A Citizen’s Social Class

Claudia Rankine’s book Citizen is woven together with numerous social factors intersecting: race, status, gender, age, geography, and specific events in history. While some pages read high with tension between people, reading it through for me has felt more like an individual experience. And all of the tension is building up in one person. Sometimes that person is me. Sometimes that person is who I’ve stepped into shoes with. Sometimes that person is someone I view from a distance, from across the page, because I feel I have no right to feel what they feel and see what they see. But the tension builds between two shoulders, belonging to the same body.

While having a certain degree of privilege, I have felt what it is to go without. And nothing increases going without like the stark reality of money, or lack thereof. But in comes the world and so factors of class aren’t just based on how much you have and how much you don’t. It’s called socio-economic status for a reason.

Looking through Citizen with this in mind–a Marxist theory lens, if we’re being technical–there are signs not only of race privilege but also economic privilege. Near the beginning there is a passage that gives no specific mention of race or dollar amounts but the reality of social class is evident: “You are reminded of a conversation you had recently, comparing the merits of sentences implicitly with ‘yes, and’ rather than ‘yes, but.’ You and your friend decided that ‘yes, and’ attested to a life with no turn-off, no alternative routes…” (8). Where race and class intersect, it can spiral to a fierce reality that the majority of middle and upper class white populations cannot comprehend as they continue to bellow this pick-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps-I-did-it ideology.

Though no specifics of the Trayvon Martin case are given in the two pages of prose poetry dedicated in memory of him within Citizen, in reading it I cannot forget than he was killed while on the phone in a white gated community. Maybe his murderer would have acted similarly no matter where they were, but I feel that there is specific aggression towards an “other” when in the presence of wealth. And why must it be assumed that the wealthy are in more need of protection than those with any amount that is less than? The repetition in “these brothers, each brother, my brother, dear brother, my dearest brothers, dear heart–” (89) in that sentence and throughout the whole passage there is an enlargement of the scope of not just familiarity and love but deep connection, foundation, community, worth. These people are worthy, separately and as a whole, but Citizen shows again and again how society’s skewed perception turns this truth on its head and leads to things like Martin’s murderer being acquitted.

But hardly anywhere in the text did I feel the weight of class and poverty as much as I did in the passage on Hurricane Katrina. On page 85, several voices speak: “And so many of the people in the arena here, you know, she said, were underprivileged anyway, so this is working very well for them. / You simply get chills every time you see these poor individuals, so many of these people almost all of them that we see, are so poor, someone else said, and they are so black. / Have you seen their faces?” Underprivileged anyway? Working well for them? I feel a hit to the gut as I stared at the thin, black letters in a sea of white space, trying to imagine such apathy.

This book is to point out those white “anyways” and the double interpretations of what “some-white-one” is really getting chills from: the poverty or the blackness? This book is for that last line: “Have you seen their faces?” I read it as a call to lift up what has been dehumanized. I read it as an equalizer: I have a face and you have a face, so look your sister in the eye. I read it as an individual empowerment, because no two faces are exactly alike. As the tension builds inside of us because of the ways the world presses on us, we are each made to stand, no matter how we are painted by social factors like wealth and poverty.



2 thoughts on “A Citizen’s Social Class

  1. So much to comment on! So glad you comment on race and class in the book. And suddenly I remember where I have previously encountered the phrase “Have you seen their faces”? It’s a reference to a book published in 1937, You Have Seen Their Faces, a “pictorial survey about rural American South” during the great depression.” Look it up–I wonder how Rankine’s reference works, since Bourke-White and Caldwell were criticized for perpetuating rather patronizing, unintentionally classist, attitudes toward the subjects of their photographic survey.

    But this comment of yours really struck me:
    “Sometimes that person is someone I view from a distance, from across the page, because I feel I have no right to feel what they feel and see what they see. But the tension builds between two shoulders, belonging to the same body.”

    Whether you feel you have the right to feel what you feel or not, you do feel a tension build up in your body, but it’s not just your body. The idea of “belonging to the same body” brings up the notion of citizenship in my mind–belonging to the same country–and it has, for me, spiritual overtones, specifically, in this context, Christian ones: belonging to the same body, the body of Christ. The call to realize, to “feel,” that we all belong to one body is a call for a kind of physiological empathy…


  2. Oh wow, I had no idea that it was a reference. But I think it fits well since the previous quotes from the anonymous sources are certainly classist/racist. And like the pictures, who the sources are reporting to, who will view/hear what they have seen will be other people like them and not the populations they scorn, so they see no reason to check themselves in the offensive things they say.
    I’m glad I left that empathy section in there. That’s the kind of thing I feel more comfortable writing since these are formal essays. And it’s definitely something that I physically feel and what this book should be making people feel who aren’t necessarily as naturally sensitive and empathetic.


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