In Claudia Rankine’s Citizen An American Lyric, the first section works to put the readers in an uncomfortable situation while reading, in order to help them better understand the ways in which everyday racism is perpetuated in a multitude of forms against Black Americans. She does this by highlighting instances of microaggressions. Small moments of racism that may go over someone’s head if they are not paying close attention. Rankine shows us that although small, these moments of everyday racism can be severely degrading for marginalized groups of people. Rankine seeks to make the white reader more aware of this mundane racism, so that they will be less likely to perpetuate it onto marginalized people.
Rankine shares a memory from her childhood where she experienced an act of microaggression from another child, in hopes to portray how the impact of another child’s seemingly innocent words can leave a damaging effect on one’s view of themselves. After she lets the student cheat off of her, Rankine recalls the girls usual response “You never really speak except for the time she makes her request and later when she tells you you smell good and have features like a white person” (5). The classmate of Rankine’s was not purposefully attempting to be malicious towards her, however, it is quite clear that the comment is very much so offensive and hurtful, as it implies that Rankine having features like a white person is somehow inherently better than having more traditionally African American features. The comment, although subtle, stuck with Rankine from childhood into adulthood, showing it has carried with her in a damaging way.
Another example of a microaggression experienced by Rankine was when a friend kept getting mixed up with her name “After it happened I was at a loss for words. Haven’t you said this to a close friend who early in your friendship, when distracted, would call you by the name of her black housekeeper? (7). A lot of people claim that they are bad with names, so what makes this girl mixing up Rankine’s name any different? Rankine’s friend not being able to get her name straight becomes a problem when she is getting it confused with possibly the only other black woman in her life. Whether the friend actually realizes it or not, she is reinforcing a stereotype. The stereotype that most people of color look alike is widely reinforced by white people who do not bother or take the time to match a face to a name, and Rankine’s friend is clearly a culprit of that.
Not only does Rankine point of the microaggressions she has faced in her own life, but she also brings to light those that have been hurled toward black sportswomen, such as Serina and Venus Williams. An example of that may be tennis officials abusing their powers and affirming their bias for other competitors over the Williams sisters, and they ways in which people react to Serina’s justified frustration. After Serina is subjected to unfairness by officials she stands up for herself and unleashes her anger. While Rankine sees this as an applaudable moment, the officials do not “Now Serina’s reaction is read as insane” (Rankine 30). If Serina had not been an African American woman, would she still have been read as being insane for her reaction? The commentators were able to side with Serina’s frustrating as with their tennis knowledge, they could tell something was off, however, her reaction to the unfairness was still looked down upon. The officials, the umpires, and many fans forced her into the angry black woman stereotype, furthering the notion that Serina’s anger was unjustifiable.
By pointing out the microaggressions she has faced in her life, and the ones faced by women of a high celebrity status, Rankine points out to the white audience that it is easier than originally thought to perpetuate harmful stereotypes and contribute to the oppression of marginalized groups.
- In what ways so far has the book either changed the way, or reinforce the way you think about what it means to be a culprit or an accomplice to racism?
- What are some other examples of microaggressions scattered throughout the book?
Rankine, Claudia, 1963- author. Citizen : An American Lyric. Minneapolis, Minnesota :Graywolf Press, 2014.