by Dujie Tahat | Contributing Writer
This essay is part of a series in which Poetry Northwest partners with Seattle Arts & Lectures to present reflections on visiting writers from the SAL Poetry Series. On Friday, September 25, Claudia Rankine read and discussed her work in conversation with Douglas Kearney. Tickets to future events in the Poetry Series can be purchased at the SAL website.
Claudia Rankine’s Just Us shines a light on that invisible force that orders so much of American civil society: whiteness. Though subtitled An American Conversation, the book betrays a messy and still-processing interiority. Through a compendium of essays, charts and graphs, a few poems, quotes, images, screenshots of tweets and Facebook posts, Rankine charts a different kind of lyric. She is not shy about claiming the speaker as herself. In her discussion with Douglas Kearney as part of the Seattle Arts & Lectures “Women You Need to Know” series, Rankine pointed to the importance of filtering the questions of whiteness through herself and her experience. So the book is very much in the midst of reckoning with what relationship Rankine—as well as the white people she’s married to or friends with—has to whiteness, how it’s exercised, and American’s historic refusal to exorcise it.
Just Us is a capacious book. Billed as the culmination of a trilogy on race in America, the book is a hefty 342 pages, hard-cover bound, printed on glossy, heavy-weighted paper. As with its antecedents, Citizen and Don’t Let Me Be Lonely, sometimes the light hits the page in such a way the text itself becomes illegible. The whiteness is blinding. The primary text of Just Us appears on the right side of the spine; the left reserved for a variation of images, annotations that include fact-checks, old news clippings, video stills, and sometimes blankness. Each essay has a title page. There are two-page spreads of images that bleed to the edge. It’s a book that gives readers space. It enacts the starts, stops, and interruptions of conversations—even the ones we carry with ourselves. It is ultimately a generous act to invite the reader to reflect on themselves, offering a wide array of entry points to catch a glimpse of that slippery idea of whiteness.
Rankine approaches whiteness, primarily, by way of conversation with white people. The book presents more than just that of course: a Baldwin quote lineated so as to appear a poem, a dinner conversation with Black faculty, and Rankine’s own anxieties about marriage, teaching, raising a mixed-race Black daughter in a predominantly white, wealthy world immediately come to mind. However, the bulk of Just Us recounts and renders various conversations with white people—acquaintances and intimates alike—often in temporary, liminal spaces: on plane rides, in couple’s therapy, at a friend’s house, in a hallway. In these thresholds, Rankine not only presents the reader with an excessive mix of visual and linguistic signifiers, but by engaging in the form of conversation, she places herself alongside others and the reader. Temporally, historically, positionally—Rankine is troubling the book’s subject: us.
I wish to stop time and have feelings of intimacy blanket all time, both historical time and the years that took us from our late twenties to our late fifties. But to stop being conscious of my friend’s innate advantages is to stop being present inside our relationship. To remember the truth of us is to be in the truth of us, in all its realities and all its stumbles and slips.
In so many ways, Just Us reflects Rankine’s interest in process. It’s a book that makes room for people’s stumbles and slippages. As Rankine said in her conversation with Kerney, this book resists “prescriptions.” It ostensibly has no interest in polemics or offering solutions. She nor the book suppose a path forward. Instead, its formal messiness and discursive interiority enacts Rankine’s lived experience of open-ended curiosity, oscillating between intimate poetic gestures and distanced academic theory, as well as the ever-frustrating work of drawing whiteness to the foreground.
In this way, it makes sense that the primary audience of Just Us is white people. In that sense, it perhaps makes a better companion to Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility than Angela Davis’ Are Prisons Obsolete? The book opens by addressing white folks, after all, asking, “What does it mean to want / an age-old call / for change / not to change // and yet, also, / to feel bullied / by the call to change?”, and, by and large, doesn’t let up. We learn in an early essay that Rankine teaches a course on whiteness at Yale—one of the most popular classes on campus. She also offers her white conversation partners plenty of space in the book to respond to her recounting of their interactions—in so doing, contextualizing and, hopefully, deepening their shared understanding and relationships (all reminiscent of an exchange Rankine had a decade ago with Tony Hoagland following the publication of a racist poem). Interestingly enough, this gesture most clarifies the paradoxical experience of the non-white reader: being the subject of Rankine’s direct address, “you,” but witnessing it cast on some white other who is not me.
The combination of process over solutions as well as the choice to directly address white readers is not without great risk. As Rankine incisively asks at one point, reflecting on white people’s role in antiracism:
But if you’re white and you’re getting messages from your surroundings that reaffirm the idea that white solidarity is the way to organize your world, even while doing antiracist work, then how are you not going to believe that a constructed, all-white world isn’t you at your most functioning? How isn’t that going to feel natural and right?
Or as Rankine puts it more bluntly later in the same essay, “If the structure that structures the scenario is itself racist, are the questions trick questions?” If we leave it to white Americans to process, how do we avoid a continuation of the status quo? Can we trust white people alone to make change, even among just white people? I’d add to that, at this moment in which our country is in constitutional crisis, a democracy in the grips of white supremacist fascism, can art afford to be inert? Just Us doesn’t pretend to know the answers.
Instead, Just Us closely attends to the ways the social structural violence of whiteness shapes identity and interpersonal interactions. Rankine is a clear, courageous, and rigorous conversant and observer, but rarely do we find ourselves in the realm of real power. Expensive houses, first class, private schools, yes—social power abounds. But we rarely encounter white people with the real policy-making power to structure our day-to-day lives. What happens when the microcosms produced by the violent systems of whiteness show up in and are refracted through those individuals who reify, uphold, and command our governments?
This White House announced an executive order to abolish critical race theory and anti-racism training from the federal government, but we need not look to the other Washington to see the insidious effects of whiteness born of inaction and inattention by white people with power. Closer to home, Seattle is, yet again, in the midst of a battle between a white wealthy mayor and a grassroots Black-led coalition. Ours is a city historically shaped by Black, Indigenous, and activists of color overcoming institutional conservatism masquerading as liberal politics, and this generation offers real research-based solutions that reinvest half the police budget into community services that create true public safety. Seven of nine city councilmembers—majority non-Black women of color—have joined them. Hundreds of thousands of people protesting for over a hundred consecutive days agree. So when Mayor Jenny Durkan blithely says, “How do we center the Black lives that matter?” or issues an executive order proposing yet another task force to further study the issue of anti-Black police brutality, is this not, as Rankine writes, “A white supremacist orientation . . . packaged as universal thinking and objective seeing, which insists on the erasure of anyone . . . who disrupts its reflection?”
Rankine makes clear that whiteness wants to avoid conversations about whiteness—an observation that rings true about all invisible power structures (patriarchy, capitalism, etc.). In this conversation between the mayor and her constituents, she’s unwilling to cede power. How can Rankine’s call for authentic conversation, a gateway for change, come to fruition until that happens? Facing historical reality and armed with this book about process, which is not interested in that kind of solution, there is little hope. Cynicism creeps within the frame. Thankfully, a SAL attendee, a student, closed the evening asking Rankine for advice in confronting an administration reticent to adopt anti-racist curricula, to which she recounted a conversation with her own students:
Who says it’s over just because the administration says no? If you’re not done, you’re not done. That means you have to keep on going. It’s not one ask, one acceptance. It’s again and again and again and again. It’s the long-distance engagement that makes activism what it is. It’s the ability of people to stay in it and then pass the baton when they’re exhausted to somebody else. But you keep going at it. The institution knows itself in terms of what it was, not what it will become. To get it to the place of what it will become means a constant push, a constant investigation, a constant renaming . . .
Unexpectedly, Rankine gave me yet another way into her book—the most precious one to me yet. Her advice returned me, a multiethnic non-citizen immigrant, to the experience of reading her very smart book for white people. It snapped into place the cognitive dissonance of both being and not being the subject of the direct address. As with this moment’s oversaturated messages to vote, and vote early if you can, especially in targeted digital ads that show up in my curated timelines, I find myself again simultaneously both the addressee and elbowed out of sight. The book distinguishes itself from the casual violence of citizenry by offering witness to a leading American thinker processing and engaging with whiteness, dear reader, from the most intimate seat in the house.
Rankine set out to lay bare the entanglements between us, across race—implying of course that whiteness is simultaneously the assertion of individuation and a tearing away of connectivity. In social justice movement spaces in Seattle and elsewhere, there is a constant pull between collectivism and the individual personalities within. Such is the challenge of making grassroots change in an American political context. Even outside of that, those of us who care about others are all operating with some sort of constant low-grade fear of being called out, some recognition by the other that we are not, in fact, pure in action or motive. This is a part of the contemporary condition. What Rankine reminds us—and here, I mean everyone—is that this fear is wildly unhelpful, especially insofar as it disincentives us from taking action. Every action or utterance risks ending a conversation, but I think Rankine wants to remind us instead that, in earnestness, each is also an opening, a furthering in which we find ourselves deeper in the field of each other’s humanity. In making this point, Rankine insists Just Us is “not a performance,” but an enactment of entanglement. Whatever she calls it, I’m grateful for the opportunity to witness such rigorous engagement and, for a moment, to think alongside her.
Dujie Tahat is a Filipino-Jordanian immigrant living in Washington state. They are the author of two chapbooks: Here I Am O My God, selected by Fady Joudah for a Poetry Society of America Chapbook Fellowship, and Salat, selected by Cornelius Eady as winner of the Tupelo Press Sunken Garden Chapbook Award. Their poems have been published or are forthcoming in Poetry, Poetry NW, ZYZZVA, Best New Poets, Asian American Literary Review and elsewhere. Dujie has earned fellowships from Hugo House, Jack Straw Writing Program, and the Poetry Foundation, as well as a work-study scholarship from Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. They serve as a poetry editor for Moss and Homology Lit and cohost The Poet Salon podcast. They got their start as a Seattle Poetry Slam Finalist, a collegiate grand slam champion, and Seattle Youth Speaks Grand Slam Champion, representing Seattle at HBO’s Brave New Voices. Dujie is an MFA candidate at Warren Wilson College.