Claudia Rankine’s “Citizen” really moved me with some of the very real, very passive, and very commonplace forms of racism that are displayed by Americans today. I was really surprised at how Rankine’s use of “you” vs. “I” in her writing style put me in a position that I had never truly considered. From the first sentence—“When you are alone”—She puts the reader there not with her, but as her. With all of that being said, I would like to dig a little deeper into one particular passage that stuck with me throughout the book and after.
At the end of a brief phone conversation, you tell the manager you are speaking with that you will come by his office to sign the form. When you arrive and announce yourself, he blurts out, I didn’t know you were black!
I didn’t mean to say that, he then says.
Aloud, you say.
What? He asks.
You didn’t mean to say that aloud.
Your transaction goes swiftly after that. (44)
I have long hated the idea that someone can “sound” Black or White. Do you suppose they would have an answer if you asked what color a stranger’s hair is, based off of hearing their voice? And why does that sound funny to consider, but not the idea of hearing someone talk in “Black.” White people very commonly and openly criticize other White people for talking Black. Just like that, in an instant, you demean an entire race because they don’t sound or dress like you do. White people who have adopted black culture are referred to as a “Wigger.” White people have been concerned with other White’s adopting black culture for a long time, as if it’s a problem to be dealt with. All along, they have simultaneously applauded Blacks for adopting White culture, as if they should have been aspiring to do so in the first place.
I really enjoy that we are reading Citizen and Michelle Alexander’s “The New Jim Crow” so close together because of how much they can be used together as well as individually. Alexander does an excellent job of highlighting the problems that plague the poor black communities, and how they have done so for decades. Poor, black children aren’t being offered quality education because there is a system in place that is creating a permanently criminalized underclass. They are cycling in out of prisons and courts and in turn this steady stream of ex-prisoners is being funneled into consolidated, predominantly black neighborhoods (The Projects). The population in these areas may not necessarily encourage crime, but there is no real effort to discourage it either, thus starting the cycle all over again.
The manager’s surprise at the color of her (Rankine) skin is exactly what I think of when I look at the artwork on Page 53. I see it now. I can feel the tension in the room. “I didn’t know you were black!” Would it have been as nonchalant if she had said the same? “I didn’t know you were white!” Why is the former played off as an innocent mistake while the latter would likely be taken as an insubordinate insult? The “Sharp white background” is the standard to which Rankine and most African Americans continue to be measured. White Americans are always surprised and curious when an African American isn’t speaking Ebonics. They have the nerve, the ignorance, to tell them that they sound “white” when they speak. Is white the right way to speak? Is there a right way to speak?
On a personal note (which adds to my rage) this reminds me of my sister’s husband. My sister, as you can imagine, is white. Her husband is black. He is also a Doctor. He’s a husband, a father, and a friend. He’s one of the hardest working people I know, yet no matter how many parties or family functions we attend or how many people I introduce him to, I know there will always one myopic fool who mentions how “white” he talks.
“Dude, Chris is like the whitest black guy ever!”
That’s such bullshit. What makes him so white? He’s fitting in where he isn’t supposed to, so we must recognize and comment on it! People say these things with a smile and a wink like they are paying a compliment. As if Chris spent 10 years in college just so he could be the “whitest black person” that you’ve ever met. Do people think that it’s a goal? All black people want to be white—it must be what they think.