Literary texts that discuss racism are no new phenomenon. However, Citizen: An American Lyric is a social commentary that discusses racism in a unique and purposeful way: by using the second person point of view. In Citizen, Claudia Rankine compiles accounts of racial microaggressions and employs the second person point of view in framing these experiences. Readers are the “you” that is experiencing these uncomfortable and frustrating encounters and are subject to the physical and emotional fallout that results. Although some may argue that Rankine’s decision to employ this point of view was based on a desire to invite the reader to empathize with her feelings of being marginalized, this decision not only evokes empathy in the reader, but also places a certain degree of responsibility on him or her to act and address the issues of racism presented in the text. The second person point of view directly engages the reader with the central conflict, namely the detrimental consequences of racial microaggressions, and thus attempts to show readers that they have a role to play in the issue of racism at hand. Rankine includes specific accounts of small acts of resistance to show readers what that role can look like. The second person point of view transforms the text into a call to action, where the reader is meant to feel a certain responsibility to be aware of and resist race-based microaggressions.
Directly engaging the reader’s emotions is an initial step in transforming the text to a call to action. Through the second person point of view, the reader is able to feel some of the emotions that arise from racial microaggressions. The most obvious of these emotions is pain. Rankine attempts to evoke this pain whenever she speaks of the physical and emotional damage that ensues from dealing with these encounters: “Certain moments send adrenaline to the heart, dry out the tongue, and clog the lungs. Like thunder they drown you in sound, no, like lightning they strike you across the larynx” (7). Here the second person point of view is employed to invite the reader to experience the pain that the victim feels rather than just observe that pain, thus compelling them to more effectively act on that pain. Therefore, the second person point of view is employed in efforts to evoke a stronger empathy in the readers for victims of racism.
However, the second person point of view also has the effect of “accusing” the reader and, in doing so, attempting to evoke guilt. For example, Rankine often phrases questions to aggressors in response to the latest microaggression. Although it can be argued that these questions are directed at the unwitting perpetrator, the second person point of view allows an interpretation of these questions being directed at the reader. These rhetorical questions have the rhythm of an interrogation, and can be seen throughout the text: “Why do you feel comfortable saying this to me?” (10), “What did you say?” (14, 43), “What do you mean? Exactly, what do you mean?” (47). These questions are directed at the reader in an effort to compel the reader to evaluate the role that they have played in these microaggressions—namely whether they have been perpetuating them or allowing them to happen. This attempts to make the reader reflect on their own actions regarding the central conflicts presented in the text, and whether they should reform their actions to better address and alleviate the issue. Interrogating these microaggressions make clear that they are unacceptable, and the combination of posing these accusatory questions and employing the second person point of view while doing so can compel readers to question themselves the next time they perpetuate or allow a racial microaggression to happen. This method can encourage readers to push back and evaluate their own roles in racial microaggressions by showing them that each time they perpetuate or allow a microaggression to exist, it is an action worth questioning, interrogating, and consequently reforming. The constant questioning of everyday racism fosters the idea among readers that allowing these passing racist remarks to exist is wrong, and the second person point of view in this case works to encourage readers to constantly question their own actions so as to make sure they are not participating in this unacceptable behavior. The second person point of view has the effects of both appealing to the reader’s empathy and simultaneously holding the reader responsible for the issues at hand.
Rankine includes instances where the “you” engages in active resistance against race-based microaggressions in order to illustrate ways in which the reader can fulfil their responsibility to address daily racism. For example, Rankine includes a reaction to a man who has just referred to a group of teenage boys as “n*gers”: “They are just being kids. Come on, no need to get all KKK on them, you say. Now there you go, he responds…There I go? you ask…Yes, and something about hearing yourself repeating this stranger’s accusation in a voice usually reserved for your partner makes you smile” (16). Here readers can see another example of fighting racism in daily encounters. In this example, the man/woman derived a certain sense of empowerment from directly addressing the racism and not backing down despite receiving pushback from the perpetrator. We see this empowerment and joy in the words “makes you smile,” referring to his/her act of resistance. Here, Rankine is making a case for resistance by enticing readers of its empowering emotional effects. In the account, the reader can infer that the victim was not one who regularly resisted microaggressions. This can be seen in the line “Hey, I am standing right here, you responded, not necessarily expecting him to turn to you” (16). The fact that the victim was not expecting a response means that he/she has not engaged in successful acts of resistance enough times to become accustomed to responses and pushback. However, the observation of their own satisfying emotional reaction to resistance reveals a pleasant surprise at the sense of empowerment and joy that was derived from resistance. This account, combined with the second person point of view, works to build a case in favor of resistance for readers to enact in their own lives. Readers who may have previously remained tacit or neutral are enticed by the sense of joy that comes from resistance, a sense of joy that can “make you smile.” Therefore, Rankine works to persuade reluctant readers to enact these acts of resistance by offering them a reason of why they should do so: the simple reason of personal satisfaction and empowerment. By including these accounts, Rankine attempts to show the reader how he/she can resist in the small ways that are detailed in the lyric, and indeed entices them to do so by including the satisfaction that is derived from each small act of resistance.
In Citizen: An American Lyric, Rankine works to evoke empathy, a sense of responsibility, and an insight of what readers can do to resist the issues of racism detailed in the lyric. Rankine employs the method of using the second person point of view in an attempt to accomplish these three goals that work together to make her lyric a call to action to battle casual, daily racism. In a world where the discussion of racism often takes place in the context of tragedy, such as the tragic deaths of Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, and more, Rankine sheds light on the smaller, subconscious levels of racism. She offers a fresh perspective in which every individual is directly responsible for racism, and in doing so encourages to fight racism at its lowest levels—microaggressions—so that it may die at its roots and never develop into a mindset in which racial prejudices enable murder, like the tragic deaths of Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, and many others. Rankine’s use of the second person point of view emphasizes the importance of every individual to act against racism, as well as the importance to address casual and subconscious racism just as much as overt and tragic racism.
Rankine, Claudia. Citizen: An American Lyric. Minneapolis, Minnesota: Graywolf Press, 2014. Print.