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Claudia Rankine Has a Few Questions

In her new book, the poet decided to ask white people about their whiteness.

Poet Claudia Rankine and her dog at her home in September 2014.
Ricardo DeAratanha/Los Angeles Times/Getty Images

In her newest book, Claudia Rankine takes on the oldest question in politics: How ought we to live together? Just Us completes Rankine’s trilogy of works on race in the United States, following Don’t Let Me Be Lonely: An American Lyric and Citizen: An American Lyric. Published in 2014, a year marred by police killings and sustained protests against police violence, Citizen found a way to describe the psychic violence of being Black in the U.S. Bending the genre of lyric poem just shy of breaking, the book encompassed events ranging from George Zimmerman killing Trayvon Martin to Zinedine Zidane head-butting a fellow soccer player during the 2006 FIFA World Cup. In a haunting piece about Hurricane Katrina, characteristic of Citizen’s tone, the speaker narrates:

we are drowning here

still in the difficulty

He said, I don’t know what the water wanted. It wanted to show you no one would come.

New Orleans in 2005 is not Ferguson in 2014 is not Los Angeles in 1992. One tragedy can’t be exchanged for another. But Citizen suggested how violence—epistemic, political, environmental—never rested far from the Black experience.

Just Us: An American Conversation
by Claudia Rankine
Graywolf Press, 360 pp., $30.00

Whereas that work explored the interiority of Black people who have had to protest that their lives matter, Just Us examines the attitudes of white people who take it for granted that their lives do. In the new book, Rankine tries to account for norms and expectations she worries have escaped scrutiny. She wants to “know what it is to be white.” She wonders why a stranger she’s talking to in an airport lounge thinks his son would’ve been accepted to Yale if only he had a “diversity card” to play. She asks why her friend thinks he’s being punished for the sins of his forefathers when he doesn’t get this job or that promotion. She tries to understand what parts of whiteness (blond hair, maybe) can be snipped off and carried by anyone.

The psychology of white people is of particular interest for Rankine, since in order to find a politics that allows us to live together, we’re going to have to develop relationships that, she writes, “all of history [is] against.” That can’t happen without engaging white people as white people. If Citizen bore witness to systemic racism, Just Us is best understood as a possible model for the kind of relations Rankine thinks we need to cultivate.

As Rankine worked on the book, she began habitually transcribing her conversations with white people. Then she would submit them to an independent fact-checker, responsible for culling the transcripts for anything that wasn’t strictly accurate. And finally, Rankine would give the fact-checked transcripts back to whomever she’d had the conversation with and ask them to verify, correct, and augment the pieces and then to respond. The magic of this process is that Rankine insists on dissolving any lingering uncertainty about these encounters. Who among us has not wondered, after some white person’s offhand comment hits our ears the wrong way, How sure can I be of what she meant? … Am I projecting onto her without merit? This kind of second-guessing is almost second nature. In a world that relies on the hesitation and self-doubt I just described, Rankine refuses.

More than a profoundly disruptive social practice, recording and replying to white thoughtlessness as Rankine does is an intervention in the study of whiteness. Until now, the field of critical whiteness studies has tended toward providing historical accounts of how white people, as such, came to be. Its foundational texts—Toni Morrison’s Playing in the Dark, Marxist historian David Roediger’s The Wages of Whiteness, and Nell Irvin Painter’s The History of White People—stand as testament to a field at ease in the archives. These works track immigration patterns, legislative developments, racial ur-texts. In this sense, it is a field always looking backward attempting to explain the present. Rankine, by contrast, asks the present to account for itself.

Repeatedly, Rankine questions white people about moments in which she reads them enacting whiteness. Why did this particular white man step in front of her in the queue for first-class passengers? Why should a fellow white dinner guest worry for her son’s safety after a recent move to Brooklyn? Why did this waitress or student or passerby dye their hair blond but not brown or black or auburn or silver?

A consistent problem that Rankine highlights is that, for the most part, white people don’t think about their whiteness. The conversations she describes with white strangers, friends, colleagues, and family are illuminating both in what Rankine and her interlocutors are able to say and, often more importantly, what they aren’t able to say. Occasionally, one of her white interlocutors will attempt to engage her on the topic of race. But more often than not, their responses range from ambivalent to outright hostile. And more than a half-dozen times, Rankine breaks the fourth wall to end a sentence with the plea, “help.”

In a piece titled “ethical loneliness,” Rankine describes going to a play with a white woman friend who, at the performance’s close, declines an actor’s scripted request for all white audience members to come to the stage. As other audience members begin filling the stage, Rankine casts her eyes back and forth between the stage and her seated friend. Her friend never stands. And even though they eventually make it out of the theater and onto the street without a full argument, this woman’s refusal plagues Rankine. She spends days trying to parse its meanings. She invents psychologies for her friend and worlds of explanations in an attempt to justify or just to make sense of the other woman’s behavior. When, finally, she works up to asking why this woman didn’t just get on stage, the woman responds: “I didn’t want to.” No further explanation provided. By and large, Rankine finds that white people give no reason for such actions and decisions. To reason their way to an explanation for their behavior would require thinking about the bundle of expectations that makes them white. To think about their whiteness would be to name it. And to name it, an unbearable rupture in their world.

“I didn’t want to.”

“I don’t know why.”

“Why? That’s an odd question.”

How, then, ought we to live together? If “a writer with a wealth of thoughts and imaginings” like Rankine’s friend can “suddenly [go] bankrupt” when asked to account for the unthinking made possible by her whiteness, what kind of collective life can we hope to build? Rankine wonders aloud about this, winding together deep disappointment and tentative hope:

If no sameness of status is possible, even within my closest white friendships, how to account for closeness? What form of relation can include knowledge of historical dynamics and societal realities without preventing or interrupting intimacy? If similarity and sameness are essentially impossible, how is “difference” recouped and aligned with closeness? How do we keep all the differences on the table and still call that friendship?

Implied in this question and the series of conversations that Rankine recounts around this question is that white people must do more to see their whiteness and less to “fight the truths between us,” to borrow Audre Lorde’s terminology. In asking how we ought to live together, in insisting that the white people in her life contribute to the conversation, Rankine is attempting to sustain a genuine, reciprocal relationship with white people. She wants her marriage—to “a tall, blue-eyed, middle-aged white man in reasonably good shape”—to work. She wants to enjoy plated desserts with her fellow poets and theatergoers. She wants to be able to sit across a desk from her daughter’s teachers on back-to-school nights.

With that baseline commitment in mind, the question “how ought we to live together?” becomes an invitation. The question is not can white people ever do the work to “carry the disturbance” of her existence. That has already been asked and answered. The impossibility of “carefree” relationships is evident in the moments of yawning frustration that Rankine has documented. The question, instead, is whether white people will welcome the disturbance of our presence anyway. If we are to create some form of relation that is capable of holding historical dynamics and societal realities alongside shared television preferences and career aspirations, white people are going to have to do more than they (or we) think they can.

That Rankine finds it plausible that white people might rise to this task explains another feature of Just Us: In its invocations of theory, the work waffles. On one hand, Rankine looks to theory in order to explain the workings of whiteness in the world. Just Us includes passing references to Saidiya Hartman’s concept of slavery’s “afterlives,” and at various moments, she is clearly thinking with Fred Moten, Frank B. Wilderson III, and Édouard Glissant. Yet that engagement never quite pays off. In one short piece, Rankine utilizes Joyelle McSweeney’s theory of the “necropastoral” to explain Paul Graham’s photograph Woman With Arms Outstretched. Treating the photograph as “a racialized enclosure,” Rankine grapples with how Black women are confined and reproduced through imagery. Her piece interrogates the practice of seeing with an intensity that would make Simone Browne proud. But it ends abruptly, and Just Us moves on to other, more visceral topics, less suited to intricate theory work.

I suspect this is because every time a new theoretical framework arrives in the text to explain we won’t be able to live together without denying historical truths, someone demonstrates the rare, beautiful capacity to defy theory’s expectations. The white guy in the aisle seat recognizes his own statement about “not seeing color” as “inane,” and “just like that” Rankine and her fellow flyer “broke open [the] conversation—random, ordinary, exhausting.” The white woman who remained seated at the end of the play does something Rankine “didn’t expect but that explains why [they] are friends. She sat down and wrote.”

The philosopher Lorna Finlayson wrote recently of feminist thought that “theory is always underdetermined by data, after all,” and it’s difficult not to see generalizable wisdom in her words when reading Just Us. It equivocates theoretically, because at a certain point, theory cannot encompass the infinite contingencies of life. It is easy in theory to describe Latinx folks as “junior partners in White supremacy,” as Wilderson does in his new book, Afropessimism. But it’s much more difficult to admit over hors d’oeuvres that you know nothing about José Martí because U.S.-centrism has blinded you to struggle and radicalism in Latin America. Theory can deftly explain why one’s “value in our culture’s eyes is determined by … skin color first and foremost,” but it’s much worse at making sense of that value when you’re sitting in first class on a transatlantic flight. And while that might sound like a criticism, Rankine’s theoretical ambivalence helps Just Us enact its central tension: between reason and reality, between our notions of justice and who we are.

Before I’d read the book, I thought the title Just Us meant that all we have to rely on, as we build a political life, is ourselves and our intuitions. That somehow everyone from Thucydides all the way down to Habermas was wrong to try to locate justice in governing regimes or bundles of rights and protections or institutional forms. At other times, closer to the middle of the book, I thought “just us” rang off the page with resignation. I understood it as Rankine’s way of saying that when you really start looking for justice, white people don’t want to be part of the conversation. It’s just us, where the “us” means Black people—though later in the book she’ll come to challenge even that assumption.

By the end, I’d returned to something like that first definition with a twist. It’s not that there’s no secret to living together, just that we exist at the ragged edge of what theory has to offer us. It offers us guidance, explanation, tools, language to make sense of a world we each had no hand in creating. Theory can help us to see new things and collate what we already knew. But at a certain point, that is no substitute for living in the world and offers only a balm against its cruelty. The phrase “ethical loneliness” is too polite to describe the stab of betrayal one feels when, over dinner with white friends, it occurs to you to wonder, am I being silenced? Knowing that “all of history” is against your marriage does not always make it easier to live in. Our “inchoate desire for a future other than the one that seems to be forming” needs something more than theory. It needs us.