The Current

Why American poet Claudia Rankine decided to talk to white men on airplanes about privilege

A leading American thinker on race says we need to have conversations about white privilege and the role it plays in our daily lives, even if it makes us uncomfortable.

The author of Just Us: An American Conversation says change requires having tough conversations

Poet Claudia Rankine's latest book is called Just Us: An American Conversation. She says it invites readers to listen to one another 'in ways that allow both of us to exist at the same time.' (Graywolf Press; John Lucas)

Read Story Transcript

A leading American thinker on race says we need to have conversations about white privilege and the role it plays in our daily lives, even if it makes us uncomfortable.

"I think for change to happen, people … have to sit down, they have to talk, they have to figure out what can happen, and what cannot happen, and how it can happen, and to what degree it will happen," Claudia Rankine told The Current's Matt Galloway. 

"And all of those things have to happen through communication."

Rankine is a poet, playwright, professor, essayist and author of the New York Times bestselling book-length poem on racism Citizen: An American Lyric. Her latest work, Just Us: An American Conversation, explores white supremacy and invites readers to "be attuned to each other," rather than committed to being right.

Rankine said her book asks people to listen to one another "in ways that allow both of us to exist at the same time."

Often, instead of hearing each other out, civility is used to silence disagreements over discussions on race, she explained.

Rankine witnessed that first-hand one night while attending a dinner party.

I turned to her and I said, 'Am I being silenced?' And the palpable rage that came towards me at that moment was stunning.- Claudia Rankine

Another attendee, who was writing a book about Donald Trump's presidency, began arguing that economic concerns drove the U.S. election. Rankine said she countered his argument by saying white people voted for what Trump campaigned on: racism against Mexican and Black people.

The man said there was no way to know that, Rankine recalled. Then things started getting heated.

That's when a woman sitting across the dinner table pointed to a table of brownies and said, "Aren't those beautiful? They look fantastic," said the poet — in an apparent effort to change the topic.

"It's one of those moments when you could either let that go and allow the conversation to move in another direction, or you can call it for what it is," Rankine said.

"I turned to her and I said, 'Am I being silenced?' And the palpable rage that came towards me at that moment was stunning."

Conversations about power

But having conversations around whiteness has also surprised Rankine.

When Trump ran for the 2016 presidential election, it "terrified" her, she said, because of the issues the country was facing around immigration.

The day Trump launched his campaign, he called Mexicans rapists, and declared he would build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border to block immigrants from coming to the U.S.

Although white men make up about 30 per cent of the U.S. population, they comprise close to 70 per cent of the people elected to office, Rankine explained.

"I just decided ... I really need to start talking to these people who have so much power," she said.

So she made a plan to start striking up conversations with white men on airplanes.

"Often I'm sitting next to them for, you know, seven, eight hours on flights," she said. "I thought, why not actually ask them the kinds of questions that I think about. You know, things like, 'Do you understand how much privilege you have?' … [and], 'How do you understand the power that you wield within your lives that affect the lives of people like me?'"

During one particular conversation, one man told Rankine he doesn't see race or colour when he looks at people.

"And I understand that's a desire to say we're all human, we're all one," she said. "But it denies the reality of how much a constructed thing like blackness and whiteness has gained power in our life."

Rankine and the man later kept in contact. When she decided to write an article about their exchange for the New York Times, she asked if he would write a response.

And he did.

"In his response, he said, you know, 'Thinking about our conversation afterwards, I realize I said things to you that [weren't] true,'" said Rankine. 

"It was a desire to create a world that he aspired to, but not one that existed. And that was really, you know, a learning moment for me."


Written by Kirsten Fenn. Produced by Idella Sturino.

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