Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?

Just Us: An American Conversation BY Claudia Rankine. Minneapolis: Graywolf Press. 352 pages. $30.

The cover of Just Us: An American Conversation

PORTIONS OF CLAUDIA RANKINE’S Just Us first appeared in the New York Times Magazine and were posted online with the clickbaity headline “I Wanted to Know What White Men Thought About Their Privilege. So I Asked.” In the article—now the second section of the book, after some introductory poems—Rankine relates some of the material covered in a class called Constructions of Whiteness that she teaches at Yale. As part of the class, her students sometimes interview strangers about race. “Perhaps this is why . . . I wondered what it would mean to ask random white men how they understood their privilege,” offers Rankine. The impulse does need some explaining, because it’s a little weird to transfer the sociology-lite of campus vox-pops to everyday life. To discover the truth about privilege, Rankine makes small talk with fellow passengers in airports. Most are polite. One becomes a friend. Another is upset about affirmative action because his son didn’t get into Yale. All reveal racist assumptions, though some are self-aware enough to recognize it after the fact.

If these anecdotes illuminate nothing new, at least, for Rankine, they affirm the possibility of interacting with strangers. “The running comment in our current political climate is that we all need to converse with people we don’t normally speak to,” she reasons, echoing the book’s subtitle, An American Conversation. The invocation of the power of conversation above more directly transformative mechanisms such as confrontation and refusal places the book within a liberal framework in which political stances are opinions, political education is information, and politics is policy. It is a discursive world founded on a strong distinction between personal beliefs, which are imagined as a mostly inconsequential realm of absolute freedom, and social reality, imagined as governed by self-evident principles such as science, justice, progress, or common sense. Race, which is both real because spectral and spectral because real, is especially deranging for this worldview. Liberal thought on the subject of race exerts massive energy without forward propulsion, like a spin class, producing the same realization over and over again. The white stranger who tells Rankine he doesn’t see color later apologizes and admits, “I told you I didn’t notice much tension between the black kids and the white kids in our town. . . . It’s not that I didn’t notice it so much as I wanted to forget it.”

Conversations with white people are, for Rankine, a way to limn the edges of willed forgetfulness, both her own and others’. Her 2014 book Citizen: An American Lyric deftly arranged remembered moments in which race permeates, ruins, the anticipation of comfort or connection. Its prose was as unfussy as a detective novel and as porous to feeling as a love poem. Just Us makes fewer sacrifices to form. Rankine punctuates the narrative with “fact-check” citations offering proof of observations on the facing page. “I wonder if white people don’t develop friendships with people of color, especially blacks, because they don’t want to be implicated in or confronted by white violence against black people,” she speculates, only to fact-check herself based on a National Academy of Sciences report: “Maybe.” In her 2004 book Don’t Let Me Be Lonely, the endnotes felt playful and pointed, but here they feel like a constraint on her wondering. Moving the author’s right to wonder into the realm of the evidentiary might be intended to signal that, as a black writer, Rankine has to constantly prove herself, but it also subordinates her own explorations, her own poetics, to the task of alleviating the imagined ignorance of the reader. In Citizen, the pedagogical imperative with which all black writers have to contend felt secondary to Rankine’s powers as a writer, to the capacity to use language to irradiate the particular, contingent facts of a person’s life with shared meaning.

By confining the problem of social change to dialogue between individuals, the type of anecdotal race-work foregrounded in Just Us tends to fillet out mass struggle and is left with a series of microaggressive vignettes floating in blank white space. Given that nothing is ever discovered in this sensory deprivation tank, or is discovered only to be rediscovered all over again later, the print headline for the article that became the genesis of Just Us—“Brief Encounters with White Men”—feels more accurate if less alluring than the online alternative. In any case, Rankine’s problem does not seem to be that she has yet to hear enough from white men.

The book’s title comes from a 1970s stand-up bit by Richard Pryor in which he describes the courtroom where he was eventually sent to jail for tax evasion. “They give niggas time like it’s lunch down there. You go down there looking for justice, that’s what you find, just us.” Rankine has also had bad experiences of judges. At a dinner party, she is shocked when the “white, female judge sitting next to me” compares a soldier’s overseas deployment to her son’s recent move to Brooklyn. Scrupulously careful even in the privacy of her own thoughts, Rankine asks herself if she is correct in registering the judge’s comment as racist. “Is my fantasy of her framed mostly by what I know about the justice system? Have I read The New Jim Crow too many times? . . . Where have we landed with this comparison that is no comparison, Judge?”

Jack Murphy, yes no circles, 2014, typewritten ink and graphite on paper, 9 x 6".
Jack Murphy, yes no circles, 2014, typewritten ink and graphite on paper, 9 x 6″. Courtesy Jack Murphy

We don’t know where the soldier will be deployed, but if it’s Afghanistan, for example, he might take comfort that the US combat death toll of 2,450 over the course of the nineteen-year intervention is very low compared to the undercounted Afghan death toll of 157,000. This is not within the scope of Rankine’s American conversation, and neither are the historical overlaps and parallels between occupation and gentrification. Instead, she moves swiftly to reflecting on how racism is so endemic within American politics that it is propagated even by senators of color such as . . . Ted Cruz. The anecdote involutes into Rankine’s search, amid the blank placidity of a rich, powerful, mostly white milieu, for a ground on which to stabilize her consciousness of their half-conscious bigotry. Even when she alights on it, this ground is unsteady beneath her feet. Deep into the book, she assures the reader and herself, “We know this is not a mental health issue. This is not an isolated issue.” Who is the person imagined to believe that anti-blackness might after all be a question of isolated lapses of mental health? The reader, or Rankine herself?

Little good comes of constantly questioning what you already know to be true, but doubt has its secret advantages. Just as indecision is the superficial appearance of a decision that you are not yet ready to own, Rankine’s ever-present uncertainty is a defense against unbearable certainties, against a white indifference that she describes as “impenetrable and reliable and distributed across centuries.” Disappointed in a white friend, she asks herself: “Why can’t she see it matters? Does it matter?” In this case, the friend gives a substantial reply, explaining that she chose not to participate in the clunky-sounding interactive ending of Jackie Sibblies Drury’s play Fairview because “situations . . . manufactured specifically to elicit white shame . . . make me uneasy—I feel like unholy transactions are in the offing, like white moral masochism is getting a thrill.” This feels lightly ironic, given that white moral masochists are the only readers one can imagine being really thrilled by the book’s implicit exhortation that we all have awkward conversations about race without changing anything else about our lives. What distinguishes Just Us from emotional safari is its deep ambivalence, an affect that moral masochists are often blithely unable to detect.

More often than not, Rankine’s questions come without answers. Apparently “American conversation” is, like American cheese, an ersatz of the original. At times it is hard to distinguish between outer and inner question, between a question demanding an answer and a question that Rankine has asked only herself. Sometimes she poses questions that are gratifyingly more like confrontations, as when she asks, at yet another horrible dinner party, “Am I being silenced?” Some important questions are only asked obliquely, such as why Rankine feels she has to keep going to the horrible dinner parties: “Why not want the thing [access to white institutions] that offers the most lasting and stable, if at times toxic and dehumanizing, value?” And the questions’ assumptions are not always unpacked: it might in fact be destabilizing to be at times dehumanized. Some questions are long and breathless: “But if you’re white and you’re getting messages from your surroundings that reaffirm the idea that white solidarity is the way to organize your world, even while doing antiracist work, then how are you not going to believe that a constructed all white world isn’t you at your most functioning?” Some have a paragraph all to themselves: “If the structure that structures the scenario is itself racist, are the questions trick questions?”

Rankine’s questions anticipate what they also posit as impossible—a sympathetic hearing, a real answer—and so all are trick questions. A brief escape from the interrogative toward the end of the book is a welcome break. A facile thirty-five-page rumination on why some black women color their hair blonde is stopped in its tracks by a beautiful stranger: “I ask, I’m just curious, as a black woman why have you bleached your hair? . . . Why not, she answers, and it’s not a question.” The openness of “why not” momentarily interrupts the litany of bleak certainties masquerading as questions. The worldview evinced in Just Us, tortuously aimed at both proving and disproving the social determinism of race, has so little room for contingency that the lightness of a shrug can send it spinning into confusion. It’s not Rankine’s fault—race itself, like all inheritance, converts contingency into fate.

The half-page of questions that follow the judge’s racist comment resolve into something close to certainty: “I know, had 2016 gone differently, this white, female judge could now hold a position in our government, and we would all think that was better than what we received at the time.” This “we,” which Rankine uses not without irony, is those for whom 2016, a metonym for Trump’s victory, represents the sudden emergence of white supremacy at the heart of US political life. Of course Rankine knows very well that the US has historically been a factory for the production of whiteness, stitching together various conflicting European ethnic strands into a monolith. She both does and does not share the quintessentially liberal position that the current US predicament is a new crisis. Way back in 2004, she wrote in Don’t Let Me Be Lonely, “The sadness is not really about George W. [Bush] or our American optimism; the sadness lives in the recognition that a life can not matter.” This was long before Black Lives Matter gave a renewed political form to this recognition. Sitting next to the judge who thinks of Brooklyn as a war zone, the Rankine of Just Us finds herself “falling forward into my own deep awareness of how hopelessly white and racist our hope remains.” The deep awareness remains unchanged under the shifting ground, but over the course of her career Rankine’s writing has moved further away from it, into the constraining etiquettes of conversation. So much of her life depends on her passage through the narrow gate of white empathy—it helps if uncomfortable truths and spiky affects can be draped in confusion or thrown into an inner abyss. In Don’t Let Me Be Lonely, she “tried to fit language into the shape of usefulness. . . . The words remain an inscription on the surface of my loneliness.” Just Us attempts utility more openly than any of Rankine’s previous writing, but arrives at the same loneliness. It is an appeal before a court that the petitioner already knows is better equipped to dispense separation than justice.

The sense of the novelty of race at its every appearance is, as much as race itself, the subject of Rankine’s oeuvre. The writing dwells in the shock that racial difference persists even when everyone is at the same dinner party, sends their kids to the same private schools, or teaches at the same prestigious universities. Perhaps this is only because of race’s peculiar fusion of abstract and concrete. In revealing themselves as thoughtless on the subject of race, white friends remind Rankine that race is not decided interpersonally, that its long social usage has imbued it with an objective reality independent of individual intentions. These interactions also reveal the strange arbitrariness of race, as a social classification that makes her wealthy white friends the embodiment of beauty and privilege despite directly benefiting from grotesque ongoing plunder, while she, a successful poet and lucky/unlucky inheritor of the black tradition of self-invention, supposedly embodies abjection. The race-educational genre to which Just Us makes a contribution can only do so much to domesticate the wild strangeness of race, which is the experiential mode of the strangeness of history. It is history’s collective symptom, borne by each individual psyche with different degrees of erasure, pride, or anxiety. The psyche falls outside of the purview of regular politics, which is why exhortations to feel differently often get, as Rankine writes, “named shame . . . named chastisement.” Change at the level of the psyche is the work of revolution.

Because of their class valences, the difficulties explored in Just Us at times feel reminiscent of those described unsympathetically more than half a century ago in E. Franklin Frazier’s Black Bourgeoisie (1957): “One of the chief frustrations of the middle-class Negro is that he cannot escape identification with the Negro and consequently is subject to the contempt of whites.” But Frazier wrote before the transformative civil-rights movements of the 1960s, and at a time when middle-class black people had even less access to white bourgeois institutions, from the university to the dinner party, than now. Rankine’s position amid the smug, naturalized whiteness of today’s bourgeoisie is more like a protagonist of a twentieth-century passing narrative: white people are sought out for financial security and professional advancement, black people for companionship and fun, and every social interaction is a potential existential crisis on the frontiers of color and class.

But unlike, for example, the narrator of James Weldon Johnson’s The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man (1912), Rankine does not have, or does not acknowledge, “a sort of savage and diabolical desire to gather up all the little tragedies of my life, and turn them into a practical joke on society.” She mourns the humorlessness of her life, of her marriage: “I informed my husband . . . I needed to find a partner who would make me laugh. It was a humorless moment and so proved my point.” The couple’s capacity to joke around is foreclosed because the marriage is structured around a shared inquiry into white violence and black subjugation, “certainly not where I find pleasure.” The joy of the joke, of “our own crazy logic,” is blocked by the severe, dominant logic of the world, and Rankine’s fidelity to this logic also keeps in abeyance the slightest trace of diabolical desire. When a white woman cuts Rankine off mid-argument at, yes, a dinner, Rankine has esprit de l’escalier on her behalf: “Had [she] said to me, Here’s your coat. What’s your hurry? Now, that would have made me smile.” In reality, Rankine sits silently at the table, surrounded by enemies, unable to eat. “I learned early that being right pales next to staying in the room,” she writes, although: “Sometimes I want to throw myself inside the gears.”

The cost of staying in the room is paid in her most intimate relationships. She and her husband seek out a couples counselor, for whom Rankine has another question: “Isn’t my husband, whoever else he is, also white America?” She already knows the answer: “It’s an obvious no; but even the obvious is inside history, so, yes too.” We have already learned that the counselor, though “clearly a brunette,” is blonde, presaging the much later section on the egregiousness of blonde hair. Rankine doesn’t think much of the counselor’s methods: “I wonder if the question she should be asking is if a carefree love can come out of a shared interest in white rage and white violence against black people inside a democratic structure that constructs, sponsors, and supports this behavior.” The question of whether or not a black woman can enjoy a carefree marriage to white America feels overdetermined to the point of absurdity. Yes or no or maybe or why not. Individual lives necessarily express, shape, and escape history all at once.

The concern with lack of humor has come up before in Rankine’s work. In the preface to her play The White Card (2019), she quotes the theorist Lauren Berlant: “What does it do to one’s attachment to life to have constantly to navigate atmospheres of white humorlessness.” (Another non-question.) The White Card is also a slice of high-bourgeois life; a black artist and a white collector bond over their shared interest in the stock market because of her 401(k) and his investment fund, but cannot reconcile their different histories. The artist in The White Card, like the play’s writer, is not sure if she wants her work to meet with white admiration or white anger, and is equally disturbed when presented with a hybrid of both. Unable to find the lightness of chance under the weight of race, desire rocks back and forth in place like a depressed zoo animal.

Upward class mobility into the bourgeoisie comes with a general bleaching of the life force. The wealthy protect themselves from the consequences of the world they have collaborated in making; in this state of detachment, feeling becomes arbitrary, even boring. To ward off the heaviness of history, they are determinedly trivial, instinctively and self-protectively opposed to intensity of feeling. Though they sometimes hope to import intensity back in via their consumption of black culture. Although Rankine sees clearly that rich-white-liberal comfort is made in hell, she wants this uncomfortable comfort for herself. “I want the world for my daughter,” she repeats—perhaps the daughter will make a more convincing claim on the hell-made, humorless world that Rankine only half inhabits. Perhaps she will grow up to answer all the unanswerable questions. Fearful, perhaps, of discovering that a black woman married to white America is fatally mired in transgression or hypocrisy, Rankine tends not to press too hard on her own assumptions, and to despair of those of others. Yet transgression and hypocrisy can be taken as given rather than exposed; their ubiquity is banal because we live in an extraordinarily violent society whose racial terms, however abstract, are enforced by police, poverty, and prisons. If Rankine could allow that, perhaps she and her work would once again become more savage and more joyful.

Hannah Black is an artist and writer. She lives in Brooklyn.