Arts and Culture

Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: horror & humiliation, hypervisibility, and invisibility

Have you ever seen yourself through another’s eyes? What did it look like? Was it ugly, terrible, horrifying? Claudia Rankine’s book Citizen: An American Lyric, among other things, illustrates how a lens of horror descends during a microaggression. In other words, the victim sees a horrific image of themselves. Citizen features a collection of microaggressions interwoven with lyric essays, poetry, and visual art. The book is narrated in the second person making the microaggressions feel inescapable & immediate. 

Early in her book, Rankine documents a visit to a therapist that specializes in trauma counseling. In this incident, the reader is placed in the shoes of a patient that has only spoken to their therapist on the phone. The patient approaches their therapist’s house and rings the doorbell: “When the door finally opens, the woman standing there yells at the top of her lungs, Get away from my house! What are you doing in my yard? It’s as if a wounded Doberman pinscher or a German shepherd has gained the power of speech. And though you back up a few steps you manage to tell her you have an appointment… Oh, she says, followed by, oh, yes that’s right. I am sorry. I am so sorry, so, so sorry” (Rankine, 18). At once, the patient experiences two extremes: hypervisibility and invisibility. The patient is rendered vulnerable, and their race is made hypervisible, yet the therapist doesn’t actually see their patient as a person, rather a threat, a trespasser. The patient pauses for a moment. They take a few steps back, and that is when they realize what the therapist sees, how their unconscious views them. The therapist is likened to a wounded dog, implying that her sudden castigation came from instinct, a primal fear, a fight or flight reaction. By writing the microaggressions in lyric form, Rankine can focus on the micro-dynamics, micro-mannerisms, and misunderstandings while illustrating the hurt, humiliation, and speechless disbelief. She reveals how our experiences with race stem from the unconscious and the imagination. 

What follows this incident is a picture of Kate Clark’s sculpture “Little Girl.” Clark uses taxidermy to stitch the faces of humans on the body of animals, creating a horrific monster. In this part of the book, the text and image build upon each other. How do you feel when a wounded Doberman pinscher barks at you? At once, the patient is humiliated, made vulnerable, made to feel like a trespasser, a threat. It triggers one’s fight or flight reaction as if they were an animal as if they were a deer, like Clark’s sculpture lying on the ground suddenly attacked by a predator. The patient begins to understand themselves as a monstrous, dangerous animal.  

Rankine’s book is filled with these zoomed-in microaggressions. Her meditations on the horror of the black body in white spaces, in the white gaze range from Trayvon Martin to Serena Williams, to a boy knocked down in the subway by a man who has “never seen anyone who is not a reflection of himself.” She shows how the trauma and implications of these microaggressions are internalized, stored within the body and mind.