The White Card by Claudia Rankine (Graywolf 2019)
Reviewed by Olivia Cyr
There is perhaps no better political climate in which to revel in a book that explores race in America than the one the country is in now. As both a self-proclaimed feminist with a background in black women’s studies, and a white woman, I find that I am both well-versed on current conversations about race and women and where those intertwine, and also, admittedly, still terribly conditioned to accept and lean on my own white privilege. While I do follow much of the debate on abortion, women’s rights in the workplace, intersectionality, police brutality, immigration, and the unfair treatment of black people, there is still so much I do not know. I wonder often if my own whiteness does not allow for me to see the whole picture. I think many white folks in this country try, as Claudia Rankine’s characters Virginia and Charles appear to do, and think we are doing as much as we can with the resources available. But Rankine makes it apparent that we aren’t, simply because we are white.
“The White Card” (Rankine, 2019) showcases Rankine’s ability to move seamlessly between forms and voices, as seen in her collection “Citizen: An American Lyric” which portrays and criticizes racial aggressions, while “Plot,” another poetry collection, melds prose, essay, and poetry. Now with this short play, The White Card, Rankine maps out “white space” for the reader in a way that will surprise most people living in that space.
In the preface, Rankine describes a moment during a reading in which a white male listener in the audience stood during the question and answer session and asked how he can help her. At first, this strikes the reader as a potentially friendly question—one in which I myself have asked rhetorically over and over again as our country bargains over black rights. Rankine is quick to consider that, by asking this question, white people are inadvertently removing themselves from the space of the problem, which calls also upon the “white savior industrial complex” detailed in Teju Cole’s poignant essay of the same name She notes that such a question is “an age-old defensive shield against identifying with acts of racism.” It is this same effort to “help” black people and “alleviate” their suffering at the hands of white people that characters Virginia and Charles are faulted for.
The middle-aged, art connoisseur couple begins the first scene with a tinge of ignorance that becomes exacerbated by the play’s end. When Charlotte, their black artist dinner guest, arrives at their home, Virginia insists that she has met Charlotte before at a gallery opening, when in fact, she has not. Her confusion suggests and is indicative of a racial micro-agression, which is prominent yet not talked about often: assuming that all people of the same race look the same. It is a subconscious attempt, perhaps, at lumping together the concerns of one race, so much so that each face blends into the next. (Virginia does this again later in Scene One, when Alex points out her confusion of Eric Garner and Freddie Gray, claiming: “Freddie? No, Eric Garner. Freddie Gray and Eric Garner, already they’ve just become one body for you.”) This is one way that Virginia places herself “outside” the space Rankine defines.
Almost immediately, Virginia and Charles nail home Rankine’s point that whites position themselves purposely, though at times unknowingly, adjacent to the very racism against blacks they claim to understand, and masquerade ignorance as genuine curiosity. She asks:
“Virginia: Is that the ambition you have for yourself? I mean, for your work?
Charlotte: Ambition? I do want people to experience what black people are feeling, or if that’s unreasonable, at the very least, to recognize what it means to live precariously.
Virginia: (genuine feeling) What kinds of feelings am I not feeling?
Charles: That’s why your work is so important to people like us.”
This exchange raises two issues that are seated permanently at the center of Rankine’s “white space:” if white people are not removing themselves from black issues by having a go at white savior rhetoric, they are authentically deaf and blind to their own whiteness, and therefore, their blindness and deafness to blackness. Sometimes, Virginia, Charles, and their art collector friend, Eric, fall into the gap between the two, wherein they simultaneously claim to be up to speed on racial injustices, and admit that second-hand activism forces them to consider their own white privilege (while they are inherently unable to recognize that just understanding their white privilege isn’t action enough). Virginia’s and Charles’s college-age son, Alex, often attends protests and rallies surrounding the Black Lives Matter and SURJ movements (which situates his parents smack in the middle of their white space). This is demonstrated here:
“Eric: Thanks to Alex we’re constantly made aware of the injustices affecting the lives of people of color…
Virginia: Alex is really making us think about our own privilege. It’s not that I didn’t think about it before, of course, but…well, I didn’t really think about it before!”
In the middle of all of this is Charlotte, to whom Rankine gives generous portions of dialogue throughout the play, and to whom she gives back the power of taking up as much white space as possible. Charlotte leads her two theatrical demonstrations of ignored black bodies with her final line of dialogue in Scene One, in which she’s speaking to no one in particular while the whites in the room argue over their own “upper-class terrorism” and “the gated bubble” they live in.
“Charlotte: Is this what I’m doing? Is this who I am?”
It is here that Rankine answers for Charlotte, by making her lie down in front of the autopsy art piece displayed in the living room, acting as the dead body. It is only when Virginia undermines the entire point of the white space discussion by saying, “All that political injustice [is] not more important than your family,” that everyone notices Charlotte. By the end of Scene Two, Charlotte and Charles each fill in for bodies both seen and erased—Charles stands, shirtless, with his back to her and gives her permission to “shoot [him] now,” with raised hands. And Charlotte—though the reader might guess she takes the power back by gesturing with her hands as a pistol—instead binds her own hands together with his scarf.
What Rankine does with dialogue and careful language, and how she moves her well-meaning characters swiftly through dinner and destruction, is incredibly striking to say the very least. The play speaks to what so many white people think, even hope they are doing to fight alongside blacks in the dead center of current American politics. She narrows that space in the home, the art world, and the streets so that those of all races may work toward a better solution. She maps out examples of micro-aggressions, white privilege conditioning, black injustices, and racial divides so concisely and tangibly that it made me almost uncomfortable to read past the first scene.
Perhaps, that is just what Rankine intended.