The Power of Words – Isabelle Pastore

This section of Claudia Rankine’s novel Citizen takes on a different approach using a more poetic significance on lines and line breaks. I felt that Rankine’s use of “you” in this section was more powerful than others. Rankine writes, “the worst injury is feeling you don’t belong so much to you-” (146). She delivers such a compelling line to help the reader feel and understand the effects of racism. Rankine is comparing racism to feeling like you don’t even belong within yourself. Not only does the act of being discriminated against negatively affect your feelings about others, but feelings about yourself as well. Another dominant statement by Rankine is when she says, “You are not sick, you are injured- you ache for the rest of your life” (143). She describes the effects of racism as something you can’t unfeel, something that stays with you forever. By using the word “you”, she is putting us in a hypothetical situation, giving the reader a slight feeling of discrimination. She wants her readers to understand what it feels like to face racism and live as a black citizen. Her writing is so powerful because she is proving that this discrimination still occurs everyday and it can be happening to anyone. 

Similar to the rest of the book, this section continues to have a gloomy tone, until Rankine adds a burst of laughter into her writing. Rankine states, “When the waitress hands your friend the card she took from you, you laugh and ask what else her privilege gets her? Oh, my perfect life, she answers. Then you both are laughing so hard, everyone in the restaurant smiles”(148). I found this statement very ironic because it shouldn’t be funny, but it is. Our society is so used to racism that we can be unphased by an obvious racist act. The people in the restaurant are smiling because they see people laughing, without knowing that the friends are just amused by a racist microagression. 

Not only are the waiter’s actions a microaggression, it also connects to one of Rankine’s themes of “new racism”. Today’s society claims to be “post-racial”, which means “having overcome or moved beyond racism : having reached a stage or time at which racial prejudice no longer exists or is no longer a major social problem” (merriam-webster.com). We, as readers and residents of the United States, know that this claim is not entirely true. Racism isn’t as big of an issue as it was, but clear acts of racism occur every day. Throughout the novel, Rankine uses examples of Serena Williams and Trayvon Martin to prove that we are still living in a world of racism. Instead of direct racist acts, such as separate bathrooms for different races, she shows that we are now confronted with microaggressions. Rankine intends to make it known that racism, even in the aparent “post-racial” America, still exists. Although, today’s racism is subtle and often joked about, Rankine proves that it still hurts. 

Rankine ends the section with a metaphor when she says, “It wasn’t a match, I say. It was a lesson”(159). Again, she makes the reader think back to Serena Williams and remind us of everything she was put through to prevent more racism in our society. With this quote, Rankine uses the mention of sports to express the metaphor of overcoming adversity, however she knows the goal is not to win, it is to learn. Unlike a sports game, there is no end to racism and Rankine knows that we need to keep playing and fighting. 

Discussion Questions

  1. Did you feel Rankine’s use of “you” was more powerful in this section? Why or why not?
  2. If you were really the one in the restaurant, how would you react to the waitress’ microaggression? 

Works CitedRankine, Claudia. Citizen: An American Lyric.                         Graywolf, 2014.

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