Nine months after Michael Brown died, I found myself in front of a bar in West Hollywood, caught up in a discussion about racist text messages sent by cops in San Francisco with the white boyfriend of a close friend from college. About the text messages, my friend’s boyfriend was dismissive. While he didn’t condone them, he didn’t think they were a big deal. Really, he said, I should just think of them as a way for officers to blow off steam. In fact, it was entirely possible that the texts kept the police from acting out their prejudices in real life.
If he was trying to shock me (and I think maybe he was) it worked. I was shocked, not least by the nonchalance with which he presented what he was saying as fact. Investigations had turned up similarly racially charged emails in Ferguson, the city where Brown had been shot, and whose police force had been investigated by the U.S. Department of Justice for disproportionately targeting black people.
The problem wasn’t just that my friend’s boyfriend was wrong. The problem was that he also happens to be a senior editor at a national news organization. How to explain to this semi-prominent, influential media person who clearly should have known better that he sounded like the walking equivalent of a racist Slate comments thread? Meanwhile, he kept talking. After all, he went on, A lot of my closest friends say ignorant, racist things behind closed doors all the time. And it’s not like they would ever–
At that moment, there were many things I could have done. I could have screamed. I could have pushed him into traffic. I could have started making wild animal noises so that he would experience the same cognitive dissonance that I was feeling right then. And yet, I stood there, stewing in closed-mouthed, white-knuckled fury, waiting for the rest of our group to come out of the bar and catch up with us. Afterwards, I thought about calling my friend and telling him what his boyfriend had said and how it had made me feel. In the end, I did nothing. My friend was happy in his years-long relationship. It didn’t seem to me that he would care.
Or rather, in the end, I started typing out this little essay about my anger and my inability to speak when it counted, and what that inability meant. How I had become temporarily voiceless, unable to find the words for what I needed to say at the exact point when I needed them most. Each moment is like this, Claudia Rankine writes in her 2014 book Citizen. Before it can be known, categorized as similar to another thing and dismissed, it has to be experienced, it has to be seen. The question Rankine asks in each poem (Am I a reliable witness to my own life?) offers as brilliant a guide as any to the ways in which the murder of Michael Brown launches us into a realm outside the reach of ordinary language, and into a place where there aren’t necessarily words for what it is we need white people to try harder to understand.
Last year, Citizen won the National Book Award and the National Books Critics Circle Award and Rankine received coverage in almost every major national publication. At the time, I felt lucky to be alive and reading at a point when such a guide was not only available, but getting the attention it deserved. Today I feel sad that we live in an era in which we continue so desperately to need it.