Privilege Blinders: a reading of Rankine’s “Citizen”

As an introvert, I like to think of myself as someone who sees more than other people do–and by “other people” I mean the extroverts. As a white person, however, it is books like Claudia Rankine’s Citizen that make me question how much I actually see. And while the early years of college filled me with white guilt after coming from a very white hometown, I see it more now of my blindness being more attributed to privilege than any sort of willful looking-the-other-way.

Still, despite my privilege I do count myself as someone who sees people, unlike the man on page 77 of Citizen, “The cashier says, Sir, she was next. When he turns to you he is truly surprised. / Oh my God, I didn’t see you. / You must be in a hurry, you offer. / No, no, no, I really didn’t see you.” What struck me most on reading this was the man’s ignorance of his not seeing her as equally–or more–rude as cutting in front of her would be. He confirms her invisibility. And I have seen that. I have been that cashier.

Shortly after this short account is given, the book transitions into a series of prose-poems that are titled after the dates and names of black men involved in controversial crime. Out of the five specific cases, only one involves a white victim, and the white victim wasn’t killed. How close is this ratio to actual statistics? How opposite is this ratio to the white people who assume danger and shudder when their kind is doing most of the shooting?

We have talked about literature giving us knowledge. This book of poetry and essays gives that knowledge; the kind that drags you further out of the hole of ignorance that you have either dug yourself into or were born inside. And not wanting to slip any further back, I googled each of these five dates and the names of the victims, because I didn’t know any of them. And I read the descriptions of the crimes, the timelines of the cases, and the sentences of those accused or acquitted before reading the poetry. I have often prided myself over the fact that I do not have a television in order to have seen the news. But what does it mean when I recognize the name “Ferguson” but none of the ones in this book?

Amidst these entries is a personal account much like the short snippets earlier in the book. Throughout Citizen I had grown accustomed to the second person address and the “you” more often than not identifying as the voice of an anonymous black person. In “Stop-and-Frisk” it begins with an “I” and the “I” voice is pulled over and the “I” voice is told to get out of the car and keep his hands in sight. And here and there are the words, “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.” And I don’t know why but it wasn’t until this section’s second page that I realized I had been reading it wrong. I thought the “I” was a white man who had injured or killed the “you” innocent black man thinking the “you” was a criminal, thereby the “I” taking the law into his own hands. I thought the police had pulled over the right person.

When I realized my mistake I went back and read it over, now realizing that the “I” and the “you” are the same–the “you” being the man reflecting to himself. And I read with disgust as the man who was just driving home from work was pulled over, dragged away, and made to walk home from the station. I am by no means completely ignorant of this kind of thing happening, but privilege hides its frequency from me. What can I do to truly see? I cannot scrub this privilege off myself but I have no wish to be blind. What can I do besides simply finishing the rest of this book? As of yet, I don’t know.

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One thought on “Privilege Blinders: a reading of Rankine’s “Citizen”

  1. Like you I have sometimes/often thought that being white breeds a certain kind of ignorance–call it stupidity. It’s like we have the option not to see or feel because we do not feel addressed. I do believe, however, that we can all learn to see more, to respond more, to empathize more–and that literature can help us do so.

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