CLAUDIA RANKINE: I think when I got cancer, suddenly, you don't feel that your life is in front of you in the same way anymore. You feel like you now are on the clock and the fantasy is that you could do it a different way, experience something else. It's almost like I, I had a midlife crisis. But instead of it being brought on by middle age, it was brought on by illness.
This is Death, Sex and Money.
The show from WNYC about the things we think about a lot...
...and need to talk about more.
I'm Anna Sale.
Claudia Rankine does not flinch from direct conversations, in her personal life and in her poems and writing. In her latest book, Just Us, Claudia goes right at the tensions and often unspoken dynamics that she experiences as a Black woman with white people: her white husband, her white friends and colleagues, and a white stranger she encountered at an airport a few years ago.
CR: A man comes up to me in a Southwest line because they line you up by numbers. And he says to me, " You know, I just need to know your number because I didn't want to cut you off. I don't want to get in front of you." I said, "I'm number 10." He says, "Okay, I'm number eight." He gets in front of me and he says to me, "I love airplanes because it's the one time I can just relax and not have to listen to the news. I can't stand the news these days." And, um, and I said to him, "Well, you shouldn't have voted for him."
ANNA SALE: Oh, you did? Wait. How did you know—what was your read on him? What did you notice about who he was that made you feel like you could say that?
CR: One, that he—62% of white men who voted, voted for Trump. And, um, I'm, you know, often, I'm traveling for work. So I'm traveling in business class or first class, um... and I assume, and maybe the assumption is incorrect, but I assume that because many of these men can make the claim that they're, they're making a decision based on economics, you know, because often I'll hear, "I voted for him because of the economy." Um, so I just said, "You shouldn't have voted for him." And that man did not speak to me again. He said, he did say to me, "It's not just him."
AS: Oh! So you were right?
CR: That was his response. So, I assume. He didn't say, "I didn't vote for him." He said, "It's not just him." And that was the end of our conversation. It wasn't, it didn't feel confrontational. That was what was funny. I thought I was making a joke. [laughter] I mean, with the assumption that he had voted for him, I still thought I was making a joke because we were in a world where, um, Trump's shenanigans, you know, were the butt of jokes everywhere at the time.
AS: Well, to me, it's, I, it's just immediate—white people and white men in particular are very uncomfortable with the idea that they can be profiled, or that something about them can be understood based on what you can observe from the outside. Um, you really didn't know he wasn't going to like that? [laughter]
CR: Well, you know, I... people have said to me, "What else could you have said?" And I could have said, "Why is that? You know, why don't you like the news?" But I think every once in a while, I do sort of just state a think. And often, that does end the conversation. [laughs] So you know, I do it rarely. It's more, I've always been more interested in, how do you keep the conversation going? How do you keep it open? And, and one way to do that is when you feel the thing might be a falsehood, or it might be only partially true is to ask it back as a question.
AS: Mhmm. I mean, I identify with as an interviewer like the idea of, like, expressing, just wanting to deepen your understanding by asking a question, then the next question, and then the next question. But I have sort of sometimes thought for myself, "Am I, does it give me a little bit of a pass to not stand for something?" if I'm just like, "Oh, interesting that you think that. What about that—?" Do you know what I mean? Like, the mode of conversation as a way of just like investigating, but not ever forcing myself to come down in a way that might alienate the person I'm talking to?
CR: Well, I always manage to alienate anyway, so I don't know. [laughter] So I think, I think you must be better at it than me, but because I think the questions when I am asking them, they still are on the road somewhere. Um, I am asking from the position of curiosity based upon things that I already know, or based on what I suspect might be, um, an erasure.
Claudia is 57. She was born in Kingston, Jamaica, and moved to the US when she was a kid. Her parents and relatives came for nursing jobs in New York city.
CR: I don't have many memories of growing up in Jamaica. I have a single memory, um, which is going to school with my cousin, and her explaining to me that most people have to go to school. So, maybe there was some reluctance about going to school, I don't know. [laughs] Um, and that's really my only memory. My next memory is being on a plane coming to the United States, um, at the age of six.
AS: Did your family talk about that move as a choice to leave Jamaica or a choice to come to the US?
CR: I think it was a choice to come to the US. There was never really a sense that we were fleeing Jamaica, and um, I think throughout my childhood, my parents had visits back home. Uh, there was family there. They saw themselves as Jamaicans, but I grew up as their child in America and, um, saw myself as Jamaican-American.
Growing up in the Bronx in the 1970s, Claudia was mostly around white people... in her neighborhood, and at the Catholic school she went to.
CR: My mother had always said to me, "Don't trust white people." You know, he said that to us as children. And so, I just remember being in school and having moments where the teachers would act in ways that were unethical, I think. You know, just moody and violent. It was back when you were allowed to hit children and, you know, they didn't like how you sang a song, or they thought a child was mocking them, and they would just punch them. You know, that was Catholic school in the '70s. And, um, I remember becoming very vigilant, watching them, thinking about, um, what might make them angry, um, keeping my distance, not speaking a lot.
AS: It's funny. I think of the word vigilant as sort of like, um, I first think of it as what you need to do to protect yourself. And you're describing it as a vigilance to not upset them.
CR: And also, protect myself, [laughs] which goes hand in hand when someone's mood might alter your ability to move.
AS: When your mom said, "Don't trust white people," in what context would she say that?
CR: I don't remember the context. I remember her saying it. I know she was not very open to us going to other people's homes, for example. We were the only Black family on our street, and we had had, um, moments where my brother, I think my brother leaned against somebody's car. And um, the person came out and yelled at him told him to get off the car, get away from his car. And you know, we were just talking, it was a thing to lean against. And you know, racial epithets were used. And I can't remember if it was more than words that happened in that occasion, and some white people actually taking up for him, or coming over and saying, um, you know, "This is outrageous." So I don't know how far it went. But, but I think she was always wary that there was going to be some kind of incident. And so she tended to keep to herself.
AS: Do you have a sense of how old your brother was and how old you were when that happened?
CR: Um, I think probably, it could have been like 10 and 15.
AS: You're a 10-year-old girl, he's a 15-year-old boy?
AS: Um, and you say you're the only Black family on your block, who were the rest of the families?
CR: I would say everyone was white, maybe of Italian descent or Jewish descent. There was one family from Puerto Rico. I think we became the Jamaican family when we visited other Jamaicans. My cousins lived in Brooklyn. Perhaps one Sunday a month, we would go to their house in Brooklyn, and they were Jamaican, and then the world was Jamaica, the food, the culture, the music. I think on that street, we were the Black family.
Claudia went to Williams College in Massachusetts, where she graduated in 1986 and came back to New York for an MFA in poetry at Columbia. One of her first jobs out of grad school was teaching at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, which was where she met her husband, John, a photographer, and filmmaker. It was the mid '90s and while their conversations were lively and deeply intellectual, Claudia did not expect that they'd get married.
CR: What impressed me about him at the time, was he was very involved in social justice issues. And I had not had much involvement in that. Um, I had opinions, but not actual involvement. He was doing things like, um, the Big Brother, Little Brother program, working with inner-city youth, driving mothers to the prisons to visit their sons, things like that. He opened up a whole new world for me.
AS: So he taught you about structural inequities that you hadn't sort of considered?
CR: Exactly. When I met him, I wasn't really thinking about dating him. I was interested in the things that he was interested in. I remember saying to a friend, "I met this guy, and he would make somebody a really good husband." [laughs] But not me.
AS: Interesting. And how long, how long did that take to unfold before you realize that could be you?
CR: Um, probably a couple of years. About two years.
AS: When you think back on those conversations that you were having about in early when you're getting to know each other, about the ways in which to engage with social justice, um, do you think back, and, like, did you have a language to talk about whiteness with him?
CR: Um, I think we talked more about social injustice as a structural dynamic, but I don't think we were talking specifically about whiteness. Though, we did have interactions with the police, where we would be driving somewhere, and the police would pull him over and he would say, "I never used to get pulled over, it must be you," and, and it was me. You know, the police would ask him questions like, "How do you know her?"
CR: And um, things like that.
AS: So you all we're trying to have an intellectual conversation about structures, and then moving around in the world, how personal this is, is foisted on you all.
CR: Yeah. And those were moments that were kind of interesting because they were tense moments in that... one is rage-filled, in a way, but then there were also moments of levity because we knew how to read the moment, you know? You're both tense and making jokes. Um, but clearly, the impr—I'm talking about things that have happened years ago and I still can feel my body getting tense. [laughs] Um, so it... so I, I think recognition of what it meant for him to be a white male, for me to be a Black woman, was always in discussion even if it wasn't the point of the discussion, if that makes sense.
AS: And it sounds like with the levity that it became when you were able to pull away and leave the police officers behind, and you could look at each other and comment on the absurdity of it, like, even though it was an encounter that underscored your difference, you were allied in your read on what had happened?
CR: Mhmm. Exactly. And I think the intimacy came from, um, a recognition of the same reality.
AS: Uh-huh. Has there been an argument where you say something like, "You're being a white guy right now," or, "What you're saying is so clearly because you're a white guy?" Like, does it come up in moments of tension between you two?
CR: Well, we've had, we've had, um, situations where, you know, I might say, "You're only doing that because you're a white guy." And he'll say, "Well, you do the same thing." And I say, "I might do the same thing but I don't have the same... reception." [laughter]
Coming up, another challenge in Claudia and John's marriage: a cancer diagnosis.
CR: I think my initial reaction to the cancer diagnosis and the treatment was to want to flee, to flee him, to just change up things. At that point, I said to my husband, you know, "Maybe we've been together for 25 years. Maybe we could just split and do different things."
As you know, our show is about "the things we think about a lot and need to talk about more." In my upcoming book, Let’s Talk About Hard Things, I focus on five big topics of conversations that can be tough: death, sex, money, family, and identity.
I’m excited to celebrate the book's release on May 4 with you, and to hear how the stories in it, about hard conversations I and others have had, compare with what you’ve experienced.
So beginning right now, we are collecting stories about your hardest conversations. Is there one conversation that really stands out in your mind as one that was really hard to start, or to stick with? Tell us the story of that conversation. How did it start? How did it end? What changed because you had that hard conversation? Maybe it was learning a family secret, or apologizing to someone about a terrible mistake you'd made. Or maybe it was when you had to give your kid the sex talk. The thing about difficult conversations is... they're necessary. They can also be a relief. And they can make our lives better.
So tell us about the hardest conversation you've ever had. Write an email or record a voice memo and send it to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Let’s share our stories about hard conversations. Because I’m telling you, hearing how others talk about hard things... sometimes makes them feel a little less hard.
This is Death, Sex, and Money from WNYC. I'm Anna Sale.
Claudia Rankine went through breast cancer treatment when she was in her early 50s. And she said it made her reevaluate a lot, including her relationship with her husband. They have a daughter, and had been together for more than two decades. They decided to see a couples' counselor.
CLAUDIA RANKINE: She asked both of us the question, what was the worst thing the other person had said to us? I was surprised when he said that the worst thing I had said was that because he was a white guy in America, in his 50s, and pretty good-looking, he could just get another wife, like, this is The Handmaiden's Tale. [laughs] And that's when she said, what she's said which was, "The fact of the matter isn't the emotion of the matter." Obviously, she made a lot of sense and it was the thing to get through, but I was always surprised that that was the worst thing I could've said to him that he's a white guy in America.
ANNA SALE: Why did that surprise you? When he said that, can you tell me what was surprising to you that that was so hurtful to him?
CR: Well, because it was the matter of the fact, I was surprised because it seemed like a no-brainer to me. That's just true. We were surrounded by friends who had gotten divorced and remarried, mostly, the men while the women were still single.
AS: You think you're saying something like the sky is blue, when you said that.
AS: How did he hear it?
CR: I think it was one of the few times where his race was part of the equation of the dynamic, but I do think that being named white is, it's still hurtful to white people. I guess I really don't understand why because they are white and and he's a man, maybe if I had to as a man, but I think it was the white man. The the reduction of him to that was what hurt him.
AS: I think that there's something—I mean, I think you know why white people don't like to be called white. [laughter] I can tell you why! But to me, it's like it's to be called a white woman as opposed to a woman it's to me, I hear it as like an observation of my willful participation in something that I want to pretend that I'm not participating in.
CR: Exactly, but it's the pretend that I object to in a way. I, I feel like, there are these realities in the same way that being a Black woman... is my position in this society. It comes with many things, not all of them bad and not all of them good. I don't have a choice to lose it. And I guess why people do have a choice to lose the modifier white and, and get, um, be in the world as just people. And if that's the objective, that's what they have been told they own. They have the ownership of the category of people.
AS: I think pretend when you said like that, they have that choice, obviously, I don't have a choice about how I'm, how I move through the world. I move through the world as a white woman, but to have that named, um, is uncomfortable. Um, do you regret saying it because it hurt him, or do you think it was a true thing that was okay to say?
CR: I think at the time I said, what I—the things I needed to say. Um, would I say it now? No. But I'm also not in the same space psychologically, um, that I was in then. I think it allowed us to have some conversations we wouldn't have had otherwise. You know, it's, it's an interesting thing because I think that moment in our marriage, as difficult as it was, ended up changing our trajectory since then. So, if I hadn't had my little meltdown—
AS: Oh, don't say it like, that's interesting. You're diminishing it.
CR: All right. So I won't say that. But if I, if we hadn't had that moment of confrontation, I think we wouldn't have been able to get to other, other levels of intimacy and communication and understanding about where we were in our lives, and what we needed from each other. And, and in many ways, I feel like we have a more grown-up marriage now then we did before then, and suddenly a lot of things were laid bare, including, um, the possibility of loss, and, and death and the finality of, um, that that remains present in our marriage now. I mean, you know, once you enter into the world of cancer, there's a way in which you never leave it.
AS: Mhmm. Why did you end up staying in the marriage?
CR: It wasn't ever really, um, a real desire. [laughs] It was a reaction. Um, it was a reaction to, to feeling at an end. Um, but then it wasn't an end. You know, I think that's why they tell you don't make decisions when you have, when you have major life traumas.
AS: Yeah. You decided to move across the country and stay in the marriage.
CR: Exactly. [laughter] Something had to move, and so we moved.
AS: If it's not too personal, um, how is your health now?
CR: I'm hopefully fine. You know, knock on wood. I feel very lucky.
While in treatment, Claudia was working on what became her book, Citizen. Over the next few years, she won a MacArthur Genius Grant and took a professor position at Yale. Her career was taking off. But she also told me that having the time to write and slow down while in treatment, allowed her to reconsider what she wanted to do with her life.
CR: Um, I think in part, because of the cancer, I was willing to make decisions I might not have made before. Up until then, the world is just asking you to do X, and do Y, and you do it. But if somebody calls you up, and you're like, "I'm in chemo." They're like, "Okay, take it. Bye." [laughs] You do you, you know? And, um, even as a mom, my husband took over taking care of our daughter, and so, I really... had a period of about a year where, where I worked on the book, and had treatment, and took the dog for a walk. That became my time, and I hadn't had that, I think... ever, in fact.
AS: When you say there are some choices I made because of cancer, what do you think of? What did you decide to do that you might have avoided or not been willing to do before?
CR: I haven't been in any cancer groups with other people with cancer so I don't know how typical this is. I really had a moment where I just felt like, "Well, it all could be gone tomorrow. What am I holding on to?" It should matter what I do and say, and how I live. It should matter to me. That's what I started doing. I started just saying what I wanted to say and doing what I wanted to do. It's created its own precarity. I get all kinds of death threats and accolades on both ends.
AS: Have you felt the cost of saying what you want to say, in more intimate relationships? I presume the death threats are from people you don't know.
CR: I've lost some friends, but I feel like my close group of friends have become closer. I think we've all— I, I don't want to say that I gave people license to do anything, but I feel as if, in doing that, it has allowed others to do the same. I just feel like our, my conversations with my friends have gotten deeper and, um, and less is left out.
AS: Oh, that's interesting.
CR: Um. Yeah, I mean people are willing to go there with me, and are willing to... um, share things that somehow we hadn't shared or talked about before especially, and, and it's not just in white Black situations, but also my friends who are Black, Black women friends of mine, Latinx friends of mine, there's a way in which we're all more willing to just put it on the table. Um, and it's, it's... it's also the sign of the times though, you know? I think my... my, my openness has coincided with a world that has been shown what it's like to be on the edge of a fascist regime that's taken, um, white people's racism for granted.
AS: Hm. I'm curious, have you found, did it change your intention about the racial makeup of your group of intimates? Like, who you wanted to be closest with?
CR: Well, one of the things I've loved about our household is that it has always been very diverse. And not just racially diverse, it's diverse in terms of, um, um, everything that you can imagine. You know, um, you know, you can be at a dinner party at our house and you'll be sitting next to somebody who was in prison for 25 years, or... or somebody who is a CEO at a company, or somebody who, um, just moved here from Sweden, or somebody who—um, everybody, everybody's here. That's one of the things that I have appreciated in our marriage, that we have both moved in circles, um, of all kinds of people all the time. And, and that's one of the things that, um, makes it fun. You know, what we, we're not surrounded by sameness. We have to make a case for the things that we believe. And um, and I'm glad my daughter has been able to grow, to grow up inside that kind of environment.
AS: You have just finished this project where you are having a series of conversations, um, with white people about what they can handle talking about and facing. Um, and you, you have a sentence where you say, "Once I confuse the passage of time with change," in the book and I'm wonder... right now, how much change do you think is happening when it comes to the racial order in America and white people in particular's ability to, to confront it?
CR: You know, hat's a tough question. On one level, I feel like the sentences have changed. People are able to hear certain things that even five years ago, when I said them, I got people, um, either irritated or looking at me like I was a very strange young old lady. And now, I feel like I've joined a chorus of people talking about these things, and talking about them very publicly. Whether or not those new sentences in, um, our discourse will play themselves out in systemic change, real change, I don't know.
That is Claudia Rankine, her latest book is Just Us. Death, Sex & Money is a listener supported production of WNYC studios in New York. This episode was produced by Afi Yellow-Duke. The rest of our team includes Katie Bishop, Emily Botein, Yasmeen Kahn, and Andrew Dunn. Our intern is Emily Tafur. The Reverend John Delore and Steve Lewis wrote our theme music.
I'm on Twitter @annasale. The show is @deathsexmoney on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. Thank you to Jasmine Cuffie in Brooklyn, New York, who is a sustaining member of Death, Sex & Money. Join Jasmine and support what we do here by going to deathsexmoney.org/donate.
It's springtime, maybe you are getting outside a little more with friends than you have been in the last few weeks. Take some inspirations from Claudia and her family with how they've gathered with friends.
CR: We created what we call the COVID cabana. [laughter] Um, we had this 10-foot table in the basement and we put it outside. And um, one night a week, we have friends over, and they sit on the other side and then we order in so that nobody's touching anything.
AS: Who came up with COVID cabana?
CR: Um— we did.
AS: You did. I'm trying to let you take credit. You're the world-renowned wordsmith. [laughter]
CR: No, it, it, could've been my husband. My husband's very good at puns and things like that.
I'm Anna Sale and this is Death, Sex & Money from WNYC.
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