No Longer a Bystander

By Emma Igoe 

Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric, is a very unique piece of literature not only because of the way it was written, but also because of the given effect this story has upon the reader. This book encourages the reader to think critically about racism and the subtle racial comments that occur every single day, which go unnoticed at times. By Rankine writing about these different stories, she is bringing situations to light that are very relevant and should be more widely known. She is helping those who are unaccustomed to become more familiar with the everyday struggles of others by making it easy to place yourself in someone else’s shoes. 

My main focus in this blog post is how Rankine is so effortlessly able to insert the reader into each and every story, whether it’s as the victim or as a witness. Rankine shares stories that formulate a lot of different emotions from the readers, which is what makes this book so successful and relevant. Whether you have personally been victimized because of the color of your skin, or you are just a bystander watching this negative behavior occur, reading this book makes the reader want to put a stop to these degrading comments. As a reader, I did not want to be a bystander anymore considering any small action might be the start of stopping this unnecessary language. Although comments and actions made can either be large or super small, any comment at all has the ability to affect someone. This can take an immense toll on a person’s mental and physical health in more ways than we know, especially when belittling comments are made every day.

The story Rankine shares of a couple going to see the film The House We Live In is a story that was able to develop strong feelings for me personally. Ironically, this is the first film about race to focus not on individual attitudes and behavior, but on the ways our institutions and policies advantage some groups at the expense of others. While this couple is out, they arrange a friend to pick up their child from school. They get a call from their neighbor who says there is a “menacing black guy casing both your homes”. (20) The couple proceeds to tell their neighbor this is a friend who is babysitting whom he has met before, but the neighbor says “No, it’s not him. He’s met your friend and this isn’t that nice young man. Anyway, he wants you to know, he’s called the police.” (20) When the couple calls their friend to ask if there is a man outside, he says if anyone was outside he would see because that’s where he is at that very moment. When the couple arrives home, the neighbor and friend are speaking and the four cop cars that the neighbor was responsible for have left the scene. This entire situation could have been avoided if the couple’s neighbor set his pride aside and approached the friend in a reasonable manner. The neighbor was very ignorant toward this harmless man babysitting his friend’s child which angered me because this all occurred based on a stereotypical thought.

Another example of when Rankine makes the reader feel all these certain levels of discomfort is in a very short story given to us about a man, with the intention of being kind to a woman but it does not exactly end this way. Some of the time, a person does not intentionally make a racial comment to hurt someone else, which is exactly the problem. It has become normalized to not think twice about saying something so little because you think it will have no effect on someone, but when these comments build up each and every day, they begin to weigh down the individual. In this story, a man shows a picture of his wife who is African American to another African American woman. She continues to say she is beautiful and he says, “beautiful and black, like you.” Although this comment made by this man is so small, there is such power carried behind his words. This man is marginalizing this woman and basically treating her as an object, as a color, and not as a person. 

In conclusion, this book pressures the reader to encompass all of the emotions that Rankine feels on a daily basis. As a reader, you cannot ignore such strong messages being told to you as clearly as Rankine makes them in Citizen: An American Lyric. When being told these personal stories of innocent people being belittled, it makes the reader want to do everything to stop this unnecessary behavior and to no longer be a bystander in the crowd watching things happen.

Discussion Questions:

  1. During which part of the book have you felt the largest urge to want to help the victim of these microaggressions made so often? 
  2.  What are some examples of a time when you have been victimized for anything at all, and how did you feel at that exact moment? 

Works Cited

Rankine, Claudia, 1963- author. Citizen: An American Lyric. Minneapolis, Minnesota: Graywolf Press, 2014.

Excerpt From: Claudia Rankine. “Citizen.” Apple Books. https://books.apple.com/us/book/citizen/id908342605

Adelman, Larry. “RACE- The Power of an Illusion.” PBS, Public Broadcasting Service, www.pbs.org/race/000_About/002_04-about-03.htm.

12 Replies to “No Longer a Bystander”

  1. Hi Emma! I really enjoyed your post about microaggressions and how you included our opinions in your questions. To answer your questions, the most heartfelt point in the book so far for me has been the example of the murder of James Craig Anderson. He was beaten by white teenagers and then run over by one of the teenager’s pickup truck. James Craig Anderson was described as a “black object” that the pickup truck ran over “and the tire marks crushed organs” (94). Then to follow, the boy that did it felt no remorse. This is not an example of a microaggression, however, this violence continues today. So to answer your second question, I have witnessed microaggressions at work and I hate them. Racial comments and stereotypes are pointless wastes of time. It often makes me wonder how people are okay with themselves and their actions. Why does it matter what our skin colors are? We all have bones. We all have hearts. We all bleed red.

  2. Hi Emma! I definitely agree with you that by writing about microaggressions, Rankine is able to shine a light on something that often goes unnoticed. I also agree that she does a great job of inserting the reader into the story. To answer your question, the part of the book in which I felt most compelled to help a victim out was the part where Rankine was screamed at by the therapist. This moment particularly troubles me because I can imagine how horrid it would feel to seek out help for your trauma, and instead get traumatized. To express her sacredness in the moment Rankine says “And though you back up a few steps, you manage to tell her you have an appointment” (18). Even though Rankine knows she has reason to be at the woman’s house, she steps back anyway due to the sheer fright she was feeling. I wish I could help Rankine by telling the therapist that it is exceptionally racist and dangerous to assume that you would not have a black patient, and therefore assume black people never go through traumatizing experiences.

  3. Hi Emma! One thing that I loved about your blogpost was how you mentioned that the author fits the audience into every story. I think that this is one of the main purposes of the book being written in the second person. Rankine allows us to fit into this role of these individuals and their situations. Personally, I felt as if I was the one experiencing some of these indecencies and it really can upset someone. Being dehumanized is a terrible thing and one specific statement that stood out to me the most was when Mr. Anderson was called a “black object” (94). If I were to put myself into this situation I would not be happy. It is very degrading for this to be happening and Rankine does not sugar coat, but she puts everyone in their shoes.

  4. Hi Emma! I loved reading your blog post and I thought it was very insightful. I wanted to answer your first question about what made you the most mad while reading and who you would want to help. For me personally, it was the moment on the plane with the mother and daughter. This angered me because the older generations should be teaching the younger generations how to be better people. The mother blatantly told the daughter that she would sit next to the black woman because she did not want her to. The part that was the worst was the fact that “The girl, looking over at her mother, these are our seats, but this is not what I expected.”(Rankine 12). The daughter clearly learned racism from her mother, which is seen because the mother does not like having to sit next to the black woman either. This shows that no one is born racist and that racism is taught throughout life. It pains me to see people discriminating against others because of something they cannot control and I was glad that you made the points you did. I just wanted to reach through the book and shake the people for what they did, discriminating against a woman just because of her skin color. Overall, I really enjoyed your blog post and I am looking forward to what you are going to talk about in class.

  5. Hi Emma, I really liked your blog post because I agree that the way Rankine tells these stories makes the reader want to help to prevent similar occurrences in the future. To answer your first question, the part that made me the most upset when reading it is the one when the person went to a trauma therapy appointment, and was almost turned away by their therapist. When Rankine describes the therapist yelling, “Get away from my house! What are you doing in my yard?” you almost feel as if you’re the one being yelled at (18). Then later when she says, “…oh, yes, that’s right. I am sorry. I am so sorry, so, so sorry,” you can feel the tension like you were there (18). This scene made an impact on me because of how ironic it is. The client is going to this appointment because they have been through something traumatic, probably an act of racism if I were to guess based on the rest of the book, but they are greeted with another act of racism and therefore traumatic experience. It makes me feel so empathetic for whoever had to experience this.

  6. Hi Emma! I loved that in your blog post, you seemed so personally affected by the book in a way where it inspired you to change as a person and stick up for people more often. This really reflected in your title, “No Longer a Bystander”, which I thought was really nice. I was also very affected by the story of the man who was babysitting and the neighbor who called the police. The part that struck me most about this scene was when the speaker said, “You clumsily tell your friend that the next time he wants to talk on the phone he should just go in the backyard. He looks at you a long minute before saying that he can speak on the phone wherever he wants. Yes, of course, you say. Yes, of course” (15). This part made me so sad, because even though the speaker may have been trying to protect her friend from a future dangerous police situation, she was further playing into the racism and shutting her friend down instead of sticking up for him. This made me think of how often racism is swept under the rug and ignored in order to not start a problem. Black people are so often forced to change their harmless behaviors to appear less threatening to others, when they shouldn’t have been threatening in the first place. Great job on your blog, I can’t wait to see what you talk about in class!

  7. Hey Emma, I really enjoyed reading your blog post! I fully agree with you that the book works to make the reader want to put a stop to any racial injustices they come across, and not just be a bystander. To answer your first question, the part of the book that I felt most inclined to help the victim of racial microaggressions was when Serena Williams was having poor calls made against her. These microaggressions are seen at the 2011 U.S. Open Final and I feel for her when the narrator states, “Subsequently, a ball that Stosur seemingly would not have been able to return becomes Stosur’s point. Serena’s reply is to ask the umpire if she is trying to screw her again” (Rankine, online book pg 41). The previous quote exemplifies how Serena Williams is a victim of racist calls. The fact that she is pouring her out to try and win and she can’t get a fair call made makes me as a reader feel extremely sorry for her. To answer your second question, I cannot remember the last time I actually felt victimized truly.

  8. Hi Emma! I really enjoyed your post especially about microaggressions and how you asked for our opinions in your questions. To answer your first question, the most cathartic prominent moment in the book so far is also the murder of James Craig Anderson. I truly emphathize with him and It was wrong how the white teenagers ended his life. The fact that he beaten by white teenagers and ran over by one of the teenager’s pickup truck, angered me. James Craig Anderson was portrayed and deemed as a “black object” that the pickup truck ran over “and the tire marks crushed organs” (94). To answer your second question, I dont really deal with microagressions like that but I can say there was this moment when I was stereotyped and targeted against because I was spanish. It made me think that racial remarks and stereotypes are pointless wastes of time. We all live together, and It bothers me everyday. Very thoughtful post, Good luck on your presentation!

    – Makense Garcia

    Rankine, Claudia, 1963- author. Citizen: An American Lyric. Minneapolis, Minnesota: Graywolf Press, 2014.

  9. Hi Emma! I agree that Rankine’s utilization of examples of microaggression and use of the second person “you” are power attempts to wake up the public to this subtle yet enormous problem. The victim I felt the most for, despite the situation appearing to be a bit less severe than the others, was the woman speaking with a manager. When she showed up at the office after speaking to him on the phone previously about coming in to sign a form, Rankine says, “-he blurts out, I didn’t know you were black!” The woman’s response to his immediate apology and claim that it was an accident, however? Rankine simply says, “You didn’t mean to say it aloud” (44). Although the actual microaggression is shocking and eye-opening, it is the way that it is received and reacted to by the woman that makes a difference. She speaks the truth, no sugar-coating or brushing off the incident as a mistake that doesn’t matter. The woman’s response symbolizes Rankine’s overall point: even the smallest of things still matter, and can often do the most damage. She encourages us through examples such as this to not allow the roll-over-and-take-it ideology to persist.

  10. Hey Emma!! I really enjoyed reading your blog post and it definitely opened my eyes to a few things. Now that you mention it I do notice how Rankine purposely puts the reader in the place of the stories she tells in order to properly get her point across. She wants to make it so the reader truly understands and feels the racism that she has been dealing with all her life by not only making us the victim like her, but in a way pointing fingers at us and turning us into the witness. I completely agree with you and have found that since reading this story, I don’t want to be that bystander any longer. I want to stand up for not only racism but all things that happen in front of my face in which I find horrific. Sometimes standing there watching things like that happen is just as bad as participating in it. Even just by reading this I wanted to be able to help her and stand up for her. I especially felt this way when the author states, “And you are not the guy and still you fit the description because there is only one guy who is always the guy fitting the description.”(105) This tends to happen quite often and it should not be ok. The first thing people assume when a crime is committed is the color of the perpetrators skin and the world just sits back and watches. This quote is so powerful and should help make everyone realize how awful what they’re doing is. The author really knows how to wake the reader up and even get them angry for her all while informing them about racism and microaggressions.

  11. Hi Emma! This was a very thoughtful blog post and I enjoyed it very much. You made some great points and included how the book made you feel personally, which I enjoyed. All of the microagressions throughout this American lyric contribute to the overarching theme in a meaningful way. It causes the reader to evaluate the circumstances around them and wonder how they can make the situation better. Rankine says, “Yes of course, you say. Yes of course” (15). This shows society’s willingness to give in and shows how people are sometimes forced to accept the racism that is so present around them. It is very sad and I think that your blog post contributes well to this point.

  12. Hey, Emma! I loved the points you covered in your blog post. One of my favorite things you said was, “Some of the time, a person does not intentionally make a racial comment to hurt someone else, which is exactly the problem. It has become normalized to not think twice about saying something so little…” This is a powerful and true statement. I’m answer to your question, “During which part of the book have you felt the largest urge to want to help the victim of these microaggressions made so often?” I felt the largest urge to help James Craig Anderson. His story was one of the saddest to me. It was written in a unique way and I felt disgusted by the hateful act made on him that took his life. The quote, “Skin color cannot be more important than the human being.” (Rankine 225) really stood out to me. I wish everyone had the mindset that at the end of the day, we are all simply human.

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