White Seeing Black Seeing White: Reading Citizen


Nassau Community College
AAUP Advocacy Chapter

January 25, 2016

Reading about three-quarters of the way through Claudia Rankin’s Citizen: An American Lyric (October 2014), I found a stunning juxtaposition on facing pages. The page on the left (page 134) begins as a legible list of names of men, some very young men—Jordan Russell Davis, Eric Garner, John Crawford, and Michael Brown. Before each name thee words echo: “In Memory of…” Below the list of named deceased, white spaces hang where names would be placed, while the anaphoric black (anaphora, a term from rhetoric meaning the repetition of an initial word or phrase in a series of lines) of “In Memory of…” recedes into nothingness in the white at the bottom of the page. The rhetorical descent into the blanc/blank signifies the mundane frequency of black deaths at the hands of white men and the ease with which those lives are forgotten, suggesting they didn’t matter to begin with. A three-line poem printed on the facing page (page 135) answers the Why? screaming up from the void of page 134: “because white men can’t / police their imagination / black men are dying.” This haiku-like verse’s punch comes from its blunt claim about white on black violence: the privilege that sanctions—like “open carry” fantasies—the possession of a lethal weapon of imagination.

Reading Citizen, I am being given privileged access to the micro-politics of racial social interaction: Rankin lyricizes, in hard blocks of prose poetry, the subtle banality of petty racism, the kind doled out by whites with an ease as thoughtless as a cough or an itch scratched. She recalls a white girl in her Catholic school in the Bronx asking to lean over so she can copy her (Rankin’s) answers: “You never really speak to her except for the time she makes her / request and later when she tells you you smell good and / have features like a white person.” Rankin’s lines unmask the subtle ways racial privilege insinuates itself into the interstices of would-be friendship: the white Mary or Catherine innocently seeks an advantage by exploiting “an almost white person.” In a mythical post-racial America, Rankin documents how racism has mutated and come to thrive in the twenty-first century. Another vignette, printed a few pages after the Catholic school episode, reminds us how racism has dogged Rankin daily and for a lifetime: “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.” These lines pair acute perception and blindness: the black female poet in the passenger seat painfully sensitive to “black-tarred” sensory and moral spaces enveloping her, the driver seeing only white, seeing only an extension of his white self, erasing Rankin’s very existence. (White: the color that contains all others or that the white sun sees reflected back at itself.) It’s easy to condemn the insensitivity of the white driver. But then I’ve missed Rankin’s point. I’m the driver.

Reading Citizen, really reading it, meaning I let these lines near me (like intimate friends?) and change me, rather than holding them hostage in the cell of aesthetic appreciation, means finding my white male privilege put in question and pried apart and being forced to face the mundane violence I may very well perpetrate while sleepwalking through my American dream. Finding myself thus implicated is a profound and necessary lesson for an educator in a community college populated increasingly by people who don’t look like me. I’m reminded that however well-intentioned I may be, the subtle ideologies of race quietly cultivated in our culture and unconsciously wedded to my sense of self might play out in the way I encourage some while politely or patronizingly discouraging others. A recent book, Despite the Best Intentions: How Racial Inequality Thrives in Good Schools, reinforces these thoughts: “[The] practices that create advantages and disadvantages are not explicit, nor are they generally intended to produce discrepant outcomes. They are the products of the hour-by-hour and moment-by-moment actions of typically well-meaning professionals who are trying to handle the situation immediately in front of them as best they can. When staff members respond to black and Latina/o students with lower performance expectations or more persistent disciplining and monitoring of behavior, or when they respond differently to parents’ actual or anticipated interventions on their children’s behalf they do so in ways of which they are often not aware. . . These patterns reinforce racial hierarchies and dominant racial belief systems. It is, we argue, in the daily interaction of school policy, everyday practice, and racial ideology that a disjuncture emerges between good intentions and bad outcomes.” Just as Rankin experiences racism as kind of slow death by a thousand otherwise well-meaning cuts, schools quietly and steadfastly and unconsciously cultivate the success of their white students in the hour-by-hour, minute-by-minute prosecution of their supposedly egalitarian days.

As we approach Black History Month next month, I am aware of a particular responsibility made manifest to me by Citizen. My acts are the acting out of my imagination, which unpoliced, might do damage despite my desire to do good.

Timothy Strode PhD.

NAAC • Nassau Community College • One Education Drive, Garden City, NY 11530-6793 • AAUPNCC.org • AAUP@ncc.edu