Staying in the Room
MAR 24, 2017
How do we stage the conversation that has stalled so many times before?
During the development process of The White Card, playwright Claudia Rankine (author of five collections of poetry, including Citizen and Don’t Let Me Be Lonely), gave a presentation at ArtsEmerson’s Cutler Majestic Theatre entitled “On Whiteness” to a sold-out house on March 24, 2017.
The presentation shared research conducted by Rankine for “Constructions of Whiteness,” the course she teaches at Yale University. Following the presentation, Rankine further explored these themes, and their role in the development of The White Card, in a conversation with P. Carl (Dramaturg for The White Card).
The following is an excerpt of that conversation. Video of the full presentation and conversation is available at howlround.com.
P. CARL: Claudia, you and I have spent a lot of time together in this last year making a play. One of the things I wanted to ask you was: I keep thinking of your students’ faces post-election, and I’m looking at this incredible, filled theater, and I can feel the urgency in the audience. But knowing you, I know that you have felt this urgency all along. Does anything change for you? Is there a pre-election urgency and a post-election urgency, or is the work the same for you?
CLAUDIA RANKINE: Well, I think there is a new urgency. I think that I will continue working as a writer in the way that I’ve always worked. But I do think as a citizen, my habits might change. They have changed. I now feel irresponsible if I don’t check the news in the morning. I now understand that more will be asked of me. I’m not the kind of person who usually would have gone to rallies or protests. But we can change. It’s one thing to buy into the myth that all of this is new. It’s not new, but what is new is the blatant disregard for the First Amendment. There are a lot of new things. And I think we as American citizens have to be vigilant in the ways that we should have been vigilant before. But now, we don’t have a pass.
There’s a question from the audience that I’m going to read: “Given the historical roots of racism in the US, is the American experiment worth continuing, and do you think redemption is possible?” In 30 words or less.
(Laughs.) I don’t know who wrote that question, but I wonder if they have children. You know, we are here—we have brought forward another generation of people. It is our responsibility to make this thing work. And part of making it work is to understand how it’s broken. And part of understanding how it’s broken is understanding that whiteness is made up of racism. That’s part of it. These false conversations around “I’m not racist”: let’s stop that. Let’s just move forward.
I’d love to talk about that a little bit. One of the things that has been so interesting about getting to know you well is that we’ve been at many dinner parties where I watch people try to prove themselves not racist to you. It’s fascinating to encounter. And as we’ve been talking about making theater, one of the questions we’ve been asking is, “can a white person and a black person have an authentic conversation about race, and how does that happen?”
I feel like I’m being set up. (Laughs.) Well, that is the question. That is what we have been working on with the play: how do you stage the conversation that has stalled so many times before? And that is the biggest conundrum in my creative life right now. How do you make that happen? So—it’s going to happen.
It’s going to happen. In the talk, you mentioned the idea of “internalized dominance” versus “white privilege.” First of all, the fact that “white privilege” was first mentioned in 1988 is such a remarkable thing. But could you talk about “internalized dominance” and unpack that a little bit?
Well, you know, sometimes—when I’m relaxing (Laughs.)—I Google Robin DiAngelo and watch her talk about internalized dominance. You think I jest? This happens. The term is incredibly useful to me because it begins the discussion after the moment when you say, “white people are racist” and don’t feel defensive around that.
Everything in the culture has worked over time—overtime—to allow white people to feel that dominance. And no individual in these United States could have avoided it. No matter what their intentions are. There is no stepping outside the culture.
And for the Asian population, for the Arab population, for the black population, we have all known that whiteness is the most valuable thing. Not white people, but whiteness. That’s why people are using bleaching creams across the world—they’ll go that far. Because they’re not dummies. They want the jobs. They want what whiteness affords white people. It’s just the way it is.
So one of the things I’ve been thinking about is how to demonstrate in the play what it means to stand inside the notion of white dominance and still be able to move into an ethical position. That really would redeem whiteness, right? The recognition that the dominance is there. And given that, ask the question “what do we do now?”
Another thing you’ve talked about is inside this question of white dominance is white distress. And I wonder—because it feels like such a central piece of where we are politically right now—if you could talk a little bit more about your understanding of that.
Well, Betsy McKay wrote a piece in the Wall Street Journal [on March 23, 2017]. And it’s about the study done by two Princeton economists on the fact that, for white people, the mortality rate is rising. And it’s rising because of an increase in opiate use and suicide. And it’s affecting people 26 to 65 years old, across the spectrum, and usually in the category of people who don’t have a college degree.
So that would seem like it’s pointing to economics, right? But that would also mean that African Americans in that category or Asian Americans in that category would also be committing suicide. But they’re not. So, why are white people suddenly so depressed?
They’re depressed because this idea of dominance, this internalized dominance, was meant to play out in their lives. And suddenly, due to many things—outsourcing, you know, technology, many things—they don’t have jobs, they don’t have health insurance, they don’t have a lot of things. And other people, like black people, let’s say, who don’t have those things, are like, “Oh, we never had those things.”
But white people are like, “Wait, you said that those things were rights. I had the right to those things.” I mean, when you have people like Dylann Roof going into that Bible study and shooting all those people—sure, that’s racism. But there’s also something else tied to it. It’s a sense that “something has gone very wrong in my life.” The easy answer is, “it must be the black person. The black guy did it. So, I need to kill them.” So, all you black people, you better start getting those vests. They cost $400 (Laughs.)
But there’s also true despair. And it has to do with the sense that “these things were my right as a white person. You told me I was white, so therefore, all these resources were mine. All of this mobility was mine. And now I don’t have that. So, I’m going to take myself out, and I might take some of you all out with me.” So I think, that’s what’s going on with them.
Finally, I’d love to bring us to the question of art and your work. I feel like your work has had such an impact in showing us the importance of art in changing the conversation in this country about race. And I wonder if you can talk a little bit about your life as an artist inside the frame of this conversation that you’re still trying to get at. How important is it to have time to be an artist? I think about that with the funding of the NEA threatened. Many artists right now, I think, feel, “I don’t have time to do art. I have to go do these other things.” How do you stay connected to the art inside the urgency?
Well, I think one of the things that is amazing about artists is, you never did it for the money. That was never the thing motivating you in the first place. And so I feel like we will continue to work. We were in a workshop in New York earlier this week, developing the play, and at one point, I looked at this table, and there were a dozen people around the table making a piece of art—bringing the full commitment of their imaginative, professional drive and will towards the creation of the piece. It made me proud to be in that room.
I don’t know what it looked like for you, Carl, but when I graduated from Williams, I went to work in a law firm. And I was sure I was going to go to law school. You know, my parents were immigrants; I’m an immigrant. Can you imagine the conversation? “So, I think I might be a poet.” My parents would have been like, “What is that? Excuse me?”
So it took me something like four years to back out of that law firm. And I did because I had to, because there was something in me that was pushing me forward in terms of what language can do. And the only reason I was interested in what language can do was because I knew its profound effect on me. I knew how I felt as a reader. I knew what I had learned in the theater. So, I think that the issue of defunding of the NEA is tragic. It’s tragic that a first world country would even consider that.
But there are always two things. There is the reality of the tragedy, and then there’s us. The will of the people. So, this is it. We are inside the will of the people. And I’m curious to see how far it will get us.
The recipient of a 2017 Art of Change Fellowship from the Ford Foundation, P. Carl is the Dramaturg for The White Card, a Distinguished Artist in Residence on the faculty of Emerson College, and a frequent writer and speaker on the evolution of theater practice and theory.
The White Card
The world premiere of Claudia Rankine’s new play, directed by Diane Paulus.
The White Card
The world premiere of Claudia Rankine’s new play, directed by Diane Paulus.