Racism in an Era of Colorblindness

In Citizen, an American Lyric, the author Claudia Rankine, composes different ongoing encounters of racism taking place within the twenty-first century. These racist aggressions take place within daily life, daily conversations, among friends, and strangers, as well as within the media. Racism is clearly still present in the world today, and Rankine provides the reader with individual racist encounters written in the second person narrative point of view. Doing this allows for little to no context on who is saying what, and therefore makes the impact of the words being said more powerful. Some of these encounters are slips of the tongue, while others are intentional derogatory comments, meant to be hurtful and offensive. Through the utilization of essays, images, poetry, and more, Rankine composes an “American Lyric” on the effect of racism in what is currently a failing “post-race,” society.

In sections III through V, Rankine continues to describe individual racist encounters of all different kinds. As well as this, in part IV, she begins to touch on the effect of these racist encounters on the individual primarily through the utilization of poetry. Due to the fact that each passage in each chapter is written in the second person narrative point of view, as the reader, you don’t know if this is a composition of racist encounters of one singular person or a collection of many different accounts. Because of this, the velocity and effect of these encounters are increased. Ambiguity as an author is an important strategy, and Rankine is successfully using this technique to her advantage.

In section III of Citizen, we are reminded again of section I, as there are similar types of racist encounters. The first passage of the section is the one that has stuck out to me the most thus far throughout the novel. You and a friend are rushing to meet a friend in a distant neighborhood, and this friend says to you “You are late, you nappy-headed ho” (Rankine 41). She has never code switched like this before, and you are curious as to why she has done it now. Rankine then continues to talk about how perhaps you being late signaled the stereotype of “black people time” and so she attempts to respond with “black people language” (Rankine 41). As I read this racist encounter, it made me think about how commonly and easily college students, of all races, use the N-word in today’s society. Specifically, just on this college campus, I hear it used in everyday conversation more often than it should. The woman who was late was clearly made uncomfortable by the racist comment, and the woman who said it regret saying it and knew that what she said was wrong directly after. In the media, as well as in conversation today, racist slights are thrown around way too often, and way too casually. This is a problem and needs to be stopped. People are so entitled, and feel as if the words that they say won’t have an impact on other people’s feelings. However this is not the case, and no matter the circumstance, racism, in any form, is never okay.

In the article, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, by Michelle Alexander, the author argues that today’s society is experiencing a new Jim Crow era. She writes “In the era of colorblindness, it is no longer socially permissible to use race, explicitly, as a justification for discrimination, exclusion, and social contempt” (Alexander, 262). In a country that is supposed to be blind to race, racism is present despite all historical and social efforts to abolish it. Alexander compares today’s society and racist tendencies in the United States to that of the Jim Crow in the 1950s. On pages 52 and 53 of Citizen, there is an illustration of two separate posters. The first poster reads “I do not always feel colored,” over and over again, and the second poster readers “I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background.” (Rankine 51-52). This illustration reminded me of Alexander’s article due to the emphasis on color, or lack thereof. The artist does not always feel colored, however, they feel most colored, and most isolated when compared to the color white. Both Citizen, by Claudia Rankine, and The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander discuss racist encounters that take place today in the United States.

Why do you think Claudia Rankine utilizes a second person narrative point of view in her novel Citizen: An American Lyric?

Do you think reading a novel such as Citizen: An American Lyric, by Claudia Rankine has the potential to illicite change in racist tendencies and encounters in the United States today?

Alexander, Michelle. New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. New Press, 2016.

Rankine, Claudia. Citizen: an American Lyric. Penguin Books, 2015.

17 thoughts on “Racism in an Era of Colorblindness”

  1. Hey Paige, really interesting blog post! In my opinion, I think that that by reading Citizen, or a novel like it, change in racist encounters and tendencies can occur within the United States. Citizen provides the reader with everyday examples of racism, that anyone could encounter. “At the end of a brief phone conversation, you tell the manager that you are speaking with that you will come by his office to sign the form. When you arrive and announce yourself, he blurts out, I didn’t know you were black!” (44). It is instances like this where we realize that racism is still prevalent in today’s society and that it most likely won’t be going away any time soon. But by reading Citizen, people can understand these situations and work to prevent them in their lives, and teach others that racism is not acceptable.

  2. Hey Paige, I thought your blog post was really well thought out and I like the points you’re making. I think the reason that Rankine wrote the book in second person was to make the reader feel like they are a part of the book. Not only that, but I think it is meant to tell the reader that they can make a change. I don’t think she is necessarily holding the reader accountable for the things she talks about in the book, but that racism happens everywhere and we, the reader can do something about it. To answer your second question, I do believe that a book like this can cause change in the world. This book put racism into a whole new perspective and relates topic I would never think to relate.

  3. Hey Paige, I really liked your blog post and how you tied in another article to further your points. To answer your second question, I do think this book could make some change in the world when it comes to the unintentional racial comments that are made. For example, when the man at the bar is showing the picture of his wife and says, “she is, he says, beautiful and black, like you,” I don’t think he was trying to be racist and offensive (78). I think he just wasn’t thinking and didn’t realize that what he said could be offensive and upsetting to the person he was talking to. I think this book could help people think twice about what they say and consider other people’s feelings before they say something. That, however, would only help the unintentional racist comments, I don’t think it would do anything to help change the people that are truly racist and make intentional racist comments.

  4. Hey Paige,
    Your blog very interesting and points out issues that are essential to today’s issues of racism. Claudia Rankine’s use of the second person, not only causes for the readers to feel as if they are the one’s in the situations in which she makes; the use of this technique also makes reference to the reader in that, why is there a fear of change? By reading this book so far, I think not only will it cause many people to bash the book because of the instances she uses but, it will address many racist tendencies and encounters. One of the essential aspects of this blog that I think is huge is correlating the reading by Michelle Alexander. Many people get uneasy about how she tries to simulate the ideals of Jim Crow to today, when it fact that’s exactly how it is. The only difference from the past and today it regards to racism is the tranquility behind it. Tranquility plays a huge part in the system of racism today that we are so blind to it. One example of this is the example she uses on page 41 about how when your running late and use statements as “You are late, you nappy-headed ho” (Rankine 41). Our common use of stereotypical sayings may be just be another way that we are creating a normal state for things like this. One thing I’m learning when reading this statement is that I’m learning to actually absorb what she is saying and take head instead of attacking her thoughts.

  5. Hey Paige! I really liked your blog post and the points you made. I think the book Citizen can illicit change in racist behaviors definitely. I think if more of the people who don’t think racism is still around now a days took the time to read the book, they would realize that racism is still relevant. Just like the story on page 41 when a friend walked up to another friend and said, ” You are late, you nappy-headed ho.” Just like the Don Imus situation with the Rutgers girls basketball team that made national news, and many people saw that there are still racist people out there. So just like with this book if more people read it, or if the book made headlines then many people would see how wrong many Americans are and hopefully it would create change.

  6. Paige,
    You posted a very well thought out and through blog, good job. Claudia Rankine’s use of second person narrative is creative. I feel the way she uses second person point of view puts a purpose to the Lyric. Most books or articles that I’ve read have to do with important topics such as racism, but they generally tell the reader the information and not give them a chance to form their own opinions. Rankine allows the reader to be involved in her work, and makes the reader feel like they are apart of the story. I agree, the reading does get confusing sometimes because the characters being talked about are generic and not named. Yet still, that makes the situations that are happening even more realistic. For example Rankine says, “When you arrive and announce yourself, he blurts out, I didn’t know you were black!” (Rankine 44). The second personal narrative makes you feel like you’re in the room when this is happening.

    I don’t know if one singular book has the ability to change something that’s been happening for hundreds of years, but I think it is a good start. Citizen makes you think of racism in a different perspective. It is not just being brought up in one particular way with certain people. The settings and characters are ambiguous. This makes the story believable in almost any circumstance. It is eye opening to the reader, and I hope that at the very least it inspires people to think first before they speak.
    Malley

  7. Hey Paige, really great post! Since reading this book, I feel more aware of how racism is still thriving in America. Even when we are joking and have no intentions of being racist, we can still come off the wrong way and make others uncomfortable. On page 44, a type of anger overcame me, “At the end of a brief phone conversation, you tell the manager you are speaking with that you will come by his office to sign the form. When you arrive and announce yourself, he blurts out, I didn’t know you were black!” What does it matter that she’s black? Why even point that out in the first place? Does he know she’s human like him, should he point that out as well? This type of ignorance is seen every day. With every page I read, I wish I could be there to defend the “you” being targeted.

  8. Hey Paige, really great post! Since reading this book, I feel more aware of how racism is still thriving in America. Even when we are joking and have no intentions of being racist, we can still come off the wrong way and make others uncomfortable. On page 44, a type of anger overcame me, “At the end of a brief phone conversation, you tell the manager you are speaking with that you will come by his office to sign the form. When you arrive and announce yourself, he blurts out, I didn’t know you were black!” What does it matter that she’s black? Why even point that out in the first place? Does he know she’s human like him, should he point that out as well? This type of ignorance is seen every day. With every page I read, I wish I could be there to defend the “you” being targeted.

  9. Hi Paige! I really enjoyed this post and how deep you dove into it. One of the questions you asked at the end has gotten me to think more about Rankine’s strategy of writing in the second person. I feel also that this is a powerful way to write, and she does so in a way that really connects the reader to the experiences she is telling; even if the reader has never felt that before. On page 51, the passage talks about comfort, saying the real estate woman feels the need to say how comfortable she is around them. Rankine goes on to say “Neither you nor your friend bothers to ask who is making her feel uncomfortable”. This shows how using second person really allows the uncomfortableness to come through to the reader when reading about these encounters. It is very powerful and I enjoy how she uses this tactic. It really drives the point home.

  10. Hi Paige! I really love how you gave an accurate summary of the book as well as highlighting explicit but great examples that would’ve influenced me to read the book if I didn’t already start reading it. To answer your first question, I think that Rankine places the book in second person as a way to force the reader in the shoes of each account. When you read it as first person there seems to be this sort of disconnect and this can cause the reader to not internalize the book for deeper meaning and understanding. She makes it so that when the reader reads it, regardless of their race or ethnicity, they can feel the effects of each account. When I read, “The man is 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” (Rankine, p.54), I felt as if I was right there in that moment feeling the pain the person who actually experienced this felt. I am sure that everyone else, if not someone, who read that felt a feeling of disgust and disrespect. Like how could you ask someone if they thought their card would work? If that happened to anyone regardless of race, they would be offended to some degree. Putting the book in second person allows everyone to feel that disrespect and the effects of being disliked. They will feel the danger of the single story.

  11. Hi Paige, really great and well thought-out blog post! I really like the attention you draw to the posters, and how that ties into the hypervisibility of people of color. I think Rankine uses the second person pronoun to mix the unique aspect of her experience (only she has experienced her own life) with the more general aspect (everyone could relate to this if they had experienced it too). I think this ties back to what we talked about in class, about the title. *An* American lyric, as opposed to “the”, means this is only one of many possible experiences. I haven’t quite figured out all of it, for example on the page where she writes “You said ‘I’ had so much power; it’s insane,” (79), she writes about how the first person pronoun is symbolic, and how it holds the person/identity together.

  12. Hey Paige, I really enjoyed reading your blog post and it was an awesome read! The points you made were spot on and the whole post was cleverly delivered. I think it is very interesting how the author uses the second person point of view throughout the book and I believe this is done to engage the reader to feel as if they are in the situation. The use of the second person is effective because when reading this book, I felt as if I was I the situation. I believe this book can change racism in the world. This book teaches lessons and works of art such as this can revolutionize and bring about change. The book presents racism that is not imagined, it provides situations that happen everyday here in America and all over the world. The language the author uses expresses how real the racism is in the world: “You are late, you nappy-headed ho” (Rankine 41). This book can change racism because it will bring people into reality about what is actually happening in the world we live in.

  13. Hey Paige, I really liked your blog post! The use of the word “you” is really powerful in bringing the reader into the story. As opposed to using a first person perpective, which would limit us in understanding, this allows us to think more about how we would react in these situations. Another powerful way the text does this is with the blank space on many of the pages. By giving us nothing to read but still including those pages forces us to reflect within in our selves. My writing studies teacher taught me last year that nothing an author does is accidental. This book is a testament to that, with its intentional spacing and carefully chosen and positioned images.

  14. Hey Paige, I enjoyed the particular quotations you decided to use in your blog post. I especially liked how you summed up the narrator’s reaction to a friend calling her a nappy headed ho as, “She has never code switched like this before, and you are curious as to why she has done it now.” I have personally been on the end of this spectrum trying to figure out where in my demeanor I had signaled to someone it was acceptable to address me in any form of disrespectful way concerning my race. On page 55, Rankine talks about privilege that comes with not having to absorb these slights every day of your life and how that might be possible for someone not of color because you’re not dealing with it. She also talks about the thought process behind these experiences and how you question every aspect of your situation, “Hold up, did you just hear, did you just say, did you just see, did you just do that? Then the voice in your head silently tells you to take your foot off your throat because just getting along shouldn’t be an ambition.” (55)

  15. Hey Paige, I loved your blog post and second Question that you had asked. I think if you really sit back and understand all these examples that Rankine gives about everyday life and racism it could really change your point of view. Sometimes for change I think you need to go through a personal experience to change our state of mind and how we think, but in Citizen the author gives such good examples of racism today that its hard to not think one way and want to make a change. Rankine says “At the end of a brief phone conversation, you tell the manager you are speaking with that you will come by his office to sign the form. when you arrive and announce yourself, he blurts outs, I didn’t know you were black”( Rankine, 44). She then goes on to say that the woman didn’t know black woman could get cancer. You then realize through all you urgency, it leaves the possibility fo any kind of relationship because you will get no where with these kinds of people in life.

  16. Hi Paige! I loved your blog post and found it very insightful. To answer your first question, I believe Rankine is using the second person narration to make the writing connect to the reader in a better way. As I was reading, I felt as though this was my story and it was about me. I felt very connected and drawn in. The quote “The man is 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” (Rankine, p.54) really made me feel as though I was present at the cash register!

  17. Hello Paige!

    I thoroughly enjoyed reading your blog post and I thought it did a great job at dissecting each chapter’s significance and overall meaning. I was also impressed by the incorporation of The New Jim Crow article as I think it vastly correlates to The Citizen in terms of how it describes racial encounters in today’s society. I believe Claudia’s use of a second person narrative helps to put the reader in a more personal position and connection as they read along. By making the reader feel more attached to the stories, it catches the reader off guard because of its uniqueness and has them more intrigued, and makes the reader use their imagination and thoughts more profoundly. I found that the quote “And when the woman with the multiple degrees says, I didn’t know Black women could get cancer, instinctively you take two steps back though all urgency leaves the possibility of any kind of relationship as you realize nowhere is where you will get from here” (Rankine III) represents the viewpoint of how racism can be brought out by people that are deemed “intelligent” as its stated this person has multiple degrees. The use of second person here makes the reader imagine themselves in this position and makes us think about what perspective to assess these examples through.

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