Claudia Rankine on Confronting White Men About Their Privilege

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Poet and playwright Claudia Rankine has a new collection of essays, Just Us, coming out next year, and the New York Times Magazine published a phenomenal excerpt in this week’s issue. The essay, titled, “I Wanted to Know What White Men Thought About Their Privilege. So I Asked,” digs into how white people understand their own whiteness—do they recognize white privilege? Do they believe, as one white friend told Rankine, that whiteness has them “absorbing the problems of the world”?

Rankine, a frequent first class traveler, decided to start asking the white men on her flights how they felt about being white. Her first attempt came when a man cut in front of her in the first class boarding line:

I hesitated when I stood in line for a flight across the country, and a white man stepped in front of me. He was with another white man. “Excuse me,” I said. “I am in this line.” He stepped behind me but not before saying to his flight mate, “You never know who they’re letting into first class these days.”

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Rankine did not confront him, and instead spent the flight smiling at him as he looked at her “each time he removed or replaced something in his case overhead.”

How angry could I be at the white man on the plane, the one who glanced at me each time he stood up the way you look at a stone you had tripped on? I understood that the man’s behavior was also his socialization. My own socialization had, in many ways, prepared me for him. I was not overwhelmed by our encounter because my blackness is “consent not to be a single being.”...

...It’s hard to exist and also accept my lack of existence. Frank Wilderson III, chair of African-American studies at the University of California, Irvine, borrows the sociological term “social death” to explain my there-but-not-there status in a historically anti-black society. The outrage — and if we are generous, the embarrassment — that occasioned the white passenger’s comment were a reaction to the unseen taking up space; space itself is one of the understood privileges of whiteness.

At some point, Rankine considers discussing whiteness with a white man flying back from South Africa, but it doesn’t come up; at another, she discusses it with her husband, a white man she describes as joining “all the ‘woke’ white men who set their privilege outside themselves.” She ends up confronting a man whose son didn’t get into Yale—the university at which she teaches—telling her, “It’s tough when you can’t play the diversity card.”

“The Asians are flooding the Ivy Leagues,” he added after a moment. Perhaps the clarification was intended to make it clear that he wasn’t speaking right now about black people and their forms of affirmative action. He had remembered something. He had recalled who was sitting next to him.

Then I did it. I asked. “I’ve been thinking about white male privilege, and I wonder if you think about yours or your son’s?” It almost seemed to be a non sequitur, but he rolled with it.

“Not me,” he said. “I’ve worked hard for everything I have.”

Another white man—one she says “felt as if he could already be a friend,”—tells her about trying to amplify diversity at his company:

“We still have a long way to go,” he said. Then he repeated himself — “We still have a long way to go” — adding, “I don’t see color.” This is a statement for well-meaning white people whose privilege and blind desire catapult them into a time when little black children and little white children are judged not “by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” The phrase “I don’t see color” pulled an emergency brake in my brain. Would you be bringing up diversity if you didn’t see color? I wondered. Will you tell your wife you had a nice talk with a woman or a black woman? Help.

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The whole piece is absolutely worth a read—it explores white fragility, entitlement, space, value, and ownership, all with Rankine’s bewitching prose. Just Us will be out in 2020.

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