"Just Us: An American Conversation," | Reviewed by Bill Schwab
“Just Us: An American Conversation” is a collage of poems, charts, facts, quotes, essays and musings about racism and the failure of Americans to reckon with this centuries-old issue which has hobbled the nation. In today’s atmosphere of combative racism and public resistance, Rankine takes a different approach by addressing the subject personally and non-pugnaciously.
Rankine is a professor of poetry at Yale University and primarily associates with White people in her professional and home settings. The Jamaican immigrant, who is married to a White man, draws upon her life as a Black scholar and Black citizen to express her views about Whiteness. Using a wide variety of genres, she explores in a non-polemic way the racial divide in the United States and imagines the possible outcomes of multiracial conversations.
Unlike Kendi’s “How to Be an Anti-racist” or DiAngelo’s “White Fragility,” the book is not an argument but instead a call for serious dialogue about the deep-seated sin of racism that needs to be addressed for the sake of all.
Rankine encourages Blacks and Whites to engage with one another rather than harangue—to converse civilly about the historical and sociological “hand” life has dealt each of us. Rather than chastise Whiteness, she invites White and Black people to consider how dependent their lives are on their racial appearance and history.
“I was always aware that my value in our culture's eyes is determined by my skin color first and foremost,” she says. The same is true for White people however unaware of that reality they may be. She is curious about, and longs to arrange possibly uncomfortable conversations with White people, about how they perceive their Whiteness.
Her examples of White microaggressions are especially hard hitting and illuminating. She tells personal stories of being victimized because she is a Black woman. In one case, she is waiting in line for a first-class seat in an airport when a White woman cuts in front of her. She asks the woman whether she noticed that she was standing in line. The woman claims she made a mistake, but did she really? Later, in another line at the airport, a group of White men form their own parallel line to get on a plane. They treat their strategy as a joke. Rankine makes the point that such silent microaggressions happen to Black women all the time.
One of her more developed essays is about how much Whiteness is valued in our society. She considers the importance of fair skin color and blonde hair in the U.S. She wonders why Black women bleach their hair blonde and what that means. She queries why members of the Latin community consider themselves White, rather than Black. She asks why Whites take credit for President Obama's election when exit polls indicate the majority of Whites voted for John McCain?
Rankine discloses with disarming honesty the fissures within her marriage because she and her White husband view issues such as “White privilege” and “Black lives matter” differently. Her husband disappoints her when he responds to her accounts of frustrating exchanges with strangers. He typically reverts to clichés: “’They’re just defensive,” he said. “‘White Fragility,’ he added with a laugh.”
This explanation does not satisfy Rankine. She states, “This white man who has spent the past twenty-five years in the world alongside me believes he understands and recognizes his own privilege. Certainly, he knows the right terminology to use, even when these agreed-upon terms prevent us from stumbling into moments of real recognition.”
The book’s layout is unique. Like a split screen, the right-hand page holds Rankine’s remarks while the left-hand page presents repetitions of key phrases, notes and fact checks supporting claims she makes in the right-hand text. For example, on one right-hand page Rankine states that Whites are much better off than Blacks economically, Whites with high school diplomas are better off than Blacks with college degrees, and due to the Great Recession, the wealth gap between the races has grown worse since 2008. On the facing page, she provides a fact check of her data and cites sources to defend them.
The author encourages Whites and Blacks to begin conversations that might move the U.S. forward from this divisive, militant time. She invites people to stay in the room when conversations become unpleasant and to be more concerned about remaining together in dialog rather than being right. Her approach may not seem present-day or innovative, but her persistent, thoughtful questioning and her encouragement for Americans to engage in serious, even discomfiting, conversations about racism is smart, profound, and hopeful.