At the end of Ziwe Fumudoh’s Instagram Live shows this summer—in which she quizzed her guests on civil rights leaders, asked them whether they’d ever worn blackface, what they qualitatively like about Black people, how many Black friends they have, and whether they would commit to reparations, among other rapid-fire prompts often tailored to her guests’ lives—she asked them why they agreed to come on the show. While most of them had been familiar with her work prior to this summer, many of the white guests—which included Alyssa Milano, Rose McGowan, Alison Roman, Caroline Calloway, and Alexis Hanes, among others—intimated that they felt it was their duty to become “uncomfortable,” and to do so in front of an audience. Fumudoh, a nimble host, was able to make her guests feel like they were somehow in on the joke—laughing with them at their inability to name members of the Black Panthers, for example—while it was clear to her audiences that they weren’t. Yet people kept agreeing to be interviewed, in part to prove themselves game, some even adopting an element of bravado in admitting their ignorance and need to do better. When asked in an interview with Vanity Fair about the genesis of this show, Fumudoh answered:
“I would find myself in conversation with white peers, and they’d ask me, ‘are you baiting me?’ No, I’m not baiting you. You were just talking about race, and I’m following up about what I would consider really, really problematic answers. People have always felt uncomfortable talking about race, myself included, and I just want to take that discomfort away.”
Throughout a summer rife with politicians, C-suite executives, and out-of-touch media liberals providing extensive lip service to the importance of having “vital conversations” about race, and whiteness in particular, in utterly inadequate responses to state-sanctioned cruelty and violence, Fumudoh’s shows cut sharply through the din—eliciting a startling kind of truth through her impish humor, curiosity, and willingness to engage with messiness (of which there was plenty).
Just Us: An American Conversation, Claudia Rankine’s newest book, has a similar effect. She pulls together essays, poems, conversations, and images, often displaying her notes, sources, and fact-checks on the left page as she explores stories on the right, using a red dot to mark when to look. Her sources include pictures or screenshots from Facebook or Twitter, transcripts of racist viral videos, and video frames of police brutality; the visuals distill her point, cutting through what words can sometimes make opaque. She provides a documentary trail of her recent remembrances, evidence for those who would insist on it—especially profound when situated in spaces where many of us assume a degree of suspension or privacy (like airports) depending on who “we” are.
As in her book Citizen and other works, explorations of whiteness as construction, weapon, and blinding agent are part and parcel of Rankine’s project here, but she doesn’t directly admonish or encourage or warn white people that they need to grapple with their own whiteness. Instead, she tells stories about what happens when they don’t; she engages her white friends in conversation and reproduces their responses; she wonders in her poems what could come from an entirely different way of approaching these relations.
Like Fumudoh’s interviews, Rankine’s style marks a notable difference from many of the books that have made their way onto required “anti-racism reading lists” of the summer, some of which always struck me more as etiquette manuals or self-help guides with a vocabulary section for navigating charged conversations than books that would tectonically shift understanding. (Incidentally, my cynicism may come in part from how many independent bookstores have stories about customers hanging up after canceling their orders, snapping that White Fragility is cheaper and quicker to get on Amazon.) Rankine makes eloquent gestures towards this when writing about her husband as he laughs about white fragility:
“This white man who has spent the past twenty-five years in the world alongside me believes he understands and recognizes his own privilege. Certainly he knows the right
terminology to use, even when these agreed-upon terms prevent us from stumbling into moments of real recognition. These phrases—white fragility, white defensiveness, white appropriation—have a habit of standing in for the complicated mess of a true conversation.”
Another memory Rankine relates in Just Us is going to see Fairview, a play by Jackie Sibblies Drury, with a white friend. During the play, a character asks white audience members to walk to the stage; Rankine’s friend remains in her seat. Rankine, troubled by this, asks her why she didn’t participate and writes down her own reactions to share. The friend responds in kind, writing:
“I react with a kind of nausea when I smell, as Darryl Pinckney put it, ‘white audiences who confuse having been chastised with learning.’ Of course, there are reasons to feel shame, guilt, to be corrected, etc. … But situations (claims, blog posts, diversity workshop activities, whatever) manufactured specifically to elicit white shame, penance, etc. make me uneasy—I feel like unholy transactions are in the offing, like white moral masochism is getting a thrill.”
She goes on to explain her more personal feelings during the performance, reaching for an explanation that could make sense to both of them.
The friend’s feelings reminded me of how I felt during The Underground Railroad Game, which I saw a few years ago in Ann Arbor; interracial romantic relationships were a focus, not just in the privacy of the bedroom, but in the publicness of a classroom, where historical instruction, romantic communication, and power dynamics are reproduced in front of children (in this case, the audience). I remember feeling moved throughout it; I remember a few days later wondering whether it was counterproductive that much of it could be experienced by white viewers as a kind of “moral masochism,” or at least microaggression bingo. I remember the jolt every time there was a subtle infraction or historical reference that I picked up on, and peripherally seeing the majority white audience nodding aggressively to indicate they were in on it—the joke? the understanding?—and thinking the nodders were annoying, though I recognized that was uncharitable. Maybe they were just caught up in the meaning. (Rankine, in describing her husband’s knowledge of race in America, writes that part of her relief upon getting to know him was that “he heard the slights in real time.”)
Theatre experiences like this are proliferating, on a couple levels. For one thing, we’re seeing more works that tesser between the slavery of the 1600s or 1800s and its contemporary permutations, plays that run storylines from hundreds of years ago and today in parallel—asking us to reconsider the function, or reality, of change over time (such as Slave Play or The Underground Railroad Game.) For another, more pieces are increasing audience participation, like Fairview or Heidi Schreck’s What the Constitution Means to Me. In Schreck’s play, after a spirited back-and-forth with a high school-aged debate enthusiast about whether to keep the Constitution or abolish and replace it, she asks an audience member to judge who won the debate, and to make a decision. The filmed version reveals that out of 183 Broadway performances, the Constitution was kept 123 times; whether this represents hope in the possibility of positive change or a perverse lack of imagination could also be up for debate.
Like some guests on Fumudoh’s show, and as Rankine’s friend suggested, many white audiences seem to derive the meaning of their experience during performances like these from how uncomfortable it makes them feel, often due to how implicated the playwright or artist suggests they are. The “complicated mess of a true conversation,” as Rankine puts it, has to begin somewhere; if, as some artistic trends might have you believe, the state of being uncomfortable is the necessary starting point, whether it is up to the artist or the viewer to ensure that the catharsis (or withholding of it) does not become the endpoint of reading or seeing or participating still seems unanswerable. Perhaps, as Rankine notes, artists factor in white refusals to engage on their terms, and this refusal becomes part of the experience too. As the public nature of these experiences requires the viewer to handle discomfort in real time, the visual elements in Just Us create an intertextual experience that reminds us of the public nature of stories that we might privately scroll through, read about, or remember, and how whiteness affects every element from instinctual initial reactions to eventual recollections.
The final lines of Toni Morrison’s Jazz—“You are free to do it and I am free to let you because look, look. Look where your hands are. Now.”—slipped into my mind when I was holding Rankine’s book in my own, flipping back and forth to reread pages once I had gotten more context, revisiting one story in light of another. There are so many things we accuse each other and ourselves of having on our hands—time, blood, money—and so many things we allow them to be: an extra set, full, tied, heavy. We experience things firsthand, we force someone else’s, we have opportunities handed to us; we take the law into our own hands, and then we wash them of responsibility, guilt, people. Morrison’s closing words in that novel were, among other things, an urgent gesture towards the immediacy of the message, whatever the reader takes it to be. But in a literal way, for white readers, they were also a reminder of the immediacy of our whiteness, and everything we hold along with it.
A few reviews of Just Us have suggested that Rankine’s focus on interpersonal dynamics and personal experiences here might be slightly out of line with the current discourse on racism in this country, more so than her other books. I can understand this, especially now; we all just watched a horde of white supremacists break into the Capitol with nooses, zip ties, Nazi symbolism and prepared “civil war” and “Camp Auschwitz” gear, bringing the Confederate flag inside the building for the first time in the country’s history. We watched them get escorted out—literally, in some cases, held by the hand—and sometimes it feels like there aren’t any words that can help get us where we need to be.
But that approach towards this particular book seems to begin from a place of insecurity; Rankine isn’t offering a roadmap of her own experiences at the expense of necessary excavations of forgotten or whitewashed history or incisive contemporary cultural critique. As people more articulate than I have been saying for centuries, life is not made up of only the grand declarations we make about who we are and what we’ll stand for, but the moments in between that offer us a chance to prove, refine, or redefine them: tense family dinners, clashes in the classroom, encounters in airports or theaters or parks or protests. There are plenty of books out there, as I mentioned earlier, that are little more than embellished, uninspired listicles capitalizing on the publishing industry’s current investment in this genre that reinforce what some white liberals already know about how to conduct themselves in today’s discourse; this is not one of them.
In the final moments of Just Us—in which her strategy of expanding on the text of the right side of the page had me once again reading both pages twice—Rankine recounts how a friend of hers, upon reading the book, told Rankine there was no strategy in it. Rankine, in her musings afterward, writes, “What I didn’t say to her but what I should have said is that it’s the not newness of white supremacy and the not newness of my inquiry that returns me to the page to reengage.”
To sit with the reengagements of a writer who insists that there are ways of understanding of this “not newness,” that we have yet to imagine together—during a time of immeasurable, active commitments to the violence of white supremacy, craven cowardice from elected officials, and callousness during the height of a pandemic disproportionately affecting the people onto which the country already places unconstitutional and brutish burdens—is no small thing. Figuring out the kinds of care and growth that are available to us—direct redistribution of wealth and mutual aid, nurturing our relationships, relearning history, allowing grace to grow in art, pushing through discomfort to get to the truth buried in the messiness of conversations—and how to be worthy of that kind of imagination is the project at hand.
SOPHIA KAUFMAN is a reader and editor living in Brooklyn. She received her B.A. in English and history at the University of Michigan, where she was involved with The Michigan Daily, archival research, and community theatre in Ann Arbor. She is originally from Manhattan and reads for The Paris Review.