CHARACTERS


NARRATOR

Writer, professor at prestigious university, fifties


WHITE MEN 1–20 
Men are all wearing some kind of suit

 
SETTING
Liminal spaces of airports and airplanes


TIME
2020

 



ACT 1

SCENE 1


The Narrator speaks to the Audience.


NARRATOR
I’m here—not as I—
but as we—
a representative of my category—
The approximately 8 percent of the U.S. population known as Black women.

Within this category, there are a lot of names for me. In fact, Hortense Spillers, a Black woman and friend to all Black women, said,

Let’s face it. I am a marked woman, but not everybody knows my name.
“Peaches” and “Brown Sugar,” “Sapphire” and “Earth Mother,” “Aunty,” “Granny,”
“God’s Holy Fool,” a “Miss Ebony First,” or “Black Woman at the Podium.”


Ultimately, whatever name you use, all of them begin with the letter n.
 
Neighbor could be one. Nominal one. Miss Named another. Miss Nomer.


Now, what are you thinking? All that was another century?
Any other day besides today?

Today, behind me, are representatives of the other category.

You’ve joined us here in our liminal space, a space neither here nor there,
a space full of imaginative possibilities,
a space we move through on our way to other places,

and I want to tell you how I came to have
brief conversations
with white men.

Because yet again, we’re going to have to swerve for some white man, at some time,
and I’m thinking back,
trying to remember when it actually occurred to me
that I should be talking to them,
given the impact of their fantasies,
or is it their actions,
or is it . . . given the reality of our lives?

And since our present moment is never an accident but a choice,
I’ll begin a while back—


WHITE MAN 8
What number are you?


NARRATOR
I was standing in one of those Southwest airport lines
where you’re organized numerically,
apparently the fastest way to board a plane for non-first-class travel.


WHITE MAN 8
I’m number eight and I don’t want to accidentally get in front of you.

NARRATOR

Thanks. You’re fine. I’m ten. We’re all good.


(to Audience)
He said he loved airplanes:


WHITE MAN 8
No phones. No news. Can’t stand the news. Nonstop these days.


NARRATOR

(to White Man 8)
You shouldn’t have voted for him.

(to Audience)
I didn’t give it a thought.

WHITE MAN 8
It’s—not—just—him.


NARRATOR

(to White Man 8)
No, it isn’t,


(to Audience)
I agreed.


But in that second, the space for agreement and friendly banter was over.


This man turned his back to me.


I understood.


I’d brought the world into our liminal space, his free zone.


I knew I shouldn’t tell anyone
what they should or shouldn’t do,


unless they’re about to step in front of a speeding train.


But what if they had just pushed someone else in front of a speeding train?


What was one supposed to do then?


Eventually number nine arrived and he stood between me and number eight until we boarded.


What could I have done to get number eight to regret the arrival of number nine—


not feel tethered to the imagined ones pushed in front of the train,
or across the border,
or into detention camps,
or the ICU, or the morgue,
even as we are all tethered to number eight’s choices?


Number eight eventually turned and looked at me. I held his gaze but neither of us spoke.


What was he thinking?


WHITE MAN 8
How the fuck does she know who I voted for?
The audacity of that woman.


NARRATOR

Or is it “the audacity of that Black woman.”


Did he think I owed him an apology?
Sixty-three percent of white men who voted supported our impeached president—
I had almost a two in three chance of guessing right.


But I wasn’t playing the odds,
I was playing the man.


Did you hear the one about the white man who walked up to a line,
tried to make conversation,
only to enter the same reality as a Black woman?


WHITE MAN 9
Don’t essentialize yourself.  


WHITE MAN 2
You’re not just a Black woman,


WHITE MAN 1
Not only a Black woman . . .


WHITE MAN 10
You’re, you’re . . . what’s your name again?


NARRATOR
(deadpan)
Help help.


Today, I wouldn’t be able to pick number eight out of a lineup.


(taking a long look at White Man 8)
Why am I thinking of you as a criminal?


Are you a criminal?


If number eight could hear my thoughts and asked,


WHITE MAN 8
( fantasy)
What am I doing in a lineup?
Whose reality is this?


NARRATOR

Would I need to define the lineup?


That’s the majority of the Senate, the majority of the Supreme Court, that’s just a boardroom, it’s just the police force, it’s the Founding Fathers, it’s an insurance company, it’s a line of surgeons, it’s a line of historians, a line of bankers. It’s an entire West Virginia correctional officer 2019 class photographing themselves.


The Chorus re-creates each of the groups as she names them, ending with re-creating the photograph of an entire West Virginia correctional officer class making the Nazi salute. As they walk to re-create the photo, they sing, “It’s not just him.”


WHITE MEN
It’s not just him
It’s not just him
It’s not just him
It’s not just.


NARRATOR
It’s not.
I’m not demonizing, I’m historicizing.


Am I wrong to understand all of us, including number eight (smiles at White Man 8),
to be subject to the afterlife of slavery?


Not—just—him.  


There are no individuals here.  


Black women. White men.
Caught in these categories.
Is it ever simply just me and him?


WHITE MAN 8
(to Narrator)
When is someone going to see me for who I really am?
When is someone going to ask me what I need?


NARRATOR

(to White Man 8)
Exactly. Haven’t we all
been invented by white men
for the public assistance of white people?


Can we agree on this?


(to Audience)
Or should I, the Black woman, just get on with the program of accommodating white men,
their lives, their lies, their lines?


SCENE 2


Narrator stands in line waiting to board a flight.
As she speaks, White Man 13 steps in front of her in line. He is with White Man 17.


NARRATOR

(to White Man 13)
Excuse me, I’m in this line.


He steps behind her.


WHITE MAN 13
(to White Man 17)
You never know who they’re letting into first class these days.


He and White Man 17 stand in the line behind her.


NARRATOR

(to Audience)
Is his commentary a defensive move meant to cover his rudeness and embarrassment,
or
are we sharing a joke?


Narrator turns to White Man 13. Suddenly they are replaying the scene that just happened as a joke.


Have you heard the one about the white guy who steps in front of a Black woman
onto an auction block?
The Black woman says, It’s okay, you can go first.  
Ba-dum-chhh!


(to Audience)
Was the white man’s comment a sly reference to that fuckery—
the joke that isn’t a joke?


Later, I discussed this moment with my therapist.


WHITE MAN 12 as THERAPIST

You didn’t matter to him. That’s why he could step in front of you in the first place.
His embarrassment, if it was embarrassment, had everything to do with how he was seen by the person who did matter: his white male companion. He made a mistake in front of his companion. You are allowing yourself to have too much presence in his imagination.


NARRATOR

(to Audience)
Should this be a comfort?


Was
my total invisibility preferable to a targeted insult?
Doesn’t she understand
my outrage is witness to my existence?


Did I mention my therapist is a white woman?


(to Therapist)
I want a new narrative, one that doesn’t demand or require, or make, or expect, or want
my invisibility. I need a narrative that includes your whiteness as part of the diagnosis.
 
(to Audience about Therapist)
There’s nothing I know that her white unconscious doesn’t already know,
even if she refuses to know what she knows.


THERAPIST

The limits of his world are his world.


NARRATOR
But what he won’t see
still doesn’t make me invisible.


(to Audience)
She must not know what it’s like always to be unexpected,
unless I am fulfilling a service role—
nanny, nurse, nutritionist,


neurosurgeon, neurologist, ninja . . .


WHITE MAN 13
Nonsense.


NARRATOR

(takes in White Man 13, then makes a joke)
You never know who they’re letting in—


the old script leaves unacknowledged his whiteness, or his behavior, or his ordinary whatever . . . disturbance. His ordinary disturbance.


WHITE MAN 17
Listen, when I do something stupid, like accidentally cutting in line, I might say, Jeez, they’ll let anyone in here. The joke refers to the speaker, recognizing their mistake. It’s self-deprecating.


Is it possible that his comment to you was meant to be self-deprecating?


NARRATOR

(to White Man 17, thinking: What the fuck?)
Anything is possible
but a rude man and a rude white man have different presumptions.


WHITE MAN 13
You never know who they’re letting in—


ALL LIVES MATTER sign lights up.


NARRATOR
Seeing him fully meant I understood my presence to be an unexpected downgrade for him.
And though it was too bad if he felt that way, he wasn’t the first. He wouldn’t be the last.
This culture had made him, I mean them.


And I understand I could never unmake him, them—certainly not the ones I travel with, this random and ever-changing sameness, but also not the ones I work with . . .
not even the one I married.
                                                                                  
Given, with single and celebrated exceptions, he, the white man, is president, boss, my other boss, husband, colleague, my seatmate, accountant, lawyer, my waiter, oncologist, physical therapist, my friend, assassin, my, my,


how could I not be invested in understanding him?


Are our lives, his life and my own, not inextricably tied together?


Doesn’t my whole life exist in his hands? If so, could it, would it,
help me to know him better?
How much better?

Still, I wondered, what is this “stuckness” inside racial hierarchies

that refuses the neutrality of the skies?
It’s a real question.


I have friends, Black women friends, women of color friends, white women friends, queer Black men friends, all kinds of friends, many of them married to white men themselves,
who say, Why even bother with them? What do you care? Do you have time to waste?


Step—away—from—the—white—man.


Don’t you understand they’ve thrown you into a false fight

for your humanity?


I understand avoidance of him is one mode of survival.
But I just want to talk.


Are conversations fights?


I don’t think so.


In any case, these friends are not all wrong, but imagine
that after I said to number eight,


(turning to White Man 8)
You shouldn’t have voted for him,


he said,


WHITE MAN 8
You can stand in this line with me, but you’ll never be in line with me. That’s why I voted for him.


WHITE MAN 17
In my profession and in my personal life, I have been able to achieve everything
I have ever set out to do, with little resistance from anyone or anything. This is my reality.


WHITE MAN 2

I can thoughtlessly open a bag of snack food off the shelves while at the supermarket, confident I will not be charged with shoplifting before I can pay for it at checkout.


WHITE MAN 3

People and the police are mostly not suspicious of me in public places, like airports or shops, because of their
contextual knowledge
of who I am.


WHITE MAN 7
If the cost of my way of life is your life—that’s not my concern.


WHITE MAN 12
That’s why we voted for him.   


NARRATOR

A five, a six,
a five-six-seven-eight—


[. . .]


SCENE 4


NARRATOR
Just the other day while waiting for a flight I saw a video of a police training seminar on the news. The police were discussing the treatment of trans­gender people. Trans people are three times more likely to be victims of police violence than non-trans people.


White Men become the characters of a police diversity training in Plainfield, Indiana. Scene below is a transcription from video of the interaction. Instructor stands there in the middle of presentation. Capt. Scott Arndt, Police Chief, other White Men, and Capt. Carri Weber are all seated watching the Instructor’s presentation.


CAPT. SCOTT ARNDT
(responding to statistics of violence against trans people presented by instructor)

That’s not even accurate, because if you can’t have a basis for where the number comes from or what the situation is that, that puts them in that situation—


INSTRUCTOR
Mm-hmm.


CAPT. SCOTT ARNDT
I mean, are they more likely to be in this situation than somebody that’s not transgender?


INSTRUCTOR
Mm-hmm. Yes.


CAPT. SCOTT ARNDT

Which I don’t know what that is—I’m just saying . . . my life has never been . . . part of police violence. Most of the people that I know . . . have never been—


CAPT. CARRI WEBER
(mumbling, inaudible)
’Cause of your white male privilege.


CAPT. SCOTT ARNDT
accused the police of violence. So I guess I don’t get where that statistic comes from.


CAPT. CARRI WEBER
(from audience, off camera)
’Cause of your white male privilege, so you wouldn’t know.


CAPT. SCOTT ARNDT
I’m sorry?


WHITE MAN 18
I’m sorry, what?


CAPT. WEBER
Your white male privilege.
 
WHITE MAN 6
I am sorry?
 
WHITE MAN 4
Wow.
 
WHITE MAN 15
What?

WHITE MAN 14
I’m sorry?

WHITE MAN 15
What?

WHITE MAN 4
Wow.

WHITE MAN 15
WHAT?

WHITE MAN 18
What?
 
INSTRUCTOR
Let’s bring it down a notch.


Instructor crosses to make room for Police Chief, who is now in front of the room.


CHIEF

Let’s keep it safe and professional.
 
White Men react to this.


CAPT. SCOTT ARNDT
It’s not!


CHIEF
That’s my—


White Men’s reactions continue.


CHIEF

(continuing)
role and objective. So I don’t—
 
White Men react in the room. Capt. Scott Arndt hits a table.
 
CHIEF
(continuing)
want to focus on the statistics—


CAPT. SCOTT ARNDT
(interrupting)
Chief,
 
CHIEF
(continuing)
because quite frankly—


CAPT. SCOTT ARNDT
(interrupting)
you gonna let them get away with that?


CHIEF
No.

CAPT. SCOTT ARNDT
Seriously? I’m asking a legitimate question here,


CHIEF

Let me help you.

CAPT. SCOTT ARNDT
(continuing)
and I’m getting taught white privilege?


CHIEF

I wo—


CAPT. SCOTT ARNDT

(continuing)
Are you serious? (yelling) I find that extremely offensive . . .
 
CHIEF
Okay.


CAPT. SCOTT ARNDT

(interrupting)
And I’m, I’m—trying to be as professional as I can—
 
WHITE MAN 15
(to Capt. Scott Arndt)
You’ve got—

CAPT. SCOTT ARNDT
(continuing)
and learn.


WHITE MAN 15
(to Capt. Scott Arndt)
You’ve got someone that’s trying to talk. Please sit down.
 
CHIEF
Please. All right. Hold on a second.


CAPT. SCOTT ARNDT
No, I will leave. And I will file it on your desk.
 
Capt. Scott Arndt walks toward door. Other White Men in the room are talking and whispering to one another.

CHIEF
We’re not talking about white privilege here.
 
White Men talk among themselves.


CAPT. SCOTT ARNDT
(louder whispering)
I can’t listen to that.
I can’t listen to that.
I can’t listen to that.
 
White Men are still whispering.
 
CHIEF
Anyway, we’re going to move beyond this. (to Instructor) If you could go to the next slide.


End of police station reenactment.


NARRATOR

(to Audience)
After uttering the phrase “white male privilege,” Captain Weber was put on paid administrative leave, and a reprimand was placed permanently in her file.
I felt a little naive for feeling shocked.


If white women can get reprimanded for calling out the system of white male privilege, I should be more terrified than I am of my neighbors, colleagues, and seatmates, terrified of white male rage. A rage that refuses response with a knee on Black people’s throats, designed to stop their hearts.


It’s as if all the f-words—
fury
fucked
fascism
fatal   
—exist simply to gun down all the n-words.


This is why to stay alive, forget thriving, I need to negotiate the white man.


His proclivities are the definition of the Black woman’s lack of possibilities.
And possibilities.


Can we have the luxury of living in this reality, even if nothing changes?


Can we agree that white men get to exist, they get to live their lives, unless they’re unlucky;
hell, even if they’re unlucky?


Can we understand that as their privilege?


(to White Men)
Black women on the other hand have a lot of structural shit going down before luck comes into play.
Isn’t this at the center of the misalignment?
Isn’t this the reality we are constantly tripping over?


Isn’t this the reality Renisha McBride walked into in the early morning in the fall of 2013,
or is it the reality Breonna Taylor woke into in the spring of 2020?


WHITE MAN 9 as NEWSCASTER

Renisha McBride, a young Black woman, was shot to death by a white man when her car crashed and she knocked at his door for help.

Breonna Taylor, a young Black woman, was shot to death by police in her home.


WHITE MAN 8
You know who you are little missus.


WHITE MAN 12
She’s a miscreant.


WHITE MAN 10
A misdemeanor.


WHITE MAN 1

Misfeasance.


Potentially a movement moment here. Maybe Narrator falls back into the memory of the deaths of McBride and Taylor, and White Men carry her like
a coffin.


NARRATOR

Why do I have to die in order for you to live?


WHITE MEN who are carrying Narrator

(singing)
Amazing grace!
How sweet the sound
that saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found;
Was blind but now I see.
I can be poor and alive,
rich and alive,
alive and a murderer,
alive and a savior,
no one’s savior and alive,
alive and alive, alive.


Narrator is standing again.


NARRATOR

The sustained stress of a day-to-day negotiation of white dismissal, white fragility, white defensiveness, white presumptions, white perceptions, white stereotypes,
white power, white racism is its own bullet,
even if it takes fifty or sixty years to kill me.


Mama, being able to just breathe can’t be taken for granted
despite the fact that we’re all standing here in line. 


SCENE 5


NARRATOR

When I immigrated to this country at age seven, my mother said, Don’t trust white people.
It was that simple. Don’t trust white people.


Everybody’s Black mama had something to say to her children going off into  a life where the
rancor of all the n-words
was running rampant.


A friend told me his mama told him to be “twice as good” as he entered his first-grade class.
My mother apparently already felt things were out of my hands.


She didn’t quote W. E. B. Du Bois saying, “But what of Black women? . . . I most sincerely doubt if any other race of women could have brought its fineness up through so devilish a fire.”


She didn’t quote Lincoln.


WHITE MAN 9 as LINCOLN

While [we] do remain together there must be a position of superior and inferior, and I, as much as any other man, am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race. I say upon this occasion I do not perceive that because the white man is to have the superior position the negro should be denied everything. I do not understand that because I do not want a negro woman for a slave I must necessarily want her for a wife.


NARRATOR
She didn’t quote Jefferson.


WHITE MAN 9 as JEFFERSON

Deep-rooted prejudices entertained by the whites; ten thousand recollections by the Blacks, of the injuries they have sustained; new provocations; the real distinctions which nature has made; and many other circumstances, will divide us into parties, and produce convulsions which will probably never end but in the extermination of the one or the other race.


NARRATOR

My mother didn’t say anything about exterminations, racism, or slavery. Only trust.


There were white people and there was me, and I didn’t know when or how, but, as a Black girl, no, for a Black girl, days were a thing to be negotiated around the inhumanity of these people who were apparently also untrustworthy.


Even as a child, I found myself watching my white teachers—what were they up to? 
As we get older, how has distrust in all of us reformed itself into pain?


What pain are we hoarding?


That pain that develops into resentment, where does it live?
And despite white people wanting to call others racist for calling them white—


WHITE MAN 12
I’m sorry.


WHITE MAN 17
WHAT?


WHITE MAN 3

WHAT?


WHITE MAN 19
Wow.


WHITE MAN 1
I am sorry?


WHITE MAN 7
I am sorry?


WHITE MAN 10
What?


WHITE MAN 8
Wow.


WHITE MAN 9
What?


WHITE MAN 13
What?


WHITE MAN 11
Wow.


NARRATOR
—what are they really feeling beyond the defensiveness and rage?


I share spaces with white men all the time,


or, rather, I share nonspaces
on our way to and from our destinations.


Given that their fantasies are tomorrow’s legislation,
shaping so much of what we can imagine,


would it kill me
to ask them about white privilege?


WHITE MEN

(singing)
The audacity of that woman
The audacity of that
Black
Woman.


ACT 2
SCENE 1


Narrator is seated with her luggage. She overhears a number of conversations. White Men are seated and just talking. Maxine Waters on the floor of the House of Representatives is on the TV at the gate.


WHITE MAN 6
Fuck, dude, that was brutal. I am out.


WHITE MAN 3

Oh my God.
I am exhausted by her talk.


WHITE MAN 6

I hear you.
Where are you from?


WHITE MAN 3

Georgia.


WHITE MAN 6
Stacey Abrams territory.


WHITE MAN 3

Stacey Abrams? Oh yeah, yeah, I was prepared for Abrams, but I don’t think Georgia was.
You got to be pragmatic.


WHITE MAN 6
She was a lawyer from Yale, right?


WHITE MAN 3
At the end of the day it’s about who will win.


WHITE MAN 6
Yeah, I hear you.
You want the diversity stuff but some moments transcend race.


SCENE 2


WHITE MAN 5

The Democratic field really narrowed.


WHITE MAN 9 Well, the candidates have to be electable.   


WHITE MAN 5 My kids were so excited about Kamala Harris. (saying it in different ways because he’s not sure if he’s pronouncing it correctly) Kamala. Kamala, Kamala Harris.


WHITE MAN 9
Kamala? Didn’t Saturday Night Live do a thing about her?


WHITE MAN 5
Yeah, she really went after Biden for saying he can work with anybody.


WHITE MAN 9
But who’s the man now? ’Cause she’s out.


WHITE MAN 5
For now. There’s always the VP slot, but you’re right. No one can say anything  anymore.
Biden is bad but he’s not Trump bad.
They make him out to be Trump bad.


You know Kamala is only the second Black woman to be elected to the Senate.


WHITE MAN 9
What about Shirley Chisholm?


WHITE MAN 5

That was the House.


WHITE MAN 9
What’s the difference? Only two? Who’s the second one? Rosa Parks?


WHITE MAN 5

You’re hilarious.


WHITE MAN 9
Not her?


WHITE MAN 5

No. It was Carol Moseley Braun.


WHITE MAN 9
I’ve never heard of her. You’re sure it’s not Sheila Jackson Lee? She has a cowboy hat.


WHITE MAN 5

No, that’s Frederica Wilson.


WHITE MAN 9
How are you keeping them straight?


WHITE MAN 5

They have different names.


And faces.


[. . .]


SCENE 7


NARRATOR

After another long flight, I wondered what it would take to get white men to discuss their privilege. I knew they would speak differently if I were white.


I asked my friend, who’s completed more than a hundred oral histories with white people, what he learned in his conversations with white men.


WHITE MAN 11 as WHITNEY DOW

They’re struggling to construct a just narrative for themselves as new information comes in.


I include myself in that.


We’re seeing the deconstruction of the white male archetype. The individual actor on the grand stage always had the support of a genocidal government, but this is certainly not the narrative I grew up with. Few of us did.


It’s a challenge to adjust, but not everyone has taken up the challenge. I don’t think this guy I interviewed got the memo.


White Man 2 appears as a video subject of Whitney’s interview.


WHITE MAN 2

Should slavery be something that because it happened, we owe Black people something more? Absolutely not. I think it’s hard to talk about race as a white person, because I feel like maybe, sometimes Black people are just looking for a reason to . . . tell you why you’re wrong or tell you why you owe them something. If I was in a room full of white people, I would not feel uncomfortable talking about race.


NARRATOR

(to Whitney Dow)
I wonder if by race he means Blackness.
Did you ask him if he talked about his whiteness with other white people?
 
WHITNEY DOW
No, I didn’t want him to stop talking to me.


NARRATOR

What is it Audre Lorde said, the master’s tools—
 
WHITNEY DOW
Won’t dismantle the master’s house. But don’t you want to get in the house, see how it’s built, know what he’s thinking?


NARRATOR

I would never get in the house. The trust they have with you is based only on the fact that you’re white. That’s how taken for granted a sense of white solidarity is.


WHITNEY DOW

That’s true. What can I say? My hope is this work makes apparent the terms of that solidarity. I think for some white men, the privilege is becoming recognizable.


But I guess, they can’t truly see themselves until they can see how you see them.


NARRATOR
But shouldn’t that be how you see them too?


Help
was commissioned and produced by The Shed. © Claudia Rankine, 2020.