The Role of Making Space in Claudia Rankine’s Just Us: An American Conversation

In her 2020 work Just Us: An American Conversation, Claudia Rankine explores the medium of conversation as a means of interracial understanding and connection. Throughout the over three-hundred-page work, Rankine stages conversations with white strangers, friends, men and women that force both parties to acknowledge the impact of race on their interactions. Although Rankine makes clear that she does not wish Just Us to be an instruction manual or guide for how to have conversations about race, the book contains critical evaluation of the types of conversations that have been sweeping the nation this summer, especially leading up to the election. Rankine provides examples of how constructive connections can be formed between people of different races, generations, colors and backgrounds, especially at a time when those holding political power and new voters have such differing sentiments towards cross-party and cross-idea conversation.   

One of the key driving factors in Rankine’s conversations throughout Just Us is the idea of making space in conversations: for herself, for her conversational partner, as well as for the reader. In an interview with NPR, Rankine describes her motivation behind holding these various conversations to be as much of an investigation of herself as anyone else; “In as much as my interlocutor was my subject, I was also my subject” (It’s Been a Minute: Poet Claudia Rankine and ‘Just Us’). Employing a tactic she describes as “breaking the social contract,” Rankine brings race into conversations where history has normalized its exclusion. She does so primarily through three types of communication, dependent on her relationship with the interlocutor as well as physical location and the subject of conversation. These tactics of communication include: pushing the topic to the point of reckoning in the moment, the use of silence, and continued and committed communication over time. In her documentation of the conversations she has with white people about race, Rankine emphasizes tools such as direct confrontation, self-reflection and input of the reader, and sustained mutual accountability.

Yet, as Rankine writes in Just Us, there are limitations to her own method: “Are conversations pathways to the exchange of understandings?… Is understanding change? I am not sure” (Rankine 251). It is this awareness of the limits of conversation that I believe relates to our current moment. A common sentiment during the racial reckoning of the summer of 2020 among Generation Z and millennials has been the idea that it is not the duty of people of color to educate white people on their past and current oppression. For many it signifies a continuation of the exploitation of people of color for free labor repeated throughout history. Yet, as our class was lucky enough to hear from Professor Rankine herself in a small Q&A session, she does not share this viewpoint. Whether it is a generational difference or a personal one, she is of the belief that conversations about anything worth discussing between friends have the potential to cause discomfort, but as long as there can be open, honest conversation and space is made for both parties, it is possible for connection to begin and continue despite initial frictions or an unbalanced contribution of historical knowledge from one party. Rankine also reminds readers throughout Just Us that she remains friends with many of the interlocutors about whom she’s written, from people she has known since college to those met on a passing flight. The root difference in these two perspectives seems not to be that Professor Rankine does not oppose the exploitation of labor of herself or other people of color, but rather that she sees these conversations as a continuation of learning for all involved parties. Though these conversations alone will not bring our country the change it needs, I wonder how we might employ the conversational methods explored in Just Us to moderate intergenerational, inter-racial and inter-class discussions of race in the coming weeks, months, and years.