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A lot has happened since 2014, for both the nation and Rankine. In 2016, she joined Yale’s African American–studies and English departments and was awarded a MacArthur genius grant. The fellowship helped fund an “interdisciplinary cultural laboratory,” which she christened the Racial Imaginary Institute, where scholars, artists, and activists have been expanding on the work of the anthology. Rankine also began exploring the ways in which whiteness conceals itself behind the facade of an unraced universal identity. Her new work, Just Us: An American Conversation, extends those investigations.

Yet this time, Rankine might seem less obviously in step with a newly zealous discourse on race. Employing her signature collagelike approach, she avoids polemics, instead earnestly speculating about the possibility of interracial understanding. She sets out to stage uncomfortable conversations with white people—strangers, friends, family—about how (or whether) they perceive their whiteness. She wants to discover what new forms of social interaction might arise from such a disruption. She interrogates herself, too. Perhaps, she suggests, concerted attempts to engage with, rather than harangue, one another will help us recognize the historical and social binds that entangle us. Maybe there is a way to speak convincingly of a “we,” of a community that cuts across race without ignoring the differences that constitute the “I.” In contracting around the question of interpersonal intimacy, rather than structural change, Just Us puts Rankine in an unfamiliar position: Has the radical tone of our racial politics since this spring’s uprisings outpaced her?

Rankine’s intent is not simply to expose or chastise whiteness. She has something more nuanced in mind: using conversation as a way to invite white people to consider how contingent their lives are upon the racial order—every bit as contingent as Black people’s are. “I was always aware that my value in our culture’s eyes is determined by my skin color first and foremost,” she says. The same is true for white people, of course, however unaware of that reality they may be. As she puts it, “To converse is to risk the unraveling of the said and the unsaid.”

Her experiments began in the fall of 2016, after she arrived at Yale. Unsure whether her students would be able to trace the historical resonances of Donald Trump’s anti-immigrant demagoguery, she wanted to help them “connect the current treatment of both documented and undocumented Mexicans with the treatment of Irish, Italian, and Asian people in the last century”: It was a way of exposing whiteness as a racial category whose privileges have emerged over the course of American history through the interaction with, and exclusion of, Black—and brown, and Asian—people, as well as European immigrants who have only recently become “white.”

Source of original article:John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation (www.theatlantic.com).
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