Last year African American poet Claudia Rankine—author of 2014's award-winning Citizen, a meditation on everyday racism—received a MacArthur Fellowship and announced her plans for the $625,000 stipend: helping establish the Racial Imaginary Institute, a New York City space for art exhibits, lectures, and films that will investigate whiteness. We were curious...

O: Why whiteness?

Claudia Rankine: Every sphere of life—housing, healthcare, education, the justice system—is in part defined along racial lines. White-dominated institutions draw those lines, so if you're white, they're probably invisible to you. You're not thinking, My child's school has a library because of my skin color. The idea of whiteness as the standard runs so deep. Just do a Google image search for "boys being boys" or "beautiful women," and see how many white people come up versus people of color. We can't talk about race without talking about what our culture privileges.

O: Does the term whiteness make white people defensive?

CR: They'll anxiously insist, "I'm not racist." Well, yes, you are. We all have biases—only I don't have power behind mine. If we can understand that racism is an active force, we can figure out how we got here. Think about sexism. Until some men could admit that it existed, men and women couldn't have a dialogue about it.

O: So white people need to get more comfortable with being uncomfortable.

CR: Yes. You know, when critics praise work by an artist of color, they'll often say the themes are universal—which just means white Americans can read or view it without feeling discomfort. But if a work brings in historical unpleasantries or white privilege, it's categorized as political—black, lesbian, gay, Arab. "Universal" has been encoded to mean "white."

O: What's truly universal?

CR: Death is universal. The fact that we are born and we die. How we travel from that first moment to the last moment is much more complicated.

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