Just Us in 2021

I finished Claudia Rankine’s Just Us: An American Conversation yesterday (coincidentally on Martin Luther King Day). Just Us is once again a fascinating mix of poetry, art, criticism and (personal) essay on the current state of race and racism in the United States. The title is (probably) adapted from a Richard Pryor quote Rankine also uses as an epigraph: “You go down there looking for justice, that’s what you find, just us.”

Even more so than Citizen, Just Us is interested in conversations between Rankine and white people, and attempts to get closer to an understanding of whiteness (and its implications for BIPOC) in the USA in 2020. Rankine talks with white men in airports about white privilege, asks Black women and white women about the benefits of blonde hair, and investigates the liminal spaces these kinds of conversations create. 

These conversations are sometimes uncomfortable, mostly challenging and always crucial for white readers like me. The book, but particularly the last passage, will guide me through 2021, from the beginning of the Biden administration to the German federal elections: 

“The murkiness as we exist alongside each other calls us forward. I  don’t want to forget that I am here; at any given moment we are, each of us, next to any other capable of both the best and the worst our democracy has to offer.”

Citizen: An American Lyric

“because white men can’t 

police their imagination

black men are dying”

I reread Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric recently. Published in 2014, this poetic, artistic snapshot of Black life in the US is stunning in its impact and intellectual heft. The book is decidedly not written for white men like me, and can, maybe should make white people uncomfortable. The combination of Rankine’s play with subject positions and the language’s poetic density makes me connect with the (narrative) voices. 

Citizen was The Stacks Podcast book of the month (part of the reason I reread it). I really recommend listening to the episode. Darnell Moore’s excellent critique of what is left invisible (queer, trans Black lives) and the strengths of indeterminacy really expanded my understanding of the book.

What White People Don’t Want to Hear (But Should Know) About Racism

“Doch die sogenannten Rassismuserfahrungen weißer Menschen sind nicht die gleichen, die ich mache. Wer zuvor gut aufgepasst hat, weiß, dass sich weiße Menschen selbst zu einer überlegenen Rasse erklärten. Diese Theorie trugen sie während der Kolonialisierung in fast jeden Winkel der Welt. Es stimmt also, dass weiße Menschen in diesen Momenten die Auswirkungen von Rassismus zu spüren kriegen, jedoch – anders als bei mir – nicht als Benachteiligte, sondern als priviligierte Person.”

[“But the so-called racism experiences of white people are not the same as the ones I experience. Anyone who has paid close attention before knows that white people declared themselves a superior race. They carried this theory to almost every corner of the world during the colonization. So it is true that white people feel the effects of racism in these moments, but – unlike me – not as a disadvantaged, but as a privileged person.”]

“Was weiße Menschen über Rassismus nicht hören wollen wollen aber wissen sollten” by German author Alice Hasters is an excellent, personal book on racism and an ideal introduction to the subject for white Germans. Anyone who has already dealt with the topic in the US American and British context will already be familiar with many of the elements and concepts presented, but the strength of the book is precisely the focus on German perspectives, e.g. the effects of German colonial history or the forms of everyday racism and microaggressions in Germany. It also goes into detail why prejudice against white people isn’t racism. I can really recommend the book to all German readers.

I read the book over the summer. The book has received a lot of attention in the last few days in Germany, after German comedian Dieter Nuhr spoke about it on his TV show. He claimed to have seen it in a book store at the airport and called the title racist against white people because it makes attributions based on skin colour. He also claimed the book hit was a big hit in the United States (so far it’s only been published in German) and that this kind of “pseudo-intellectual” discourse was one of the reasons Trumpism happened. In other words, he acted exactly like the kind of white person who should read this book, used his large ‘satirical’ plattform to punch down at a Black woman, and got offended by a slightly provocative title and piled onto an already existing, sub-complex critique of identity politics. Nuhr’s ignorance would be hilarious if it wasn’t so dangerous.

And while the quote I started with is the most topical this week (and the one I shared on instagram) the key quote for this book – and white people like Dieter Nuhr – is the closing paragraph:

“Sich mit der eigenen Identität und Rassismus auseinanderzusetzen, ist viel Arbeit, ist teilweise schmerzhaft und braucht Zeit. Soweit ich das bisher beurteilen kann, kann ich diesen Prozess aber nur empfehlen. So anstrengend und angsteinflößend er am Anfang auch scheinen mag – er macht glücklich. Und frei.”

“Dealing with your own identity and racism is a lot of work, is sometimes painful and takes time. As far as I can tell so far, I can only recommend this process. As exhausting and scary as it may seem at first, it makes you happy. And free.”

The Undocumented Americans by Karla Cornejo Villavicencio

“So I just think about all the children who have been separated from their parents, and there’s a lot of us, past and present, and some under more traumatic circumstances than other – like those who are in internment camps right now – and I just imagine us as an army of mutants. We’ve been touched by this monster, and our brains are forever changed, and we all have trees without branches in there, and what will happen to us? Who will we become? Who will take care of us?”

The Undocumented Americans is a tremendous book, maybe the most important book of the year. The best part about the book is hat it’s not for white liberals like me, but for other members of her community.

Cornejo Villavicencio created a great, impactful blend of memoir and reporting, productively angry in a way that reminded me of Audre Lorde. This combination enables her to write so clearly about the systematic trauma and PTSD of the undocumented experience, the impact it has on kids and adults, on families. She makes it so obvious that the problem is so much bigger than Trump, more systemic. These issues depicted in this book will not magically disappear when Biden and Harris are elected, but their victory might set the country’s car back on its wheels, and writers and activists like Cornejo Villavicencio might be able to then influence the administration, and the US might inch forward instead of racing further back.

If you’re still reading this and are a US citizen, I sincerely hope you already cast your ballot. If not, what are you waiting for? It’s almost too late.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg (1933-2020)

“Dissents speak to a future age. It’s not simply to say, ‘My colleagues are wrong and I would do it this way.’ But the greatest dissents do become court opinions and gradually over time their views become the dominant view. So that’s the dissenter’s hope: that they are writing not for today but for tomorrow.”

The death of Justice Ginsburg is a tragic loss. In addition to all her other accomplishments, she wrote a number of great dissents. This election year, I particularly have to think of her 2013 dissent to the Shelby County vs. Holder, the Supreme Court decision that gutted the Voting Rights Act. (This was also the dissent that made her known as the Notorious RBG.)

As an introduction to Justice Ginsburg’s life and legacy, I can recommend this obituary by Irin Carmon.