Some Should Do One, Others The Other

Just Us: An American Conversation by Claudia Rankine

Book cover

SDS students: We have a debate in the antiwar movement. Some of us think we should organize militant, obstructive demonstrations that are openly in support of victory for the [Vietnamese National Liberation Front]. Others argue we should organize much larger, peaceful, legal demonstrations around the demand of immediate US withdrawal from Vietnam. Which should we do?

NLF rep: Some of you should do one, and others should do the other.

recounted by J.W. Mason on his blog The Slack Wire

Claudia Rankine’s book Just Us was released in September of this year, and much of the discussion of the book that I’ve seen in the media revolves around the same question: is Rankine’s personal, conversation-based approach to engaging with white privilege and racism out of step in this year of mass protests and activism for structural reforms? See, for example, recent reviews in the Atlantic and the New Yorker. My response to these critiques is a phrase I learned from a 2011 blog post by J.W. Mason about left political strategy, and that is so incisive that it’s stuck with me for almost ten years now: “Some of you should do one, and others should do the other.” That is, when faced with a huge, multifarious problem such as systemic racism, there is almost never a need to identify “the one best way” to combat it, as though you were writing for some social justice version of The Wirecutter. Such problems need to be attacked on multiple fronts, and the merits of different approaches aren’t always clear in the moment. Some people should pursue certain angles of attack, and others should pursue others.

Rankine’s approach in itself is collage-like, Much like this blog, Rankine uses a Tufte-like style that employs sidenotes on the left-hand pages with citations, fact checks, charts, tweets, and so on. so it’s not even really right to say that she is doing “one thing.” But the through-line of the book is found in the several sections she spends recounting conversations that she initiated with white people (or in one case a Latinx person) about race and racial privilege. Rankine published a version of these sections as an article in the NYT Magazine in July 2019, which I think was the first place I encountered her name. The abovementioned New Yorker review characterizes these conversations as “masochistic,” but I think that description is totally inapt. I think Rankine is trying very hard, both in the conversations themselves and in her recounting thereof, to avoid cringe porn and to refrain from dunking on her interlocutors. Both would be extremely easy to do, and if there’s one thing that comes across clearly about Rankine, it’s that she’s a person who has no inclination to take the easy way out. These sections of the book come across as just a chronicle of honest attempts, by a very thoughtful person, to broach an extremely difficult topic. Sometimes it seems like these conversations end with progress, growth, learning; other times, not; sometimes, they end in silence. But they never end with her giving up on the entire enterprise.

Nowhere in the book does Rankine claim that engaging in such conversations is going to solve America’s problems of White supremacy. She doesn’t even say explicitly that she thinks more people should have such conversations. But it’s clear to me that she thinks it’s a worthwhile endeavor, and I think she’s trying to model what a good-faith effort to engage in such conversations, as a fallible human being, can look like. As a White person married to a person of color, I can confirm that it’s difficult to talk about race across that boundary, and I’ve said some things along the way that I now look back on with embarrassment. But I also feel like those conversations have contributed to my growth as a human being, so I appreciate Rankine’s efforts here. Do we also need activism for structural reform? Yes–some of us should do one, and some should do the other.