“I sometimes joke that my optimism has been stolen by white supremacy.” — Claudia Rankine
I recently read Claudia Rankine’s new book “Just Us: An American Conversation,” a unique collection of essays, poems, and images created to engage readers in a discussion about race and racism in America.
On September 22, Rankine spoke with reporter Kerri Miller via Zoom as the first guest in the 2020 all-virtual season of MPR’s “Talking Volumes.” One of the things she talked about was the difficulty of engaging in vital dialogues about race with people “living in a different reality.” She said constructively conversing with people who are unaware of and unwilling to acknowledge the facts of white supremacy and racial inequity in the U.S. is nearly impossible.
As a long-time teacher, currently a professor at Yale, she spoke passionately on why de-colonizing history is essential.
She noted that the suppression of the history of people of color has been deliberate and has taken many forms. Whitewashing involves the elimination of the accomplishments and even existence of non-whites from history books. There also has been the disregarding of less savory sides of iconic white Americans, such as Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln. The field of eugenics, which has been used to claim that whites are biologically superior to non-whites, is now largely shunned. In the past though, it was a powerful academic weapon of racism.
Rankine proposes that educational efforts to erase and belittle came from the need to rationalize the horrific actions of white America’s past, most notably slavery and the genocide of Indigenous North Americans. As she put it, white America has been in the business of creating false narratives and repressing all contrary evidence “since the time they had to justify turning people into property.”
Rankine praised the work of contemporary scholars, many of them people of color, who are working to awaken awareness of the brutality and complexity of U.S. history.
Another factor that affects perceptions of race is lived experience. Rankine noted that many white Americans have spent decades believing that the inequities of the U.S. won’t touch them. Therefore, they have been unwilling to dis-empower structures of oppression. She wondered if the current climate, in which the entire country is suffering through COVID-19 and its economic devastation, could be a catalyst to change that.
Addressing the murder of George Floyd, Rankine expressed some hope regarding the upcoming trial. Comparing the case to that of Rodney King in Los Angeles in 1992, she pointed out that with Floyd, the uprisings occurred before — instead of after — a verdict. Rankine said this might encourage the general public to pay closer attention during the trial, thereby pressuring the system to issue a more just verdict than what often occurs in cases of police brutality. However, in light of the recent results of the Breonna Taylor case, justice might still be a slippery reality.
Rankine gets hope from the example of her students. She is happy to see how young people are connecting their academic work with civic and personal lives. She pointed out that social media allows students to share what they are learning with friends and colleagues thousands of miles away.
While reading “Just Us” and watching Rankine speak, I was impressed by her humility. She regularly admits the knowledge she doesn’t possess and the challenges she struggles with.
I am 21 years old and have been engaged in activism since my teens. My experiences and my intersectional identities as a multiracial, queer woman have influenced me. Still, there is so much I don’t know. The vastness of my ignorance can make me hesitant to engage in certain conversations.
In “Just Us,” Rankine advises that the point is not to know everything, but to be honest about what we don’t understand, take responsibility for our mistakes, seek knowledge, and be willing to grapple with uncomfortable truths. Most importantly, she calls for us to participate.
“Just Us” is filled with urgent questions and very few concrete answers. This could be frustrating, but I personally think it makes Rankine’s message relevant and relatable.
As she writes in the conclusion of the book: “What I know is that an inchoate desire for a future other than the one that seems to be forming our days brings me to a seat around any table to lean forward, to hear, to respond, to await response from any other.”
Rankine might not always know how to conduct conversations to save our country’s soul, but she is willing to try time and again. This despite the emotional toll these discussions can have, especially for Rankine as a Black woman affected by the realities of racial inequity. What she seems to simply ask in return is that we take a seat at the table too.
Perhaps this desire is why Rankine sees hope in young people. Although no age group is a monolith, I believe that my generation is urgently putting a name to inequities, asking tough questions of ourselves, and boldly vocalizing details of a more fair future. Only after more of us take a seat at the table — intergenerationally and with intersectionality — to commit to the hard work of unlearning and reimagining, will we build a better tomorrow.
Siena Iwasaki Milbauer (she/her) is an intern with Asian American Organizing Project (AAOP) and Shift MN. She is passionate about using art and narrative to counter toxic cultural standards.