A Terror Felt Rather Than Seen

In Just Us: An American Conversation, Claudia Rankine’s latest collection of poems, hybrid essays, and photographs, she sets out to ask a random white man how he understands his privilege. I admit, as I read, I’m a mix of emotions—giddy, amused, doubtful, even aghast. It isn’t just the gutsiness of such a proposition, the boldness of confronting a stranger, any stranger for that matter; it isn’t even the danger, although there is great risk in this world of fiery tiki torch extremist rage; it’s the prospect that he could very well answer. What would he say? Would the answer be sufficient? And to what end?

I’m jumping ahead. I should give you some context. The question is introduced in the essay “liminal spaces i,” the first of a series of three pieces on liminality. In it, Claudia Rankine describes her journeys across the globe as she “crisscrossed the United States, Europe, and Africa giving talks.” During one such journey, she stands in the priority lane preparing to board a flight, but “a white man stepped in front” of her. Rankine politely informs him that she is in line. But rather than respond to her, he turns to another white man and says, “You never know who they’re letting into first class these days.” 

For a moment, I’m floored. But I’m not as surprised as my initial reaction might suggest; it’s muscle memory, a gut punch of a reminder. Each of us has a story like hers, hostile encounters shaped by the metrics of race. We’ve been stopped because we looked suspicious. We’ve been regarded with condescension or disregard. We’ve been harassed and harangued, questioned, jailed. Some of us were murdered. Often, and even though, we’ve dressed up, sat up, lifted the pitch of our voice, in efforts to go about our ordinary lives, reach our destinations, undisturbed.

Because I want to pronounce and center the testimony of those who have been inflicted with firsthand encounters of this kind, I’ve deliberately used the collective first-person pronoun. We’ve been embarrassed, ruffled, ineffectually outraged, often in the presence of witnesses—witnesses, sometimes amused or in accord with the abuse, other times blind to the injustice, and still, most often, embarrassed and unnerved into silent obeisance.

I also want to call attention to the title of the collection. Of course, Just Us is a play on justice, a gesture calling forth the book’s commitment to seeking equity, recompense, and reparative efforts through conversation. But just who is this “us” to whom the book refers? Does this “us” solely refer to the Claudia Rankines in scenarios like the above, or is it inclusive of their affronters? 

I’d like to suggest that perhaps this “us” is composed of the testimony of witnesses. In testimony, the primacy is given to the speaker. In the biblical sense, that which we have heard, seen, and touched is the foundation of truth. Our soul is on trial. In the court of law, whether from eyewitness, character witness, or expert witness, testimony plays a crucial role in the administration of a justice intended to affirm our foundational rights and principles. Perhaps then, we might think of Just Us as simultaneous testimony and witnessing, calling forth reflection and inspiring action. 

In this tightly imbricated interplay of ask and answer, a nod toward the ambivalent encounter outlined in the collection’s opening poem “what if,” Rankine’s speaker asks readers, “what if nothing changes?” Perhaps she and I share the same fear. To what end? I wonder. What does justice look like? As I read on, her words are a haunting caution: “what if nothing changes?” 

In the title of the collection, Rankine makes us conscious, not only of our presence as witnesses called at will to testify, but also of the spaces we occupy. Her language constricts space. Just us. We’re meant to feel an oppressive claustrophobia. There’s no escaping this unpleasant encounter, no matter how polite or unobtrusive the demands of etiquette. We’re exposed under the glare of a spotlight, you and I: just us.

Now, fully implicated, I return to the opening scene. I, like Rankine, am standing in the priority lane. It’s a kind of purgatory, a living, breathing being having form; meanwhile, I am surrounded by specters. These bogeymen constrict the world around me so that I must move gingerly through space, atoning for unnamed sins. And again. But this time I am the ghost, a weightless, shapeless gossamer thing passed through, swept aside, a terror felt rather than seen.

The man’s action is unconscious, yet deliberate. He hasn’t thought it through. It’s too automatic. It’s muscle memory of a terror. She/I, a black woman, is in a space defined de facto by him, white and male, and to stand in the priority lane is a transgression that must be rectified. It is not merely her/my presence in this privileged space that inspires rancor—after all, if we were refilling drinks or vacuuming seat cushions in these first-class cabins or priority lanes and lounges, would our presence be in question?—it is that we are presumed to be his equals. What is his terror? Being found out, being found ordinary. In a space designated as white, the presumption of parity besmirches and imperils any assumption of white male supremacy. 

I’m fascinated by Rankine’s many iterations of space in the collection. In “liminal spaces i,” she writes, “I tend to be surrounded by white men I don’t know when I’m traveling, caught in places that are essentially nowhere: in between, en route, up in the air.” On a plane, in a lounge, in the skies, on her way—caught in between, just barely, not quite—somewhere, she occupies that ephemeral transitory threshold of liminality. In this amorphous not-quite somewhere, it would seem that all guise of rank would be rendered meaningless, and yet, Rankine’s incident demonstrates that “the price of [her] ticket . . . does not translate into social capital.” Even as her economic status provides luxuries, it does not ever entirely insulate her from the “‘stuckness’ inside racial hierarchies that refuses the neutrality of the skies.” In such spaces, societal constructs, mere ideations, become further concretized and more deeply entrenched.

The thing about ideations and “somewheres” is that they are given shape; they are made realer precisely because of the borders that contain them. Land, water, air, all amorphous geographies—if not for borders. Borders contain, affirm, and protect, ultimately projecting a political and material reality onto a shapeless unconscious thing. With borders, the United States is graspable as a destination. Similarly, borders contain, affirm, secure, and project the material and political reality of the racial concept of whiteness. Privilege resides in this space. 

But in Just Us, Rankine challenges herself—and us—to confront the power of white privilege directly. I said I was struck by the boldness of this proposition. I still am, but I see now that this work is necessary. It’s the mere challenging of these borders that makes them porous. If not for the many machinations constructed to maintain them, if not for the many forms of policing that abound, borders would be nothing more than a flimsy gauze netting. And in our own ways, we reaffirm these borders through our politeness and agreeableness. We police through our submission and deference to etiquette. Not today, is Rankine’s rejoinder in Just Us. 

The summer of 2020, the world is swept up in uprisings, pandemic panic, and the late-night Twitter ravings of the Chief Executive—cofveve, anyone?—and I think of transitory spaces, a world at large, liminal, on the cusp of change and very much in need of a beacon. 

Perhaps Just Us: An American Conversation might lead the way.


Julie Iromuanya is the author of Mr. and Mrs. Doctor (Coffee House Press, 2015), a finalist for several awards, including the PEN/Faulkner Award and the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Fiction, among others. Her scholarly-critical work most recently appears in Meridians: Feminism, Race, Transnationalism; Callaloo: A Journal of African American Arts and Letters; and Afropolitan Literature as World Literature (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2020). She is an assistant professor and director of undergraduate studies in the program in creative writing at the University of Chicago and affiliate faculty of the Center for the Study of Gender and Sexuality and the Center for the Study of Race, Politics, and Culture. She is at work on a second novel, “A Season of Light.”