Claudia Rankine’s Just Us lays bare the parallels of American and UK racism

In Rankine’s new book of poetry and essays, Daniellé Dash found a source of inspiration and strength in a difficult year.

Just Us by Claudia Rankine
Claudia Rankine. Image: Ryan McEachern/Penguin

While Americans were grappling this year with the fallout from George Floyd’s killing at the hands of Minneapolis Police and the Black Lives Matter protests it sparked, Britain was forced to have its own conversation about race and racism at a time when matters of public health, economic disparity, and poverty were already experiencing a violent collision. When I reached out hoping for something, someone to help make sense of it all, I happened upon Professor Claudia Rankine’s Just Us: An American Conversation.

With no shortage of media commentators such as Dominique Samuels and Calvin Robinson always camera-ready to assuage those who insist anti-Black racism is merely a figment of the imaginations of the cunning left, it feels good to have a book like Rankine’s to hold onto – a work full of evidence that the racism I see all around me is real. While Rankine’s book posits an “American conversation”, the parallels between how Blackness moves and operates in America and Britain are unmistakeable.

According to Samuels and Robinson, Britain is nothing like America; to be Black here, they argue, should not be compared to being Black there. On Good Morning Britain, Robinson infamously said that Black Lives Matter was “stoking up racial tensions where they really didn’t exist to begin with”. Yet, the circumstances of the deaths of Black women like Mercy Baguma, Belly Mujinga, Sarah Reed, Cherry Groce, Bibaa Henry and Nicole Smallman, to name a few, highlight that Great Britain isn’t ‘great’ to all of us.

While Rankine’s book posits an 'American conversation', the parallels between how Blackness operates in America and Britain are unmistakeable

To those uncomfortable with even notional criticisms of the United Kingdom, greatness is an indelible truth about every facet of British life. A common line, like Robinson’s above, is that these nagging conversations about race only serve to sow discord where none existed. And yet, when Rankine writes that the life her white friend lives is not one available to Rankine as a Black woman, I recognise that American reality here in Britain, in my lived experience, in the lives and deaths of Black women and other Black people. “Her kind of security”, writes Rankine, “because it is not merely monetary, is atmospheric and therefore not transferable.”

Rankine is clear that she doesn’t wish to be white but rather recognises the advantages afforded to whiteness. She holds a mirror up to this truth with searing, incisive precision. To be white doesn’t protect against the ills of life, she says, “but it ensures a level of citizenry, safety, mobility and belonging I can never have.” In her critical exploration of whiteness, Rankine affirms, for British as much as American readers, that racial discord has always existed.

Rankine details uncomfortable conversations with strangers and lifelong friends alike, in which she searches for a complete understanding of race. In her opening poem ‘what if’, for example, she questions what it would mean if after all this work nothing changes. It’s a fear that I am currently reconciling; and while Rankine doesn’t offer answers, she does offer a promise that we are not alone in our desire for change.

It is in the asking of these challenging, uncomfortable questions that answers can be found

Just Us also offers an interrogation of not only the structures that uphold whiteness, white superiority and white supremacy but also – and more challengingly – an examination of the ways in which critically engaged Black people also have the ability to recreate the same discomfort and ignorance they experience at the hands of whiteness for other racialised people. In the essay ‘josé martí’, Rankine studies anti-blackness amongst Asian, Black and Latinx communities. She approaches a friend who is Latinx (the gender-neutral term replacing “Latina” or “Latino”) and embarks on a discourse about what Rankine sees as an attempt by those groups to distance themselves from blackness.

“I wonder if this woman is as appalled by my ignorance as I sometimes feel in the company of whites,” writes Rankine. And it is here, in her specific lyrical candour, that she invites readers to engage in the kind of deep self-examination necessary to undertake the vital work of dismantling white supremacy and racist hierarchy. Racism happens in the world, she seems to argue, because it starts in our own minds.

The level of self-examination outlined in Just Us implicitly demands British readers to come to terms with our privileges and examine how we can create a more equitable society. The UK might not be America, but it is in having those difficult conversations – which we Brits are famously uncomfortable having ­– that progress will begin.

Much of the book asks questions of its reader: “Are white supremacist ideals ordinary aspirations?”; “Should we care about that?”; “If white people don’t see their whiteness, how can they speak to it?” I am encouraged to continue asking these questions of everything. It is in the asking of those hard, challenging, uncomfortable questions that answers can be found. And those answers are the evidence we can eventually use to shape the world – but first and perhaps more pressingly, shape our understanding of ourselves and our environments.

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