Can you sound like a color? (Final Draft)

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. She opens the book with a few instances where a statement is made by someone, sometimes on accident, which seems almost impossible, unbelievable, and no matter what form the statement happens to take, no matter how polite the perpetrator may try to make it sound, it always means the same thing; “You are inferior to me.” I was really surprised at how Rankine’s use of “you” vs. “I” in her writing style was able to bring me to a position 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 and piece of art that both 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. Think of the absurdity of creating an image of a person that you can’t see, based off of their voice. Yet, it is something that people do. Do you suppose people 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. White people who have adopted Black culture and mannerisms are referred to as “Wigger.” And, just like that, in an instant, you demean an entire race because they don’t sound or dress like you do. How could such an ignorant, blatantly racist mash-up become so acceptable? I was curious how long the idea of the modern Wigger had been prominent and stumbled upon this little gem. In 1957 a 9,000 word essay by Norman Mailer, “The White Negro”, was published and sold.

Norman Mailer

The so-called White Negroes were those who had adopted Black clothing styles, Black jive language, and Black music. White people have been concerned with and researching other White’s adopting Black culture for a long time, as if it were a contagious disease. All along, they have simultaneously applauded Blacks for adopting White culture, as if they should have aspired 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’s highlighting the problems that plague the poor black communities, and how they have done so for decades.

“Poor and working class whites were faced with a social demotion. It was their kids who might be bused across town, and forced to compete for the first time with a new group of people they had long believed to be inferior for decent jobs and educational opportunities.” (Alexander 10)

Following the Civil Rights movement. Whites were now socially “equal” with African Americans. For the majority of Whites, specifically in the American South, this would not, could not, stand. In turn they issued their own form a social demotion to the Black community. Civil Rights have been taking one step forward and two steps back since the abolition of slavery. 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 and being funneled into the improvised neighborhoods of the most marginal sections of society.

Distibution of Races

These particular areas are the ones with the FEWEST resources for social and economic reintegration. The Result? Lower education standards because of the higher crime rates. See the map? Notice those heavily concentrated in little pockets of dark dots? How about the more even distribution of the blue dots?

They are uneducated because they are poor.

They are poor because they can’t get a good job.

They can’t get a job because they have a criminal record.

They have a criminal record because they are uneducated.

“It’s slavery on the inside; Jim Crow when you get out.” (Alexander, 13)

The manager’s surprise at the color of her 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 a harmless mistake by a bigot while the latter would likely be taken as an insubordinate insult? The “sharp white background” is the standard to which Rankine continues 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 remark to them them on sounding White when they speak. Is white the right way to speak? Is there a right way to speak?

a sharp white backgournd

On a personal note (which adds to my rage) this reminds me further of my Brother-in-law. My sister, as you can imagine, is White. Her husband is black. He is also a Doctor. He’s also 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!”

Fran's Family

That’s such bullshit. What makes him so White? Being a doctor or not being a criminal? Raising his sons or not speaking in Ebonics? After all of his hard work and dedication, this man is so quickly reduced to an ignorant, unjust, upward social comparison. An educated, articulate Black man is only as good as his ability to act “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.

Nathan Babyak 2/13/15


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