Claudia Rankine’s The White Card: A Play

Claudia Rankine, the author of five poetry collections, shifts her focus to playwriting with her newest book, The White Card: A Play. Rankine is the recipient of numerous awards and honors for her latest collection of poems Citizen: An American Lyric (2014), including the National Book Critics Circle Award, the PEN/Open Book Award, and the NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literary Work in Poetry. The White Card serves as an extension of the issues addressed in Citizen as it explores the relationship between a black female artist (Charlotte) and a white, middle-aged entrepreneur and art collector (Charles) who takes an interest in her work. The play consists of one act and two scenes. The first scene focuses on a dinner party that Charles and his wife (Virginia) throw for Charlotte that becomes filled with difficult conversations about race and disrupted further by deeper familial issues that rise to the surface over the course of the evening. The second scene takes place a year later and involves a lengthy conversation between Charlotte and Charles that confronts overarching issues about art and racism. Rankine uses different elements of the play form (dialogue, character, short monologue, and dramatic climax) to elevate issues of race within the privileged environment of a contemporary art world that supports white dominant thought.

In the preface, Rankine articulates her motivations behind writing The White Card by recounting a confrontation that occurred during a question-and-answer session when a white, middle-aged male audience member asked her: “What can I do for you? How can I help you?” She responded by saying, “I think the question you should be asking is what can you do for you” which resulted in the following response: “If that is how you answer questions…then no one will ask you anything.” The White Card represents Rankine’s desire to address racial tensions that occur on a verbal level, and often result in white defensiveness. Rankine calls attention to how these verbal conflicts reinforce racial inequality:

It occurred to me after this incident that an audience member might read all the relevant books on racism, see all the documentaries and films, and know the “correct” phrases to mention, but in the moment of dialogue or confrontation retreat into a space of defensiveness, anger, silence, which is to say he might retreat into the comfort of control, which begins by putting me back in my imagined place.

The “comfort of control” is a key issue investigated throughout the course of the play in regards to Charles, whose wealth, power, and reputation allow him to believe that he can solve racism with art. The play, as a medium that uses dialogue and performance, presents itself as an ideal way for Rankine to translate abstract notions of racism into something more tangible. She continues by saying that

Perhaps any discussion of racism does not begin from a position of equality for those involved. Maybe the expectation is for the performance of something I as a black woman cannot see even as I object to its presence. Perhaps the only way to explore this known and yet invisible dynamic is to get in a room and act it out.

Rankine’s instincts for utilizing the structure of a play to make visible what is difficult to see serves her well because that is precisely what The White Card does. Small moments within the play are skillfully employed to expose larger issues that involve money, power, and the “comfort of control” that accompanies white dominate thought.

Rankine uses dialogue as a way help make the invisible more visible. A primary example occurs in the middle of scene one with a quick conversation between Charles and his art dealer (Eric) as they discuss the possibility of offering Charlotte a spot on the art foundation’s board while she is out of hearing range:

Eric: So how do you feel the evening is going?

Charles: I like her. I like how measured she is. The new work could be really groundbreaking.

Eric: I agree.

Charles: I want to do more than buy her work, I want to support her endeavors.

Eric: She did say something about wanting a new studio.

Charles: What do they run nowadays?

Eric: Depends. Brooklyn. Around a million.

Charles: That’s not bad. I know someone I can call. I’m thinking she’d be good for the board. We have that hole there.

Eric: It will definitely solve the diversity issue.

Charles: It will be appropriate to explain the workings of the foundation and the impact it’s having.

Here, in this brief exchange, readers can see how larger issues surrounding money, power, art, and race play out within the simple dynamic of a dinner party. Charles wants to do more than purchase Charlotte’s work; he wants to offer her financial support and a spot on the foundation’s board—which in turn solves the “diversity issue.” However, the pivotal moment of the scene happens when Charles asks Eric how much studios cost “nowadays.” Eric says, “Depends. Brooklyn. Around a million.” Charles responds by saying “That’s not bad. I know someone I can call…” Here, white privilege is exposed. Charles is in a position of power because he has access two things: money and connections. Not only can he easily afford a million dollars for an art studio for Charlotte, he can make it happen with one phone call—without hesitation.

Rankine makes good use of character within the play form to demonstrate how Charles uses his privileged position as a white male to champion social change through art. Charles, as a character, becomes extremely interesting; he is fixated on proving to Charlotte how ideologically invested he is in her work and the work of conceptual artists as a solution to racism. His “comfort of control” not only consists of money and connections, it is rooted in what he believes is a sincere and principled effort to eradicate racial inequality. During dinner, he gives her a speech:

Charlotte, I may look conservative, but don’t be fooled. The last year has showed us all that there is entrenched racism and xenophobia that no laws seem to alter. But the political moment can’t be all that matters. Virginia and I have spent a lifetime believing our intentions are good. We have worked to be good people. The problem is our country lacks moral imagination. This is where you come in. Artists, like you, work from a different positioning. You can imagine beyond what is.

This mini-monologue exposes the irony of how Charles views society. He points out that “there is entrenched racism and xenophobia that no laws seem to alter” and proclaims that “The problem is our country lacks moral imagination.” He goes from attempting to convince Charlotte that he is a good person to explaining to her what the “real” source of the problem is—a faceless entity that lacks a creative conscience. It never occurs to Charles that he is the problem. Laws fail to solve larger issues of race because everything Charles does—from building private prisons, hospitals, and schools, to collecting art, to engaging in philanthropy—are legal ventures. He can spend a million dollars on an art studio; he has connections. His privilege is legal. Therefore, the irony of this monologue is that Charles lacks moral imagination. His solution, as he continues to explain, is art—because artists “work from a different positioning.” The phrase “different positioning” really means “lack of privilege.” This is the closest he comes to acknowledging the gap between what he does and what artists do.

The White Card is notable for its basic structure: it features two scenes—and much of what happens in the first scene sets up the climax of the second scene, which includes the final confrontation between Charlotte and Charles. The play is also notable, through the use of clear and direct dialogue, for the way it continually focuses the reader’s attention away from Charlotte and onto Charles. At the beginning of the second scene, readers discover that Charlotte makes the choice not to sell her work to Charles or to involve herself with his foundation. He visits her at her studio a year later and the conversation becomes heated as it revolves around issues of race, particularly Charles’s obsession with violent artistic renderings of brutalized black bodies in contemporary culture. Here, Charlotte confronts Charles about the problematic nature of his ideological visions surrounding art and race:

Charlotte: Maybe you think those artists are making those paintings for you, Charles, because the black body is in a state you’re comfortable with.

Charles: I have news for you, they are making that work for me. Who the hell else is going to buy it? Not you. Do you really believe that dead and dying bodies are acceptable to me?

Instead of putting pressure on Charlotte to justify her art or to speak for an entire group of people—the spotlight is placed on Charles, who continues to implicate himself. He says “they are making that work for me. Who the hell else is going to buy it? Not you.” Readers could interpret his response as a truthful remark given under intense pressure, but in reality, it signifies his delusional attitude about how art functions. His notions about art revolve around money. In fact, every aspect of Charles’s life revolves around money—his career, his art collection, and his reputation. He lives under the assumption that because he can purchase art, he is the primary audience for the work. When he asks the question “Do you really believe that dead and dying bodies are acceptable to me?” he exposes his inability to see himself as an upholding force behind racial violence. He fails to see art as image—and his art collection is really a collection of images that reflect a vicious cycle of black suffering.

In the defining moment of the play, Charlotte confronts Charles about his inability to recognize himself as being the problem. Here, the dramatic climax is of a verbal nature, filled with raw emotion. The dialogue opens up and becomes especially poignant as Charlotte expresses how she feels about Charles. Here is the moment in its entirety:

Charlotte: The gap, Charles, is caused because you refuse the role you actually play.

Charles: I don’t need you to show me me.

Charlotte: Me, me, me. You don’t need me to show you anything. That’s probably the first honest thing you’ve said.

Charles: Fuck you, Charlotte.

Charlotte: I’m already fucked. You know, I have to admit, I thought you were different from all the others, but in the end…for you I’m just this annoyance that won’t conform to your good works.

Charles: You’re acting as if I think of you as some kind of project.

Charlotte: Well, don’t you?

Charles: I do believe I can help.

Charlotte: If you actually want to help, why don’t you make you your project?

Charles: What about me? My money? My power? My mobility, as you say?

Charlotte: I mean the mass murder and devastation that comes with you being you.

What readers learn prior to this moment is that Charlotte, after a year, has changed her artistic focus. She realizes that the kind of art she makes, and the kind of art Charles purchases, which shows horrific violence inflicted upon black bodies, is missing the true culprit—white male dominance. She makes Charles the subject of her newest art project by taking pictures of him and enlarging portions of his white skin. In this section of dialogue, when Charlotte says “If you actually want to help, why don’t you make you your project?” she is suggesting a solution to racism that begins with an examination of the self. When he asks her “What about me? My money? My power? My mobility, as you say?”—these are aspects of Charles’s life that he takes for granted as part of his personhood. Rather than confront himself, he uses art as an outsourcing tool to combat issues that, in reality, begin with the self. When Charlotte answers by saying “I mean the mass murder and devastation that comes with you being you,” she speaks a blunt, but necessary truth—that Charles’s privilege and obsession with racial violence are linked with “mass murder and devastation.” His “comfort of control” lets him believe that the problem is external, rather than internal, which keeps him at a safe distance from the harsh realities of racial violence. In truth, he collects the images he wants to collect—and they connect him to a world of systemic racial violence.

In the final moment of the play, Charlotte is able to get Charles to examine his whiteness in a literal sense—to actually look at his white skin and to recognize that it grants him the freedom to exist as a privileged white male in a society that supports systemic structures that cause racial oppression and violence. However, The White Card is especially compelling for the way it encourages readers to consider questions of the self—and how the nature of selfhood (examined and unexamined) influences social structures. Through the play form, Rankine accomplishes what she set out to do, which is to make visible certain aspects of racism that are difficult to pinpoint. She places strong emphasis on the root of the issue—the denial of white privilege—and encourages a solution that starts with the self. The White Card is a skillful representation of white privileged culture and accurately places the spotlight on whiteness, rather than black oppression. It successfully demonstrates the ways in which whiteness goes unexamined by contemporary society, particularly by those who inhabit, and benefit from, identities rooted in white privilege.

April 1, 2019