The Importance and Dangers of Microaggressions

            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.

Discussion Questions:

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”?

Works Cited

“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. Penguin, 2015.

3 Replies to “The Importance and Dangers of Microaggressions”

  1. Nevin,
    I completely agree with your point that Claudia Rankine uses “you” to make the reader feel a level of discomfort when talking about racism. The example I liked most was when Rankine said “Though no one was saying anything explicitly about Serena’s black body, you are not the only viewer who thought it was getting in the way of Alves’s sight line” (27). Serena Williams is someone that everyone knows at least on the surface level when it comes to tennis for sure and when Rankine relates the racial injustice Willams faced to the “injustice” her opponent faced, sarcastically of course, it effectively makes the reader step back and maybe think about examples in their own life. Nice analysis!
    -Sadie Royce

  2. Hi Nevin, I really enjoyed reading your blog. In regard to your second discussion question, I believe that when referring to “historical self” and “self self”, Rankine attempts to point out the fact that she can become friends with white people based off of their mutual interests between their “self selves”. But their “historical selves” are based off the historical roles that black people and white people have had in America. Black people were enslaved and then made to be second-class citizens in society thanks to restrictive laws created by white politicians. White Americans would also be outwardly racist towards black Americans, and if not outwardly, they would employ microaggresions to make them feel lesser-than. While personal relationships are important, white people can cause considerable harm to their black friends via their historical selves. This is evident in Rankine’s quote that “your attachment seems fragile, tenuous, subject to any transgression of your historical self” (14).

  3. William’s, they are supposed to put the reader in that constant uncomfortable state in order to get the reader to understand their side of the story. With the first story, she repeats the term of you about thirty times to put the narrator into the girl’s shoes, “You are twelve attending Sts. Philip and James School on White Plains Road”(5). Along with the repetition of the term you, Rankine also uses rhetorical questions to make the reader think about the events in each story and make the reader question the fairness throughout the stories in Citizen. With the first story, the little girl is questioning her friendship with a white girl after she copied her homework and calls her “by the name of her black housekeeper?” (7). The girl has all these emotions bottled up inside her but she can’t release them this would be “[her[ fatal flaw—[her] memory, vessel of [her] feelings”(7).

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