‘People are at their most revealing in liminal spaces,’ Claudia Rankine tells journalist Gary Younge while discussing her new book Just Us: An American Conversation. It’s an eclectic collection of essays, poetry, photography, graphs and screenshots that puts whiteness centre stage. In transient spaces such as airport lounges and airplanes, Rankine sparks frank conversations with white strangers and friends. Here, less constrained by social rules, responsibilities and expectations, and freed from the threat of accountability, something raw, painful and sensitive is found.
Released in September 2020, Just Us joins us in a time of global liminality. If we are lucky, we are sat in the comfort of the airport lounge, waiting for our old lives to take off again. Of course, waiting has not been the reality for many. The key workers who have kept us moving, fed, cared for and in many cases alive have not had time to take pause. A disproportionate number of young workers and BAME workers have lost their jobs after being furloughed. At the same time, between March and May 2020, the Covid-19 death rate for black men was more than three times higher than it was for white men in Britain. In the US, the death of George Floyd sparked Black Lives Matter protests around the globe. If there was a time to talk about whiteness, it’s now. Just Us is right on time.
Rankine’s 2014 prose-poetry collection Citizen: An American Lyric also had a gruesome timeliness. It was released in the US months before police officer Darren Wilson was acquitted of killing Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. The book was widely acclaimed and awarded. By 2016, Rankine was teaching at Yale and had been awarded the prestigious MacArthur genius grant. Her subsequent class at Yale is named ‘Constructions of whiteness’. She used the $625,000 grant to start the Racial Imaginary Institute, a space for artists and academics to interrogate the unchallenged universality of whiteness. Just Us is a product of these ongoing investigations.
Rankine does not offer us a blueprint for radical social change. There are no easy answers, so she will not give them
The African-American author Zora Neale Hurston wrote, ‘I feel most coloured when I am thrown against a sharp white background.’ In Just Us, whiteness is not the assumed canvas that the racialised complicate and discolour by simply trying to live. What if, instead, white Americans were compelled to talk about and analyse whiteness as the racial category that it is, the way black and brown people must? And what would be found in that reality?
The power of conversation
Rankine finds a range of responses from white people to her inquiry. She encounters a mixture of reflective contemplation and diversion and outright denial. When the conversation is constructive, she extends the dialogue, giving the other party the chance to respond. Rankine has had time to digest these moments into wider narratives and wants to give her interlocutors the same privilege. She sends them the essays once finished and includes their comments and observations in the book itself.
In the essay, ‘Liminal spaces i’, she challenges a man she’s sat next to on a plane who tells her he ‘doesn’t see colour’. It’s uncomfortable but he relents instantly, referring to his own comment as ‘inane’. In his response to the essay, he reflects on his own childhood and the presence of racism in his hometown that until then he had wilfully buried. In moments like these, the redemptive potential of conversation feels possible.
Throughout the book, discomfort is where things happen. But breaking with the convention of white ‘civility’ and ‘politeness’ is often not well received, particularly in the elite spaces Rankine finds herself in – the fancy, if uncomfortable, dinner parties and the frequent-flyer queue at airport boarding gates. In the essay ‘Social contract’, a white woman disrupts a discussion (and active denial) of the role racism played in Donald Trump’s election, by cooing over a plate of homemade brownies that have just arrived for dessert. Rankine breaks the social contract that requires her to stay silent, suffocated by the need to preserve civility.
‘To converse is to risk the unravelling of the said and the unsaid. To converse is to risk the performance of what’s held by the silence,’ she tells us in ‘Liminal spaces ii’.
Just Us is as much about conversations on whiteness in the US as it is about the reluctance of white America to have conversation free from comforting delusions. And although it’s a book primarily about the US, much is transferable to the UK and elsewhere. Rankine makes some of these links actively, describing the whitening of tennis star Naomi Osaska in Japanese advertising and the ubiquitous trope of comparing black people to apes regardless of country or class position. Others we can make ourselves, such as the reluctance of the dinner guest to acknowledge the role of racism in the 2016 election of Trump and the reluctance of commentators in the UK to do the same in relation to the Brexit vote.
Just Us is an intimate book. The conversations require vulnerability and Rankine brings her full self. She acknowledges her own fallibility, dedicating an essay to exploring why she has overlooked the Latino community in her own thinking about racial politics. She hires a fact checker to make sure the narrative she has built is anchored in truth. Memory can be inconsistent and we are all capable of missing things. What then, can the personal illuminate, and where should we position it in the fight for racial justice?
In a time when direct action is paramount to the movement for black lives, the intricacies of the high-end dinner party and the reaction of a white woman sitting in the audience of a Pulitzer-winning play may sound trivial on the face of it. But the small moments that Rankine shares are the symptoms of wider structures. Her stories reveal how socio-economic success is still wrapped in whiteness and as a consequence envelop her.
Lots of us may loathe the idea of explaining how racism operates and what anti-racism looks like in our day-to-day lives. To elicit the responses about whiteness that Rankine managed to draw out requires patience, courage and active listening. ‘I have had friends say to me, “It must be exhausting to be you”, and I don’t think they mean it as a compliment!’ Rankine told Afua Hirsch for the Guardian.
Yet it’s obvious these conversations need to happen in order to move forward. Educating white people is a necessary part of building the racial justice movement, even if it’s tedious. This is not the same as begging to be liked. It’s about making complicity obvious and discomfort ordinary. Rankine does not offer us a blueprint for radical social change. There are no easy answers, so she will not give them. And if you are a white person who is looking for instruction, you will not find it here. But she is asking us to be intentional with our thoughts and conscious in our actions.
‘You go down there looking for justice and that’s what you find – just us,’ is how the book opens, quoting the comedian Richard Pryor on the criminal justice system. Racial justice will only come when we – black people – can just be, and that will require more solidarity with black people, a solidarity that doesn’t disregard inequity and difference.