Claudia Rankine: ‘By white privilege I mean the ability to stay alive’

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The poet and playwright talks to Afua Hirsch about power, race and class, and her experience of being a first-generation immigrant living in the US today

Claudia Rankine is a poet, playwright, essayist and adjunct professor of English and African American Studies at Yale University. She was born in Jamaica and moved to the US as a child. The recipient of the 2015 National Book Critics Circle award for poetry and a 2016 MacArthur “genius” fellowship, she is the author of five books, including the bestselling Citizen: An American Lyric. Her new publication, Just Us: An American Conversation, explores whiteness and white supremacy in a series of everyday conversations, at the airport, dinner party, theatre and voting booth.

Afua Hirsch: I admire the way you weave in the personal in Just Us. Is that deliberate?

Claudia Rankine: Yes, because I thought if I was asking people to show up in these conversations and allow themselves to be vulnerable, to be wrong, then I needed to do the same. I talk about my family and my positioning in a way that allows me to say I have my own investments in these inquiries. I have a daughter. We have a white man in our house. These are real issues for me.

AH: I related to that honesty. I’m mixed race … and that’s something people ask me about so much. But interracial relations are more common in Britain than in the US.

CR: They are becoming more and more common here, too. I see it in my classrooms. Not just black-white constructions; everybody seems to be something-and-something. The issue of immigration is so interesting in this country, because everybody is from so many different places, and yet the illusion is that people are white or black. The whole idea of the United States was that it was a melting pot.

AH: I was curious about your experience as a first-generation, Jamaican-heritage, black American person. Do you feel that you have a different perspective from somebody who isn’t a first-generation immigrant?

CR: I think that as a first-generation person there is a natural curiosity about the culture. You’ve entered into another culture and you’re going to have to learn certain rules. I think if you’ve been here for generations there is more of an acceptance of the way things are. I do remember as a child thinking: “So, is this the way it works? Racism is this?” African Americans talk about having “the talk” with their children about policing and racism and how they’re in danger once they leave the house. But I think in our household it really was a curiosity about everything.

AH: Do you feel like you have more permission to interrogate as somebody who has an outside perspective?

CR: I don’t have a conscious sense of giving myself permission; I just don’t know another way to be. I think the way I am in this world is one of the immigrants, someone who has come from another place, understands that there are new rules and in order to negotiate one needs to know, learn, be curious about why people are doing what they’re doing.

AH: I feel that there’s an inherent optimism in the act of immigration, and I felt that optimism in your telling of your random encounters with white people. It suggests a belief that engaging in these conversations might produce something different.

CR: I agree with that. I have discussions with Saidiya Hartman, the literary theorist and writer, about whether this line of inquiry is worth it, and she stands on the other side of it. But I can’t see how it’s not worth it. If you don’t engage, I feel like it gives people too much power to say that what they have they will always have. Race is a constructed thing, so if it’s constructed in one direction it could be constructed in another direction. So I think that it’s definitely worth it. I mean, we’ve seen with the protests in the last few months: people are capable of changing.

AH: You come across as a very patient person. I was frustrated reading one story in Just Us, about seeing the play Fairview [which challenges white members of the audience to react in a certain way]. I wanted you to say something to your white friend. And you’re fuming but letting her make her own decision.

CR: You know, she and I are friends. But I just don’t think you can make people do things. I’m not interested in public shaming, but I am interested in accountability. I was very interested in my own emotions; how much I was enraged by her behaviour. But many people like that exchange between us in the book. They feel it’s the one place where both parties show up fully. And I think that’s true. But I also feel they like her explanation of why she didn’t react in the way that she was supposed to, that it allows them to also have those thoughts.

AH: I relate to this. It feels like a very specific thing to do: to move in white spaces while critiquing them. Do you struggle with it?

CR: I have had friends say to me, “It must be exhausting to be you”, and I don’t think they mean it as a compliment! They say, “So what are you thinking about, now?”, as if they know that there are two conversations going on at all times; what’s coming out of my mouth and what’s going on in my head. I think, with the book, people are very aware that there is a mode of surveillance happening around our interactions. If that means that they become more sensitive to what they say to me, that’s OK. I’ll take it!

AH: A lot of the backlash against these conversations is people mourning the loss of their privilege to be insulting or racist or lacking in consciousness.

CR: An interviewer said to me: “But aren’t there places where you go too far?” And I said: “Well, how? Do you mean when somebody says something racist to me, for me to call it out is to go too far?” It’s that sense of the decorum around receiving racism which makes absolutely no sense.

AH: Your treatment of the ways in which it’s regarded as uniquely wrong and offensive to say someone is white or benefiting from white privilege speaks very personally to me. I had this experience on TV, after Danny Baker joked about Harry and Meghan’s baby being a chimp. I was the only black person, and the debate was about whether it was unfair that Danny Baker had lost his job. I got emotional because I was just so fed up that they managed to centre the white victim of being a racist instead of the black person who is constantly at the receiving end of these tropes. It was interesting to see you use that example and put it in its context of how ancient that trope is.

CR: I’m sure you followed the Amy Cooper video [in which a white woman in Central Park, asked by a black man to put her dog on a lead, according to the rules, threatened to call the police]. I am just shocked at how many people have written to me personally and said: “Well, I understand how she could be afraid.” There’s a deep psychological need for whiteness to go unexamined. White people have one understanding about what whiteness is and to trouble it is to trouble them. And they cannot hold it, they really cannot bear it, but it really doesn’t have anything to do with me.

AH: You deal so well with that response of: “What, you’re saying that a homeless white person has white privilege?” I feel like you give us tools to deal with that, because it can be quite difficult.

CR: It’s about separating economic privilege from white privilege. Because what you actually get with whiteness is the ability to move freely, and to live. And people don’t understand that before they are negotiating economics, they have been given the right to just live in their poverty or their wealth. That’s the piece of the conversation that I think needs to be said more, because the minute they hear privilege they think money, and we’re not talking about money. Also, they can’t conceptualise it because none of us should have to conceptualise it. None of us should have to be living with the precarity of [thinking that]maybe if we leave our house, we will be shot for no reason at all simply because of the colour of our skin. They cannot comprehend that, because that should not exist. White people think when I say white privilege I mean economic privilege but I mean white living. The ability to stay alive.

AH: It feels as if British people struggle with analysis of race, but not class. Whereas the US is much more sophisticated in the discourse around race, but class is often neglected. I was excited that you’d addressed that in your piece about Big Little Lies.

CR: I really like that show for very quickly creating a rubric to think about how entitlement and class are tied together. And in that piece I really wanted to show how white privilege and economic privilege, even though they are not the same thing, are deeply related to each other, because one allows for the other and that trajectory is built into the system. In your system it really is about what schools you automatically have open to you, and that education opens out certain jobs immediately to you … The legacy issue means that you are by virtue of birth given access to certain things that other people might be able to enter into only by virtue of luck.

AH: You also go into [the idea that]class hierarchies are more transparent in the US. Clearly Britain isn’t a meritocracy, but I feel like the US is just more open about its unfairness.

CR: Really, especially under this administration. One of the things that our present president has done is just said, “Yeah, this is how it is”, with no shame whatsoever. I was in a shop, and there was a group of three white women behind me, and one of the women was saying how it was just so lovely that the grandchild had gotten into this Ivy League school. And her dad and his dad had gone there … So, I turned around and I said: “You know, that’s called the legacy programme.” And they all just stared at me. I guess I was not invited into that conversation.

AH: It’s such a rollercoaster ride with you because you are that person that really tolerates and is patient with people, but you will go in and say that thing. How do you deal with people’s perceptions and white approval and all of these things that we’re so conditioned to seek?

CR: Well, I don’t get pleasure from having the things that I do panned by virtue of the subject matter. But I also understand that I can’t critique white men and then expect them to turn around and praise me. And so, when I have a play and the main theatre critic is a white male and he totally pans the production, I kind of feel like: “Well, OK. That’s what I get!” And luckily, in my career, the work has managed to find its way despite the public critique of it. If I wanted their approval I would do something different. I’m trying to be accountable to myself and the process and the history and the language the best I know how.

AH: Do you feel part of a global conversation around race at the moment?

CR: One of the things I wanted to do in Just Us was to show how the dynamics of whiteness are at play all over the world. There was a Japanese ambassador who was talking about education in the United States and he said: “Well, if you want the scores to go up just don’t count the African Americans.” Whiteness is the thing that is valued. It’s valued in the West Indies: you go to hotels and who’s in the front? People who look like you and my daughter. I’ve been to South Africa and the same dynamic works there. So, I see these questions as part of the diaspora.

AH: A lot of people have said that since the killing of George Floyd white people are coming to this conversation with more humility and intellectual curiosity. Do you feel that there is a different atmosphere around your work now?

CR: It’s a tricky question because my work has been in the culture for a while. But I do know that people went from saying, “Is this so? Are you sure?” to “Are you done yet? Are you gonna write about something else now?” So, that’s been interesting. People are now able to say, “OK, yes, somebody will sit on someone’s neck and kill them in front of your very eyes. They weren’t lying about that.” I think the quarantine has allowed us to really sit with things, as a culture. So that’s been good. And also the present administration is beyond the pale for a lot of people, so I think they’re willing to admit to things that six years ago they wouldn’t have seen as real. But if this administration is gone, what does that mean for all this new openness? Do we get: “Are you done yet?” We’ll see.

AH: At the root of this is the paradox of black people always being thought of as leaders in demanding change and a conversation and a reckoning, but also feeling exhausted with having to school white people in that conversation.

CR: Exactly. It’s complicated. I think if you’re going to stay in the room with people then it’s just the price of the ticket. Also, because I don’t think I understand everything, there are things I can learn from everybody. I’ve always bristled a little around that phrase: “It’s not my job to educate white people.” I feel like it might be my job just to educate myself. And part of that has to do with being accountable to myself and to white people.

AH: Something I found quite triggering was the dinner party where somebody asks you what she should say to her students who dye their hair blond. You dealt with it very graciously and used it as a starting point for a really fascinating discussion. But do you feel that there is a sense of entitlement, that you owe your intellectual analysis to people somehow?

CR: I don’t mind the questions. That’s what I mean about not knowing; I’m always curious. It’s not a question I ever had, though I had obviously seen [black]people with blond hair. I found it really fascinating to do a deep dive into that inquiry. And then that became a year-long project, photographing people. So sometimes these questions are really generative, and that’s why I don’t like shutting down the idea. And I never lose my ability to make a choice. I can say I don’t know anything about that and move on.

AH: Is that your perspective as a creative person, that you harness it for your inquiry?

CR: I think it is for everyone. I mean, what are conversations? Having written this book, I think a lot now about what we want from a conversation. Even you talking to me or me talking to you, what are we doing? What are we building towards? It’s a kind of appreciation of your mind and your experiences and your lines of inquiry and that is something I value. And it’s true that I have used it as material for my creative work, but it’s also my life. That’s what’s interesting about Just Us. This is my life, these conversations.

Just Us by Claudia Rankine is published by Allen Lane (£25). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.

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