I meet Claudia Rankine, the poet and author of 2014’s National Book award-winning Citizen: An American Lyric, on the roof of her high-rise Manhattan apartment building. It’s a sunny day, about a week after it was announced that she had received a MacArthur “genius grant”, and the clouds and the planes heading to LaGuardia airport seem so close, it feels as though we could reach out and touch them.
It feels fitting, too, to be sitting so high in the sky, because Rankine’s thinking is equally elevated and ambitious: she plans to donate her $625,000 stipend from her MacArthur genius grant to found the Racial Imaginary Institute.
The what? What is a Racial Imaginary Institute?
Rankine is part of a group of thinkers who are dreaming up a “presenting space and a think tank all at once” where artists and writers can really wrestle with race. She wants it to be a “space which allows us to show art, to curate dialogues, have readings, and talk about the ways in which the structure of white supremacy in American society influences our culture.” These, it’s safe to say, are not the organizing questions of most of the art spaces in New York City.
To Rankine, it’s important to have the institute in downtown Manhattan, because “this is where those discussions begin” and “it has to be in the same playing field” as the world’s major galleries, like Gagosian or Pace. While she admits that galleries “might not be altering legislation”, Rankine is spot-on in understanding that “culture really does determine what we think [and] how we think about things.”
Rankine is extremely interested in whiteness, believing that “it’s important that people begin to understand that whiteness is not inevitable, and that white dominance is not inevitable.” One reason Rankine wants such a center to exist is because she recently went into a bookstore at the Los Angeles Contemporary Museum of Art “and I asked them for books on whiteness. The man was like, ‘What?’
“I said, ‘Well, you know. Books that address the ways in which white contemporary artists deal with whiteness, interrogate it, analyze it, work in ways that push up with constructions of whiteness.’ He’s like, ‘I don’t know what you mean.’”
Rankine had a similar conversation in three different bookstores. While she knew they would have had books on African American art, these art bookshops never had anything to deconstruct race in general or whiteness in particular.
“Conceptions and constructions of whiteness,” she explained, have been “made and then propped up with eugenics and propped up with false science and false rhetoric and maintained through the justice system in every way”. They then become invisible. As writers and artists, she said, “it’s our job to point this out, because I really believe that people don’t know”–about what makes whiteness, or about how broad the life experiences of white people are.
“There’s a lot of other ways to start thinking about whiteness, and it involves the kind of underbelly that has been kept from the American public,” Rankine said. She told me about a photograph she took outside of the Ohio Reformatory for Women last summer.
“This prison is 80% white women and 19% black women. One percent other. But when I say to people 80% of the women in this prison are white rural women, they’re shocked. And they’re shocked because that information is kept from them. It’s kept from them because it doesn’t bolster the ideas that blackness equals criminality. It’s contrary to that. It doesn’t enforce the idea that white people should be afraid of black people and not afraid of each other.”
This is a white America that we don’t see in media, Rankine said, except in Breaking Bad. (And even there, “the only way that whiteness equals criminality” was when “a dying white guy who only broke the law so he could take care of his family”.) Rankine said she is always being told that she must watch Orange is the New Black, a show that does bolster the idea that black is criminal and a white woman is out of place in jail.
While Rankine acknowledges how people of color are disproportionately incarcerated, she is also interested in “the reality of who is actually incarcerated by the numbers” (white people) and thinks it would be fascinating to see a show about a black woman locked up with a whole lotta white women in the mid-west.
I ask Rankine about two of the most talked about speeches about race and art in the past year: her viral keynote speech at the American Writers and Writing Programs conference in April, in which she called out the racism of writing programs, and Lionel Shriver’s speech at the Brisbane Literary Festival, in which she ridiculed the idea of “cultural appropriation” while wearing a sombrero. Rankine won’t initially talk about Shriver because “she doesn’t have the work behind it. If she had the work, then I would engage.” She is, however, interested in the views of “somebody like Jonathan Franzen,” as she acknowledges the seriousness of his writing.
“He said something like ‘I can’t write about people I don’t know.’ That, to me, is more complex. So, why don’t you know these people? What choices have you made in your life to keep yourself segregated? How is it one is able to move through life with a level of sameness? Is that conscious? Is segregation forever really at the bottom of everything? When he says something like that, I find that really interesting as an admittance to white privilege: that he can get through his life without any meaningful interaction with people of color.”
These, to Rankine, are questions worth thinking about, because they form a “more critical evaluation of one’s own habits and one’s own positionality relative to making art and doing work.” By contrast, “Getting up and putting on a sombrero and saying, ‘I can do what I want. I have the right to do what I want,’ to me is missing the point. What would be interesting would be to talk about why is it in the language of rights? Like, white people should have more stuff? . . . ‘It’s my right to take what I want?’ Isn’t that the history of colonialism? It’s my right to take resources. It’s my right to take land. It’s my right to have slaves.’”
Rankine’s presence is extremely intentional: you can watch her forming her words carefully, so that spoken sentences come out particularly and poetically. She is sensitive to the experiences of people of color in almost everything she says and writes. We discussed the concept of John Henryism, a biological medical reason for why black people die younger than white people developed by Sherman James, which I first learned about when reading Citizen. Rankine says she appreciates how James could make visible the ways that for “people of color in the United States, so much effort has to go into negotiating the day-to-day, beyond the regular random things that comes into a life, that the tendencies for chronic ailments towards that shouldn’t be a surprise to anybody. It’s a lot of stress that one is carrying–if you think your child could be shot dead, or you’ll be the first one to lose your job, or you won’t get an interview simply because you’re black.”
Nevertheless, much of Rankine’s new work will focus on whiteness. She is currently working on a play “in conversation with” Citizen. “There’s a dinner party. The dinner party is where many things get talked about. The people in the play are in the art world. You’ll recognize passages from Citizen, but it is not an attempt to stage Citizen.”
Her next book, which is just starting to take shape, will be “doing a lot of work on white construction and understanding the trajectory, historically, from the 1700s to now and seeing that the stories are the same.” She’s especially interested in comparing two phenomena. “The 1790 naturalization act was an attempt to limit who could govern and keep people away from self governance.” Over 200 years later followed “the birther movement, which was all about ‘Where’s your birth certificate?’ You have no right to the White House.
“There are no new tricks out there,” she adds. “The same mechanisms to keep people out are in play over and over again.”
Thinking about the racial imaginary has also led her to track down transcripts of police killings, “because so many of these videos where somebody says ‘Why did you shoot me?” and the person says, ‘I don’t know. I don’t know.’ I’m interested in moving the lens onto these white men and women who really are being put in positions that they don’t understand.”
Rankine says she understands why people don’t want to focus on whiteness. “I think we’ve seen whiteness centralized forever, so they’re no longer interested in making it the subject, putting it in the subject position. But I think that it’s been centralized in order to continue its dominance, and it’s never been the object of inquiry to understand its paranoia, its violence, its rage.”