TClaudia Rankine never wants to hear that question again. In fact, the poet finds it so silly that she ended up writing an entire play about it. the white card, Touring the UK before her final stint at London’s Soho Theater, she was inspired by the time a white man asked her, “How can I help you?”
The (un)inspiring phrase came to her mind during a panel discussion about her poetic work, which won the 2014 Forward Prize. Citizen: An American Text, describing the increase in racial aggression in America today. The man got up. He praised her work. And then he asked, “What can I do for you? What can I help you with?” For Rankine, it was an irksome request, “one you hear all the time from benevolent white people.” She shakes her head, topped with short, natural curls, all different shades of gray. She speaks with measured calm into her voice, but her distress at the situation feels genuine.
The question surprised her. The fact that the man began his testimony by saying that he was enjoying it Citizens Rankine gave the impression that he was aware that solving the problem of racism in the United States was not a matter for black people.
“I thought that means he understands the pressure [of answering these questions], and that white people started racism — and that white people had to change for things to change,” Rankine tells me. “When he asked, ‘What can I do for you?’ I just thought, no, you need to start looking she and she Start figuring out what you need to do differently. It was a surprise that after reading the whole book, he hadn’t come to this conclusion himself.”
When Rankine pointed the question back at him, the man was less than impressed. “If you answer questions like that,” he replied, “no one will ask you anything.” That moment made Rankine feel: There had to be another way to get white people to recognize their role in perpetuating racial struggles. That those who consider themselves “doing good” still have work to do. “We’re not talking about an abstraction of whiteness here,” she explains. “We’re talking about one white person at a time changing their interactions with black people. One after the other.”
The white card addresses this phenomenon of well-meaning but defensive white people. They’re nice enough, but their concern about being on the “right side” of racial discussions means they often don’t pay attention to the issues that lie ahead. The play’s protagonist, Charlotte, is a black and successful artist; She visits the home of a white art collector, Charles, who is interested in her work. Also present that evening are his wife Virginia, her student Alex and the painting dealer Eric. In their eyes they are doing all the right things as liberals of the late 2010s. They bring popular articles about breeds. Name your favorite activists with barely a blink. Virginia even records Serena Williams’ tennis matches. But as the evening progresses, tense conversations lead to Virginia and Charles’ hurt feelings, before a disastrous artwork is unveiled that insults Charlotte more than impresses her.
“The character of Charles became an extension of that man Citizens talk,” she says. “The idea that you feel like you’ve shown up and done enough because you have good intentions. But the moment someone says, “What about you? What about what you’re doing?’, people get defensive and angry and back down. They don’t want to have that conversation.” As the only black character in the play, Charlotte is empowered to have these awkward conversations. Black people in many career fields, from art to law to journalism, often find themselves in the same itchy patch — Rankine himself has been there before. Through Charlotte, we see the need to speak up, even when it’s hard. “I’ve had to teach myself to understand that silence is a kind of complicity in my own dehumanization,” says Rankine with a half-shrug. “Nothing happens except a little discomfort saying what you believe.”
“We are taught in our own homes that if it makes someone else uncomfortable, then we shouldn’t say what’s true for us,” she continues. “But I think we need to start understanding that the only way to change an environment is to be present in that environment as ourselves.” Even, she admits, when it’s awkward.
Rankine, who first published poetry in 1994, is also a professor at New York University. Her words are thoughtful and considered, and stay in the memory long after they are spoken. It’s easy to see why she’s been labeled an activist over the years — but it’s not a label she would ever use herself. “Maybe I have a narrow notion of activism, but there are a lot of people who organize and do voter registration and show up at rallies,” she says. “For me, these people are the activists. I mean, I try to make art consistent with what I believe, but if what I believe was against the rally or protest of the moment, my allegiance is with the artwork.”
Although not a visual artist, Rankine has a deep interest in the medium and found it a perfect dramatic setting in which to explore questions of what meaningful representation looks like. “The art world is one where we’ve seen a kind of renaissance in black art put forward as a sign of commitment to anti-blackness. But how much is that going to be a commodity?” she offers and, pausing briefly, strokes her mustard-colored cloth. “How much is that just a symbol compared to the reality of things?” The state of the art is consistently described as the result The white card was carefully selected. Kerry James Marshall’s 2002 play, Heirlooms and Accessories, appears in the final scene. It features three separate images highlighting the faces of various white women from different decades taking part in actual lynchings. Although they are bystanders and not the people actively involved in the violence, their presence validates the heinous act before them.
“It shows these ordinary white women who go out on Sunday afternoons to watch black lynching as entertainment,” explains Rankine. “These people have children; and those kids grow up and have kids, and they wonder why the narrative stays the same some 50, 60, 70 years later.” Without “innocent” whites acknowledging their role in maintaining a racial hierarchy, the cycle will continue .
If there’s anything Rankine wants the audience to take away from The white card, it is the need to speak openly about difficult issues like white supremacy – without the intention of defaming anyone and without shrugging our shoulders in defense. “We need to start having these conversations that we don’t have practice in,” Rankine explains. “The lack of practice is intentional; The culture didn’t want us to sit in a room together and talk and figure out the best way to go about it.
The sooner we start talking about “whiteness” as having a real impact on the way the world works, the faster we can get to a place of real change, I offer. “Exactly,” she nods. “If you can talk about economic strains, you can talk about the strains that come with white privilege.
“That might make things a little awkward, but if you can get the job done, hopefully you’ll come out in a place that’s a little more nuanced.”
The White Card is on view at the Soho Theater until July 16
https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/theatre-dance/features/claudia-rankine-interview-the-white-card-b2107866.html Claudia Rankine: “The culture didn’t want us to sit together in a room and talk”