Claudia Rankine: Just Us


“What if we started making certain things transparent so that we could maybe get to a new set of problems, because these ones are so old.”

Photo courtesy of Bookable

The United States is experiencing a time of reckoning, but too often it seems like we’re all talking past each another other rather than attempting meaningful dialogue. In Just Us, Claudia Rankine provides a blueprint for how we talk about and experience race in America. Listen as she and Amanda examine the emotions underpinning white privilege, shine a light on racial inequality in its less obvious forms, and explain what it actually means when a white person, “doesn’t see color.”

Claudia Rankine is the author of Citizen: An American Lyric and four previous books, including Don’t Let Me Be Lonely: An American Lyric. Her work has appeared recently in the Guardian, the New York Times Book Review, the New York Times Magazine, and the Washington Post. She is a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets, the winner of the 2014 Jackson Poetry Prize, and a contributing editor of Poets & Writers. She received a MacArthur Fellowship in 2016. Rankine is the Frederick Iseman Professor of Poetry at Yale University.

On today’s show… an American Conversation

The United States is undergoing a period of reckoning.

But sometimes it can feel like instead of being in dialogue, we’re all just talking past one another.

Well our guest today…. She’s a black woman who set out to dig deep with white men, colleagues, and friends, about long-standing and sensitive racial issues.

Time for an introduction!

I’m Claudia Rankine, the author of Just Us: An American Conversation

Claudia Rankine!

Just Us is a blueprint for how to have meaningful dialogue around the way we experience race in America.

I don’t see ‘Just Us’ as a prescription, a solution. I see it as a process, an invitation into a process to think about what conversations could do for us in terms of getting to know each other a little bit better.

Part of that process included hiring psychologists and fact-checkers to analyze and annotate the conversations, offering an additional layer of understanding.

The book was set up in a moment of fake news, in a moment where science doesn’t exist, in a moment where there has been so many conversations around all lives matter versus black lives matter. So deliberate attempts to misunderstand the reality that we’re living in.

So I wanted a book that was able to bring those things back inside the conversation itself.

From Just Us, pg. 23

After a series of conversations with my white male travelers, would I come to understand white privilege any differently? They couldn’t know what it’s like to be me, though who I am is in part a response to who they are, and I didn’t really believe I understood them, even as they determined so much of what was possible in my life and in the lives of others.

But because I have only lived as me, a person who regularly has to negotiate conscious and unconscious dismissal, erasure, disrespect, and abuse, I fell into this wondering silently. Always, I hesitated.

I think before the conversation, I thought of white privilege as white power, what does it mean to be able to own the space, to walk in and be taken seriously, to be the one that presumably is the president, is the judge, is the doctor, whether or not that’s the case, the assumption is that. So I wondered, what was that? What did it mean to be in the world as that person?

Once I started having the conversation, I realized that many of the white men I spoke to heard privilege as an economic term. And that was an education for me, because for me, economic privilege comes along sometimes with white privilege, but white privilege really was about just this ability to be in the world and to be able to move around without being treated as a potential criminal.

Right. You say in the book that a better expression or phrase might be white living.

Exactly. I didn’t know that until afterwards, because I thought, oh, every time I bring up white privilege, I have to listen to a long narrative around how I worked hard for everything I had. And I thought, well, we all have, so there’s a disconnect here. And so then I realized, okay, privilege in their mind is too tied to monetary privilege.

Right. And also the fact that they grew so enraged by the expression, was that what made you think of white power or what tied it to white power to you, was that rage?

Well, I think what tied it to white power was the ownership of space and place. Whether or not they owned the space or not, they were always given the space. We had a funny thing happen in our house where I took the dog for a walk and I forgot to turn off the alarm. And when I came back, there were all these police here. I had to put in our code to open the door and get in the house.

And then my husband just happened to drive up at that moment, and he’s a white male and the policemen turned to him and said, “She said she lives here.” And even after I opened the door, walked in, turned the alarm off and came back to them, “she said she lives here.” So that’s what I mean that they didn’t ask him to prove that he lived there, but there is an assumption that this space belonged to him and my claims would need to be backed up.

From Just Us, pg. 141

In the video of the actual incident, he states that he heard the phrase “white male privilege” as “extremely offensive.” In the complaint he filed, he states that he was “racially and sexistly slurred.”

Surely he must understand himself as white and male, so perhaps it’s the noun “privilege” that enrages him? But a “racial slur” means you refer to his whiteness in an offensive way. The association of whiteness with privilege therefore must offend.

I think it was, I think, a government agency who went into a police department in order to investigate a line of inquiry around why transgender people are approached by police more than other people, and get in conflict with police. While they’re talking about this a white policeman in the room says that he doesn’t know what they’re talking about because he hasn’t had any interactions with the police in his life. And even though he’s a policeman, he hasn’t had any of these interactions. So maybe it’s something about those people that are putting themselves in these situations.

There’s a woman, a white female policewoman in the room who says, “That’s because of your white male privilege. That’s why you don’t understand what he’s talking about.” And the man says what? You’re accusing me of white male privilege and gets extremely angry and stands up and says, “Yeah, I can’t listen to this.” And I was fascinated by this video for two reasons. One, if you listen to the video, you hear what, what? When she says it’s because of your white male privilege. And so he becomes one in a chorus of men who are saying, “Wow, what? What’s she saying, what?”

And suddenly you realize that this woman is surrounded by men who come to the defense of this other guy. So then the guy files a claim against her and she is reprimanded, put on leave and a reprimand is in her file to this day for using the phrase “white male privilege.” I just found that incredible. I mean, it’s a phrase that describes a dynamic that we have all been subject to in our lives, and yet this woman was being reprimanded for using a phrase as if it were a racial slur.

Yeah. And the interesting thing is I feel like I almost want to guarantee that if she had just said, “Well, that’s because of your male privilege,” that he wouldn’t have been enraged. He would have probably swelled up and walked around like Donald Trump.

Right. I think maybe I’ve thought about this a lot too, that may be white privilege and white supremacy seem too close to each other. And so maybe they’re hearing white supremacy when you say white privilege, maybe that’s the source of the rage.

I don’t think so.

I am not technically a member of the KKK.

No, I think that you’re right. I think that they bristle at being called white.

Yeah. Even though they’re white.

Yeah. That’s astonishing.

When Claudia was an undergrad at Williams College in Massachusetts, there was a rumor going around about a cross burning that had taken place just prior to her arrival on campus. It wasn’t until she was an adult that she really looked into it.

I asked this other friend because I just thought how many of us actually remember it? It turns out just by happenstance that she’s the one who discovered it and who reported it.

And then in talking in retrospect, she says as you said, I wonder if they regret this. I thought this idea that white people are not committed in some way form to the racial injustice in this country, whether it’s the extreme of the cross burning or the passivity in the face of red lining or segregationist practices, is this fiction that white people like to hold onto?

And so I just thought, why would you think that they changed at all? Why wouldn’t you wonder if they’re still members of some white supremacist group rather than why wouldn’t you worry? The thing I would have worried is, are they a judge? It turns out that in the research, some of the people who were considered prime suspects, they had two students who they considered prime suspect for the cross burning. Those two men are now both judges, which scares the bejeezus out of me in terms of … And I didn’t put that in the book because I didn’t want to use their names. I didn’t want to say where they are, because it was not ever fully authenticated, but according to the police report, those were the names. And when we looked up what they’re doing now, that’s what they’re doing now.

I mean, it’s both terrifying and unsurprising.

Exactly. Exactly.

I mean, I remember guys in my college who were torturing and killing live animals and are now in positions of power. But never for a moment did I think, “Oh, I wonder if they look back and regret that.” I’m like, I wonder who they’re killing.

Right. Exactly. It’s not just the men, it’s women too. I mean, if you think about somebody like Linda Fairstein and her involvement in the Central Park jogger case, I mean that woman sent five kids to prison for an assault she knows they did not commit.

Yup. And you say something in the book about children are children unless they’re black.

Well, the research has shown that white people don’t consider black children, children. They consider them on their way to being criminals, even when they’re infants. I don’t know if you just saw it. There was a piece that came out recently that said that the mortality rate for black children in the care of white doctors goes up three times as much. I mean, it’s hard to know how they prove that. So, I’m sort of interested in the research beyond just a statement, but still, it’s not surprising because if you think about what happens in schools, like in the case of my friend whose child was labeled as violent, you can see how neglect could play into those moments in the hospital.

From Just Us, pg. 36

The flight attendant brought drinks to everyone around me but repeatedly forgot my orange juice. Telling myself orange juice is sugar and she might be doing my post-cancer body a favor, I just nodded when she apologized for the second time. The third time she walked by without the juice, the white man sitting next to me said to her “This is incredible. You have brought me two drinks in the time you have forgotten to bring her one.” She returned immediately with the juice.

Yes, I was on a flight back from South Africa actually.

It was so infuriating to me, but you have such a good, I don’t know, you seem to sort of roll with it in a way, but roll it back into the conversation you were having. I can’t recall if this is the same man, but I think it might have been, who was talking about diversity training with you. And he said that he couldn’t see color.

Well, the first guy, the guy on the flight back from South Africa, he was an interesting man because what I found particularly curious in that exchange was his ability to see the sort of inequity in terms of her attention to who gets their drinks. But he understood it as a kind of innocuous presence of him, like he just happened to get his drink and I just happened not to get my drink and that’s annoying and let’s fix it, but he doesn’t ask why did she bring me my drink and not her her drink? So there was no questioning beyond just the reality of what was happening. And you would think coming back from South Africa, since we both were, that you might think about how race plays in these situations or even gender, race and gender.

The diversity guy is somebody I have come to know and like quite a lot. And he and I, on the other hand, started out in a place where I felt a kind of mutual ability to talk and explore and think about things and be curious about each other and our families. And so I think that the ease of our conversation is what led him to say, “I don’t see color.”

Right. And you were so almost playful with your response. Can you share with the listener your response?

Well, when he said, “I don’t see color,” I said, “Ain’t I a black woman?” Because how do you say to somebody that’s not true. That’s just not true. And even as I’m in these conversations with these very nice men, there is a way in which, and maybe this is reductive, but in which my fantasy of how our conversation will be recounted later is that I will be labeled as a black woman. I had a conversation with a black woman. So I had that in my head when I said to him, “Ain’t I a black woman? Aren’t you a white man?”

Yeah. That type of thinking, I can’t see race, I’ve thought about that a lot actually since high school. I went to school in the East Village, and I remember a lot of teachers would say it, “I don’t see race, I don’t see race.” And I’d always been like, I didn’t understand why it felt wrong. I didn’t have the language for it until I was much older, but now reading it again and again and again, and most recently in your book, I realized this is probably something that it’s very obvious and simple, but I’m late to the game. Is that when white people say they don’t see race, I think that they’re saying it because they don’t see themselves as a race. And so it’s like a conscious, they have to see race in order to say, I don’t see race.


But yeah. It’s like, they’re doing you a favor or we’re … I don’t know. It’s some sort of …

Come over here with me where we have no color.

Exactly. Yeah.

I’m allowing you in, and it’s like, really?

Right. Or I’m so used to having to do no work. I’m going to keep doing no work while being your friend, because you’re not going to hold me accountable because I don’t see color, so how could you?

Right. And also my ability to speak to you must mean that you’re not an irritant inside the system of me. And therefore, even if I did see color your color clearly doesn’t matter to who you are.

Claudia Rankine, author of Just Us: An American Conversation. It’s published by Graywolf Press and is available now.

Bookable is a production of Loud Tree Media. I’m your host Amanda Stern, five feet tall — even during intense conversations.

We’re produced by me, Beau Friedlander, and Andrew Dunn, who also mixed and sound-designed the show. Beau is Loud Tree’s editor-in-chief.

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Claudia says she learned a lot from her conversations — including: when not to have them.

I also learned that sometimes no conversation is better. Sometimes you just have to know when you’re not going to get anywhere with somebody and that’s okay. It’s okay to be “good luck and good night.”

This… is Bookable.

Claudia Rankine: Just Us was originally published in The Writing Cooperative on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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