“Whiteness Thinking” (Part One)
The exchange between Claudia Rankine and Tony Hoagland over Hoagland’s poem “The Change” is both utterly vital and utterly depressing. Vital because it upends an unspoken assumption of American poetry: that race is only relevant to American poetry when the poet herself “has race”—when she is a person of color—and can be ignored when the poet is white. Depressing because the terms of Hoagland’s defense of his poem are all too typical of debates I have been involved in over the years about the way race crops up as a topic in poetry.
Compare Rankine’s reading of Hoagland’s poem and Hoagland’s response to Rankine. Rankine is deeply troubled by the poem. She wonders if it is racist. She wonders if it is “intended as a performance of the n-road.” She finds herself, unwillingly, hailed by this poem, “transporting the language of the poem, black girl, to refer to myself.” Yet despite all this, she reads it. She even offers what seems like a quite plausible interpretation of the poem: that what we hear in the poem is “whiteness thinking” (a brilliant gloss), and what it is thinking is that the triumph of the “big black girl from Alabama” on the tennis court marks “the end of the twentieth century,” the end of a certain way of understanding the world and the white person’s place in it.
What Rankine does not do is say, “Tony Hoagland is a racist,” and throw the poem in the garbage bin.
Hoagland is a poet who prides himself above all on his honesty, his willingness to speak aloud things that others might find uncomfortable, unpleasant, or offensive. So you might think that he would embrace Rankine’s take on the poem. Instead, he eviscerates Rankine, but in a way that makes clear that he has not in the slightest heard what Rankine is saying, but is responding to something else he is hearing in the echo chamber of American racial discourse.
First, he charges Rankine with being “naïve” about race. What constitutes Rankine’s naivete, according to Hoagland?
“You are…naïve when it comes to the subject of American racism, naïve not to believe that it permeates the psychic collective consciousness and unconsciousness of most Americans in ways that are mostly ugly…
“I find the posture of “apologetic liberal white person” not just boring, but useless.”
According to Hoagland, Rankine wishes to believe that most white people are nice liberals who don’t have a racist bone in their bodies, and that it is Hoagland’s task to illuminate the “ugly” truth that white Americans, in fact, “drank racism with their mother’s milk.”
Can Hoagland really believe that Rankine doesn’t know this? That any person of color doesn’t know this? Or even that her reading of his poem suggests that she doesn’t know it? How could a writer who says she can still “taste the vomit of Reconstruction and slavery in the back of my throat” not be aware of the continuing presence of racism in American life?
The answer, of course, is that Hoagland is not talking to Rankine at all. He is talking to himself, and by extension—as his initial response to Rankine suggests—to other people like him, other white people. It is white people of Hoagland’s level of intelligence, education, and socioeconomic status who believe that they are and should be “apologetic liberal white people” and that they are not racist, indeed that they abhor racism in all its forms. It is they who are, in Hoagland’s analysis, “naïve,” and need to be awakened to their true role in history (and their own repressed thoughts) through the strong medicine of Hoagland’s poem. The “big black girl” of the poem is merely the tool for doing so, just as Rankine herself becomes merely the occasion for Hoagland to congratulate himself on his own honesty and ridicule his white liberal critics.
Remember, Rankine is very careful not to call Hoagland a racist. But Hoagland responds exactly as if she had. Indeed, he rather gleefully embraces the label in what looks like another moment of honesty but quickly turns into an awkward pose:
“I am not trying to sidestep—of course I am racist; and sexist, a homophobe, a classist, a liberal, a middle class american, a college graduate, a drop out, an egotist, Diet Pepsi drinker, a Unitarian, a fool, a Triple A member, a citizen of Texas, a lover of women, a terrible driver, and a single mother. Purity is not my claim, my game, nor a thing remotely within my grasp. I’m an American; this tarnished software will not be rectified by good intentions, or even good behavior.”
Hoagland’s avowal, “of course I am racist,” would appear at first to be another moment of naivete-busting honesty, an acknowledgment that one cannot escape the historical and social legacies of racism simply by disclaiming them. (Everyone’s a little bit racist, as the song goes.) But what is he proving by making this admission? Rankine does not accuse Hoagland of being racist, nor would she be surprised by the idea that American identity is “tarnished” by racism.