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Claudia Rankine: ‘We are inside a culture that’s dedicated to whiteness’

“What can I do for you? How can I help you? These seemingly benign questions, from a white man who attended one of her readings de ella for her 2014 book-long poem Citizen: An American LyricGalvanized Claudia Rankine into creating her second play. Written in 2019, The White Card has just had its European premiere at Northern Stage in Newcastle upon Tyne ahead of a UK tour.

But it was his follow-up that truly jolted Rankine. “I wondered how to move his question away from me to the more relevant dynamics regarding American history and white guilt,” says Rankine, trademark neck-scarf in place, over a Zoom call from her home de ella in New York. “I told him, you might wonder what white people can do for themselves to prevent the kind of violence that they bring to people of color on a daily basis, from microaggressions through to death.

“He said, ‘If you’re going to answer questions like that, nobody’s going to ask you anything.’ Those were his exact words from him! I was shocked because this was somebody who’d clearly come to my reading to tell me how great he thought the book was.”

The White Card delves further into the same territory of urgent inquiry — how whiteness must be made visible before its power can be dismantled — that Rankine first broached in Citizen and deepened with her interrogation of the language, culture and history that have forged America’s attitude to race in its follow-up, Just Us: An American Conversation (2020), a collage of poetry, essays, documents, scholarly theses and images.

Matthew Pidgeon as Charles in Claudia Rankine’s play ‘The White Card’ © Wasi Daniju

Theatre’s immediacy and unique ability to translate ideas on to the bodies of real people, however, offered Rankine a more visceral way to demonstrate how anti-black racism is built into the fabric of culture in America. “Somehow [white] people were reading Citizen and not understanding that it’s about them. That’s when I thought they needed to see Item. Theater closes the gap of disavowal.”

In The White Card, Charlotte, a black female artist, says, “I do want people to experience what black people are feeling, or at the very least to recognize what it means to live precariously.” In the play, Charlotte is invited to dinner by a wealthy white Manhattan couple, Charles and Virginia, who hope to become her patrons of her. Their conversation about art and race becomes heated when the couple’s newly politically aware son arrives, returning into racial faultlines that traverse white privilege, cultural appropriation and representation.

Rankine, 58, prefers the term “internalized white dominance” over “white privilege.” “Privilege is a word that people like to associate with class differences,” she says. “Whereas ‘white dominance’ makes it clear that we are inside a culture that’s dedicated to whiteness and its dominance over other people because white people have been socialized to believe that they are superior, better-looking, smarter.”

In another scene from the play, the bearded middle-aged white man assaults a younger black woman
Matthew Pidgeon as Charles with Estella Daniels as Charlotte © Wasi Daniju

No one gets off lightly in The White Card, including the middle-class Charlotte, who can be read as a stand-in for Rankine herself. Charlotte has a moment of epiphany when she realizes her own art by her, incorporating videos of black people being shot, might be complicit in perpetuating anti-black racism. I wondered if Rankine, who previously worked on a number of video pieces incorporating black people being shot, had had a moment of such realization.

“As a black artist myself, I have to understand my own implication, my own culpability, my own passive ways of allowing what is to remain so. It made me think that white people might be titillated by watching black people get killed. They can be sympathetic, even empathetic, but they still don’t believe they are implicated. So I really wanted to look at that and move the gaze away from black bodies to white violence.”

Rankine, Jamaican-born and now a professor of poetry at Yale University, has garnered a string of awards and honors for her work. In 2016, she co-founded the Racial Imaginary Institute, an interdisciplinary laboratory for examining ideas of race, to which she donated the $625,000 stipend she was awarded as part of her MacArthur Fellowship.

It’s the way her work straddles the boundaries between poetry and prose, intimacy and alienation, private and public, scholarly and lyrical in formal invention that makes her such an incisive thinker about the intricate dynamics of race. What can be seen and not seen against a pervading background of whiteness — it’s no coincidence that Charles and Virginia’s Manhattan apartment in the play is entirely white — is the focus in all her work. She did it affectingly in Citizen by simply using the second-person point of view throughout, which kept the reader both invested and complicit. Imagery in JustUssuch as a photograph of a black woman obscured by a white page, had an equally striking effect.

In this political mural, the words: 'Because white men can't police their imagination, black men are dying' are stenciled in black on a yellow-painted wall, and the quote is attributed to Claudia Rankine
A San Francisco mural in remembrance of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, black men shot by police in 2016 © Jani-Markus Häsä/Alamy

That vigilance in recognizing and confronting white dominance, I’m sure, must have cost Rankine something in her personal or professional life. But she prefers to think of what the work of her has given her. “Everything comes with a cost but now I have a community that has supported my work over the decades and gives me as much as those people who disavow the work take away from it.

“I think we are in a fantastic moment of activism and insight where it would be very difficult for people to say they don’t know what white privilege is. It’s a renaissance of the idea of ​​seeing these things through a black gaze.”

The White Card takes on added resonance just as plays by black creators, such as Jeremy O Harris’s “Daddy”: A Melodrama and Suzan-Lori Parks’s White Noise, are leaning into the discomfort of difficult questions around racism and representation. But Rankine’s outlook is upbeat. “The goal is not to get rid of the discomfort, but to increase the possibility for intimacy within new narrative frameworks. It doesn’t mean we give up the joy and laughter.”

Rankine’s focus next shifts from white male patriarchy to black womanhood in a piece for the stage based on a real conversation between novelist James Baldwin and poet Audre Lorde. “I’m interested in how we are portrayed as black women because we are negotiating very different things from black men. Baldwin, genius though he may be, was not a black woman. Lorde has given black women language to think and talk about our own subjectivity and our own possibility. That’s where I find my interests and imagination moving.”

To May 14, northernstage.co.uk

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