Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me. Is there a point where a joke is so bitter, its not really funny anymore? When the flavor of a phrase leaves an aftertaste on your tongue that makes you actually, physically, nauseous? Citizen has left me in that place, unfortunately. Because now I know that, yes, sticks and stones may break my bones, but language dictates everything; from social norms to legislation and it’s often used to bolster violence and oppression through a level of extreme erasure and persecution.
Citizen gets at that basic disparity through a deceptively simple trick: For much of the book, Rankine describes her encounters with perceived racism in short prose narratives in which she refers to herself as “you,” insisting that each reader stand in her place—which we necessarily arrive at from very different angles.
The details are deliberately unadorned, simple, brief and abundant, and the efficiency of Rankine’s prose lets them build up with the unadulterated force of fact. They are not as objective as they feel, at first, but that’s part of the point. When I—someone more likely to stand in the place of an offending friend or colleague than that of Rankine—pull away from the “you” in one story, I’m forced to acknowledge my choice to stand apart and its refusal of Rankine’s experience. Reading about a friend who failed to speak up for her in a supermarket, I say, “But maybe that’s not what she meant.” And when I do, I’m forced to actually feel, in that moment of saying that I am not “you,” just how much I enter our shared language through a set of experiences that are in no way universal.
“You are here, fighting off the weight of nonexistence.”
And that’s the problem, isn’t it? That a whole measure of the world is going through life without having ever experienced something like this before, as if these issues don’t really exist.
“You are in the dark, in the car, watching the black-tarred street being swallowed by speed; he tells you his dean is making him hire a person of color when there are so many great writers out there.”
The first half of this book is astonishing. It is the story of a day-to-day life navigated within innumerable micro-aggressions, from the man at the deli counter who apologizes, embarrassed, for not seeing Rankine there, to the friend who complains about her son not getting in to his top choice school because (as the she puts it) they had to give some legacy slots to affirmative action kids. I was floored when, after the first few pieces, I was actively pulling myself out of the mindset of a white, small town, middle class, individual, and forcing myself to acknowledge that just because I’ve never seen it, doesn’t mean its not there. How terrifying is that? To think you might have been a party to exclusion and oppression without ever realizing it was taking place?
It’s a story of both self-aware racism, the kind many of us “good white people” claim we don’t have—and let’s say charitably that the majority of non-black people reading this blog wouldn’t, for example, pass over a job candidate because of race, or call the cops on a black babysitter because we thought he was robbing the house—as well as the consistent and perpetual acts of unconscious racism that everybody probably does even when we don’t want to.
“You take in things you don’t want all the time. The second you hear or see some ordinary moment, all its intended targets, all the meanings behind the retreating seconds, as far as you are able to see, come into focus. Hold up, did you just here, did you just say, did you just see, did you just do that? Then the voice in your head silently tells you to take your foot off your throat because just getting along shouldn’t be an ambition.”
And then, at the end of the first half, the kicker: Rankine writes that it is impossible to be a black writer and not have everything you write address race and racism in at least some aspect. I am trying to comprehend that depth of this, whether this is true and simply unacknowledged. I suspect it is, to the point where many of the people who have written about Bill Cosby recently are specifically calling out The Cosby Show for taking place in a nonexistent race-free paradise, something that we can all agree does not exist (further reading: here). Is there an episode where a patient refuses to be treated by Dr. Huxtable because of the color of his skin? No.
(At least I’ve never seen it. Fresh Prince of Bel-Air was refreshingly transparent, in comparison, with is view on institutional racism and the societal obstacles placed on a black family in an upper class, primarily white neighborhood. For instance, here is Carlton and Will being arrested for driving a car that’s too nice.)
Meanwhile, Rankine is writing about a doctor refusing to treat her because she is black. The sucker-punch of reality is painful, and necessary, especially for a white reader like me. I finished the book in a day of scattered reading, little pockets of enlightenment shoved into a relatively normal Wednesday. I was in the library when I finally set it down, and almost immediately a quote by Eliezar Yudkowsky, community essayist and philosopher, came to mind. “You are personally responsible for becoming more ethical than the society you grew up in.” (more essays by Yudkowsky here and here.) And yet, I feel helpless in the face of this immovable stigma I’m only witnessing from the wrong side of the glass.
Citizen would certainly be a very different book for someone who had experienced race in different ways than I, and yet it would only be more important. It’s genius, that way, where it holds the capability to make so many different versions of American life so intrinsic, so inherent to one and other, to instruct us in the gravity and range of our participation in a narrative of race that we recount and reinstate, even when the majority of us speak as though it isn’t there.