Acclaimed author Claudia Rankine recently announced that she plans to donate her $625,000 MacArthur Genius Grant to establish the Racial Imaginary Institute. The purpose of the institute, she says, is to study whiteness.
In an era when the ideological rigidities of identity politics have run up against the incendiary backlash of Donald Trump, one is especially curious to know what Ms. Rankine has in mind when identifying whiteness as the raison d’etre of her institute. Indeed, in an interview with the Guardian, she talks about how the concept of whiteness seems foreign to people. For example, she describes the puzzlement she has encountered when going into bookstores searching for books on whiteness. Unable to find such books, she asks a sales clerk, who then responds with a blank look, as if to say: what do you mean?
Ms. Rankine notes she has little difficulty finding a book on African-American art. Indeed, bookstores (and academic curricula) are rife with texts that address the culture and identity of various racial and ethnic groups, but rarely, if ever, can you find a text that explicitly sets out to study whiteness. In her interview with the Guardian, she discusses, among other things, her interest in the ‘conceptions and constructions of whiteness’ and in understanding ‘what makes whiteness, or about how broad the life experiences of white people are.’ But in her attempt to elaborate, Ms. Rankine does not appear to be as interested in the broad experiences of white people as in how those experiences undergird white dominance.
For example, she argues that there is a tendency in our culture to perceive an inherent relation between blackness and criminality. She describes the shock she confronts when she informs people of a women’s prison in Ohio where eighty percent of the women are white, citing this as a part of ‘white America that we don’t see in the media.’ She then notes as an exception the Emmy award-winning show Breaking Bad, but qualifies the exception by saying that, in this case, ‘the only way that whiteness equals criminality’ is when ‘a dying white guy’ breaks the law ‘so he could take care of his family.’
Her use of Breaking Bad is a telling slip that suggests an ideological angle rather than a scholarly objective. There is an underlying presumption throughout the interview that whiteness is inextricable from white supremacy, and that the purpose of the Racial Imaginary Institute is to unpack all the ways in which the experience of being white contributes to a system of relationships in society that underlie white supremacy. Ms. Rankine invokes the example of novelist Jonathan Franzen, who recently admitted that he does not write about race because he does not ‘have very many black friends’ and has ‘never been in love with a black woman.’ It is an ‘embarrassing confession,’ he admits, and one that prompts Ms. Rankine to ask: ‘So, why don’t you know these people? What choices have you made in your life to keep yourself segregated? How is it one is able to move through life with a level of sameness? Is that conscious? Is segregation forever really at the bottom of everything? When he says something like that, I find that really interesting as an admittance to white privilege: that he can get through his life without any meaningful interaction with people of color.’
This is a peculiar set of questions considering that if a white person says ‘but I have black friends’, he exposes himself to criticism that he is oblivious to the notion that having black friends does not mean he understands the experience of being black. He may appreciate the point, but find the criticism unfair, especially if he was only implying that he is open to cultivating relationships with people of color. What else is he supposed to say? How else can he say it? What if, like Mr. Franzen, he says instead that he does not have ‘very many black friends’? He then exposes himself to questions from Ms. Rankine about how and why he has segregated himself from people of color. It potentially adds up to making a white person feel uncertain about what, in fact, he is supposed to do, which may convince him to opt out of the conversation (and perhaps then to be told that opting out is itself a kind of ‘white privilege’ rather than simply a right to opt out—the distinction between privileges and rights is one that Lewis Gordon has identified and many fail to appreciate). Whether he has black friends or does not have black friends, he is told he just doesn’t get it (it is not lost on this author that this conundrum may be reminiscent to some of how people of color have been marginalized in various contexts; and also that a critic may dismiss this objection as a case of white fragility, but if so, the critic risks reducing himself to the use of an ideological trope that often seems to be used to silence an objection, or even question, a white person may wish to raise, resulting not in engagement but in alienation of the white person he is trying to engage; i.e. it is a poor job of communication to ascribe any kind of objection by a white person, reasonable or not, to a case of white fragility.)
But Ms. Rankine qualifies her remarks by specifying that Mr. Franzen has avoided meaningful interaction with people of color. One is compelled to ask, however: is it really a privilege to get through life without ‘meaningful interaction’ with people of color? Or is this a defect, something Mr. Franzen regrets? It appears to be something he regrets. Implicit in his embarrassment may be that he honestly admits in public to self-segregation, but it may also reflect a wish that he could write about race, and that he has not had the ‘privilege’ to have loved a black woman or to have had ‘very many black friends.’ Given that he is a writer, and that writers seek to explore the human condition, it seems likely this is a shortcoming in his writing that he regrets rather than one he has happily chosen. Is Mr. Franzen privileged to have gone through life without meaningful interaction with people of color? Or is meaningful interaction with people of color a privilege he has been denied?
The latter question is one Ms. Rankine does not ask, though it would seem to be relevant to what she deems a ‘more critical evaluation of one’s own habits and one’s own positionality relative to making art and doing work.’ But she appears to be interested in a specific mode of critical evaluation and a specific understanding of positionality in relation to one’s work. One is hard-pressed to understand exactly what this mode or understanding is supposed to be, however, given that, on the one hand, one can interpret her questions as a call for Mr. Franzen to seek out more meaningful interaction with people of color and attempt to write about it, and, on the other hand, one risks running into critics of cultural appropriation. Such critics include Ms. Rankine, who, as an award-winning author has the privilege of the pulpit and, in her interview, can take a rather imperious tone in dismissing a speech by the fiction writer Lionel Shriver in which Ms. Shriver discusses the case of two Bowdoin College students who held a tequila-themed party and were severely disciplined because they provided partygoers with miniature sombreros, an act decried as ethnic stereotyping.
Ms. Rankine elaborates, in a thinly-veiled reference to Ms. Shriver: ‘Getting up and putting on a sombrero and saying, ‘I can do what I want. I have the right to do what I want,’ to me is missing the point. What would be interesting would be to talk about why is it in the language of rights? Like, white people should have more stuff? … ‘It’s my right to take what I want?’ Isn’t that the history of colonialism? It’s my right to take resources. It’s my right to take land. It’s my right to have slaves.’
These are striking extrapolations to make, as if putting on a sombrero at a party exemplifies embedded assumptions about a philosophy of rights and the history of colonialism, rather than, as Ms. Shriver says, wearing a certain kind of hat as ‘a practical piece of headgear for a hot climate that keeps out the sun with a wide brim’ (or in the case of partygoers, a way to have fun while drinking tequila). Ms. Rankine claims that ‘culture really does determine what we think [and] how we think about things.’ But aside from the obvious counterpoint that culture is not the sole determinant of what we think and how we think about things, one is hard-pressed to agree that one party on one college campus in which students wear sombreros while drinking tequila is a microcosm for a whole history of colonialism, or slavery, or white supremacy (I have not seen the pictures that made their way onto social media, so I don’t know if they showed more than just a bunch of students wearing sombreros and drinking tequila).
It is perhaps not surprising, however, given the tendency of academicians and scholars to ‘appropriate’ the nuances of individual experience and present them as inductive illustrations of general ideological points about such things as a philosophy of rights or the history of colonialism. Never mind that Ms. Shriver is perfectly willing to allow Ms. Rankine or anyone else to appropriate whatever they wish from Ms. Shriver’s German heritage: ‘For my part, as a German-American on both sides, I’m more than happy for anyone who doesn’t share my genetic pedigree to don a Tyrolean hat, pull on some leiderhosen, pour themselves a weisbier, and belt out the Hoffbrauhaus Song’ (one wonders if Ms. Rankine has read, or listened to, the whole speech). Putting on a sombrero, or saying ‘but I have black friends’, is interpreted not on its own terms but within an ideological framework concerned with ‘white dominance.’ Meanwhile, Ms. Shriver is not interested in ‘having more stuff.’ In contrast, she’s perfectly willing to share the artifacts of her own heritage.
The tendency to appropriate individual experiences in the service of ideological points is operative when Ms. Rankine assumes that Mr. Franzen has made explicit choices to keep himself segregated, as if he has worked to preserve the privilege of sameness rather than belatedly recognizing that this sameness in his experience produces a deficiency in his writing. It is also a glaring simplification. One reason Mr. Franzen is an acclaimed author is that his characters are complex and nuanced. Characterization does not have be about race. The human condition is multi-faceted. It does not all boil down to race. Similarly, while whiteness is, in part, an historical construct that reinforces the social construct of white supremacy, it does not mean that the experience of being white always boils down to ways that reinforce white supremacy. Sometimes being white is just being human.
Take, for example, the show Breaking Bad.
Ms. Rankine’s interview is not the first time Breaking Bad has been invoked as a show that illustrates social ills in our society. One popular meme is to claim that the show highlights the problem of affordability in the American health care system, as if the show were an advertisement for the movement to establish universal health coverage. As a show about a high school chemistry teacher named Walter White who is diagnosed with terminal cancer and then gets involved in illicit methamphetamine production, Breaking Bad’s plot hinges on the motives that explain why a level-headed law-abiding family man who teaches high school chemistry gets entangled with a cartel of ruthless villains running a global meth trade.
The argument that Walt turns to meth production primarily to pay for his cancer treatment is easily refuted. The first few episodes make it clear that Walt’s primary motive is to ensure his family’s ability to survive financially after he dies. Walt verbally calculates the amount he believes is necessary to provide for their long-term financial goals such as a college education for his children ($737,000). It is also true that Walt’s HMO plan will pay for his cancer treatment. Only when his wife urges him to seek care from one of the top oncologists in the country do health care costs (estimated at $90,000) become a factor in his decision to continue involvement in meth production (the costs balloon because the doctor is out-of-network). And even then, his wealthy graduate school friend Eliot Schwartz offers to pay for his care, but Walt refuses.
Walt’s original motive is to provide financial security for his family after he dies. Ms. Rankine gets this right. But when Walt refuses to take a job at the firm run by Mr. Schwartz, which would have given him top-notch health insurance that would cover additional expenses associated with cancer treatment from a top oncologist, we begin to understand that deeper motives are at work. Mr. Schwartz even offers to pay for the treatment outright after Walt refuses to take the job, but Walt does not want charity from a man he believes built a billion-dollar business in part based on ideas that reflect Walt’s own original work (i.e. Walt believes Eliot stole his work and made a fortune). Pride and resentment: these are the passions that propel Walt on his descent into criminality.
Walt begins his career in meth production with an impulsive decision to take up an offer from his brother-in-law, a DEA agent who occasionally gives Walt a hard time about his boring life and invites Walt to come along on a raid one day to get some ‘action’ in his life. Walt agrees, and while on a raid he sees an old student escape from a house. He subsequently searches out his old student, Jesse Pinkman, and coaxes Jesse to help him make money from cooking meth. Walt thinks naively that he can cook a few premium batches and let Jesse do the dirty work of selling his premium version of meth on the streets. But given the local drug scene and the drug business in general, Walt inadvertently stumbles into a murder. After clumsily but effectively removing all traces of the murder, while unconvincingly trying to appease his conscience, he convinces Jesse to follow through on distributing the meth product on the streets.
This does not produce the financial windfall Walt anticipated. Disappointed, Walt sets out on a path of ad hoc ventures that culminate in a lucrative alliance with a drug kingpin named Gus Fring who controls the trade all over the southwest of the U.S. Gradually, frictions arise between him and Gus which complicate his relationship with Jesse and other players in the industry. The result is a chain of complex ad hoc decisions, each of which reflects a separate cost-benefit analysis, but each of which also immerses him more deeply and irredeemably in the business of drugs, murder, and money laundering. It is not a sequence of events that he could have anticipated when he was an underachieving high school chemistry teacher who broaches an alliance with a former student to make a few bucks by cooking meth.
This brings us to the central point. Walt is an underachieving high school chemistry teacher with a PhD-level understanding of chemistry who sold his interest in a company that went on to become a billion-dollar enterprise, and now spends his days teaching apathetic high school students, feeling humiliated when those students see him working a second job at a car wash. He has a loving family, but also a heap of resentments about having sold his interest in a fledgling company to a man who would make billions off his research, while also marrying the woman Walt was in once in love with.
Death brings a man face-to-face with regret. How Walt deals with regret is the central theme of the show. With each incremental step in his descent into evil—his murders, his shady alliances—Walt inches closer to a perverse kind of quixotic redemption for the ‘wrongs’ he feels life has inflicted on him. Once he learns that he has the talent and poise to be a masterful criminal, he cannot help himself. He tells his wife in the series finale: ‘I did it for me. I liked it. I was good at it. And I was really — I was alive.’ This sums up a man whose innate talents found an outlet, even if wholly malicious and destructive. Breaking Bad is a tragedy of Shakespearean proportions, about a man presented with insidious opportunities to ‘right’ the ‘wrongs’ of his past. It is about how a man—rich, poor, white, black, foreigner or native—is not good or bad per se, but a good man who retains the potential to do bad things, or a bad man who retains the potential to do good things. Walt morphed into a radically evil white man, even though he started out as ‘a dying white guy’ who breaks the law ‘so he could take care of his family.’
In lamenting the case of the Bowdoin students, Ms. Shriver says: ‘But what does this have to do with writing fiction? The moral of the sombrero scandal is clear: you’re not supposed to try on other people’s hats. Yet that’s what we’re paid to do, isn’t it? Step into other people’s shoes, and try on their hats.’
Indeed. Which is why it’s surprising that Ms. Rankine’s summary of Breaking Bad reflects a narrow understanding of what the show is about. In an ironic twist, she ‘appropriates’ Walt’s initial motive to make a point about how the show presents a more benign image of Walt’s criminality, as if the show purposely tries to mitigate the association between whiteness and criminality, when in truth the entire series is about a white man who commits inexcusably evil acts. One wonders if she even has watched the show, given how quick she is to ‘appropriate’ Walt’s experience in the service of an ideological point. But perhaps this is not surprising given the academic proclivity to subsume individual experience under a conceptual framework, in this case, a framework of ‘white dominance.’
In her interview, Ms. Rankine states that she ‘is sensitive to the experiences of people of color in almost everything she says and writes.’ This is as it should be, since writing requires a great deal of empathy, and necessitates an attempt to internalize alternative perspectives. In other words, to write is to try on ‘other hats.’ But given her narrow interpretation of the show Breaking Bad, it appears she does not extend the same level of effort to understand the true motives that drove Walt on his descent into criminality.
Walt’s descent into criminality is a walk on a razor’s edge rather than the embodiment of cultural attitudes about the relation between race and criminality. It is an example of how a defining feature of life is the singularity of events. Each life is a unique compilation of aspirations (like Walt’s initial desire to provide financial security for his family and pay his medical bills), disappointments (his loss of family, Eliot’s ‘betrayals’, falling out with Gus Fring, frequent disputes with Jesse), and compromised achievements (attempting to redeem a life of underachievement by cornering the meth market). Breaking Bad is a show about the moral fragility of man, an example of how the moral compass within each of us is like a chess game, where no game is exactly alike but all games evolve under the same rules of movement and the same intricacy of connectivity among the pieces, and one never knows exactly how a king will be mated, or which king, black or white, will be mated, just as one never knows for sure whether good or bad will ultimately prevail in the decisions that a particular individual makes, and, more to the point, how the interplay of good and bad will reveal the relative strength or weakness of latent moral inclinations as good or bad finds its path to victory. There are clear winners and losers at the end of the game (except in draws), and the result of the game reflects the differing skills of the players (the relative appeal of the good and bad angels that whisper within us), but the game itself—how the pieces move in response to the path dependencies of the game—must be allowed to play out before the naked truth of one’s moral disposition can be disrobed of its primal ambivalence, and even then the result may only reflect incidental lapses in concentration at key points in the game. Or in Walt’s case, decisions clouded by pride and regret.
But that is the nature of moral action in the life of man.
Regardless of race.
Editors: We acknowledge the problematic argument in this article as regards race and whiteness. However, we also feel the argument posed in the article is necessary in order to move the very difficult discussion of race and racism in the USA forward.
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