What do black people say to each other to describe their relationship to their racial group, when that relationship is crucially forged by incidents of physical and psychic violence which boil down to the “fact” of abject blackness?

—Elizabeth Alexander, “Can You be BLACK and Look at This?”

I see your quiet, sturdy citizenship all the time.

—Barack Obama, SOTU 2016

Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric circulates as an aesthetic object that documents microaggressions. The “micro” in microaggressions suggests the low hum of noncatharsis Sianne Ngai taught us to call “ugly feelings.”

Nothing explodes.

Nothing releases.

An archive builds.

We are far from anger, far from rage, far from the demands created by the word racism.

Instead, we are in the world of microaggressions, the world of archive building, the world of opportunities created by the aesthetic object to engage in a dialogue on race or a conversation on race, in which we are encouraged to share our stories of racialization, of being marked by race, singled out, unseen in our particularities and embedded within histories we did not create and do not want to own.

Learning from Fanon, we scream that we are not our histories.

We exist, instead, in the space created by the aesthetic object, a space that creates a we joined by interest in an aesthetic object, marked and unmarked by the stories we come to hear, the stories we come to tell, and the love for aesthetic objects that transcends the fractures of that impossible we.

a truncated history of microaggressions

Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric circulates as an aesthetic object that documents  microaggressions.

the term “microaggressions” is credited to the black psychiatrist Chester M. Pierce—a too-quick online search suggests that he first used it in 1970, and here is how he used it:

 Every black must recognize the offensive mechanisms used by the collective white society, usually by means of cumulative pro-racist microaggressions, which keep him psychologically accepting of the disenfranchised state.

—Chester M. Pierce, “Black Psychiatry One Year After Miami”

Here is how a 2007 article in American Psychologist uses the term:

Simply stated, microaggressions are brief, everyday exchanges that send denigrating messages to people of color because they belong to a racial minority group. In the world of business, the term “microinequities” is used to describe the pattern of being overlooked, underrespected, and devalued because of one’s race or gender. Microaggressions are often unconsciously delivered in the form of subtle snubs or dismissive looks, gestures, and tones. These exchanges are so pervasive and automatic in daily conversations and interactions that they are often dismissed and glossed over as being innocent and innocuous. Yet, as indicated previously microaggressions are detrimental to persons of color because they impair performance in a multitude of settings by sapping the psychic and spiritual energy of recipients and by creating inequities.

—Derald Wing Sue et al., “Racial Microaggressions in Everyday Life”

Note how carefully the latter definition moves “beyond” the black-white binary. See how it never mentions white supremacy as the problem—in fact, the word “white” never appears. In this new “beyond,” one need not mention whiteness. It suffices to say “people of color” who are being oppressed by unnamed others. Perhaps even by themselves! Notice how the term “racist” or, to use Pierce’s language, “pro-racist” is carefully absented. Notice how Pierce’s focus on the cumulative effect of microaggressions is glossed over—what is emphasized is the “micro,” not the “aggressions.” Notice, too, the shift from Pierce’s “disenfranchised state” to “impair performance in a multitude of settings.” If Pierce’s work diagnoses microaggressions as tools in the service of white supremacy, as forms of harm that must be seen and destroyed, Sue and his collaborators frame microaggressions as impediments to productivity.


Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric circulates as an aesthetic object that documents  microaggressions.

And in the book’s most powerful passages, Rankine reports from the site of her own body, detailing the racist comments she’s been subjected to, the “jokes,” the judgments. It’s what we commonly call microaggressions, what Rankine calls “invisible racism” for how swift and sneaky it is, how ever-present.—Parul Sehgal, Bookforum

Told mostly through a series of “micro-aggressions” (the term coined by Harvard professor Chester Pierce in 1970 to describe unconscious insults nonblack Americans aim at black people), Citizen is a circuitous and intimate descent into the poet’s past in order to examine race in America.—Nick Laird, New York Review of Books

She writes of this world – her world, not as an outsider, but as someone who suffers the misperceptions and subtle transgressions of colleagues and friends. These moments are often referred to as “micro aggressions”.—Smitha Kohrana, Guardian

Ms. Rankine said that “part of documenting the micro-aggressions is to understand where the bigger, scandalous aggressions come from.” So much racism is unconscious and springs from imagined fears, she said. “It has to do with who gets pulled over, who gets locked up. You have to look not directly, but indirectly.”—Felicia Lee, New York Times

Claudia Rankine’s Citizen offers a searing critique of racism, taking on both the shocking violence of hate crimes and police killings and the micro-aggressions that pervade daily life. The poems show how these micro-aggressions form an unacknowledged norm: a hate that is in fact heritage, to rephrase arguments over the Confederate flag.—Maria A. Windell, Los Angeles Review of Books

Claudia Rankine: One of the things I wanted the book to do was speak to intimate moments. I asked a lot of friends and people I’d meet, “Can you tell me a story of a micro-aggression that happened to you in a place you didn’t expect it to happen?” I wasn’t interested in scandal, or outrageous moments. I was interested in the surprise of the intimate, or the surprise of the ordinary. So you’re just moving along and suddenly you get this moment that breaks your ability to continue, and yet you continue. I wanted those kinds of moments. And initially people would say, “I don’t think I have any.” Their initial reaction was to render invisible those moments weaved into a kind of everydayness. And then I’d tell them something that happened to me, and that would trigger something. It was interesting to watch how the emotion of telling these stories built up in the tellers. They often got very upset. You could feel the anger being released. You could feel the irritation, the disgust, happening as the event was retold. So clearly they weren’t cool with it.—Meara Sharma Interviews Claudia Rankine, Guernica

What does it mean to situate Citizen as the aesthetic object that documents microaggressions? Let me un-nest this question—

(pay attention to how pronouns circulate, and where

It names, first, the singularity with which the aesthetic object by the black artist circulates, a singularity that grants the object its status as aesthetic object. There can only be one black artist. There can only be one black poet. There can only be one aesthetic object by one black poet. Even though Citizen challenges the status of its autonomy by including other art objects and a substantial bibliography, demanding that it be read in conversation with and in relation to the global world of black poetics that includes Aimé Césaire, Louise Bennett, Linton Kwesi Johnson, Micere Mugo, Kofi Awoonor, M. NourbeSe Philip, Wanda Coleman, Gwendolyn Brooks, Dionne Brand, Merle Collins, Kamau Brathwaite, Erica Hunt, John Keene, and Brenda Marie Osbey, and that it be situated in the world of black poets and poetries and poetics explored by Geoffrey Jacques, Evie Shockley, Meta Jones, and Anthony Reed, the economy in which the black artist and the aesthetic object produced by that artist exists demands singularity: there can only be one.

The creation of an aesthetic object by a black artist resurrects debates as old as the U.S. If you pay attention to the edges, you will hear echoes of Jefferson claiming that Phillis Wheatley –I will not reproduce his misspelling—cannot be a poet, because the black cannot be a poet.

Citizen takes its place in an archive that documents microaggressions. Website after website documents microaggression, revealing that we—pay attention to how pronouns circulate, and where—are not yet past racism, sexism, transphobia, homophobia, ableism. We need such archives, but not and never the presumption that we live in some “after,” not and never the presumption that microaggressions are vestigial remnants of something more toxic that has been eliminated. There was, I am reminded, a vibrant life of documenting microaggressions before Citizen as book appeared, one in which excerpts from the book participated. Citizen is pulled into and participates in this documenting, even as it is the aesthetic object of such documenting and, thus, subject to the pressures put on the aesthetic object.

Among many other things, the aesthetic object is an occasion: it gathers and assembles. In the archive-generating world of microaggressions, the aesthetic object can—tread carefully here—be used to suspend certain kinds of judgments.

that’s fucked up, but not necessarily racist
that’s messed up, but not necessarily racist
people are assholes, but not necessarily racist
maybe the person was just having a bad day, and not necessarily being racist

What occasions Citizen gets lost in occasions created to receive Citizen—one might be clumsy.


What do we want from each other
after we have told our stories
do we want
to be healed do we want
mossy quiet stealing over our scars
do we want
the powerful unfrightening sister
who will make the pain go away

—Audre Lorde, “There are No Honest Poems About Dead Women”

Pulling apart: “one’s story of participating in racialization is being solicited.”

Pull apart this thing that does not do the work one hopes it will do. One imagines the occasion, a market in microaggressions: a story about (vestigial) racism is bartered for one about (vestigial) sexism; a story about (vestigial) homophobia is bartered for one about transphobia; a story about ableism is bartered for one about fat phobia. The poet, the “powerful unfrightening sister,” is the occasion for such exchanges.

“Together,” a university official intones, “we can learn how to work through diversity.”

polite applause

An occasion:

Trayvon Martin’s name sounds from the car radio a dozen times each half hour. You pull your love back into the seat because though no one seems to be chasing you, the justice system has other plans.

Yes, and this is how you are a citizen: Come on. Let it go. Move on.

The word “citizen” appears only once in the book-length poem. Strictly speaking, this is not true. The word “citizen” appears on the cover of the book, on the title page, and as a running head. If, like me, you are reading the Kindle edition, the word “citizen” is on every digital page. But let us engage the fiction that the word “citizen” appears only once in the book-length poem.

Who is constituted as a citizen and how? That’s the easy question. The expected question. The question that will be asked to skirt more troubling questions.

Here’s one such question: how is black death the occasion for producing a citizen? And what kind of citizen is produced by black death? The questions are familiar—they pulse through the multi-century archive of black intellectual and cultural production. They live in and create the space between “citizen” as a running head and “citizen” as a single, tortured appearance.

Another occasioning: “where were you when you heard?”

Since September 11, 2001, “where were you when?” has defaulted to this date. Loss has been measured against this occasion, mapped in relation to it. The security-generating, military-assembling language of terror processes loss, grades it, assigns it weight and worth and meaning.

Against this, along this, around this—the black death that occasions the citizen

another confession: I keep hearing Dionne Brand

Some of us want entry into the home and nation that are signified by these romances. Some of us in the Diaspora long so for nation – some continuous thread of biological or communal association, some bloodline or legacy which will cement our rights in the place we live. The problem of course is that even if those existed – and they certainly do, if it is in the human contraband which we represent in the romance – they do not guarantee nation for Blacks in the Diaspora. (A Map to the Door of No Return)

What does Citizen want? What do those who gather around and are gathered by the occasion of Citizen want? What forms of belonging and deracination circulate as anecdotes—and what is an anecdote?—about microaggressions?

And I?

In July 2016, it will have been three years since I left the U.S., the place that produced me as a legal alien, where I learned to think about deracination, where I learned to form sentences, and how to be deformed by them. The “you” that so many U.S. readers find themselves implicated in and by eludes me—it’s been a long time since I imagined that literary works generate sites for identification and disidentification.

What feels more than feeling? You are afraid there is something you are missing, something obvious. A feeling that feelings might be irrelevant if they point to one’s irrelevance pulls at you. (Citizen)

Citizen concludes with two images from Joseph Mallord William Turner’s The Slave Ship—the first the entire image, the second a detail, Detail of Fish Attacking Slave from The Slave Ship. An encounter with Vincent Woodward’s Delectable Negro has me asking how Citizen is being consumed, how the black body it generates is being eaten. An ongoing encounter with Christina Sharpe’s thinking has me asking what kind of wake work is required for those of us who are gathered by the occasion of black death.

And I?

I lie, who never quite
Safely sleep from rain at night—

—Countee Cullen, “Heritage”

and yet . . .

We cannot pretend to speak of these things. We reach a limit; our limit.

—Nahum Chandler, X—The Problem of the Negro as a Problem for Thought

I was looking for more than the violence of the slave ship, the migrant and refugee ship, the container ship, and the medical ship.

—Christina Sharpe, In the Wake

To read and unread and misread Citizen because of what accretes around it, because of who gathers around it, who is gathered by and folded into it risks—all reading is a risk, but not all of us are risked, or at risk, in the same way—attributing an agency to the work that is ungenerous. My own concerns have focused on what Nahum Chandler describes as the disaster: carefully, carefully, aware of the traps I can never fully evade,

the thing I came for:
the wreck and not the story of the wreck
the thing itself and not the myth

—Adrienne Rich, “Diving into the Wreck”

I return to this writing a few days after Barack Obama delivered his State of the Union speech. I did not watch the speech, but I could not escape its grasp, its making of citizenship. I might have learned to watch State of the Union speeches after September 11, 2001, when “everything changed.” A special stress was placed on that traditional opening— “My Fellow Americans”—after 9/11, a stress punctuated, now, by the weight and sound and smell of bombs: in 2015, the U.S. dropped over 23,000 bombs in six countries. I do not have the stomach to see how many bombs the U.S. has dropped since 9/11—“the wreck and not the story of the wreck.” Citizen gathers and is gathered around this citizen-making project—a running head meets a single, but not singular, appearance. Shall we call the State of the Union address the running head?

Obama asks, “how do we keep America safe and lead the world without becoming its policeman?”

Obama asks, “why would we want to pass up the chance for American businesses to produce and sell the energy of the future?”

Obama boasts,

The United States of America is the most powerful nation on Earth. Period. It’s not even close. We spend more on our military than the next eight nations combined. Our troops are the finest fighting force in the history of the world. No nation dares to attack us or our allies because they know that’s the path to ruin.

Obama boasts,

If you doubt America’s commitment – or mine – to see that justice is done, ask Osama bin Laden. Ask the leader of al Qaeda in Yemen, who was taken out last year, or the perpetrator of the Benghazi attacks, who sits in a prison cell. When you come after Americans, we go after you. It may take time, but we have long memories, and our reach has no limit

Obama says,

I can promise that a year from now, when I no longer hold this office, I’ll be right there with you as a citizen

Over 23,000 bombs in 2015

I am arrested by the idea that the microaggression leads to a pause before one continues:

As usual you drive through the moment with the expected backing off of what was previously said. It is not only that confrontation is headache-producing; it is also that you have a destination that doesn’t include acting like this moment isn’t inhabitable, hasn’t happened before, and the before isn’t part of the now as the night darkens and the time shortens between where we are and where we are going. (Citizen)

I conclude this writing a week after Obama’s State of the Union speech, on the Monday designated this year as Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. I am arrested by the question of lag, caught by the duration of the pause. The “micro” in “microaggressions” might describe the lag that one must overcome—that return to the untime of unmaking, that disembedding from the human that one overcomes but does not overcome. How long is that pause? How is it measured? What happens in that pause?

Chester Pierce names that pause as where the cumulative takes hold. What accretes in the pause, and how? A model of resilience reaches for the grit in the oyster, the pearl-making potential of adversity. Recall, the much-lauded Citizen is the aesthetic object that documents microaggressions. White space can be a pause. Pauses are cumulative. Something accumulates in the pause. How long is that pause? How is it to be measured? How does one measure pauses as they accumulate? How does one evaluate the pause that is considered an aesthetic object?

how does one live—how can one breathe—in the pause

2 thoughts on “microaggressions:

  1. I am utterly wowed and have no suitable words for compliment. At this moment, just after I made the cardinal sin of reading the disturbingly obtuse comments section on some valiant attempt at fostering diversity in the literary arts, in this pause…this poem was so necessary. I am moved. Thank you for giving me these words, this thought, to put in the pause. I salute you. –Sondi

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