Exercise Prompt: Write a series of letters in response to Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, including friends, family members, and those who may have committed microaggressions.
Dear (White) Reader,
I hope that if you are seeing this, you have come with an open heart and an open mind, that you can look at the words on the page, and get the uncomfortable feelings that make you believe it is time for change. Much like the feelings I had when I read through Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine. I hope you take not only my words to heart, but Rankine’s as well. I have hope for a better America for people of color, and that starts with you. I have hope that through Rankine’s valiant effort to show her audience what life is like for Black Americans, you learn to stand up, to fight.
A changed writer
The conversation we had about the college I did not get into will not leave my mind. You told me that, “some person of color probably got my spot.” I have been studying Citizen: an American Lyric by Claudia Rankine recently. I would like to share one of Rankine’s quotes with you. In this section of the text the speaker sits down to lunch with a white woman who shares that all of her family has gone to one university. It reads, “She wanted her son to go there as well, but because of affirmative action or minority or something- she is not sure what they are calling it these days and weren’t they supposed to get rid of it?- her son wasn’t accepted (Ranken 13)”. While you didn’t explicitly say it, by saying a person of color took my spot, or that it was given to them because the university has a quota to fill with minority acceptances, you are undermining the achievement of that individual. The reason I got rejected isn’t because I am white and they are not. I got rejected because they met the qualifications for that university better than I did. You can not simply imply that everything is about race, and in doing so say that people of color have yet to achieve as much as I have. This is a fantastic representation of what is called a microaggression which is seen in many places throughout Rankine’s work. If you are unfamiliar with the term, it is defined by the Merriam Webster online dictionary as, “a comment or action that subtly and often unconsciously or unintentionally expresses a prejudiced attitude toward a member of a marginalized group (such as a racial minority)”.
I don’t believe you do it intentionally, but you constantly use microaggressions, and you use them unapologetically even when they are pointed out to you. I believe you need to be reminded that your words have weight, have meaning. The things you say can hurt people, even if you think that they don’t.
Rankine writes later in the text, “You take in things you don’t want to all the time. The second you hear or see some ordinary moment, all its intended targets, all the meanings behind the retreating seconds, as far as you are able to see, come into focus”( Rankine 55). I think that this is a beautiful way to convey what I would like you to hear. Everything you say affects someone in some way or another. I think you could use a book like Citizen in your life, to help you understand why it upsets people when you joke about the Black Lives Matter movement, which is important and much needed in modern day America. You can use Rankine’s words to show yourself that things are shifting, and you can not ignore that. Citizen: An American Lyric is a unique piece of work that has a powerful way of showing you, and other white Americans, that life is not the same for every person, and a significant amount of that difference is dictated by the color of your skin. I ask you to read, learn, and do better.
Hopeful for your inevitable change,
Dear Silent Observer,
I know speaking up is not always easy to do. When things take a turn for the worse, we often would prefer to sit back and ignore the problems we are facing. However, the problems of modern day America have grown to a point where you have to speak out. You have a platform. Something so many of us are not privileged to have. Instead of using this platform to speak on current events, you make inappropriate and insensitive jokes.
Rankine has filled Citizen: An American Lyric with uncomfortable moments, because life for Black people in America is just that– uncomfortable. If you truly believe the world has no issues, I would like you to read this quote from section VI of the text, specifically from the Stop and Frisk Script for Situation video created in collaboration with John Lucas. The quote reads, “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” ( Rankine 105). This represents more than you can interpret. You have people, innocent people, who are wrongfully murdered because they are Black, and fit the “description” of one criminal or another. When people are asking you to say Black Lives Matter, they are not asking you to say anything political. They are your fans, asking you to tell them they matter to you. Rankine provides multiple examples of why people who have as big of a voice as you do need to speak out on the mass injustices of today’s universe. She fills Citizen with uncomfortable moments that give you insight to the thoughts and emotions behind those experiencing them.
I idolized you. Now I choose to respect the white man who stood in front of the police’s weapons as they went to attack peaceful protestors. I idolize Rankine, a strong, intelligent Black woman who is unafraid to publically call out that Black people are mistreated.
I used to think you had a voice that mattered, but if you are unable to use your privilege for good, you leave me no choice other than to say do better. Rankine has shown me that the world is cruel and unforgiving when you are anything other than white, and Citizen can show you the same if you open up your mind to the concept that these issues are bigger than you can imagine. Do better. BE better.
A former fan who hoped for more
Dear “Color Blind” Americans,
In section VI of Citizen there is a list of names followed by what I find to be the most impactful message in the text, “Because white men can’t/ police their imagination/ black men are dying” (Rankine 135). I want you to read that again, slowly. “Because white men can’t/ police their imagination/ black men are dying” (Rankine 135). Rankine shows in a clear way that White Americans who are unable to control what they think of a person based on their skin are the direct problem in our society. I urge you to pick up Citizen, and read through it carefully. Connect with the speaker as they tell you about the horrible mistreatment they have received. Sympathise. Grow. Learn. Accept that Citizen captures only a small snippet of what every single Black American in this country goes through on the daily.
This country, that you try so hard to paint as so wonderful, is not as you believe it to be. Opportunity, acceptance, and respect are only for white people. At least, that is how it was until now. It is time to recognize that we are no longer in an era that will be dominated by the cis white male. It is time we see powerful people, from all backgrounds, rise.
You can choose to live in the fantasy you have created, but I think we can all agree we are too old to play pretend. It is time you ask yourself the question Citizen: An American Lyric has made me ask from the moment I saw the cover. What are you going to do to make a better tomorrow for the Black Americans of today?
Someone who used to be one of you
Rankine, Claudia. Citizen: An American Lyric. 1st ed., Graywolf Press, 2014.
 In response to Tyler Joseph who posted a photo in white platform shoes with the caption “You guys keep asking me to use my platforms. Feels good to dust these bad boys off.”