Citizen: An American Lyric

Citizen: An American Lyric Summary and Analysis of Section III


Section III starts off with another short interaction that reminds the reader of Section I. A friend calls you a "nappy-headed ho" as you arrive late to meet her in a distant neighborhood (38). She has never code-switched like this before and you speculate as to why she has done it just now. Maybe your lateness has signaled the stereotype of "black people time" and so she responds with "black people language" (38). A picture of several black females wearing red sports jackets is on this page.

A woman at work calls you by another woman's name and you cannot help but laugh out loud. The woman whose name you were called stands right beside you and laughs as well. The narrator relinquishes the offended feeling, saying "in the end, so what, who cares?" (39.) However, your co-worker's apology note calls the incident "our mistake,” connoting that "your own invisibility is the real problem causing her confusion" (39).

When you arrive, a manager who was expecting you to come by blurts out that he didn't know you were black. He says he didn't mean to say that, and you respond by finishing his thought: "Aloud" (40).

Another woman with many degrees says she didn't know that black women could get cancer.

A friend says that you look angry in a photograph on the internet. This is the photo that you and the photographer agreed looked the most relaxed.

Your sabbatical schedule matches with everybody else's, but a friend says that you are always on sabbatical. What does he mean?

Context is what makes something funny, explains a man promoting his new book on humor. If you were to say something with friends, they would laugh, but out in public "where black people could hear what was said" you probably would not (44). This is when you realize that you are among "the other out in public" and not among "friends" (44).

At a different seminar, Judith Butler answers the question of what makes language hurtful. She says that "we suffer from the condition of being addressable" (45). This renders racist language not an agent of erasure, but rather of hypervisibility: it exploits all the ways you are present.

Outside a conference room where you will be spending the next two hours, you hear snippets of a conversation between two men who will join you. They say "being around black people is like watching a foreign film without translation" (46).

A real estate woman shows you and her friend around the house and repeatedly tells the friend how comfortable she feels around her. You don't ask who is making her uncomfortable.

A piece of graphic art takes up the next two pages. They both repeat phrases in stencils and ink down the page until the smudges make it illegible. The first one says: "I do not always feel colored" and the second one says: "I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background" (48-49).

The man at the cash register wants to know whether your card will work before allowing you to purchase a sandwich and Pellegrino. Your friend does not say anything, even as you give her an emphatic look.

Your friend says it is best not to absorb the world: simply refuse to accept things that people say. The questions "did you just hear, did you just say, did you just see, did you just do that?" keeps your foot on your throat (51).


Rankine repeats the phrase "What did you say?" throughout this section, which indicates yet another theme within microaggressions. This section focuses more on addressability and our reaction to language when used to address, both directly and indirectly. The narrator laughs and calls people out for the first time; for instance, he remarks that the manager’s mistake was saying what he said aloud. The key to this section is that the narrator recognizes her capacity to react. Microaggressions do not end at the microaggressive statement: the reaction is part of the aggression as well. If the subject stays quiet, the microaggression goes under the radar of the speaker. Whereas Section I trusts the reader to understand the injustice being performed, Section III provides the much desired protest to the acts.

Naturally, the discomfort felt in Section I only grows when it is acted upon in this section. When somebody says something with an intentional or unintentional racist leaning, that person is not uncomfortable–only the listener is. Now, finally, the speaker gets drawn into the headache that is the black American’s existence. As the image of Zora Neale Hurston's powerful quote gets smudged out on the image in this section, the narrator refuses to be smudged out. But when the narrator looks emphatically toward her friend, who is blind to the microaggression performed at the cash register, it seems that she does get smudged out after all.

The end of the section is bleak. It's not as if the narrator's reactions had really performed any good, other than to give the microaggressive speaker a dose of anxiety. The speaker is not changed, as far as we can tell. The narrator's friend says to just reject the world - don't react to it. Won't this response cause headaches, just like before?