A Conversation With Claudia Rankine
"It was a conscious thing to move the book away from scandal and towards white alliance."
Claudia Rankine has had a hell of a year. Her most recent book, Citizen: An American Lyric, has been a barnstorming critical success – winning, among others, the National Book Critics Circle award for both poetry (in a first, it was also a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle award for criticism) – and hoovering up praise from readers across the US, the UK, and beyond. Readers have found themselves in Citizen as both perpetrators and victims of the racial micro (and macro) aggressions the book documents. It is a mixture of prose, poetry and images, ruminating on the state of blackness over time and in different spaces.
"You take in things you don't want all the time," she writes in part III of the book. "Hold up, did you just hear, did you just say, did you just see, did you just do that?"
Rankine, who has also won the PEN award and the NAACP award for outstanding literary work and was a National Book Award finalist, spoke to BuzzFeed while in London for a brief book tour at the end of June. We talked about calling out racism, the reframing of the hoodie as a cultural icon of doom, and the strong, protective love many black women feel for Serena Williams.
You collect so many microaggressions in the book. I was once at a members' club and this man sat down pretty much on top of my friend. She protested and he said, "I'm so sorry I didn't see you!" and when I read that in the book...
Claudia Rankine: [laughs] ...there it is!
What was it like for you to hear these stories of hypervisibility or invisibility being told over and over? Is it a quiet trauma?
CR: Right, right. The thing is in collecting and hearing the stories, because, you know, I'm in my middle ages: I've lived all of the stories. It was very rare that someone told me something and I didn't have my own version. It wasn't a sense of feeling educated by the stories – I was existing as the writer in those moments, where you're actually just listening to the language. You're asking the language to communicate as much as it can about the whole historical run-up to the moment. I was listening more for how to tell the life that we all are living, and what's the sort of exact right language to do that with? And when you hear it, you hear it. Like, "oh, OK."
How selfish can we be when we’re talking about a type of everyday pain that "belongs" to all of us? Lots of people say, "That's not real racism – focus on something else!" How do you answer that and say, "this is part of the bigger picture"?
CR: Structurally, what I try to do in the book is show the accumulation of single events. How do you really, really know that person was motivated by racism? Can you really know? At a certain level, I don't give a shit. I don't care if you can or can't know. Black bodies are being subjugated to these things day in and day out, so at a certain point, whether or not it's readable or not does not matter. You're still, as a body, asked to negotiate this, and the fact that you have to ask yourself, "Is this a moment of racism or isn't it?" is part of the problem. And so the structure of the book was meant to take that question out of play by saying if you have to confront it again and again and again... Maybe something that happened only once, you could dismiss it, but after a while, it's all going to start adding up and it will lock down your ability to be objective. So it was more an attempt to replicate how for black bodies it's just so ordinary, you don't even begin to question what happens. In the essay on Serena Williams, one of the things I loved about her is that she wasn't always right. Sometimes she was wrong but it didn't matter. What was controlling her behaviour was a history of transgressions against her. So that when somebody made a call and the call actually was correct, she then had lost her ability to even read that. You know, it's like, are you that one from before, who did that other thing? So that's where I think it gets very murky.
Speaking of Serena Williams, that seems to be the chapter people glom on to. After her win at the French Open, there was an outpouring of black female love on my Twitter timeline, a real feeling of "nobody else loves us like we do". I'm interested in the solidarity that exists.
CR: Well, I think what's different about Serena than, say, Beyoncé, is that you have seen her subjected to racist moment after racist moment. [There was] the head of the Russian Tennis Federation [Shamil Tarpischev] referring to [her and her sister] as "the Williams brothers". These things come at you every day. So I think that's part of it. It's the sense of the assault of racism. We are living it in our own special ways and we have our own arsenal of insults, but to have it on the screen, watching it all the time... We've also seen it with Michelle Obama, but Serena has been around a lot longer in the public eye and she's not protected by the White House and we've had to negotiate it with her. And so I think that's why she has a special place in all out hearts. She's just out there working her way.
What are your first thoughts in the aftermath of something like the Charleston shootings? And what does it add to you, or take from you?
CR: Grief for the families, obviously. Once you hear about this and the horror of it, it very immediately begins to line up, historically. As a writer, I began to think about this, like, how is this similar or different? For me, one of the distinctions being made is that this was not police, this was an individual, homegrown terrorist. I think I was curious about how it would be portrayed in the media, and how he would be framed and interacted with, both within the media and the justice system. The ways in which whiteness privileges whiteness and the double standards. That even in the face of identified white supremacist mass murder, [Dylann Roof] is being given concessions. That even in this extreme positioning, white privilege is still at work, in service of his white body. And so those are the kinds of things that I'm at this point watching and still marvelling at, in a sense.
Kiese Laymon wrote in The Guardian about the historical call for black people to forgive, and that seemed to be all over Charleston, in the humanising of Roof over the...
CR: ...the grief of black families?
Right. I wonder what your thoughts were with people saying forgiveness is often a case of pandering to white privilege. Is there a line, do you think? How communal can grief be?
CR: For me, this whole engagement with the forgiveness from the family really doesn't concern me. Because I feel... You know, these people are traumatised. I don't know what they even mean when they say they've forgiven him. If they felt it was cathartic to say that, then fine. You know? Because it's not about him. He wasn't asking for forgiveness. If, as individuals who have just lost people in their family that are close to them, they felt like saying that, then say that. More interesting to me is the media's enthusiasm around this act of forgiveness. I mean, why does Dylann Roof need to be forgiven when he's not asking for forgiveness? I have not heard him say, "Please forgive me." And yet the media seems so enthusiastic and so pleased about this. So is it because they feel implicated inside the cultural condemnation of black people and the cultural murder of black people? That's really my question. I mean, why does the culture need to highlight the fact that these family members, at the very beginning of their journey through this traumatic loss, "forgive"?
There were many calls to take down the Confederate flag after the killings. Is there any power in taking down the flag, or is it an empty symbolism? [South Carolina governor Nikki Haley ordered its removal from the state capitol on 10 July.]
CR: No, I don't think the symbolism is empty. I think that the way you create an environment where certain beliefs are held is that you continue to confirm them. So for somebody like Dylann Roof, that flag meant something, and for him to be able to walk the streets and see the flag flying means that what he believes is believed commonly, out in public, supported by the state. The taking down of the flag doesn't signify an interior change in South Carolina, but it at least says that the state doesn't condone what the flag stands for as a political statement. So, no, I think it's important.
So it's a trickle-down effect? What was acceptable is no longer?
CR: I hope so. We hope so.
In Citizen, you write: "because white men can't / police their imagination / black men are dying". Darren Wilson, the police officer who killed Michael Brown, said he looked like...
CR: ...a demon. Mmm hmm.
The projection, the fear that appears to change physical characteristics, like a superhuman thing. And the flip of "superhuman" is "subhuman".
CR: Right, exactly.
How do we encourage white people not to have these overactive imaginations?
CR: I think it's not that we can encourage anything. Becuase we're not in control of the white body. But I think we need to stop not calling it out. I think that's what we can do. We can stop housing it. So that it stays where it belongs, in the person who's creating it. By not calling it out, it actually arrives somewhere. By calling it out, you're like, you might wanna deal with this, whatever it is for you, y'know?
That can be difficult.
CR: Yeah, people will act defensively, but that's not your concern. I say: You can be defensive if you want. I'm just telling you what I heard and how I feel. If you care about me, then you care about how I feel. If you don't care about me, that's fine. But I'm telling you it's racist.
So many realisations about conversations from years past.
CR: [laughs] Tomorrow's another day!
You mentioned liberal subjectivity in an interview last year. There's a distancing that takes place in many liberal circles, a lot of "we're not like that". I'm interested in the space between how many white liberals see themselves, separate to "the bad people".
CR: Well, this is why I wanted the book to exist in the space of the white liberal. Because people like to say "oh, it's the South", "it's ignorance", "it's white supremacist Fox News". And I'm like, no, no, no. It's white alliance with all of those things. So that these moments are happening in our offices, with our so-called friends, in the Congress, among highly educated people who apparently know better. So it was a very conscious thing to move the book away from scandal and towards white alliance. The use of the second person – that "you" – was meant to say, "Step in here with me, because there is no me without you inside this dynamic.”
People believe things are different in Europe, which is, of course, not entirely true.
CR: I know, because we're coming from the same post-colonial history!
There's an idea of Europe as a utopia, and you write about Mark Duggan in Citizen. I am interested in the Americanisation of blackness, and I wonder if that's something that you think about.
CR: Right. Well, that's why I wanted to bring in Duggan. And Zidane. Because this is a dynamic that comes out of post-colonial orientation. All these countries owned slaves. They privilege whiteness in a certain way. They have difficulties within their own cultures based on whatever language they're using, but it's all coming down to the same frame. And what is different in the United States is the militarised police system that perhaps is not replicated here. I haven't seen images of tanks rolling down streets. I saw it in Ireland back in the '80s when I was there. But I haven't seen it used against the black population here. In the US, obviously in Ferguson, we saw that. The white police force thinks it's in a war with unarmed black Americans and apparently, in some warehouse somewhere, had the tanks ready to go. And that's across the country. So that's where it's a little bit different, I think. I think when people say it's a utopia, it's not a utopia in terms of racist attitudes towards blacks. It's a utopia against the tolerance of blatant, daily killings and the warehousing of black bodies inside prison industrial institutes that rely on black bodies to fill them. So the new Jim Crow in the US is this kind of extended rounding up of black people and warehousing them inside of prisons, and that I think is happening less in Europe than in the United States.
There have been a lot of people talking about self-care and pulling back from the bombardment of bad news. Gene Demby wrote about remembering that being black is not "just a parade of calamities and disadvantage".
CR: I think in the book, there are moments where even in the midst of... For instance, I was very conscious about including the dinner with my white friend where the waiter took my credit card and returned it to her. And that sense that it's always happening, but you're still in part amused by it, in part frustrated – all of the emotions are still in play. One's still going out to dinner, one's still playing tennis, one's still engaged in one's life. So you're not shut down. You're just not allowed all the way in. That's the thing. In a piece I wrote for the New York Times, I quoted the critic Fred Moten, who says, "I believe in the world and I want to be in it. I want to be in it all the way to the end of it so I can be in the next one." I wanted the book to also communicate that this is a life and we're in it. It's a book about intimacy. We're showing up in it. You are constantly trying to push me out – that's your business.
It often feels tiring to explain why something is racist, like explaining your own humanity. How do you say to people, "this thing you're doing is hurting me"?
CR: One of the things that writing this book has helped me do is call out those moments immediately. In the past I was clocking them and then later on thinking about them. Since writing Citizen, I don't do that any more. Now you say something to me, I say, "You know, that's racist." And the person's like, "No, no, that's not what I meant," and I'm like, "I don't know what you meant – I'm telling you it's racist." In fact, I don't even care what you meant. And whereas before I felt like I didn't want to be the person that makes you feel uncomfortable, now I don't give a shit about your comfort. What about my comfort? [laughs] You need not to carry that around in you. Because by not calling it out, that means you receive it, and that person gets to move along like nothing happened. So they hold their space and comfort and you suddenly are the one that's made uncomfortable. But the minute you give it back... I'm not saying engage beyond that, I'm just like, I don't care what you do with that. But you need to know that that is racist. You know, I don't dwell on it. It's just like, I'm done. And oddly enough, I am done. I move on. Now I can be like, oh! [spears a pineapple cube], this pineapple is so good! [laughs] You know? If you want to know what the effect that book has had on me, that's the effect. I don't care if you think I'm an angry black woman. I don't care if you think I'm making you feel uncomfortable. I feel better. And that is important to me.
Citizen's British cover is slightly different, but still has the image of a shorn hood on the cover [a 1993 work by performance artist David Hammons after the beating of Rodney King]. The hoodie is so much more than an item of clothing: It's a symbol of menace. It's a persistent cultural artefact of fear. Why did you choose it?
CR: A hoodie is worn by everybody: kids, white men, white women, black men. But it clings to the black body as a sign of criminality like nothing else. Trayvon Martin was portrayed in all the media in his hoodie; they obviously grabbed on to that image. And so, for me, rather than any individual face, the hoodie became the thing that attested to blackness as bound up in criminality in the white imagniation. But as a projection of white imagination and not of a thing in itself. It seemed to me to be the best and most open space. Also, anybody can fit in there. So it becomes also kind of the hood of the executioner. Who actually belongs inside its construction? It becomes an open question.