Claudia Rankine Imagines an Institute in Manhattan

Poet Claudia Rankine, finalist of the 2014 National Book Award for her book of prose and poetry, Citizen: An American Lyrichas an idea for a creative space in Manhattan where writers, artists, and thinkers can come together. Rankine, as reported in our last article, will be donating her $625,000 winnings from the MacArthur Genius Grant to start a “Racial Imaginary Institute” that she hopes will be “an actual location where writers and artists and thinkers can come together and put pressure on the language that makes apparent white supremacy and white dominance.”


According to The Guardian,

Rankine is part of a group of thinkers who are dreaming up a “presenting space and a think tank all at once” where artists and writers can really wrestle with race. She wants it to be a “space which allows us to show art, to curate dialogues, have readings, and talk about the ways in which the structure of white supremacy in American society influences our culture.” 


The literature Rankine produces is a deep look into the racial divide in America. Her book, Citizen encourages its readers to delve into the world we live in. Citizen takes a look into Rankine’s own life. It places us within the various situations she brings forward and it helps us to understand each feeling and reaction. Rankine ecourages both a discussion and an experiment to take place.


In her interview with The Guardian, Rankine said, 

“Conceptions and constructions of whiteness,” she explained, have been “made and then propped up with eugenics and propped up with false science and false rhetoric and maintained through the justice system in every way”. They then become invisible. As writers and artists, she said, “it’s our job to point this out, because I really believe that people don’t know” – about what makes whiteness, or about how broad the life experiences of white people are. 


Whiteness is an idea and a method that has enabled racial discrimination and bias for hundreds of years. Historically, skin color has enabled a people to dominate others because of appearance. Classifying people as a certain skin color, or race, has the proven ability to psychologically shape society. 


Speaking about her visit to the Ohio Reformatory for Women, Rankine said

This prison is 80% white women and 19% black women. One percent other. But when I say to people 80% of the women in this prison are white rural women, they’re shocked. And they’re shocked because that information is kept from them. It’s kept from them because it doesn’t bolster the ideas that blackness equals criminality. It’s contrary to that. It doesn’t enforce the idea that white people should be afraid of black people and not afraid of each other.


The only way that progress can happen is with open discussions and a space to learn and educate. Rankine wants to enable such discussions that allow us to do “more critical evaluation of one’s own habits and one’s own positionality relative to making art and doing work.” This “Racial Imaginary Institute” will allow people to come together and educate each other. It’s only been about 60 years since the end of Jim Crow and there is still continued institutionalized racism in this country from prisons, housing, workplace discrimination, and so on. 


Rankine’s Institute, hopefully, will be a way to change the discourse. Rankine is working on a new book, which,

…is just starting to take shape, [and] will be “doing a lot of work on white construction and understanding the trajectory, historically, from the 1700s to now and seeing that the stories are the same.” She’s especially interested in comparing two phenomena. “The 1790 naturalization act was an attempt to limit who could govern and keep people away from self governance.” Over 200 years later followed ‘the birther movement, which was all about ‘Where’s your birth certificate?’ You have no right to the White House.’


Rankine also told The Guardian that it’s hard for people to focus on whiteness nowadays, because the lens has always put it at the center of everything, but she says

I think we’ve seen whiteness centralized forever, so they’re no longer interested in making it the subject, putting it in the subject position. But I think that it’s been centralized in order to continue its dominance, and it’s never been the object of inquiry to understand its paranoia, its violence, its rage.


These ideas and questions are incredibly relevant today. I’m excited to see Rankine’s work come together and hopefully be able to visit the Institute one day. 


Sound and Fury by Claudia Rankine 

Dispossessed despair, depression, despondent 

dejection, the doom is the off-white of white. But wait, 

white can’t know what white feels. Where’s the life in that? 

Where’s the right in that? Where’s the white in that?


At the bone of bone white breathes the fear of seeing,

the frustration of being unequal to white. White-male portraits 

on white walls were intended to mean ownership of all, 

the privilege of all, even as white walls white in.


And this is understandable, yes,

understandable because the culture claims white

owns everything—the wealth

of no one anyone knows. Still the equation holds— 

jobs and health and schools and better than 

before and different from now and enough 

and always and eventually mine. 


This is what it means to wear a color and believe 

the embrace of its touch. What white long expected 

was to work its way into an upwardly mobile fit. 

In the old days white included a life, even without luck 

or chance of birth. The scaffolding had rungs

and legacy and the myth of meritocracy fixed in white.


Now white can’t hold itself distant from the day’s touch— 

even as the touch holds so little white would own—

foreclosure vanished pensions school systems 

in disrepair free trade rising unemployment unpaid 

medical bills school debt car debt debt debt.


White is living its brick-and-mortar loss, 

staving off more loss, exhaustion, aggrieved 

exposure, a pale heart even as in daylight 

white hardens its features. Eyes, which hold all 

the light, harden. Jaws, which close down on nothing, 

harden. Hands, which assembled, and packaged, 

and built, harden into a fury that cannot call 


power to account though it’s not untrue jobs were 

outsourced and it’s not untrue an economic base 

was cut out from under. It’s not untrue.


If people could just come clean about their pain,

the being at a loss when just being white is not working.

Who said there is no hierarchy inside white walls?

Who implied white owns everything even as it owns nothing?

But white can’t strike its own structure.

White can’t oust its own system.

All the loss is nothing next to any other who can be thrown out.

In daylight this right to righteous rage doubles

down the supremacy of white in our way.




Featured image courtesy of LA Times