recently, we had sports figures refuse to play, and that ended up in the arenas being used for voting. That’s exciting, because it’s actually playing itself out in change, in structural change, in things being put in place that aid our democracy and sponsor equity and social justice. They were doing what they could from where they stood. I’m a writer. I’m engaging with these issues how I can.
NA: Reading your interview with Lauren Berlant, I wondered what you’d make of the argument that trying to incorporate people into spaces that were never meant to accommodate them is a doomed project, and getting Black people or people of color into culturally elite spaces or economically elite institutions is a form of “cruel optimism.” That seems very different from the way you think about it.
CR: I think there are two ways of thinking about life in general. One is that the system is corrupt and has to be dismantled. And then there’s the pragmatist in me that says the system is corrupt, but it’s where we live. Can we figure out a way to make it work? And will it be ideal? The answer is no.
Lauren’s right—the system was not meant to hold me. Until we are able to reinstate a new system, I’m not going to sit back and say, “It is what it is.” I see the value in both positions. Recognizing the brokenness of the system allows you to understand where and why you aren’t welcome. But I think we have to figure this out, or we have to decide that we are just going to take it. That’s not a viable alternative for me.
NA: In that interview with Berlant, you wrote, “I don’t think we connect microaggressions that indicate the lack of recognition of the black body as a body to the creation and enforcement of laws.” How would you describe the relationship between a microaggression and a macroaggression or a structural aggression? Or does it feel at all useful to you to separate those?
CR: Ultimately it’s not a useful distinction. Racism is racism, and it plays itself out in different ways. There are the ways that weather us, which are often referred to as microaggressions, but they’re always on the road to a kind of death, either through racial profiling and police killings or through segregationist policies that deny us clean water. It’s all one big system of racism, and anti-Black racism is my concern, though all forms of injustice concern me.
For Citizen, I made the distinction because I was looking at the kinds of infractions that we are able to negotiate versus the ones that are trying to kill us. They’re all heading the same place. If you die by a thousand cuts—if you’re in the hospital, infants are three times more likely to die in the hospital at birth if the doctor is white. But if it’s a Black doctor, mortality rates for children of color and white children are the same. The doctor doesn’t believe the mother when she says something. The infant isn’t breathing, and that doesn’t trigger a response that would mean immediate care. They seem unconscious, they seem invisible, but the consequences are deadly.
NA: What about in a less high-stakes place, like in the airplane scenes you describe in the book?
CR: Those men end up on juries. They could be in a position of power over my destiny at some point, and the same lack of seeing, the same lack of caring, the same lack of recognition would play itself out. You go into their bank to try and get a loan for your house; they say, “No, you don’t have any wealth to pass on to your children.” White people tell you, “You can’t buy a house over there—if you come, we are going.” Where people live determines their trajectory through life. Those are individuals. That’s why you have to talk to those people, because they are making decisions about your life every single day. Talking to them might not change their decision, but at least you’ll learn something.
NA: That interpersonal racism seems to me more symptomatic of the structures that maintain and enable that.
CR: They are the structures that maintain and enable it. Institutions are made out of people, right? It’s not like the institution is doing stuff without people making decisions along the way, every day. And those same people are the people saying these things to you. It’s not that these people are saying things that seem innocuous and then going back into their homes and making no other decisions that will affect you.
NA: That sounds analogous to the “bad apples” argument, that racism could die out with enough education. But these institutions have a momentum of their own, built on—
CR: It makes a difference who the president is, who the CEO is, who they employ. The status quo is not staying in place by itself. You can’t say it’s systemic racism without understanding that there are people keeping that going. When Obama was president, he made a lot of legislation that is now being reversed by Trump. The reversals are important, because they would have changed what was legal inside of those institutions. Look at the Central Park jogger case. Do you know how many people had to agree? It was the police officers, it was the jury, it was the judge, it was the prosecutor. All of those people lied. If one of them had said, “Wait a second, there’s no evidence”—but that’s not what happened.
NA: It seems daunting to talk to people one at a time, and at the same time it doesn’t seem there are shortcuts for this project.
CR: I’m not saying we can change people’s mind; I’m saying let’s have conversations where we at least see what’s happening. You can add to their database, and whatever happens happens. The people in Just Us are not people who would vote for Trump. They’re people who believe that we’re on the same page, that we’re the choir, and yet we’re falling into these moments of non-parallel time. How is it we’re on the same side, and yet ultimately, when it comes to anti-Black racism, we seem not to have a similar read on situations? We saw that with the Rodney King video. We see it again and again. Do you remember Amy Cooper? Do you know how many white people have said to me, “I understand her fear”?
NA: You have an ear for what white people are usually good at hiding.
CR: When you have conversations, you begin to hear. These are my friends, card-carrying Democrats. You think you’re seeing the same thing, and then suddenly you realize that their positionality as white people warps their reality.
NA: They’re further from you than you think they are?
CR: They’re further from reality than I think they are. That feels like a lot of hubris, to say my read of reality is better than their read of reality. But Christian Cooper is a threat to them, because he’s always been a threat. It has nothing to do with what he says and does. In them lives the idea that Black people are a threat. They’re just reading the text, finding a moment that confirms the feeling.
NA: What happens after that? What comes from that recognition?
CR: Then you ask questions: “I’m curious—how did you get there when I didn’t get there?” I was interested in this in-between time that we’re in right now; that’s why liminal spaces were so important to the book. What does it mean to be in between a thing? We are right now in a space where on the other side could be fascism. What are we going to do?
NA: Faced with the possibility of another four years of Trump, thinking about it as an individual feels to me overwhelming and despair-inducing, and thinking about it in conjunction with other people feels much more hopeful. Thinking of myself as part of a group—people in my neighborhood, my race, my generation—feels more hopeful to me. Does it to you?
CR: That’s why I said I thought the work being done by grassroots organizations is amazing. They are stopping the normal flow of things and asking us to reconsider, asking us to have new conversations, asking us to think about what dismantling the police could look like. They’re asking for conversations that would lead to a restructuring of the system that controls so much in our lives, because the people running the system have certain ideas about how things should go. The system is not killing Black people with seven bullets; individuals are. Those individuals need to be accountable to a system led by other individuals who say, “No, you can’t do that.” They know they’re supported by grand juries that say, “You know, I understand you were feeling some fear there, so you do have to shoot someone seven times in the back. So why don’t you take some time off of work and come back and do it again?” Those are people saying that: district attorneys passing it on to grand juries that historically support the police’s narrative. All of those are individuals.
NA: So the advantage of these groups is that they help us identify these individuals?
CR: At least then you know how the system works.
NA: How would you position Just Us in conversation with this new canon of New York Times best-selling whiteness-studies books?
CR: I hear in you a desire to name a thing. I feel like I was doing a thing rather than naming a thing. I am first and foremost a poet and playwright, and the performance of language on the page is something that deeply interests me structurally. For me that’s enough. I love conversations, I love listening to what people have to say, I love thinking about the limits of language, I love the ability of a single word to drop down into a whole history. There are words that resist movement, like the N-word, and then there are words that skate across time, like “justice.” “Do this” is really not the motivation for me. It’s an exploration on what language can do. What are we doing when we engage in conversation? What can words do for us? What have we been doing, in the space of this conversation?