In her new book ‘Just Us,’ Claudia Rankine invites us all to talk about white privilege

Tribune Content Agency

“But what about Black-on-Black crime?”

It’s a question that poet, playwright and professor Claudia Rankine has been fielding ever since she toured the country for her 2014 bestseller “Citizen: An American Lyric.” And she expects it for her latest work.

“It was never from a white person but always a South Asian guy trying to distance himself from me to show that he’s not Black,” Rankine said. “I understand. There’s a level of anxiety associated with Blackness because of the violence and the history of degradation that comes with that. They want to have a chance to live.”

Her new book, “Just Us: An American Conversation,” fearlessly addresses historic and contemporary examples of white privilege and supremacy.

Like “Citizen,” it employs poems, essays and visual images. The mixed-media interface of photos and text, of the past surfacing in the present, makes “Just Us” almost like an art installation in book form. Published by Minneapolis’ Graywolf Press, it completes a trilogy that started with “Don’t Let Me Be Lonely,” her 2004 meditation on solitude in a media-saturated world.

For Rankine, who teaches at Yale, the book is not just a matter of scholarly curiosity. She writes because her life depends on it.

We caught up with her recently for a conversation that has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Q: You’ve brought back the multigenre book, mixing your essays with poetry and photography, not to mention putting the footnotes right next to the subject matter.

A: I wanted to come up with a structure where the form and content were allied to each other. For me, (it captures) the nature of conversation: Something is going on in your head, so you have an internal dialogue with an external interaction.

Q: As I read and looked at the images, I was surprised at how familiar they were, including the chart of evolution that populates classrooms across the country.

A: Right. We see that chart where man evolves from ape to the highest form, which takes the form of a white guy. It does a thing on the psyche. When you have children who are 3 years old saying the smartest person is a white person, that is what they’ve come to learn, not what they know. How did that happen? White supremacy is constructed.

Q: You talk about Presidents Abraham Lincoln and Thomas Jefferson — deified figures with huge blindsides on race.

A: You’re doing the research and you get startled. And you’re like, “Wait, et tu, Abraham? Et tu, Thomas — I thought you had a Black quote-unquote mistress and Black children?” The more research you do, the more you realize that the Jeffersons and Lincolns are just as committed to the eradication of Black people as everyone else.

What’s interesting to me is that we have all of these renowned historians who were happy to give you the one side and to leave out all the rest of it. So, that means that all of these people are intentionally, consciously committed to the fiction of white superiority and white benevolence.

Q: Does that also raise a question of manners?

A: The social contract is that you don’t bring any of this up. There has been a kind of collusion to buy into this idea that to bring it up is to go against civility, to go against norms and make people uncomfortable. What’s so ingenious about the whole construct is that if you do bring any of these inconvenient things up, you’re an angry Black woman. And that’s very unattractive, OK? Meanwhile, a whole segment of the population is being asked to deal with the constant threat of death, but don’t bring it up.

Q: And the cost of this silence?

A: Some of it is in the news. The constant death of Black people, whether it’s through over-policing, racial profiling, shooting somebody seven times in the back or kneeling on their necks till they die.

The morbidity rate for Black newborns is higher than everybody else’s. A Black child at birth is three times more likely to die if the resident doctor is white. My neighbor is a pediatrician, I shared that with her. And she couldn’t believe it. I said, lady, believe it. That’s the cost that we bear.

When we begin to think about African Americans being more vulnerable to COVID-19, what you’re really saying is that our closeness to precarity is a step away. Just add one more stick to the fire and we’re out.

Q: People talk about white fragility — is that part of what’s holding us back?

A: Robin DiAngelo (author of the book “White Fragility”) has gotten a lot of flak lately and it’s curious to me. What the woman did was name dynamics we all know exist. And we should be thankful for that. And I think white fragility, white defensiveness, all of those things are being negotiated not just by African Americans in relation to white people but white people amongst themselves, by Asian Americans in relation to white people, by African Americans in relation to Asian people, inasmuch as they are aspirationally white.

Q: This is not just national but global, right? In the book, you call out whitewashing in Japan.

A: Declaring that people from China or Japan or Korea are also invested in whiteness is not an outlandish claim. We see the whitewashing that goes on in the media. We know that people are willing to poison their own bodies in order to move away from Blackness. And if they can take that chance, they’re gonna take it. And if that means using whitening cream or employing the same racial profiling that whites employ against African Americans, they might do it.

Q: I know you’re a tennis fan.

A: And I’m so excited that (U.S. Open champion) Naomi Osaka aligned with Black Lives Matter. It’s incredibly important that she’s been wearing a mask with the names of victims of brutality. And she’s someone whose grandfather and grandmother refused her and her mother because of their alliance with her father, who’s Haitian.

Q: This is an important work but one that I found both coruscating and hard.

A: I’m not going to write anything for a while because what I’ve found is that every time I sit down to write, it’s another chapter of “Just Us.” There’s just so much, so much pain, suffering, degradation, inequity. It’s just endless. And I didn’t even talk about mass incarceration.

Q: And life is always giving you more to write about.

A: I was thinking about something recently and accidentally took the dog on a walk without turning off the alarm. I came back home and the place was surrounded by police because the alarm was going off. I open the door and put in the alarm code, and the policeman says, “Do you live here?” and I say, “Yes. This is my house. I just forgot to turn off the alarm.”

My husband, who is white, happens to drive up at that moment, and the policeman turns to him and says, “This woman says she lives here.” (Rankine burst into laughter.) What kind of burglar knows the code and has the dog? “This woman says she lives here. You wanna tell us what’s going on?”


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