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By Carol Wild | December 2, 2015
Recently I read an article that challenged readers who are white to read only books written by authors of color. That led me to think about the books I had read in the last year.
It turns out that of thirty-seven books I read in 2014, only three were written by people of color. I realized that I needed to be more intentional about the authors I chose to read, that I needed to encounter new ideas and new perspectives from people whose stories were different from my own.
So I picked up Citizen, a collection of thoughts, experiences, images, and poetry by poet and playwright Claudia Rankine. Her experiences give insight into the “headache-producing,” “unsettling,” racial micro-aggressions of everyday life.
Born in Kingston, Jamaica, Rankine offers reflections that are vulnerable, raw, and honest about experiences I can’t imagine. I wondered how these things could happen in the world we live in. Then I realized I don’t live in that world. My white skin allows me to ignore that world if I choose.
In Rankine’s world the cashier asks if she thinks her credit card will work but does not ask her white friend in line ahead of her. In Rankine’s world a new friend accidentally calls Rankine by the name of her black housekeeper. In her world “the real estate woman, who didn’t fathom she could have made an appointment to show her house to you, spends much of the walk-through telling your friend, repeatedly, how comfortable she feels around her. Neither you nor your friend bother to ask who is making her feel uncomfortable.”
Citizen not only provides glimpses into Rankine’s personal experiences but also offers commentary on Serena Williams, Hurricane Katrina, Trayvon Martin, James Craig Anderson, the Jena 6, and more. Rankine exposes a daily onslaught of racism, in both overt and subtle ways. A man in front of Rankine at Starbucks uses a racial slur in reference to some “boisterous” young men, and when Rankine responds, he asks her, “Why do you care?”
Being unseen is a repeated theme, as well as the physiological and emotional effects of being “exposed to stresses related to racism.” Rankine’s writing is a kind of poetry and thus repetitive—the repetitions inviting the reader into the nature of the everyday onslaught, or as Rankine describes it—a constant ache.
Citizen is a quick read, but it should not be read quickly. I found myself reading and re-reading and re-reading again. The contents of this book are weighty, to be consumed slowly in order to digest.
This is an important work, particularly for white readers like me. This is not to invoke guilt or shame, but rather to create awareness that we do indeed live in different worlds.
You may know this already. But read Citizen anyway, and then read it again.