Claudia Rankine's most recent work, Citizen, has been praised as a critical text on race and identity in the US and a stunning work of poetry. Rankine herself has risen to become a leading intellectual on those topics.
On Thursday, Rankine was awarded a MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship. The announcement called her “a poet illuminating the emotional and psychic tensions that mark the experiences of many living in twenty-first-century America.”
She spoke to BuzzFeed News Thursday about the police fatally shooting 43-year-old Keith Lamont Scott and the subsequent protests in Charlotte; San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s protest of the national anthem; and the chapter she would add to Citizen if she were still writing the book.
The following interview has been edited for clarity and concision.
Congratulations on your MacArthur Fellowship. Before we get into how you plan to use the award, I want to get into some of the events we’re faced with right now, like what’s going on in Charlotte. How have you been processing the several police-involved shootings of black civilians that have taken place over the past week?
We can talk about the fact that it’s state-sanctioned violence; the policewoman was put on paid leave after somebody died; that there’s no mechanism in place to see this as a murder. As citizens, we’re being asked to be in collusion with the murder of black people, to not regard it as as a state of emergency, and to continue in our normal course of business.
I think that more people like Colin Kaepernick need to start creating moments of intervention in their lives around what is considered normal. What he did was come forward and say, “I will not be in collusion. I will not be held responsible for the mistreatment, the murder of people. I won’t do it.” And I’m glad to see that more and more athletes have been following him.
I think we all need to start doing this in some way. What I admire about his form of refusal is that it’s not extraordinary. It’s within his normal course of action, given what he does. I feel like we should all look around us and figure out what we can do. We are in a state of emergency, and as American citizens, we should acknowledge it. Silence is a form of complicity.
When a journalist asked Charlotte Police Chief Kerr Putney how he could promise transparency in the investigation of Keith Lamont Scott’s death but still refuse to release the video of his encounter with police, he said, “I never said full transparency. I said transparency.” Given the significance of images and video when we discuss justice and violence, how do you feel about Putney’s statement?
When we have people moving into the streets and protesting, they’re protesting moments like these. The protest is not just about the murder, it’s about the callous reaction of administration, the police force, the chief of police asking us to accept a kind of compromised justice. And then they question why people are protesting.
And this is why, in many ways, it’s not about the individual. It’s about the institution; that’s what keeps it going. That’s why, with Sandra Bland, we don’t know what happened. There’s no trust in the communication that we’re given. And statements like “I didn’t say there would be full transparency” add to the levels of distrust that citizens have towards the justice system. We should call it the injustice system.
What do you think about the ways that we frame different forms of protest as either peaceful or not, violent or nonviolent? It’s always that binary.
I think the way to think about it is this: We have a tradition in American activism where we’ve always had different protests in different forms existing simultaneously. Act Up is a good example. They have people working institutionally and also they have people in the street — some were more disruptive than others. There's power in that oscillation between spaces and forms. We’re always going to see resistance to the more violent forms of protest. As we should; I’m not saying we shouldn’t.
Do I think people should destroy their neighborhoods? No. Do I understand why it happens? Yes. You can’t take everything away from people and tell them to protect nothing. These are family members that are being ripped out of the fabric of their lives. And we’re asking people to value property when we’re not valuing lives.
In Citizen, you reflect on microaggressions you’ve experienced in the past. As a writer, how do you cope with the fact that even as you create this work, you must simultaneously navigate the world as a black woman and process the direct and indirect trauma that comes with that, without “taking a break?”
I think that for black people, and especially black women, there’s no possibility of a break. There’s an illusion of a break: I can go out to dinner with my friends. I can go to the theatre, I can see a movie. It’s not that one isn’t involved in black living, but always walking alongside is the knowledge that at any moment you could be targeted simply for being black. And that knowledge doesn’t go away. There’s no break from that.
This has nothing to do with individual white people. There are many good white people who have no intention of hurting or killing anyone. But the real problem is: Even without that intention, they don’t understand that the culture and the structure of the world that they’re in allows for the targeting of other people.
White people can go along in their life feeling pretty secure that a policeman is not going to confuse them with a criminal, and even if they did, that they would give them the benefit of the doubt, they would interrogate them, they would wait. And I know that as a black person, there is no benefit of the doubt. That somewhere back there in the construction of whiteness, they’ve already come to a conclusion, and we’re just walking into it.
It’s crazy to believe that two years have passed since Citizen. Given the events that have taken place since then, if you had the opportunity to tack on another chapter or two to Citizen, what would you write about?
An updated version of the book would be incomplete without talking about the importance of a people-powered movement like Black Lives Matter. We are able to communicate horizontally now because of social media. The alliances that we are witnessing are surprising in a way that they weren’t earlier when things were centered in the black church or in the classroom. Now we have all kinds of people showing up in order to object to the systemic and intentional targeting of black lives.
I would have added images around many of these protests that have happened. I might have talked to people, and I mean all people — Arabs, blacks, whites, young, old — about what it means to create these interventions into our traumatized existence. It’s interesting that these things are being labeled as violence when really it’s the violence that’s calling for the intervention. Black Lives Matter is this collective of people across the country who just continually rise up. Unfortunately, that’s almost every week.
Lastly, how do you plan to use this MacArthur Fellowship?
A number of us have gotten together, an interdisciplinary group, and we’re assembling a Racial Imaginary Institute. We’re creating a space where the work that is shown or presented has, at its center, a critique of white dominance. And it’s important for us to have that space be in the center of the art world so that it cannot be marginalized, so that it is in conversation with everything else that is being produced inside the culture.