Poet, playwright, and activist Claudia Rankine spoke to a packed Emerson/Cutler Majestic Theatre Friday about the need to confront whiteness in America, why “internalized dominance” is a better term than “white privilege,” and the hard truths the nation was left to face after the election of President Trump.
Rankine—author of the National Book Award finalist and New York Times bestseller Citizen: An American Lyric, and Fresh Sound artist-in-residence at ArtsEmerson—sold out the Majestic for her discussion, On Whiteness, on Friday, March 24. She is currently working with ArtsEmerson on a new play, which will be staged next season.
In remarks introduced by Boston Mayor Martin Walsh, Rankine talked about a class she taught last semester at Yale University in which she and her students looked at historical and contemporary cultural depictions of whiteness as more valuable than any alternative.
She recalled the looks on her students’ faces when she came into the classroom shortly after the presidential election.
“I looked around the room and decided to express my personal fear,” Rankine said. “Things are about to get bad in ways we will and will not see… I could think of nothing else to add.”
The “national depression” among many Americans that followed the election was not because a Republican won or their candidate did not win, but because we had elected a “bullying machine” that was determined to undo whatever small, stumbling steps we had taken toward inclusion.
Despite the killing of unarmed black men by police, the poisoning of drinking water in Flint, Michigan, and other injustices against people of color, Americans still believed in our “basic humanity,” she said.
“The fact that this country was founded by genocide and sustained by slavery and warehousing of African Americans was unfortunate,” Rankine said. “We thought we understood our social arrangement to be ultimately tied to decency because our American rhetoric did not include in its history the swearing-in of white nationalism.”
White people had been believing in, Rankine said, borrowing from writer Teju Cole, “racism without racists, homophobia without homophobes, anti-Semitism without anti-Semites… In short, America without Americans.”
The question now, Rankine said, is whether it’s possible to achieve an ideal that has never existed.
“What I should have said to my students the week after the election was that what will be done in this administration will be done in our name,” she said. “This is not the time for impotency. Civic action is suddenly synonymous with living.”
In a discussion with ArtsEmerson Co-Artistic Director P. Carl following the talk, Rankine expanded on her preference for the phrase “internalized dominance,” coined by multicultural scholar Dr. Robin DiAngelo, over the more commonly used “white privilege.” During her talk, Rankine said that the term “privilege” implied that the holder of the privilege was deserving or better-than.
“Everything in the culture has worked overtime to allow white people to feel that dominance. And no individual in these United States could have avoided it, no matter what their intentions are. There is no stepping outside the culture,” she said.
“I’ve been thinking about what it means to stand inside the notion of white dominance and still be able to move into an ethical position,” she added later. “That’s really what would redeem whiteness. The recognition that the dominance is there, and given that, what do we do now?”
An audience member asked via Twitter whether, given the racist roots of the country, the “American experiment” was worth continuing and if Rankine thought redemption was possible.
Rankine said we have a responsibility to make the American experiment work, and that that requires understanding how it’s broken—that the very concept of whiteness is built upon racism.
“These false conversations around, ‘I’m not racist,’ let’s stop that,” Rankine said. “Let’s move forward.”
Carl asked Rankine how she balanced her work as an activist with her work as an artist, when many artists are worrying that they don’t have time for art when so much in the country is at stake.
Rankine said while she was in a workshop developing her new play, she looked around the table and saw a dozen people devoting their time and creative energy to make a piece of art, and “it made me proud to be in that room.”
She called the attempt by the Trump administration to defund agencies like the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities “tragic.”
“But there are always two things: There’s the reality of the tragedy, and then there’s the will of the people,” Rankine said. “This is it, we’re inside the will of the people, and I’m curious to see how far it will get us.”
Linda Markarian of Boston said she came to the talk because she’s read some of Rankine’s work and thinks she’s brilliant.
She said she thought the talk could have been “more heavy-hitting,” though she wasn’t disappointed.
“I’m extremely heartened by the fact that this sold out so quickly, and I’m glad people want to come listen to someone who thinks deeply about this topic… and is trying to put together a way to help us move forward,” she said.
Cambridge resident Dierre Upshaw said he was glad he took notes because Rankine gave him so much to think about.
“I think the reason her voice is so important is because as she talked about, it’s really easy to become complacent, to rest on our progress, to rest on having a black president, that we forget the darker undercurrents,” Upshaw said.