There’s one question that Claudia Rankine never wants to hear again. In fact, it’s one the poet finds so asinine that she ended up writing a whole play about it. The White Card, which has been touring the UK ahead of its final stop in London’s Soho Theatre, was inspired by the time a white man asked her: “How can I help you?”
The (un)inspiring phrase came her way at a discussion session for her 2014 Forward Prize-winning poetic work, Citizen: An American Lyric, which details the growth of racial aggression in current-day America. The man stood up. He praised her work. And then he asked: “What can I do for you? How can I help you?” For Rankine, it was a tiresome enquiry, “one that you hear all the time from benevolent white people”. She shakes her head, topped with short, natural curls, all different shades of grey. She speaks with a measured calmness to her voice, but her exasperation at the situation feels real.
The question surprised her. The fact that the man started his statement by saying that he enjoyed Citizen gave Rankine the impression that he’d be aware that fixing the US’s racism problem was not a matter for Black people to solve.
“I thought that meant he understood the pressure [of answering these questions], and that the racism was coming from white people – and that in order for things to change, white people had to change,” Rankine tells me. “When he asked, ‘What can I do for you?’ I just thought, no, you have to start looking at you and you start figuring out what you need to do differently. It was a surprise that having read the entire book, he didn’t come to that realisation himself.”
When Rankine turned the question back on him, the man was less than impressed. “If that is how you answer questions,” he responded, “then no one will ask you anything.” That moment gave Rankine a feeling: there had to be another way of getting white people to acknowledge their role in perpetuating racial struggles. That those who consider themselves as “doing good” still have some work to do. “We’re not talking about an abstraction of whiteness,” she explains. “We’re talking about one white person at a time changing their interactions with Black people. One at a time.”
The White Card delves into this phenomenon of well-meaning but defensive white people. They’re nice enough, but their concern for being on the “right side” of racial discussions means they often end up not paying attention to the issues that in front of them. The play’s protagonist, Charlotte, is a Black and successful artist; she visits the home of a white art collector, Charles, who is interested in her work. His wife Virginia, their university student son Alex and paintings dealer Eric are also present for the evening. In their eyes, they’re all doing the correct things as late 2010s liberals. They bring up popular articles about race. Namedrop their favourite activists with barely a blink. Virginia even records Serena Williams’ tennis matches. But as the evening progresses, tense conversations lead to Virginia and Charles’s hurt feelings, before a disastrous reveal of an art piece that offends, rather than impresses, Charlotte.
“The character of Charles became an extension of that man at the Citizen talk,” she says. “The idea that because one has good intentions, you feel you’ve shown up, and done enough. But then the minute somebody says, ‘What about you? What about what you’re doing?’, people get defensive and angry and back away. They don’t want to have that conversation.” As the play’s sole Black character, Charlotte is placed in the position of fielding these uncomfortable chats. Black people in many professional fields, from art to law to journalism, often find themselves in this same, itchy spot – Rankine herself has been there before. Through Charlotte, we see the necessity of speaking up, even when it’s hard. “I’ve had to train myself to understand that silence equals a kind of collaboration in my own dehumanisation,” Rankine says, with a half-shrug. “Nothing happens, besides a little discomfort in stating what you believe.”
“Within our own homes, we’re taught that to say what is true to us, if it causes somebody else discomfort, it shouldn’t be expressed,” she continues. “But I think we need to begin to understand that the only way to change an environment is to be present as ourselves in that environment.” Even, she admits, when it’s awkward.
Rankine, who first began publishing poetry in 1994, is also a professor at New York University. Her words are thoughtful and considered, lingering in the mind long after we speak. It’s easy to see why she’s been described as an activist throughout the years – but it’s not a label she’d ever use herself. “Maybe I have a narrow idea about activism, but there are many people who are organising and doing voter registration and showing up at rallies,” she says. “To me, those people are the activists. I mean, I try to make art in line with what I believe, but if what I believe was counter to the rally, or protest of the moment, my allegiance is to the artwork.”
Though not a visual artist, Rankine has a deep interest in the medium and found it a perfect dramatic setting to tackle questions of what meaningful representation looks like. “The art world is one where we have seen a kind of Renaissance of Black art being put forward as a sign of commitment to anti-Blackness. But how much is that being commodified?” she offers, stroking her mustard-coloured scarf during a brief pause. “How much is that just a symbol, versus the actuality of things?” As a result, the art referred to throughout The White Card has been carefully chosen. Kerry James Marshall’s 2002 piece, Heirlooms and Accessories, appears in the final scene. It depicts three separate images that highlight the faces of different white women, in different decades, attending real-life lynchings. Though they’re by-standers, and not the people actively participating in the violence, their presence validates the heinous act in front of them.
“It shows these ordinary white women who go out on Sunday afternoon to watch the lynching of Black people as entertainment,” Rankine explains. “Those people have children; and those children grow up and have children, and they wonder why the narrative stays the same, some 50, 60, 70 years later.” Without “innocent” white people acknowledging their part in maintaining a racist hierarchy, the cycle is destined to continue.
If there’s anything Rankine wants audiences to take from The White Card, it is the need to talk openly about difficult topics such as white supremacy – without the intention of vilifying anyone, and without shoulders shooting up in defence. “We have to begin to have these conversations that we have no practice having,” Rankine explains. “The lack of practice is intentional; the culture has not wanted us to sit in a room together and talk, and figure out the best way to proceed.”
The sooner we talk about “whiteness” as something that has a real effect on the way the world operates, the quicker we can get to a place of real change, I offer. “Exactly,” she nods. “If you can talk about economic stresses, you can talk about the stresses that are come with the privileging of whiteness.
“It might make things a little awkward, but if you can do the work, hopefully you come out in a place that’s a little bit more nuanced.”
The White Card is at Soho Theatre until 16 July