I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background: a sentence borrowed from Zora Neale Hurston, rendered in neurotic black stencil, repeated over and over until the words lose meaning, until it is illegible, bricks of black swirls on white canvas. The painting is by Glenn Ligon. He debuted this work in 1990, back when notions of multicultural tolerance were still up for debate, and it perfectly captured the experience of diversity from the inside out. From the perspective of today, diversity is a safe and self-evident good, a way for institutions to appear responsive to a world in motion. But from the perspective of those drafted in the name of diversification, a question remains: Now what? It is a question Ligon’s painting can never answer.
Ligon’s painting is one of the many provocations guiding poet Claudia Rankine’s celebrated new book Citizen: An American Lyric. A National Book Award finalist, Citizen is a rangy dossier of prose vignettes, images, poems, and provocations that depict the contemporary experience of race in an array of “white backgrounds”—campuses, the art world, professional tennis. It is a book concerned with the drama that plays out just below the surface of polite conversation. “What did he just say? Did she really just say that? Did I hear what I think I heard? Did that just come out of my mouth, his mouth, your mouth? The moment stinks.” When a white colleague tries to commiserate with her about a half-baked campus diversity initiative, she wonders why he has chosen her of all people to share his gripe: “You think maybe this is an experiment and you are being tested or retroactively insulted or you have done something that communicates this is an okay conversation to be having.”
Microaggressions aren’t overt acts of belittlement. They’re unintentional and passive; they mistake casual familiarity with the belief that everyone is the same.
It is exhausting to read Rankine’s transcriptions of everyday life, the way the smallest, most benign expressions of racism chew at the nerves, send a tingle through the skin. I wasn’t moved by these passages so much as I was overwhelmed by how familiar they felt. The paranoia and tension, the sudden fatigue, ears turning red as you’re confused with the other Asian person at a party where there are only three Asian people. Rankine sits in her driveway, shaping a comeback for someone who has long since forgotten the conversation. Nowadays we refer to these kinds of everyday interactions—things said in good faith that accidentally belittle or demean members of a marginalized group—as microaggressions.
Microaggressions aren’t overt acts of belittlement. They’re unintentional and passive; they mistake casual familiarity with the belief that everyone is the same. By foregrounding personal experience—something that’s only accelerated with social media—we might think of microaggressions as a way of making racism more legible. It’s a very accessible kind of charge, much like the debates online about appropriation and representation or trigger warnings and civility.
But these also feel like struggles that cannot be won. Locating racism in something as concrete as speech, the solution then becomes to refine and revise that speech. It’s unclear, though, how one crosses this bridge from everyday microaggression to the larger, abstract structures that keep our racial hierarchies in place. What makes Citizen entrancing, then, is its disembodied feel. It doesn’t sit comfortably within a critical world that is increasingly voice-driven. Instead, Citizen is a composite of murmurs and cries, stream-of-consciousness spirals into self-doubt, moments that float free of context.
One of the most absorbing threads of Citizen casts racism as a kind of rigged game. It grows out of a seemingly benign moment, as Rankine settles into her chair, sips an Arnold Palmer, and watches the early semifinal of the 2009 U.S. Open on television. The match would be remembered for its bizarre conclusion. Defending champion Serena Williams was serving to stay alive when she double-faulted—calls one rarely sees at such a decisive stage of the tournament, let alone the tense, final moments of a match. Rather than serving, an exasperated Williams began shouting at the line judge. As Rankine watches, she grows tense, too, and the clean symmetry of the tennis court begins to symbolize something else entirely: “Perhaps this is how racism feels no matter the context—randomly the rules everyone else gets to play by no longer apply to you, and to call this out by calling out ‘I swear to God!’ is to be called insane, crass, crazy. Bad sportsmanship.” Rankine is there, in the moment, but she is also not there. “Every look, every comment, every bad call blossoms out of history, through her, onto you.” Rankine’s mind pulls in every direction, a calm swirl of Williams’ past, everyday anger and anguish, some distant future when commentators will look back and wonder what that was all about.
Locating racism in something as concrete as speech, the solution then becomes to refine and revise that speech. It’s unclear, though, how one crosses this bridge from everyday microaggression to the larger, abstract structures that keep our racial hierarchies in place.
The metaphor is of sport, which echoes throughout the book, is especially appropriate because it sometimes seems that we are mere spectators: taking sides, nurturing intensities, rooting for our team to triumph over theirs. Rankine’s focus on the gritty minutiae of everyday racism is what makes Citizen so immediately arresting but at the same time baffling. If racism is a rigged game, two ways of reading this book emerge. The simpler version—the much easier takeaway—is that the opponent is discernible. The other team consists of foul linemen at the U.S. Open, ignorant white folks (from Donald Sterling to Darren Wilson), and soft liberals who try in vain to catch the awful things that fall out of their mouths when they notice at all. Another of Rankine’s colleagues—“the woman with all the degrees”—says, “I didn’t know black women could get cancer.” When Rankine laments that “no amount of visibility will alter the ways in which one is perceived,” the solution then becomes to close the book and start perceiving differently.
There’s something wickedly contemporary about Rankine’s depiction of racial spectacle. We bear witness to injustice; we watch and we try to use our words and actions to shame the institutions that fail us. Herein lies the more complex way to read Citizen. At its best, this book moves us not just to act but to imagine as well. The most thrilling moments come in the middle sections, when the careful, controlled lines unspool into desperate abstraction. These are the segments that approach recent history—Hurricane Katrina, the murders of Jordan Davis and Trayvon Martin—askance, sentences tugging and stretching to find their center. Somewhere between racism’s capacities to treat the marginalized other as alternately super- and subhuman, people are just allowed to be, within and beyond Rankine’s lines on the page.
This post originally appeared in New America’s digital magazine, The Weekly Wonk, a Pacific Standard partner site. Sign up to get The Weekly Wonk delivered to your inbox, and follow @NewAmerica on Twitter.