When it comes to examining the complexities of race in America, few scholars bring the clarity of vision as Claudia Rankine, the Frederick Iseman Professor of Poetry at Yale University and author of five poetry volumes, including Citizen: An American Lyric, which won a National Book Critics Circle Award in 2015.
After receiving a MacArthur “Genius Grant” in 2016, Rankine co-founded The Racial Imaginary Institute, a collective devoted to the interdisciplinary exploration of race, which began in 2017 with an inquiry into whiteness, white identity, white rage/fragility/violence, and white dominant structures.
Journalist Julie Scelfo, author of The Women Who Made New York, spoke with Rankine about the urgency and complexity of addressing race in an era of resurgent white supremacy emboldened by online networks and a xenophobic United States President.
Julie Scelfo (Rail):I find The Racial Imaginary Institute (TRII) so compelling because most public conversations about race seem to overlook the fact that race is an invented concept, or something that is imagined and constructed in our minds. I view this as being of fundamental importance if we are to address, and change, the underlying thought processes that allow racist ideas to perpetuate. This is my understanding of TRII, but am I understanding your vision correctly?
Claudia Rankine: The Racial Imaginary Institute is fundamentally a curatorial endeavor that allows us to peel back the layers as we have discussions around racial attitudes, racial conceptions, implicit bias, structural racism. We’re in a moment of so much fake news, false statements standing as truth, proclamations that change by the week. We thought it would be useful for us to have events where we could actually engage not just the factual history, but also the perceptions that drive us towards the conclusions that we have regarding whole populations of people.
Rail:I’m often shocked by how difficult it is for white people to talk about whiteness, white privilege, white supremacy, all of these things, which have been documented so robustly by data. At the same time, I’m sensitive to the fact that the language we employ to analyze the situation also actively constructs our current reality. So we occupy both places. Do you think about that too?
Rankine: At TRII we are curating events that both begin discussions around understanding whiteness, and also we help to create cultural events that complicate those understandings. We are very aware of the importance of cultural production. Without offering interruptions to the dominant narratives we allow repetition to be insistence. If we continue with the same ways of seeing and speaking about race, change won’t happen.
And by “change” I mean, just a more honest assessment of the dynamics in front of us, you know? I’m not looking for agreement with what I think. But I would love it if people could start in the same place with some awareness of what allows us to see and be seen. TRII just asks us to think about privilege, power, and public spaces—who gets to inhabit them, move through them without being accosted? How does mobility work for people of different races? It is those kinds of questions that TRII seeks to bring to the surface in the dailyness of existence.
Rail:What do you mean by “dailyness”?
Rankine: All these people who are calling the police, I don’t think they’re evil people, but they’re calling the police on black people who live in the same buildings with them, or park their car in the same garage, or sit in Starbucks [together], or check into a hotel and happen to be in the lobby with them. The police are being called to remove black people from these spaces because of an inherent belief inside of whiteness that they own those spaces, that those spaces are automatically theirs. So how did they come to believe that? They’re not crazy. They’re high functioning people with jobs, they pay their rent, they’re paying for their coffee, they’re able to negotiate other aspects of their lives. So we’re not talking about a mental health issue. We’re talking about deep assumptions about who gets what based on their race or, in other words, institutional, structural racism.
Rail:While I see that our society would view them as not-crazy because they’re functioning in so many capacities, I also think racism is actually a type of maladaptive mental processing which occurs as humans form their own identities. It’s so much easier to create categories of “others,” blame the external world for your problems, than to face the beast within. To put it bluntly, creating otherness is a mechanism to avoid pain.
Rankine: That is true, but it doesn’t account for how it has managed to also determine structural practices, right? The beast within is also written into our government, and in our laws and in policing practices. An individual person might say, “Look, I’m calling the police on you.” You expect when the police come that they’ll say, “This is crazy;” but instead, the person gets thrown out or arrested.
Rail: Or worse.
Rankine: Or worse. So we’re not talking about an individual psychosis. We’re talking about a structural understanding that’s reinforced daily by the practices of our society.
Rail: Agreed. Yet the habits of thinking that create “otherness” occur again and again with a variety of mental classifications besides race, right? In the minds of some people any non cis-hetero identity or presentation is still somehow “other.”
Rankine: You keep saying “some people.” Taking into account various levels of overtness, it’s a condition of whiteness. Racism as an institutional dynamic that privileges white people over black people, exists across the board. So you’ll hear “woke” people saying “obviously we don’t agree with this,” but then in their day-to-day life, there are so many ways in which they are affirming the system nonetheless. Some of that affirmation is unconscious and considered to be simply what it means to live. But it is still there.
I bring up the people who have been in the news but I feel like they’re [only] one manifestation of a generalized condition that determines and affects all our lives. Which is not to say there isn’t implicit bias used against women, queer people, Latinx people. We’re not comparing. We’re just saying this is how this dynamic works. And certainly the way it has been used against black people has been consistent and devastating for the last 400 years, without any ability to assimilate past it, which I think some groups can do.
Rail:My 10-year-old son came home upset the other day. He had told some classmates how Italians were once persecuted because they were seen as having dark skin. His best friend, who was born in Ethiopia and who I know to be amidst a period of questioning about his racial identity, told him, “That’s not true.” Then he and another student called my son “white boy.” As in, “You don’t know anything white boy!”
Rankine: The fact that Italians and Irish people were referred to as black shows us that the definition for persecution is still blackness. But that those very people were then able to assimilate into whiteness, and then themselves targeted black people, shows you the difference between the two groups. The white anglo-saxon protestants who wanted to hold onto whiteness are the ones that were trying to keep the Italians out. When the Civil Rights Movement took off in the 1940s and 50s, that’s when they consolidated whiteness, because they had this other thing they were going to fight. So that consolidation of Europeans under the umbrella of whiteness happened in one century. For 400 years, the wrath on blackness has stayed steady.
Rail:As a mother to “white” sons, I have tried to raise them to recognize how they move through the world, what privileges they are afforded, and how to live in a way that is both kind and empathetic—and gentle. At the same time, I believe that if Tamir Rice [a 12-year-oldwho was fatally shot and killed in 2014 by a police officer in Cleveland, Ohio] had the same color skin as my boys he probably wouldn’t be dead because the officer would have instead paused for a few seconds to think and assess the actual risk, which was none.
Rankine: What your son needs to understand is that he is potentially in charge. That he has a kind of mobility inside this country that nobody else has. His form of privilege and mobility you cannot buy, or earn, or will. You cannot achieve it. He has probably more currency at 10 years-old than a grown black woman with college and graduate degrees.
Rail:That might be true, which is outrageously unjust. But in terms of shaping a 10-year-old’s worldview and trying to raise him to not perpetuate structural inequality, I make it clear that he is not in charge. And I don’t want him to believe he’s in charge.
Rankine: He has the potential for a kind of autonomy other people don’t have. He’s going to be given a second chance. He’s going to be allowed to move in spaces where other people are not. That’s what I mean by being in charge: he owns the space just by virtue of who he is.
Rail:At the same time, privilege is not inherent, it’s assigned. We’re in country that was taken by white conquerors … they assigned that privilege to themselves, or more correctly, took it by force. Today, we assign a lot of privilege to wealth, fame, celebrity, beauty. So one’s relative privilege in a certain situation shifts, right?
Rankine: But it doesn’t shift away from whiteness. Or it hasn’t in the last 400 years.
Rail:How has your work evolved, over the years, to its present state of consciousness? Were there any big events or experiences that informed or guided that evolution?
Rankine: Two events sort of marked me. One was the Jasper, Texas killing of James Byrd Jr. [In 1998, three white men used a logging chain to tie Byrd, a 49-year-old father of three, by his ankles behind a pickup truck, then dragged him for three miles along an asphalt road]. That was a bit of a surprise—the level of brutality, that you would drag a man until his limbs detach from his body. I don’t know what that means in term of those men’s capacity to feel, to exist, to arrive into the next day with memory. I don’t understand that. So that was a defining moment for me.
[Hurricane] Katrina was another one. You saw that this country was wiling to abandon whole populations of people based on their economic positioning and racial identity in the 21st century.
You’re sort of going on in your life, reading your books, teaching your classes, going to Starbucks, and getting your coffee. And then you look—and I know there are these things that are happening all over the world all the time—BUT, they’re always described with contingencies, “given the unstable government,” etc. etc. But to have these things happen in your own backyard? That’s devastatingly close.
Rail:While white supremacists have been emboldened by the Internet and the Republican party, it also feels like more and more Americans are becoming aware of how democracy and inclusivity are linked, and that we can’t continue to have a white, patriarchal culture and call it democratic. Who is allowed to be part of the resistance?
Rankine: We’re citizens of the United States; it’s all our places to be involved. That’s why the Women’s March was important. The question to me is how involved are [white] women, not whether they should be involved. And where does the involvement end? How else is it showing itself? Because it hasn’t shown itself aggressively in terms of real moments of injustice.
Rail:Sometimes I think about racism in global terms. My husband’s father is from the Alps and once when they went to eat in a diner, his father became alarmed and said “You’ve got to only speak English in here.” There was a sign on the wall that read “We don’t serve Italians or dogs.” What is that underlying human impulse to divide and categorize? Dr. Seuss has that story, “The Sneetches.” Do you agree it’s universal or is there a form of racism that’s uniquely American?
Rankine: No, no, no. Orlando Patterson has written about the history of slavery in the world, all forms, including white slavery. The subjugation of women can go inside of that too. The possibility of barbarous behavior by one population against another is known, we’ve seen it. We’ve seen it in Bosnia, we’ve seen it in Rwanda, we’ve seen it in the United States, we’ve seen it everywhere—in Nazi Germany and in the Palestine/Israeli conflict.
Rail:Do you believe people can get better? Is there hope we can improve?
Rankine: Everybody has the capacity to get both better and worse. [Laughs] That’s the definition of being human.
Julie Scelfo is a former staff writer for The New York Times and the author of The Women Who Made New York (Seal Press/Hachette). Her work explores American society, human behavior and the role of communication in constructing meaning. More information at www.juliescelfo.com