There is the multiverse, and then, there are the multi-versed; award-winning poet, playwright, author, editor, and artist Claudia Rankine, is undoubtedly one of the latter. With seven books, several plays, and fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the Lannan Foundation, the MacArthur Foundation, United States Artists, and the National Endowment of the Arts, Rankine, the Frederick Iseman Professor of Poetry at Yale and co-founder of the Racial Imaginary Institute, has literally made an art of dissecting some of our most difficult conversations and dynamics around race. Her 2014 book of poetry Citizen: An American Lyric hailed as one of the best books of the last decade (h/t) Literary Hub, as well as earning a National Book Critics Circle Award for Poetry and the 2015 NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literary Work in Poetry.
For this new, already deeply troubled decade, Rankine offers us a new dialogue; one that challenges us—through poetry, prose, personal essays, interviews, photographs, and more—to consider the myriad mechanisms and more nuanced aspects of racial justice. Released in late September, Just Us: An American Conversation, is a stunning exploration of white male privilege, and how, even when at its most benign, it remains the most destructive and oppressive force in our collective culture.
“I think one of the most important things around white male privilege that I discovered in the writing of this book was that when I talk about white male privilege, and I think maybe when you use that term, too,” Rankine tells us during this week’s episode of The Root Presents: It’s Lit! “We’re thinking about what it means to be able to walk in the world as a white person and how that automatically attaches to mechanisms of power. When white people hear the term ‘white male privilege,’ they seem to think you’re talking about economic privilege. And even though economic privilege comes from white privilege, it isn’t the same thing. It’s not necessarily the same thing. I am talking about the inability to walk into a store without being followed. The inability to be pulled over by police without the police not having to engage the mechanisms of projected criminality on to me, whoever I am.”
Gone to print well before racial justice returned to the forefront of our national conversation, Just Us, proves uniquely right for the moment we are in; one that demands that the work not fall upon the most marginalized, and asks us all to recognize our attachment to privilege.
“I think it’s difficult for people—anybody, white, Black, you know, Latinx, Asian—anybody to give up anything they have. And it just so happens that in this country, white people have the most stuff, you know—and not accidentally, intentionally, intentionally. They have things,” says Rankine. “I think this concept of sharing resources is going to be the toughest part of their anti-racist commitment. You know, they say ‘we don’t support racial profiling, we don’t support over-policing, we don’t support the killing of Black people.’ But when it comes to having to think about how housing works, think about how education works, think about opening up spots for children, rerouting those neighborhoods that were gentrified…that will be a harder and bigger question.”
Ultimately, Rankine says, “we can’t do this thing by ourselves.” For Just Us, she conducted informal field research on the white men (and occasionally women) she encountered, and with an unfathomably crucial election hanging in the balance, she maintains that a racial divide is ironically the time for continued communication.
“This administration has cleverly used anti-Blackness to create a wedge and now it’s using anti-science to create a wedge into the population,” she says. “And so I think we need to start talking…Because we are all going to have to, you know, we have to flood. We have to vote early. We have to fly to the voting booths. We have to make it so that any kind of voter suppression is made mute by the overwhelming response in support of the Biden-Harris ticket. And so we’re really going to have to understand where our differences really are.”
Hear this and more in the fourth episode of The Root Presents: It’s Lit!, featuring the multi-versed Claudia Rankine, available on Apple, Spotify, Stitcher, iHeart Radio, Google Podcasts, Amazon, NPR One, TuneIn, and Radio Public.
A transcript of The Root Presents: It’s Lit, Ep. 4: Claudia Rankine is available below: