Everyday Racism in C. Rankine’s “Citizen” Novel Essay
Updated: May 1st, 2021
Racism is still prevalent in contemporary American society despite major efforts to address this problem. Initially, this social vice was characterized by segregation in different social aspects including marriage, schools, and workplaces. Unfortunately, the decline in racist incidents based on these aspects has created a mask under which this social ill can still be perpetrated in modern times. This illusion explains why post-racial American society still has numerous cases of prejudice based on one’s race or skin color.
From this understanding, Claudia Rankine wrote a chef-d’oeuvre book, Citizen: An American Lyric, to address the ‘micro-aggressions that she feels are paving the way for the perpetuation of ‘microaggressions, which largely involve blatant racial acts such as hate crimes. This paper purports the argument that everyday racism is normally overlooked, and this phenomenon creates a more conducive environment for major racial incidences such as hate crimes. The issues raised throughout the paper are based on Rankine’s book, Citizen: An American Lyric.
The narrative of the book, Citizen: An American Lyric, is mainly developed around everyday occurrences that, in most cases, have racial overtones and gestures. These incidents are presented by the author as racial micro-aggressions and often come from friends, workmates, or even strangers. For instance, Rankine says, “The man at the cash register wants to know if you think your card will work. If this is his routine, he didn’t use it on the friend who went before you” (54).
This scenario highlights underlying racial insinuations because persons of color are being asked whether their cards will work, yet their white counterparts do not receive the same questioning. Unfortunately, these cases are common in contemporary American society. Yet people are not talking about it. The very people that are supposed to be raising concerns about racism do not speak up against it. The majority of Americans are not racist, and they have learned to live in harmony with people of different races. Nevertheless, in most cases, such people do not speak up against racism whenever they encounter it. Similarly, the people being subjected to this form of abuse do not complain either. To summarize these assertions, Rankine posits,
As she picks up her bag, she looks to see what you will say. She says nothing. You want her to say something – both as a witness and as a friend. She is not you; her silence says so. Because you are watching all this take place even as you participate in it, you say nothing as well (54).
In this case, the man at the cash register is not aggressive or vulgar. However, he singles out the card user for no justifiable reason and asks an insidious question that was not asked by the previous white client. Nevertheless, nothing is said about the incident, and thus it can pass unnoticed. The events surrounding the above scenario point to a culture that is slowly accepting to live with racism, albeit subtly. On the one hand, the majority of victims of this social vice are not willing to confront it. On the other hand, their white counterparts, who have accepted diversity and are willing to embrace people of different races, fail to speak up against the vice for different reasons. This strand of racism can be termed as the marginalization phase.
Another common form of racism is making a problem out of other cultures and identities. On this issue, Rankine gives an account of events where a black person is standing outside a conference room as he awaits other people to arrive. However, as he stands there, he overhears two black people talking. In the conversation, one of the comments that watching people of color, and especially black people, is equivalent to watching a foreign movie without proper translation or subtitles (Rankine 50).
From this conversation, it is clear that the subjects of the discussion are Black Americans. Interestingly, the person talking is also black, and one may not understand this form of racism. Nevertheless, the black person talking negatively against his fellow people of color destroys the common dichotomy of “us” and “them” that normally arises when addressing racism. Additionally, he does not want to be part of the “movie” that he is referring to in his pernicious comments. As the conversation continues, it becomes clear that the speaker is ridiculing Black Americans for their alleged incomprehensibility in speech, in particular when using the English language. This conversation highlights a form of strident racism perpetrated by a person of color against his fellow people.
Symbolic repression is another form of everyday racism that comes out clearly in Rankine’s book. In most cases, victims of racism, who stand against the vice, are normally told that they are being oversensitive or are overreacting. The proponents of this line of thought claim that things are not as serious as they appear. However, while a recipient of racism is being told not to overreact, the perpetrator continues to use derogatory remarks that hurt the other person.
In such a scenario, the victims of this vice are discouraged because it appears that their feelings do not matter and, thus, they cannot be taken seriously. On this issue, Rankine writes, “Don’t feel like you are mistaken. It’s not that (Is it not that?) you are oversensitive or misunderstanding” (152). The author urges the victims of racism not to doubt themselves because they are not being oversensitive by speaking up. Nevertheless, in the same breath, Rankine asks, “Is it not that?” (152). This question, placed in the middle of an assuring sentence, is used to underscore the many instances that victims of racism hear the claims that they are overreacting. This aspect causes the recipients of everyday racism to doubt themselves, which may explain why the majority of them do not stand against it.
In most cases, everyday racism occurs in subtle ways. The perpetrators do not even realize it, and if they do, they are unwilling to admit it. As such, the dominant race seems to prefer to overlook issues to do with nationalism and focus on trivial issues like race. For instance, a white American may decide to support an outsider, such as an Englishman, instead of rallying behind a Black American, even in cases where Britain is competing against the United States.
Rankine writes about a time she went to watch the US Open where Serena Williams was playing against a Belarusian. As the game progressed, Rankine noticed a white man cheering the Belarusian. Out of curiosity, she asked whether the man was an American and he responded in the affirmative. She then asked why he was not supporting his fellow American. He retorted that he wanted the match to have a close score. Within several games, the scores had become close but the man continued to cheer for the Belarusian. Rankine then asked the man why he could not support Serena Williams, but this time he woke up and walked away.
In this case, a white American would rather support a white Belarusian than rally behind his fellow American. The shared American citizenship and history did not matter to the man. The racial background took precedence and, thus, he could more easily identify with a white Belarusian as opposed to a Black American. Unfortunately, as said earlier, most perpetrators of this form of racism do not admit that they are racist, and neither do they choose to confront the issue. As shown in this example, the man decided to walk away instead of reflecting on his prejudice.
Similarly, Rankine gives an account of a real estate woman who calls a black person to show them around a house she is intending to sell. However, the real estate agent does not know that a potential client is a black person because they only talked on the phone. When they finally meet, the buyer is accompanied by a white friend. The real estate agent “spends much of the walk-through telling your friend, repeatedly, how comfortable she feels around her” (51).
From this conversation, it is clear that no one is asking the real estate agent how she feels about anyone. Nevertheless, the reader can easily conclude that the real estate woman and the buyer’s friend are from the same ethnic group.
In its extreme forms, racism can be recognized easily. However, everyday racism requires the audience or witnesses to be receptive to the message, together with how it is being said. The downside of not confronting everyday racism is that the practice may become institutionalized. Consequently, society may end up with organizations made up of employees with a common racial background. Additionally, if not addressed, everyday racism breeds distrust, which may ultimately lead to hate crimes. For instance, Rankine recalls an incident where a black male is sitting by the window seat on an airplane.
Later on, a mother and her daughter come to the same row and they indicate that they are supposed to sit on the same seat as the black man. The mother quickly volunteers to occupy the middle seat (12). In this case, the mother did not trust the black passenger enough to let him sit close to her daughter. Such incidents continue to sow animosity in the minds of the younger generation, and such perceptions are maintained through to adulthood. This aspect explains why everyday racism has become a vicious cycle where children grow up in a world full of racial stereotypes.
Everyday racism is common in the United States as people of color continue to face incidents as a result of this social vice. Rankine chose to address this issue through poetry by writing an award-winning book, Citizen: An American Lyric. In this book, Rankine highlights different cases of everyday racism that no one is willing to address. As shown by the author, the victims of this vice choose to remain silent in most instances, even when the racist sentiments are coming from friends. However, the acceptance of this form of racism is dangerous as it paves the way for more major racial aggression such as hate crimes.
Rankine, Claudia. Citizen: An American Lyric. Graywolf Press, 2014.
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