MacArthur Genius Poet Claudia Rankine Is Spending $625K To Study Whiteness

October 20, 2016  |  

When award-winning author and poet Claudia Rankine was recently awarded $625,000 from the prestigious MacArthur genius grant she announced she was going to use the thousands to study whiteness. This, needless to say, stirred up lots of curiosity and questions. But according to Rankine, only by studying whiteness will we get to the roots of racism in America. She said, “It’s important that people begin to understand that whiteness is not inevitable, and that white dominance is not inevitable.”

Rankine, who won the National Book Award in 2014 for her book, Citizen: An American Lyric, told The Guardian she wanted to explore how “the structure of white supremacy in American society influences our culture.” To do so she plans to donate her $625,000 stipend from her MacArthur genius grant to create the Racial Imaginary Institute, which will be a think tank “where artists and writers can really wrestle with race.” The institute will be located in downtown Manhattan.

Rankine said she came up with the idea from visiting bookstores. She recently went into a bookstore at the Los Angeles Contemporary Museum of Art “and I asked them for books on whiteness. The man was like, ‘What?’

“I said, ‘Well, you know. Books that address the ways in which white contemporary artists deal with whiteness, interrogate it, analyze it, work in ways that push up with constructions of whiteness.’ He’s like, ‘I don’t know what you mean.’”

Rankine actually went to three other bookstores and had the same conversation. These stores, she found, did have books on African-American art, but found that no one had really deconstructed “race in general or whiteness in particular.”

“There’s a lot of other ways to start thinking about whiteness, and it involves the kind of underbelly that has been kept from the American public,” Rankine said. Rankine feels such deconstruction will reveal a lot about America and our ideas about race. She points to the criminal justice system, in particular an experience she had during a visit she made to the Ohio Reformatory for Women, as one such example. “This prison is 80 percent white women and 19 percent Black women. One percent other. But when I say to people 80 percent of the women in this prison are white rural women, they’re shocked. And they’re shocked because that information is kept from them. It’s kept from them because it doesn’t bolster the ideas that blackness equals criminality. It’s contrary to that. It doesn’t enforce the idea that white people should be afraid of black people and not afraid of each other.”

Rankine also told The Guardian she understands why people don’t want to focus on whiteness,  “I think we’ve seen whiteness centralized forever, so they’re no longer interested in making it the subject, putting it in the subject position. But I think that it’s been centralized in order to continue its dominance, and it’s never been the object of inquiry to understand its paranoia, its violence, its rage.”

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