In chapter I of Citizen: An American Lyric, Claudia Rankine uses microaggressions to make the reader feel uncomfortable and convey her point that though it may not be as obvious, racism is still prevalent in society today. Rankine constantly uses “you” to get to the reader personally. She does this because it is one thing to hear or read about stories of racism or stereotypes, but it is totally different when you are the one being put in those situations. Because the stories are told in second person, us as readers can’t assign our emotions to a specific individual or character. We feel it personally and that is exactly what Rankine intended to do. She expresses this with stories filled with microaggressions, which are defined as “verbal, behavioral, or environmental actions (whether intentional or unintentional) that communicate hostility toward oppressed or targeted groups including people of color, women, persons with disabilities, and religious minorities” (“A Guide”). The important part about that definition is that it can be totally unintentional. This is significant because the fact that it is happening subconsciously reiterates that racism is still prevalent and imbedded in our present-day society.
Early in the chapter Rankine talks
about how people react to microaggressions. She says how particular moments “send
adrenaline to the heart, dry out the tongue, and clog the lungs. Like thunder
they drown you in sound, no, like lightning they strike you across the larynx”
(7). Rankine personifies the effects of microaggressions and demonstrates how
deadly they can be. After certain moments, she finds herself asking questions
like “What did he just say? Did she really just say that? Did I hear what I
think I heard?” (9). These internal questions reiterate how small microaggressive
interactions and comments that are sometimes unintentional can have a profound
impact on someone.
In the last story about visiting the
therapist, Rankine literally walks you through the encounter with the
therapist. She says, “You have only ever spoken on the phone…You walk down a
path bordered on both sides with deer grass and rosemary to the gate, which
turns out to be locked. At the front door the bell is a small round disc that
you press firmly. When the door finally opens, the woman standing there yells,
at the top of her lungs, Get away from my house! What are you doing in my yard?”
(18). Rankine wants you to picture yourself walking to the house going to your
appointment and how harmless the encounter should be, but how intense and
extreme it becomes. The therapist immediately apologizes and retreats but it is
clear the damage has been done. This shows it only takes an instant for certain
stereotypes and racial definitions to subconsciously kick in and how normal
situations can be escalated for no reason at all.
Another example is the story she
includes of you on the United Airlines plane. Rankine builds up your character
stating that you have an “elite status from a year’s worth of travel” which
assumes you are sitting in first class and should have no problems or worries (12).
When the girl and her mother arrive at the seats adjacent to you, the girl
states “these are our seats, but this is not what I expected” and the mother
reluctantly says “I see… I’ll sit in the middle” (12). Again, you are put in
the situation yourself and have no reason to believe you will be uncomfortable after
the encounter but that is inherently the point. No one ever anticipates or
expects racial stereotypes or definitions, and that is why microaggressions are
dangerous and being brought to light by Rankine.
Is there a specific order in which Rankine lists her stories? If so, why in that arrangement?
On page 14, what is Rankine trying to convey when arguing between the “historical self” and “self self”?
“A Guide to Responding to Microaggressions.” Illinois.edu, https://wie.engineering.illinois.edu/a-guide-to-responding-to-microaggressions/.
Rankine, Claudia. Citizen: An American Lyric.