“Response as Strategy”: A Review of Claudia Rankine’s JUST US by Ben Lewellyn-Taylor

Around the time that Donald Trump became a serious presidential candidate, many Americans in the U.S. took an active interest in the prospect of conversation. Some believed in talking to white people about not voting for him, while others believed in not talking to white people already determined to vote for him. Each position seemed to signal a person’s stance on whether whiteness could be dissuaded through civil debate, with broader implications of whether white people are indeed redeemable from the false promises of whiteness.

In Just Us: An American Conversation, Claudia Rankine suggests that the American conversation about racism is not merely a choice (to talk or not to talk) but rather a constant negotiation of complicity, context, and conflict. What she aims for is not redemption but—as the title suggests—a new way of seeing the world as it is: just us.

With the political currency given to conversation, Rankine considers her hesitancy to talk with white men: “Maybe it was time to engage, even if my fantasies of these encounters seemed outlandish. I wanted to try.” After observing several moments of blatant white male privilege on display in airports, Rankine reports them to her white husband, who calls them examples of “white fragility.” Rankine concedes that her husband knows the “right terminology,” but she laments the way such terms “have a habit of standing in for the complicated mess of a true conversation.”

From there, Rankine begins to engage in the messier conversations with people she encounters. When a white man learns that she teaches at Yale, he takes her position as an invitation to state that his son wasn’t admitted to Yale because he couldn’t “play the diversity card.” She verbally challenges his presumption, recognizing how difficult it is to do so: “I was speaking instead of simply living.” She develops a rapport with another man on a plane until he stalls the conversation by uttering the white refrain, “I don’t see color.” She nudges him about the emptiness of this phrasing (“Ain’t I a black woman?”), and he accepts her nudge, propelling their conversation forward.

Rankine celebrates that she said “no to the silencing mechanism of manners” and that he could “carry the disturbance of my reality.” Each of her encounters displays how disrupting the illogic of white supremacy can be both taxing and ceaseless, but can also potentially offer new openings to relating. Of course, these and other encounters begin with microaggressions, and there is a counterargument to be made against the emotional labor that Rankine performs for these men as a Black woman. Indeed, Just Us released in the waning moments of the Trump presidency and in the wake of more high-profile police killings of Black people, in the months when conversation lost value in favor of other more direct forms of political action.

Still, Rankine develops an ethic around using dialogue to disrupt the persistent mechanisms of everyday whiteness. At a dinner party with colleagues, white guests blame Trump’s election on “many factors” rather than a reiteration of white supremacy via electoral politics. When Rankine pushes back, the white host offers dessert as a means of changing the subject. Instead of accepting the diversion, Rankine asks, “Am I being silenced?” In the thick air of the room she knows she won’t be invited back to, Rankine expresses a longing for such an utterance to be valued. “Sometimes I just want to throw myself in the gears,” she writes. “Sometimes, as James Baldwin said, I want to change one word or a single sentence.”

As the tension is then diffused by other white guests at the dinner, Rankine mourns the loss of an opportunity. What if, Rankine wonders, the woman had responded to her question with, “Here’s your coat. What’s your hurry?” Then, Rankine imagines, she would have respected the woman: “I would have smiled with my eyes in admiration of her directness—get out—rather than serving up redirection and false civility.”

In this way, Rankine considers the American conversation as it is and the American conversation as it could be. She doesn’t wonder if interracial dialogue is futile so much as a choice between engaging or disengaging from the world one inhabits. Further, Rankine considers these dialogues valuable, if not always successful. In her opening poem, “what if,” she ponders the imaginative possibilities of a new relation between people: “How does one say / what if / without reproach?” If white people treat any conversation about race as a challenge to our existence, what new exchanges are possible? This seems to be the tenor of many calls to stop relying on individuals when larger structural changes are needed. But Rankine is no politician, and her work prioritizes the everyday experiences that make up her life. To the willing interlocutor, she invites, “I am here, without the shrug…”

There are refreshing examples of such openness between Rankine and others. In an exchange with a white friend, Rankine unconsciously makes a remark assuming a kind of false sameness between them, but she corrects herself, pointing back to the differences between their shared class security and her friend’s singular racial security. Upon calling attention to this slip, Rankine’s friend is able to absorb the recognition of their difference. Rankine observes this “two-step, just us, no, you and I,” as a means for “racial difference, as constructed as it is, as real as it is, not to become for us a source of acrimonious silence.”

Alongside poetry, essayistic examinations, graphics, photos, notes, and responses from the people she converses with, Rankine takes a meta-approach to conversation in order to interrogate the work as it unfolds before her. Almost in response to those who would suggest conversations about race lead nowhere, Rankine asks of herself, “What does it mean to re-create conversations in detail in order to unmask—what?” She circles definitions of conversation in search of understanding: “To converse is to risk the unraveling of the said and the unsaid.” While none of her conversations reach resolutions, and often fail to be what many would call “productive” (a term, I suspect, rooted in white idea(l)s of capital), Rankine sees value in this work: “If I am to get things wrong, I want them to be different from before.” She offers no happy endings: only openings, conversations that have “already occurred between you and me as our encounter newly unfolds,” thus not beginnings, exactly, but in the middle of all history before and after we engage another.

Ultimately, Rankine arrives at the belief that “response is my strategy.” There is no end to the entanglements of race that we must navigate in this country, but Rankine imagines rising “out of the restlessness of my own forms of helplessness inside a structure that constricts possibilities.” Silence signals despair, an acceptance of the world as it is, the “just us” unable to transcend current dynamics to arrive somewhere else. Rankine finds this posture untenable. Not unlike hope, her “inchoate desire for a future other than the one that seems to be forming our days brings me to a seat around any table to lean forward, to hear, to respond, to await response from any other.” Dialogue is not the end-all be-all for antiracist work or political progress, but Just Us suggests that it is one of many necessary—if not inevitable—avenues to change.

Just Us, by Claudia Rankine. Minneapolis, Minnesota: Graywolf Press, September 2020. 360 pages. $30.00, hardcover.

Ben Lewellyn-Taylor lives in Dallas, TX. He is an MFA student in Antioch University’s low-residency program. His essays and reviews appear in New SouthNo Contact, and New Critique, among others.

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