By Samantha Brigandi
In Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric, the reader takes the personal perspective of second person point of view through varying examples of racism. Rankine uses this unique style and couples it with modern day examples to really invite readers to experience the text more personally. Specifically, in this blog I will be focusing on how she uses the example of Serena Williams and catalogs some of the injustices over her career. By using the second person point of view she makes it feel as if we really are watching Serena and that emphasizes our ability to sympathize. More than that, it helps us turn that sympathy into empathy.
Serena Williams and her sister Venus are household names, world champions and record breakers, however, the events Rankine writes about are not common knowledge. Serena is also a great example, if not the best, because she’s a strong black woman playing on a stage considered “the most lily-white place in the world.” (Rankine, 32) This is to emphasize how, despite her unquestionable talent and superiority in the sport, she is still discriminated against and discredited. The world of tennis has been a white bourgeois sport since the dawn of the game, and for a girl from Compton to be the best there’s ever been it reveals the ugly side of the system. As Rankine quotes Zora Neale Hurston, “I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background.” (Rankine, 25) It becomes very clear how Serena stands against this sharp white background. She is too often portrayed by the media as an angry black woman and her outbursts have been over dramatized and punished harshly.
Rankine uses multiple examples to catalog the almost endless list of gross injustices faced by Serena. Specifically, it is her example of the match against Kim Clijsters that stood out most to me. It is the way that Serena reacts which is rooted in justified anger and by result she is penalized to an excessive degree. As Rankine writes following the outburst to the umpire, “now Serena’s reaction is read as insane. And her punishment for this moment of manumission is the threatened point penalty resulting in the loss of the match, an $82,500 fine, plus a two-year probationary period by the Grand Slam Committee.” (Rankine, 30) The punishment is more like a persecution, the excuse the Committee had been waiting for in an attempt to discredit and degrade Williams. Her outburst and rage were justly founded in the face of unfairness of the calls against her. An unfairness we can all understand and relate to, the feeling of anger at the person perpetuating this injustice. In Rankine’s words, “perhaps this is how racism feels no matter the context-randomly the rules everyone else gets to play by no longer apply to you,” (Rankine, 30) really strikes true and draws an emotional response. This is a really powerful example because it sheds light on a moment that was contextualized by the “sharp white background.” This kind of punishment should really be reserved for serious offenses, but a black woman’s anger is seen as seriously offensive to the Grand Slam Comittee. As Audre Lorde in her essay “The Uses of Anger” points out, “women responding to racism means women responding to anger, the anger of exclusion, of unquestioned privilege, of racial distortions, of silence, ill-use, stereotyping, defensiveness, misnaming, betrayal, and coopting.” (Lorde, 278) Serena Williams is exceptional, in her abilities and her victories, but we are reminded that in the face of racism there are no exceptions for her. The racism and sexism she faces are not exclusive to her but they are universal to black women everywhere.
In conclusion, Rankine does something very unique by inviting us to personally experience the story and the effect is very powerful. By stepping into the shoes of women of color we can better understand the way these experiences cut so deeply. Following the story of Serena, we can understand and empathize with her anger, her anger at the game and the system and feeling rightfully angered by it ourselves. Overall, her ability to personally invite us into the story really allows us to step into someone else’s shoes and open our eyes.
How did Second Person Point of view effect your experience reading the book?
Did the Serena Williams example remind you of any racial injustices you have seen in the sports world in recent years?
Rankine, Claudia. Citizen: an American Lyric. Graywolf Press, 2014.
Lorde, Audre. “The Uses of Anger.” Women’s Studies Quarterly, vol. 25, no. 1/2, 1981, pp. 278–285.