Part of a Larger Battle: A Conversation with Thomas Chatterton Williams

Posted in Articles, Interviews, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Philosophy, United States on 2020-07-17 14:44Z by Steven

Part of a Larger Battle: A Conversation with Thomas Chatterton Williams

Los Angeles Review of Books
2020-07-16

Otis Houston
Portland, Oregon


Thomas Chatterton Williams

I FIRST INTERVIEWED Thomas Chatterton Williams for the Los Angeles Review of Books in the spring of 2019. We discussed his then-forthcoming book, Self-Portrait in Black and White: Unlearning Race, as well as the state of the discussion about race in in the United States, including the popular movements for social justice born of the increased visibility of the killings of black Americans by police.

I recently spoke with Thomas again about what has changed in the way we talk about race and identity. We also discussed the effects of the collision of social justice theories with art and institutions, and the best-selling books that are now influencing the national mood and tracing the borders of generational and ideological difference in the United States in 2020.

Thomas is a contributing editor at The New York Times and a columnist at Harper’s. He spoke to me by phone from his home in Paris, France. The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

OTIS HOUSTON: At about this time last year we discussed Self-Portrait in Black and White: Unlearning Race. One of your main arguments was that, in order to transcend racism and the social hierarchies it imposes, we have to commit to rejecting the very concept of race and its centrality in determining our identities.

One year later, in a time of mass protests in response to the killing of George Floyd, it seems to me like we’re seeing the media and some of the most prominent voices in the antiracism movement moving further away from the view of race and identity you’ve been advocating for. Increasingly, they argue that effective opposition to racism requires racial identity to always be foremost in our minds, both in the way we view politics and society and in our daily interactions with one another. This ideological movement is perhaps most visible in the books How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi and White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo, which have topped best-seller lists for weeks now. How would you describe this shift in thinking?

THOMAS CHATTERTON WILLIAMS: I see that as kind of a lamentable movement, actually. The two books that have dominated the conversation — and I mean dominated — are books that brook no middle ground and occlude any nuance. Robin DiAngelo’s central thesis, for instance, is that white people function not as individuals, but as a category, as a monolith that is inherently racist. According to her, to deny that you’re racist as a white person is proof of your racism, and to admit that you’re racist as a white person is proof of your racism, and the circular logic is airtight…

Read the entire interview here.

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How Should I Think About Race When Considering a Sperm Donor?

Posted in Articles, Family/Parenting, Health/Medicine/Genetics, Media Archive, Philosophy, United States on 2020-06-23 17:55Z by Steven

How Should I Think About Race When Considering a Sperm Donor?

The Ethicist
The New York Times Magazine
2020-06-16

Kwame Anthony Appiah, Professor of Philosophy, Law
New York University


Illustration by Tomi Um

I am an American woman, of Ashkenazi Jewish ancestry, and I strive to live my life as an active agent against racism and white supremacy. I am beginning to consider having children and am open to bearing a child as a single mother. It is possible to sort through sperm donors by race, eye color, education level and so on. If I choose a donor of color, am I condemning my child to be born into a system designed not to serve them? Or can I use my white privilege to help them fight that system? Would my future child of color feel separated from their heritage with me as their mother? If I choose a white donor, am I succumbing to racist ideas of what traits are “desirable,” or taking the “easy road” in knowing my child will look more like me? What do you think? Name Withheld

Women have been making choices about their children’s possible appearance and identity from the beginning of human history. Long before genetics, people knew that parental characteristics show up in their offspring. With modern technologies, the prospects for trying to fix your child’s heritable characteristics are expanding, raising plenty of ethical issues. Race, however, is not a biological fact but a social fact — a social fact that, for example, Americans who are known to have African ancestry are regarded as African-American. What’s more, having an African-American donor doesn’t tell you what your child’s skin or hair will look like. You can be socially black without looking black, like Walter White, the longtime head of the N.A.A.C.P.

I’m spelling all this out because your question about having a child with a sperm donor of color presupposes that it will produce a child who won’t look “white,” and that’s not necessarily the case. Suppose you have a white-looking son with an African-American sperm donor. Then you and your child will have a choice to make about whether he or she should identify as African-American. Some people think that failing to do so — “passing for white” — is somehow dishonest. Yet to hold that you must identify as black in those circumstances would be to accede to a longstanding American notion (“the one-drop rule”) that one black ancestor makes you black. You could reasonably reject that notion, which is rooted in the history of slavery and the nonsensical racial theories that grew up with it…

Read the entire article here.

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Escaping Blackness

Posted in Articles, Book/Video Reviews, Europe, Media Archive, Passing, Philosophy, United States on 2020-03-07 02:03Z by Steven

Escaping Blackness

New York Review of Books
2020-03-26

Darryl Pinckney


Thomas Chatterton Williams, New York City, 2019
Dominique Nabokov

Self-Portrait in Black and White: Unlearning Race
by Thomas Chatterton Williams
Norton, 174 pp., $25.95

The black individual passing for white in nineteenth- and twentieth-century American fiction by white writers is usually a woman, and usually when the truth emerges, the purity of the white race is saved. However, in An Imperative Duty (1891) by William Dean Howells, a Boston girl is ashamed to find out that legally she is colored, but her white suitor marries her anyway and takes her off to a life in Italy. In the beginning of Charles Chesnutt’s The House Behind the Cedars (1900), a “high-bred” black man in North Carolina returns to his hometown to ask his sister to take his dead white wife’s place and bring up his son. A young aristocrat she meets in her new white life proposes marriage, but soon learns the truth of her origins. Literary convention, in the form of a fever, kills her. The white suitor realizes too late that love conquers all. He promises to keep the brother’s secret.

The secret was as radical as Chesnutt could get. From a North Carolina family of “free issue” blacks—meaning emancipated since colonial times—Chesnutt had blond hair and blue eyes. He wouldn’t pass for white, because if he became famous then he chanced someone appearing from his past. He preferred to pursue reputation as a black man. Chesnutt had cousins who crossed the color line and he never told on them, viewing passing as an act of “self-preservation,” a private solution to the race problem. The big escape from being black was an American tradition. Three of Sally Hemings’s six children ended up living as white people.

The nameless narrator of James Weldon Johnson’s novel The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man (1912), a widower and a father, says little about his life as a white man. He is interested instead in his past as a black person, his life with different classes of black people, his wanderings around Europe as a young musician. When he returned to the United States and went on a folk song–collecting tour of the South, he witnessed a lynching—a black man being burned alive. Terrified, he got himself across the color line. He didn’t want to belong to a racial group so utterly without power…

Thomas Chatterton Williams, who belongs to the hip-hop generation of multiculturalism and diversity, is willing to risk being a throwback in his memoir/essay Self-Portrait in Black and White: Unlearning Race. To speculate on the racial future, he goes back to the days when the black individual who could do so took the side exit from segregated life to personal freedom. He deals with passing for white, class privilege, and his hopes for the possibilities of race transcendence, knowing perfectly well that because he is light-skinned he can contemplate racial identity as being provisional, voluntary, situational, and fluid…

Read the entire review here.

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“What Are You?”: Addressing Racial Ambiguity

Posted in Articles, Media Archive, Philosophy on 2020-02-18 18:17Z by Steven

“What Are You?”: Addressing Racial Ambiguity

Critical Philosophy of Race
Volume 8, Numbers 1-2, 2020
pages 202-307

Céline Leboeuf, Assistant Professor of Philosophy
Florida International University, Miami, Florida

“What are you?” This question, whether explicitly raised by another or implied in his gaze, is one with which many persons perceived to be racially ambiguous struggle. This article centers on encounters with this question. Its aim is twofold: first, to describe the phenomenology of a particular type of racializing encounter, one in which one of the parties is perceived to be racially ambiguous; second, to investigate how these often alienating encounters can be better negotiated. In the course of this investigation, this article examines the addressee’s point of view and consider possible responses to the other’s question. In addition, it discusses the addresser’s perspective, both to probe the curiosity underlying the “What are you?” question and to explore alternatives to it. By describing the phenomenology of these encounters, this article hopes to show that racial ambiguity, as distinct from mixed-race, is a category of lived experience that calls for deeper philosophical scrutiny.

Read or purchase the article here.

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What if We Just Forgot about Race?

Posted in Articles, Book/Video Reviews, Media Archive, Philosophy, Social Science on 2020-02-13 16:26Z by Steven

What if We Just Forgot about Race?

National Review
2020-02-11

Kyle Smith, Critic-at-Large


Opponents of a white nationalist-led rally hold a Black Lives Matter flag in downtown Washington, D.C., August 12, 2018. (Leah Millis/Reuters)

Thomas Chatterton Williams, Self-Portrait in Black and White: Unlearning Race (New York: W. W. Norton, 2019)

In his beautifully written new book, Thomas Chatterton Williams disputes the notion that his blackness should be central to his identity.

Picture a graph of American racial preoccupation over time. Over the last 50 years, the downward trend is unmistakable. After the civil-rights era, anger and frustration and dismay diminished in the Seventies. It diminished more in the Eighties and the Nineties and the Aughts. Then, after the election of Barack Obama, which was presented as the final victory of post-racial thinking, what? A steady increase in focus on race. Today everything is racialized. Race is inescapable. There is no sociopolitical subject that can be discussed without a prominent voice insisting “Actually, this is about race.”

And it’s exhausting. It’s hard to see how we bend the curve of race anguish down again. But then again, it’s a mistake to think that present trends must carry on indefinitely. Attitudes do evolve, adapt, grow. What if we dropped our fascination with race?…

Read or listen to the entire review here.

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Fateful Triangles in Brazil: A Forum on Stuart Hall’s The Fateful Triangle: Race, Ethnicity, Nation, Part II

Posted in Articles, Brazil, Caribbean/Latin America, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Philosophy, Politics/Public Policy on 2020-02-03 21:02Z by Steven

Fateful Triangles in Brazil: A Forum on Stuart Hall’s The Fateful Triangle: Race, Ethnicity, Nation, Part II

Contexto International
Volume 41, Number 2, Rio de Janeiro (May/Aug. 2019)
pages 449-470
DOI: 10.1590/s0102-8529.2019410200012

Sharon A. Stanley, Professor of Political Science
University of Memphis, Memphis, Tennessee

João Nackle Urt, Assistant Professor
Federal University of Grande Dourados (UFGD), Dourados-MS, Brazil

Thiago Braz, Ph.D. Candidate
Institute of International Relations
Pontifical Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro (PUC-Rio), Rio de Janeiro-RJ, Brazil

Stuart Hall, a founding scholar in the Birmingham School of cultural studies and eminent theorist of ethnicity, identity and difference in the African diaspora, as well as a leading analyst of the cultural politics of the Thatcher and post-Thatcher years, delivered the W. E. B. Du Bois Lectures at Harvard University in 1994. In the lectures, published after a nearly quarter-century delay as The Fateful Triangle: Race, Ethnicity, Nation (2017), Hall advances the argument that race, at least in North Atlantic contexts, operates as a ‘sliding signifier,’ such that, even after the notion of a biological essence to race has been widely discredited, race-thinking nonetheless renews itself by essentializing other characteristics such as cultural difference. Substituting Michel Foucault’s famous power-knowledge dyad with power-knowledge-difference, Hall argues that thinking through the fateful triangle of race, ethnicity and nation shows us how discursive systems attempt to deal with human difference.

In ‘Fateful Triangles in Brazil,’ Part II of Contexto Internacional’s forum on The Fateful Triangle, three scholars work with and against Hall’s arguments from the standpoint of racial politics in Brazil. Sharon Stanley argues that Hall’s account of hybrid identity may encounter difficulties in the Brazilian context, where discourses of racial mixture have, in the name of racial democracy, supported anti-black racism. João Nackle Urt investigates the vexed histories of ‘race,’ ‘ethnicity’ and ‘nation’ in reference to indigenous peoples, particularly Brazilian Indians. Finally, Thiago Braz shows, from a perspective that draws on Afro-Brazilian thinkers, that emphasizing the contingency of becoming in the concept of diaspora may ignore the myriad ways by which Afro-diasporic Brazilians are marked as being black, and thus subject to violence and inequality.

Part I of the forum – with contributions by Donna Jones, Kevin Bruyneel and William Garcia – critically examines the promise and potential problems of Hall’s work from the context of North America and western Europe in the wake of #BlackLivesMatter and Brexit.

Read the entire article here.

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Autobiography of an Ex-Black Man

Posted in Articles, Autobiography, Book/Video Reviews, Identity Development/Psychology, Media Archive, Philosophy on 2019-12-24 02:48Z by Steven

Autobiography of an Ex-Black Man

Harpers’s
December 2019

Emily Bernard

Thomas Chatterton Williams loses his race

Self-Portrait in Black and White, by Thomas Chatterton Williams. W. W. Norton. 192 pages. $25.95.

What a strange thing is “race,” and family, stranger still.
—Elizabeth Alexander, “Race”

“I’m the happiest I’ve ever been!” declares Wanda Sykes in her 2016 Epix special, What Happened . . . Ms. Sykes? As one of her fans, I was glad to hear it. As a member of a racially and culturally mixed family, I was particularly charmed to learn the circumstances of Sykes’s joy. For ten years, Wanda Sykes has been a mother. Her wife, Alex Niedbalski, gave birth to twins Olivia and Lucas in 2009. “My kids are white white, you know? I mean blond hair, blue eyes. I’m talking Frozen,” says Sykes.

“Never in a million years would I have imagined myself in this situation.

“Here’s the thing. I’m a black woman from Virginia,” she continues. “I went to an H.B.C.U., historically black college—I went to Hampton University. I pledged the first black sorority, Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Incorporated. So I got a lot of black going on.” The audience roars. “And now I’m married to a white French woman, and I have two white kids. Fucked up my legacy.” She throws her arm up to the ceiling.

“Now, don’t get me wrong,” she says. “I love my family. I love my family dearly, you know, and I wish we could live in a color-blind society. Yeah. But I gotta admit, I see shit.”…

Self-Portrait is Williams’s attempt to liberate his mind from the shackles of conventional racial designations once he realizes that his children will never be seen by anyone—not even, most likely, by themselves—as black. Williams, the son of a white mother and a black father, whom he calls “Pappy” and who serves as an intellectual and ethical anchor in Self-Portrait and a previous memoir, marries a white French woman, and their firstborn child, a daughter named Marlow, emerges in the delivery room with blond hair and blue eyes. Because Marlow will not share his racial identity, Williams decides that that identity no longer suits him. Instead of black, by the end of the book, he calls himself “ex-black”—which may be a bit like threatening to run away from home but never making it past the front porch.

Still, Self-Portrait is a fluent, captivating, if often disquieting story. Thomas Chatterton Williams and Wanda Sykes have many of the same questions about the way race will affect how they relate to their children, and how their children will see themselves. “In all of these white rooms that she is being brought up in, what will she learn to think of herself?” Williams writes about Marlow. But there is not much to laugh about in Self-Portrait, which begins with a lot of hand-wringing over Marlow’s fate. “Will she develop my ancestral GPS,” Williams writes, “or will that signal fade—would it even be right for me to transmit my habits of orientation, some of which are riddled with guilt and steeped in illusion, to her untroubled head?”…

Read the entire review here.

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Color Blind

Posted in Articles, Autobiography, Book/Video Reviews, Media Archive, Passing, Philosophy on 2019-11-12 19:02Z by Steven

Color Blind

The Nation
2019-11-11

Ismail Muhammad, Reviews Editor
The Believer


Charts for testing color blindness. (Wellcome Collection)

Thomas Chatterton Williams’s argument against race.

Thomas Chatterton Williams, Self-Portrait in Black and White: Unlearning Race (New York: W. W. Norton, 2019)

Early in Nella Larsen’s 1929 novella Passing, Clare Kendry speaks nervously of her daughter Margery’s birth. “I nearly died of terror the whole nine months before Margery was born,” she confesses. She is, for all intents and purposes, a white woman married to a wealthy white man. Yet she finds herself fearing that her child’s birth will reveal her for what she is: a black woman who passes for white. If a child of Clare’s came out dark, it would be evidence of her passing. Luckily, Margery was born fair skinned. “Thank goodness, she turned out all right.”

A similar scene unfolds at the beginning of Thomas Chatterton Williams’s new memoir, Self-Portrait in Black and White: Unlearning Race. In 2013, Williams—the son of a white woman and a black man—and his white French wife are living in Paris when she gives birth to their daughter, Marlow. Like Margery, Marlow arrives with fair skin. But this is not a comfort to Williams; instead, it comes as a shock. “It took my sluggish mind a moment to register and sort the sounds; and then it hit me that [the doctor] was looking at my daughter’s head and reporting back that it was blond,” he recalls.

Unlike Clare’s child, Williams’s blond baby is not the cause of relief but of psychic agitation. For Williams, she’s a portal into a new conception of his own racial identity. “I was aware…however vaguely, that whatever personal identity I had previously inhabited, I had now crossed into something new and different,” he writes. While Williams had long considered himself black, Marlow’s arrival unsettled his assumptions about how real race is to begin with. “The sight of this blond-haired, blue-eyed, impossibly fair-skinned child shocked me—along with the knowledge that she was indubitably mine,” he writes. How can the world consider this child black, and what does it say about his racial identity that he has fathered her? Even more important, his daughter’s birth raises a set of deeper existential and political questions. What does it say about race that some of the key assumptions that buttress Western conceptions of racial identity—that one’s skin color can tell us one’s race, for instance—dissolve in the face of reality’s manifold intricacies?…

Read the entire review here.

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Illusions: A Film by Julie Dash

Posted in Media Archive, Philosophy, United States, Videos, Women on 2019-11-03 02:45Z by Steven

Illusions: A Film by Julie Dash

Women Make Movies
1983
34 minutes
BW
16mm/DVD
Order No. 99306

Julie Dash, Director/Writer

This critically acclaimed drama from filmmaker Julie Dash (Daughers of the Dust) takes place in 1942 at a fictitious Hollywood motion picture studio.

The time is 1942, a year after Pearl Harbor; the place is National Studios, a fictitious Hollywood motion picture studio. Mignon Duprée, a Black woman studio executive who appears to be white and Ester Jeeter, an African American woman who is the singing voice for a white Hollywood star are forced to come to grips with a society that perpetuates false images as status quo. This highly-acclaimed drama by one of the leading African American women directors follows Mignon’s dilemma, Ester’s struggle and the use of cinema in wartime Hollywood: three illusions in conflict with reality.

For more information, click here.

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Can Americans Unlearn Race?

Posted in Articles, Autobiography, Book/Video Reviews, Europe, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Philosophy, United States on 2019-10-16 01:51Z by Steven

Can Americans Unlearn Race?

American Interest
2019-10-15

Morten Høi Jensen


“Willie and Holcha” by William H. Johnson (Wikimedia Commons)

In his lucid new memoir, Thomas Chatterton Williams channels Albert Camus and James Baldwin—and offers a thoughtful counterpoint to the tired racial dogmas of both Right and Left.

Reflecting on why he decided to leave America for Europe, James Baldwin once explained that he wanted to “find out in what way the specialness of my experience could be made to connect me with other people instead of dividing me from them.” The racism of American society in the late 1940s prohibited him from doing so at home, where he was always “merely a Negro.” Only by going abroad could he find the freedom to really ask himself what it meant to be black, to be American, to be African-American. By encountering people so different from himself, Baldwin wrote, he felt at last “a shattering in me of preconceptions I scarcely knew I held.” The constraints of American notions of race and identity were loosened by the existence of entirely different notions. “The time has come,” Baldwin decided, “for us to examine ourselves, but we can only do this if we are willing to free ourselves of the myth of America and try to find out what is really happening here.”

The American writer Thomas Chatterton Williams has followed in the footsteps of Baldwin’s Parisian emigration. Raised in suburban New Jersey by a white mother and black father, Williams grew up thinking of himself not as half-white or of mixed race but as “black, period.” In his literary debut, Losing My Cool (2010), he recounted an adolescence suffused with hip-hop culture and received ideas about a particular kind of black identity. In high school, in the mid-to-late 1990s, Williams strode the hallways with a sweatshop’s worth of flashy apparel, paid homage to the gods of BET, and lived by the dubious moral code of the Big Tymers and Master P. At the local basketball court, he was awestruck by a player known as RaShawn, who sipped Olde English before games, kept in his pocket a knot of bills “as thick and layered as a Spanish onion,” and often resorted to viciously beating up his opponents. “He was like a star to me,” Williams admitted…

Read the entire review here.

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