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Citizen: An American Lyric | Study Guide

Claudia Rankine

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Citizen: An American Lyric | Chapter 3 | Summary



Chapter 3 primarily focuses on the use and effect of language. Specifically, Rankine continues to address the experience of receiving racist language, both intentional and accidental. The poem begins with a friend using stereotypical "black people language," which surprises and hurts the speaker. The friend is assumed to be white or at least not black. The speaker grapples with various similar situations. In one, a coworker calls her by another black coworker's name. In another, a man who has only spoken to her on the phone blurts out his surprise that she is black when they meet. Rankine includes a photograph of five members of the Rutgers University women's basketball team, all of whom are black.

In most of the situations, the speaker lets the moment go without saying much. In one or two instances she follows up on the remark, as when she asks her friend, "What do you mean?" She listens to a philosopher's thoughts on language and realizes that racist language hurts because it is "intended to exploit all the ways that you are present." Many of the hurtful comments are either not meant for the speaker to hear or are said accidentally. This doesn't make them less painful for her, however, because she lives with these moments constantly. She also experiences the pain and disappointment of her nonblack friends not speaking up for her when little aggressions or comments happen. Rankine includes photographs of two etchings by Glenn Ligon that read "I do not always feel colored" and "I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background." She quotes these etchings earlier in Chapter 2.


The physicality of language takes a front seat in this poem. Much of the author's own poetic language strives to embody the physical effects that language can have on a person. Rankine's poem continues to investigate the theme of "bodies." In this case she illustrates how language is experienced in the body. When the speaker's friend makes a joke that hurts the speaker, Rankine describes the "joke [getting] stuck in her throat." At the same time the speaker experiences "this cut" when the remark wounds her emotionally; this pain feels physical.

Later, the speaker wants to ask her friend what is wrong with her when she doesn't speak up in the speaker's defense. But the "question gets stuck in [her] dreams." This instance mirrors the joke getting stuck in her friend's throat. However, the word "dreams" offers two interpretations of this sentence. In one interpretation, the speaker only dreams of being able to ask this question aloud and confront the friend. In the second level of meaning, the question gets "stuck on repeat" in her dreams, haunting her.

As in these two vignettes, it is often the speaker's friend or colleague who perpetrates these microaggressions or makes the situation more hurtful by not speaking out. This connects to the concept of erasure versus visibility, which is so central to Rankine's work. Even people who care about the speaker fail to speak out for her, to support her, or even to avoid making racist remarks to her themselves.

When nonblack people make generalized statements about black people, this causes the speaker to feel even more distant and invisible. The speaker mentions a time when she realizes she is "among 'the others out in public' and not among 'friends.'" This happens at a book promotion, where she thought of the author as a friend. In this case, a comment by that author makes the speaker feel suddenly displaced and alienated. In this way, the speaker is both "hypervisible" and invisible. Rankine explores this contradiction throughout Citizen. Because she is black, the speaker is visible and also judged based on her literal physical appearance. At the same, time society's comments and treatment mean to erase her identity. The speaker realizes that she "thought the ambition of racist language was to denigrate and erase [her] as a person." However, she comes to realize that while erasure is certainly a goal of racism, racist language occurs because a person is "addressable." Hurtful language "is intended to exploit all the ways that you are present."

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