Claudia Rankine has been named to the 2016 class of MacArthur fellows—or as they're commonly known, geniuses. It's an award that comes with great respect and a big payout—$625,000 paid over five years. But for the author of Citizen: An American Lyric, the honor feels like it's as much for herself as it is for her subject: race relations in America. TIME caught up with Rankine ahead of the announcement to talk about a new round of officer-involved shootings, Colin Kaepernick and the rhetoric of the 2016 election cycle.
TIME: What was it like when you got the call that you’d be named a MacArthur genius?
Rankine: It was exciting and surprising, and more exciting because it was surprising—you know? One doesn’t expect it, especially, I think, doing the kind of work that I do. I feel like I’m constantly turning a critical eye to everyone, so you don’t expect to be rewarded for that.
What does getting this honor mean for you?
It’s an honor to be recognized, obviously, for one’s work, always. But in this case I feel like the recognition is an investment in dismantling white dominance in our culture. So oddly even though the award is given to me, I really feel like it’s being given to my subject. And that, as a member of this culture, as a member of America, as an American citizen, that is encouraging.
What will winning this allow you to do in your work going forward?
One thing I’ve been working on, and talking to co-collaborators about, is a Racial Imaginary Institute. What seemed before the MacArthur like this thing that we wanted to do but which seemed more abstract, suddenly has come more into focus. You know, as a possible thing. I’ve been working with Casey Llewellyn, my husband John Lucas, Beth Loffreda, in thinking about an institute where artists and thinkers and writers are able to come together in a kind of laboratory environment to talk about the making of art and culture and talks that have at its center the dismantling of white dominance. And now that seems more possible, like, they’ll think, ‘Oh yeah, she said she’s gonna do this, we can actually do it.’ I’m hoping that’s what they’ll think!
Is that idea something that would have a geographical home?
What we had been talking about was getting a gallery space inside the world of galleries, so that we have a presenting space where we could have art shows and talks and show films, but also come together and talk about these issues, and where other people would know that if they wanted to workshop something that deals with this subject, that we would be there to be in conversation with them. But I think it’s important that it not be hidden away. I think the visibility of a Racial Imaginary Institute is part of what is important about it. Because the constructions around whiteness are crippling everyone. When police are shooting unarmed people, I believe them when they say, as Darren Wilson said, ‘What I’m seeing is a demon.’ You know? ‘What I’m seeing is the Incredible Hulk.’ That’s about what’s in the imagination. What we know is that for many white people, black people are coupled with criminality in their imagination. That’s an equation for the white imagination. And they can’t get beyond it. And part of the reason I believe they can’t get beyond it is because they don’t see the construction of it. I think we are in need of an institute that does the work of investigating and bringing forward those things that have been made absent or erased inside the culture around white dominance.
Is there anything else that you’re working on now?
I’m also working on a play with Arts Emerson at Emerson College in Boston that draws from Citizen but is really a discussion about race in contemporary America. It’s a play that puts everybody in the room and links our history to contemporary experience.
What’s the timeline?
We’re hoping in the fall of 2017.
You have written about young unarmed black men dying at the hands of cops, and this week these stories are back in the news. What has struck you about this latest round of attention?
I think it was a policewoman in Tulsa; she was put on paid leave. Again. So constantly we are seeing the structure take care of its own. Our justice system does not signal to the American public that it has a consciousness of the injustice inside its own justice system. And that has not wavered since the videos and Black Lives Matter and American citizens have been out on the street protesting this. It has stayed steady in its insistence that the killing of unarmed black people is justified.
A lot of the issues that you write about in Citizen have persisted or come to a boil this election season. What has your reaction been to watching this all unfold?
I think the things that I’ve written about were always going on, and I wrote about them in my first book, you know, 20 years ago, and I have been writing about them consistently since. I think one of the things that is different at this moment is that we are in a position politically where the rhetoric is insisting on the agenda of white supremacy. And that we have not heard in such a bold way, despite what has been present systemically and structurally, we have not had a public presence of the language of white supremacy in the way that we have now. And so to have the rhetoric overtly mimic the structure is new for us.
Why do you think such a large faction of people seem comfortable with that rhetoric all of a sudden this election season?
That’s what’s surprising to me, that we are in a state of emergency and we don’t seem to recognize that.
Do you think it’s Trump-driven, or that he’s just the most visible emblem?
I think that no single person can be responsible for something that is already inside the structure. I think that what is unique about this moment is that we have a major candidate who is willing to express racist rhetoric in the media, constantly, 24/7, and that emboldens citizens who are thinking it but might not have said it, say, two years ago.
What do you think about the current wave of national anthem protests?
I think it’s appropriate. I think we are in a state of emergency. I think Colin Kaepernick’s reaction is justified and should be a model for all Americans that we are the United States of America and we should not tolerate the killing of Americans based on racist constructions. It seems like a no-brainer.
What have been the moments in your career that meant most to you? The first teacher who encouraged you, the first reader you heard from, the first editor who took a risk on your work…
I was at a dinner party the other day and somebody said to me, ‘You know what I like about Citizen? I like the fact that your work can be read by somebody who has just gotten out of prison, and also somebody who is a professor at a university.’ I think for me, that was a really meaningful moment. That sense that the work is available to everyone and it doesn’t matter the gender, race, sexuality—that people are responding to the presence of people in the work. I found that very moving.
Have you heard from any readers who surprised you?
I think the most surprising readers in the case of Citizen are Asian women. I have had letters and discussions with so many Asian women who say that this world of racist comments, negotiating micro-aggressions, is their world, and that even though they understand that they’re not living the lives that black people live in this country, they felt that parts of Citizen spoke intimately to them.