White(d) Subjects, White Backgrounds: Assessing Colour-Blind Racism through Textual Silence in Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric

In William Edward Burghardt (W.E.B.) Du Bois’s works Souls of Black Folk (1903) and Dusk of Dawn (1940), he coined the theory of “double consciousness” where he argued the presence of two consciousness in African-Americans: a Negro Self, and an American Self. Claudia Rankine’s ground-breaking work, Citizen: An American Lyric (2014) (hereafter, will be referred to as An American Lyric), refers to a similar division of the Self: the historical Self and the Self-self. The unique narrative function in An American Lyric portray racism without actually speaking of it. This is done through multiple personas that thrust its readers into uncomfortable situations, implicitly personalising racism for them.

With this, I posit that Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric expounds on the struggle between two duelling selves: the historical/Negro-Self and the American Self-self through a textual silence (Macherey) that convey racism without speaking of it: the text does so by withholding the racial identity of its speakers and addressees, and we are never aware of their race. Doing so thrusts the reader to into situations of racial profiling and forces them to acknowledge the dangers of colour-blind racism. This racial ambiguity therefore highlights the text’s intent of critiquing racism by tapping on the reader’s sense of guilt (or “blindness”) rather than to blame. The textual silence of racial ambiguity then exists as a shadow that extends its pervasive presence; the refusal to tap on the reader’s “blackness” but rather to signal them to various racial positionalities, reflects the effects of our own preconceived guilt of colour-blind racism in Rankine’s An American Lyric.

Firstly, understanding Du Bois’s theory of “double consciousness” is vital for the subsequent analysis of the various “selves” in An American Lyric. Du Bois’s theory was built on early sociological theories that explain what constitutes the Self. American philosopher and psychologist, William James was one of the pioneers in this area. The concept of the Self was first introduced in James’s book The Principles of Psychology (1890) where he identifies the Self as constitutive of 1) the “I” and the 2) “me” (Itzigsohn and Brown 233). “Me” is an accumulation of experiences that shape and influence individuals and can be further split into four selves: the material self, the spiritual self, the pure ego, and the social self (233). The social self is the cornerstone to the formation of Du Bois’s theory because it emerges from social interactions and a mutual recognition between people (233). As said by James, “recognition is so crucial to one’s own subjective understanding that we may develop as many social selves” needed for recognition (qtd. in Itzigsohn and Brown 233). The further splitting of the social self can consequentially adopt a hierarchal framework  constituted by a dominant and less dominant Self – Du Bois would then reformulate this into the concept of “twoness”: the African-American “Negro” Self and the American Self (233). These two selves stem from a need to preserve one’s ethnic and cultural identity and also a need to adapt to the contemporaries of a pre-dominantly white-centric American life.

Rankine similarly shares Du Bois’s perspective of double consciousness through the concept of the Self as constitutive of the “historical self” and the “self self” in An American Lyric. The narrator, in chapter one, speaks about the presence of two selves present in Americans:

A friend argues that Americans battle between the “historical self” and the “self self”. By this she means you mostly interact as friends with mutual interest and, for the most part, compatible personalities; however, sometimes your historical selves, her white self and your black self, or your white self and her black self, arrive with the full force of your American positioning. (Rankine 14)

Citizen: An American Lyric (pg. 14)

In this abstract, the “self self” is akin to Dubois’s “American self”: it is an intimate and personal understanding of the self (Adams 56) through the dynamics of relationship between individuals who share “mutual interests” (in Dubois’s case, it resides in American citizenship). The “compatible personalities” between individuals are the prerequisite for a friendship and the circle of friends one has is a reflection of the “self self”. However, the balance of these relationships can be destabilised because of the “historical self”. The “historical self” is akin to the African-American “Negro” self in Du Bois’s theory of double consciousness because it is borne out of “larger historical forces” (56). The term “historical self” in this abstract alludes to the African-Americans’ history of enslavement and racial segregation between the white Caucasian race and the black African-American race. The binary is made clear in the abstract via the chiasmus “her white self your black self, or your white self and her black self”. While the use of the chiasmus may initially seem to be an attempt to restore balance in the syntax, this grammatical reversal also emphasises the binary between black and white. The alienation is reified by the pronouns “her” and “you”, thus establishing the struggle in marrying two “self selves” (white and black selves) that originate from different ethnic histories.

The “historical self” (or the Negro self) of the African-American individual has a deep influence on his or her “self self”; America’s racial history “powerfully determines how friendships and other relationships play out” (56) and this explains why the two selves are always in constant tension. Rankine writes about a situation in chapter one of An American Lyric where the narrators situates its addressee, “you”, the reader, in a scenario where he or she struggles to extricate between the Negro self and the American self. In this scenario, the addressee utilises his/her American self to engage with other individuals of mutual interests, which in this case, the addressee and his/her neighbour occupy the same social space:

…Your neighbour tells you he is standing at his window watching a menacing black guy casing both your homes. You tell your neighbour that your friend, whom he has met is babysitting. (Rankine 15)

Citizen: An American Lyric (pg. 15)

The addressee and his/her partner have gone out, leaving the neighbour the only witness to the vicinity. The neighbour’s need to qualify the “menacing” figure as “black” already presupposes his awareness of his own racial positionality as a non-African American. To describe the “guy” as “black” situates the neighbour’s racial identity as aforementioned, however, to associate “blackness” with “menacing” also reflects the pervasiveness of racial stereotypes. The only commonality between the addressee and the neighbour is the American self. The adjective “menacing” in the phrase used “menacing black guy” distinguishes the Negro self from the American self; at this point, the addressee’s two selves are also separated. There is an attempt to reconcile the tension between the two selves by the addressee reassuring his/her neighbour that the “menacing black guy” is harmless as he is “your friend”. This is futile as the neighbour proceeds to ignore the addressee’s reassurance by “call[ing] the police” (15).

As a result, the Negro self (or the historical self) inevitably affects and impacts the American self (the self self) because the addressee feels guilty at the end of this scenario. Consequentially, the addressee’s guilt is a result of the Negro self being subjected to racial profiling. The addressee’s American self is fuelled by his/her neighbour’s American self; this burgeoning presence of the American self, subjects and swallows the his/her own Negro self as a result of guilt.

This “guilt” that is brewed is not exclusive to African-Americans; it extends to the reader through the use of the second-person narrative persona that personalises “racism” as a silent or subject. The use of the pronoun “you” is employed ambiguously throughout An American Lyric; chapter three consists of scenarios of subtle and colour-blind racist anecdotal encounters told from unknown speakers. The use of the pronoun “you” forces the reader to enter into the position as a subject of discourse – which in this case, the “you” (the addressee) is black. Rankine speaker narrates a scenario of a phone conversation with “your” manager:

…When you arrive an announce yourself he blurts out, I didn’t know you were black!
I didn’t mean to say that, he then says.
Aloud, you say.
What? he asks.
You didn’t mean to say that aloud.
Your transaction goes swiftly after that. (Rankine 44)

Citizen: An American Lyric (pg. 44)

The use of the pronoun “you” allows the reader to experience the scenario in the shoes of an African-American individual. However, simply doing so would be appropriative and reductive to assume their experience as universal. Instead, the inconsistency of second-person narrative function in this abstract pardons appropriative reading through the pronoun “I”. A complete second-person perspective would have said “…he blurts out, he didn’t know you were black” and “he claimed he didn’t mean to say that,”. However, the interjection of the pronoun “I” breaks the consistency of the second-person narrative function and shifts the onus of racism to the “I” instead of the speaker. Therefore, the opposing binaries between the dominant “I” and the subdominant “you” is drawn clearly here, by subjecting the reader to a subdominant position of “you”, the receiver of racism, it attempts to resist appropriation. Rankine’s speaker does not insinuate the reader to take on the position of the subdominant black “you” out of empathy; by using “I” instead of “he”, Rankine destabilises the semantics of these pronouns. The reader is more likely to associate oneself with the black “you” than with the non-black “I”. This is because “I” stems from an authoritative tone that is selfish as “I” only speaks for the dominant non-black manager, while “you”, the courteous worker, speaks with a tone that reflects the frustrations of African-Americans. When the addressee senses the insincerity in the manager’s response, “I didn’t mean to say that,” we as readers similarly feel the same sarcasm when the addressee chides “Aloud, you say.” As a result, while racism is not explicitly mentioned in this abstract, the use of the second person narrative draws attention to the binary of “I/you” and whites and blacks respectively, extending the racial experiences to its readers.

An American Lyric consists of prosaic poems that are spoken via various speakers addressing its readers as “you”; we are never sure of the speakers’ and addressees’ racial identity and this is a form of textual silence or “blindness” – the refusal to racialize its speakers and addressees reflects the undercurrent resistance to claim ownership for its subject matter: racism. Racism is never explicitly told through racializing subjects but is shown through scenarios of colour-blindness and racial profiling. “Blackness” is silenced (or painted white) against the white background of the text. Colour-blind racism percolates throughout the text. Colour-blind racism is the belief that racism is no longer a problem and that we all have equal opportunities. However, this perspective prevents us from seeing the historical causes of racial inequality and how it still persists in our society (Cummins). A scenario with a real estate woman in chapter three of An American Lyric portrays blackness as invisible:

The real estate woman, who didn’t fathom she could have made an appointment to show her house to you, spends much of the walk-through telling your friend, repeatedly, how comfortable she feels around her. Neither you nor your friend bothers to ask who is making her feel uncomfortable. (Rankine 51)

Citizen: An American Lyric (pg. 55)

The woman in this scenario feels comfortable around the addressee’s friend. There are no linguistic physical attributions that can be inferred that the addressee is black, however we can all understand that the addressee does not look physically “comforting” enough compared to his/her friend. The distinction is clear, it is fairly obvious that the addressee is black. However, even the language in the abstract silences the addressee’s blackness by simply implying that the addressee’s appearance did not make the woman “comfortable”. Through a Saussurean semiotic framework, the word “black” or “blackness” as a signifier is not uttered here, while this may alter the semantics of the abstract in insolation, the fact remains that physical appearance is the root of difference. The adjectives “comfortable” and “uncomfortable” are similarly separated by the prefix un – etymologically, while this can mean the reversal of something (i.e. uncomfortable as the opposite of comfort), it most importantly draws attention to the absence of something. In Pierre Macherey’s concept of silence and absence in A Theory of Literary Production (1966), he writes that “the book is not self-sufficient; it is necessarily accompanied by a certain absence, without which it would not exist.” (85) Something is absent in the addressee’s friend that is present in the addressee friend that makes the woman feel uncomfortable. Additionally, if we consider the reversive function of un and “comfort” is what the woman feels around the addressee’s friend, then the opposite would be what the woman would feel around “you”, the addressee. This absence is “blackness” – the racializing of the addressee and speaker.

Therefore, “blackness” is silenced in the process of colour-blindness as the real estate woman perceives the black addressee as invisible. The fact that the woman “spends much of the walk-through” speaking to the addressee’s friend already places the latter in a subdominant position in relation to the former. The black addressee is pushed to the background and made invisible as the woman and the textual abstract refuses to explicitly racialize the addressee through means of linguistic textual utterance. In this sense, Macherey’s theory “silence shapes all speech” (85) as briefly mentioned earlier is crucial in understanding the meaning of An American Lyric as a text: what is unsaid (or absent) becomes of vital importance as it shapes the meaning of a text. The text mean what it says by not saying it. The text critiques racism implicitly by never once referring to the racial identity of its speakers or addressees. We are become the perpetrators of colour-blind racism as we are literally “blind” or unable to “see” race through this textual silencing of “blackness”. We know of the existence “blackness”, but the withholding of racial identities by Rankine prevents us from “seeing” it. Racial ambiguity is therefore the result of textual silence; this “silence” is therefore not “an accidental hesitation” but a “statutory necessity” (82) in verbalising the issues of hegemonic racial discourse, particularly colour-blind racism.

The textual silence of racial ambiguity is consequentially a shadow that extends its pervasive presence as evident in the shifting pronouns adopted by Rankine’s speaker in throughout An American Lyric. Rankine’s speaker addresses its readers from “you” in the initial chapters, to “I” in the final chapters of An American Lyric. In chapter four, the account entitled “Stop-and-Frisk” narrates a serious case of racial profiling:

…Get on the ground. Get on the ground now. Then I just knew

And you are not the guy and still you fit the description because there is only one guy who is always the guy fitting description. (Rankine 105)

Citizen: An American Lyric (pg. 105)

The speaker, “I”, “did not do anything wrong” (106), but yet he is frisked. Rankine never racializes her speakers or addressees, instead, “she lets their experience signal or direct their racial positioning” (Adams 57) – this form of silence withholds blame but guilts the reader by tapping on their preconceived understandings of what constitutes “blackness”. As Rankine’s speaker says here, there “is always one guy fitting the description” of a criminal, and as much as we would hate to admit, we are aware of what this “fitting description” is. In addition, the racism here is no longer projected but internalized, because the speaker “just knew” he “would be pulled over” (Rankine 105):

I left my client’s house knowing I would be pulled over. I knew. I just knew. (105)

Citizen: An American Lyric (pg. 105)

The repetition “I knew/I just knew” is a sign of permanence – the need to linguistically concretize this knowledge of being susceptible to frisking on racial grounds via repetition, reiterates racism’s permanence and pervasive in American life (Adams 58).

To conclude, the issues of race in An American Lyric has been identified by the constant contention between the historical/Negro Self and the self/American self. This double consciousness arises from a need to preserve one’s ethnic and cultural identity and also a need to adapt to the contemporaries of a pre-dominantly white-centric American life. Racism is a pertinent subject in the text; however, Rankine speaks about “blackness” without racializing her speakers or her addressees. In doing so, she portrays colour-blind racism by literally “blinding” us and silencing race through racial ambiguity. The refusal to racialize her speakers and addressees direct the readers to discern their own racial positionality. In doing so, she highlights the text’s purpose to critique racism not with the intent to blame but by tapping on a collective guilt that arises with the reader’s perceived racial positionality of her speakers. This personalises racism and reflects the dangers of colour-blind racism and its continued pervasiveness in American society.

Works Cited:

Adams, Bella. “Black Lives/White Background: Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyrics and Critical Race Theory.” Comparative American Studies An International Journal, vol. 15, no. 1-2, 2017, pp. 54-71.

Cummins, Emily. “Color Blind Racism: Definition, Theory & Examples.” Study.com, study.com/academy/lesson/color-blind-racism-definition-theory-examples.html.

Itzigsohn, José, and Karida Brown. “Sociology and the Theory Of Double Consciousness: W.E.B. Du Bois’s Phenomenology of Racialized Subjectivity.” Du Bois Review: Social Science Research on Race, vol. 12, no. 2, 2015, pp. 231-248.

Macherey, Pierre. “Chapter 14: Implicit and Explicit.” A Theory of Literary Production, translated by Geoffrey Wall, Routledge, 1978, pp. 82-84.

Macherey, Pierre. “Chapter 15: The Spoken and the Unspoken.” A Theory of Literary Production, translated by Geoffrey Wall, Routledge, 1978, pp. 85-89.

Rankine, Claudia. Citizen: An American Lyric. Penguin UK, 2015.

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