Color in a Black and White World

Color and images are something that make up our day to day life. From aesthetically pleasing pictures to differentiation between the bright lights we see at an intersection. But why is it when it comes to skin color, people aren’t so nonchalant and appreciative of it? Why does seeing darker skin turn an automatic switch in some people to forget all their morals?

Claudia Rankine’s story called Citizen shines a light on the reoccurring themes of color, images, and visual perspectives. Including the personal pronoun “you” throughout her story, she invites the readers, no matter the skin color, to share the experience of a black woman. With her black and white book cover, she forces the reader to experience the color throughout the book between skin colors of the main character and the skin color of whoever they encounter. Rankine starts off the story with a narrative of a young black girl in school. Rankine illustrates that a young white classmate “tells you you smell good and have features more like a white person. You assume she thinks she is thanking you for letting her cheat and feels better cheating from an almost white person” which starts off on a low note that forces the audience to feel the same defeated emotions of the young black girl.

As Rankine puts the readers in her shoes, it evokes a level of discomfort because as a twelve year old, you too would be unaware of how to answer and feel as your heritage and skin color became invalidated from the opinion of a privileged classmate. Irritation and uneasiness is also prevalent through such gruesome imagery such as “The wrong words enter your day like a bad egg in your mouth and puke runs down your blouse,” which is exactly what Rankine and other black women in her position feel. Referring back to Sara Ahmed’s “Feminist Killjoys and Other Willful Subjects”, if any women were to be put into the situation of being oppressed, it would be an internal battle for a woman to stand up and subject to being a “killjoy” or sit back to remain the peace, even if it meant feeling badly.

Rankine quotes Zora Neale Hurston that says “I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background,” meaning that she feels the most out of place when surrounded in a white and privileged setting. Rankine utilizes Serena Williams and her “black body” to emphasize this theme of color the author so desparately wants the audience to understand through hardships. It’s easy, when reading this line, to envision a white and spotless room and suddenly a black splatter hits the wall. From there, all the human eye will continue to focus on is that splatter on the one wall instead of the other three. It stands out, but in the case of the splatter, it may feel uncomfortable and pressured.

To wrap up her continuance of color and imagery, on page 32 Rankine says, “Every look, every comment, every bad call blossoms out of history, through her, onto you” which whether purposefully or not, juxtaposes with the picture on page 33 of a dark figure, weighed down by blossoming flowers and this abundance of colors in their life, but none of which matches their own skin tone. It’s meant to express that everything said to them and burdened on them may seem like a favor but is really bringing that individual down instead of uplifting them.

Do you agree that recognizing privilege is better than ignoring the obvious discrimination minorities face? Would you say it’s easy to be outspoken about a comment that wasn’t meant to be oppressive but hurts one’s identity?

2 thoughts on “Color in a Black and White World”

  1. Hey Lily! I really enjoyed your blog post and I think you hit many main points about the book so far. I absolutely one hundred percent agree with you when you say that recognizing privilege is better than ignoring the obvious discrimination minorities face. Sometimes it may difficult to admit when you are more privileged than someone else. That being said, it’s still important to recognize when those who may not have the same status as you in society are being discriminated against simply because of their race. In addition, sometimes we say things without realizing how they could be offensive toward someone or a certain group of people. One of the strongest quotes in the first section of the book that made me feel strongly about this is when Zora Neale Hurston is quoted and says, “I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background” (25). I personally think this quote is very powerful because it makes you think about the literal image of something dark against a white background, the same way African Americans/minorities feel unaccepted in a white atmosphere/when surrounded by those of a white race.

  2. You’re sharing some great analysis here, Lilly! The metaphor Rankine uses about the “bad egg in your mouth” and the puke on your blouse really stuck out to me too (8). It’s an incredible comparison, demonstrating that these micro-aggressions cause feelings of embarrassment, disgust, and even shame for one’s self. This metaphor explains that these feelings are also as plain and obvious as puke on someone’s shirt. What I found most interesting in accordance with this metaphor is the repetition of the phrase “you smell good” first seen on page 5 and later on page 8. It’s introduced the first time as a compliment by a classmate: “…she tells you you smell good and have more features like a white person” (5). Later on it shows up again after the puke metaphor: “…you pull yourself to standing, soon enough the blouse is rinsed, it’s another week, the blouse is beneath your sweater, against your skin, and you smell good” (8). Here, you have washed off the puke, rinsed your clothes clean of the hate and humiliation of the day, and smell good again. It seems as though “smelling good” meaning you have forgotten about the grossness that these micro-aggressions make you feel. When you “smell good,” you are not actively nauseated by their presence. “Smelling good” also makes you more appealing to your white peers, appropriately so.

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