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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How to become an ex-black man

Posted in Articles, Autobiography, Book/Video Reviews, Media Archive, Philosophy, United States on 2019-10-16 01:25Z by Steven

How to become an ex-black man

The Washington Post
2019-10-11

Carlos Lozada, Book Critic

Protesters march in the street in Ferguson, Mo., on Aug. 20, 2014. (Jeff Roberson, File)
Protesters march in the street in Ferguson, Mo., on Aug. 20, 2014. (Jeff Roberson, File)

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

Thomas Chatterton Williams has seen the future, and he is it.

The son of a mother who is “unambiguously white” and a father whom none has described as “anything other than black,” Williams grew up in middle-class New Jersey suburbia, where he sought to assert his black identity through hip-hop, basketball and BET. Blackness, and America’s racial binary, became “so fundamental to my self-conception that I’d never rigorously reflected on its foundations,” he writes.

But now Williams has reflected, and he finds blackness lacking. Not just blackness but whiteness, too, and any divisions and hierarchies based on race or color, those resilient constructs to which Americans attach such weight. Williams, a contributing writer at the New York Times Magazine, has come to see himself as an “ex-black man,” a transformation he contemplates in a thoughtful yet frustrating memoir, “Self-Portrait in Black and White.” The precipitating force was the birth of his daughter, Marlow, who entered the world with blond hair, light skin and “a pair of inky-blue irises that I knew even then would lighten considerably but never turn brown.”

Upon seeing her, Williams realizes that “whatever personal identity I had previously inhabited, I had now crossed into something new and different.” It is for Marlow, and because of her, that Williams comes to embrace the “fluidity of racial borders.” To that end, he painstakingly reconsiders just about every potentially relevant aspect of his life — his relationships, his distant relatives, his DNA test (39.9 percent sub-Saharan, 58.7 percent European), his elementary school days, the shape of his face, even a single strand of light hair emanating from his clavicle — as part of his attempt at “outgrowing the bounds and divisions of identity, of touching the universal.”…

Read the entire article here.

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Race to the finish

Posted in Articles, Autobiography, Book/Video Reviews, Media Archive, Philosophy, United States on 2019-10-16 00:16Z by Steven

Race to the finish

The Spectator
2019-10-15

J. Oliver Conroy

chatterton
Protesters in Chicago on the 50th anniversary of the killing of Martin Luther King

Self-Portrait in Black and White: Unlearning Race by Thomas Chatterton Williams reviewed

Self-Portrait in Black and White: Unlearning Race
Thomas Chatterton Williams
W. W. Norton & Company, pp.192, $25.95

‘I have observed,’ Joseph Addison wrote in 1711 in the first article in the first issue of the first version of The Spectator, ‘that a Reader seldom peruses a Book with Pleasure, ’till he knows whether the Writer of it be a black or a fair Man, of a mild or cholerick Disposition, Married or a Batchelor, with other Particulars of the like nature, that conduce very much to the right understanding of an Author.’

Thomas Chatterton Williams has earned a reputation as a tough, thoughtful and genuinely interesting commentator on race. In an influential 2015 essay in the London Review of Books, he criticized Ta-Nehisi Coates for discounting the individual autonomy of black Americans. In a 2017 op-ed for the New York Times he argued that the essentialism of leftist identity politics is dangerously similar to that of white nationalism.

Williams’s first book, Losing My Cool: Love, Literature, and a Black Man’s Escape from the Crowd (2010), was a memoir of growing up as the son of a white mother and a black father from the segregated South. His extraordinary, self-taught father filled their small house with thousands of books and tutored his sons daily to ensure they would succeed…

Read the entire review here.

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Black No More?

Posted in Articles, Autobiography, Book/Video Reviews, Media Archive, Philosophy, United States on 2019-10-15 23:57Z by Steven

Black No More?

Los Angeles Review of Books
2019-10-15

Cinque Henderson

LAST NOVEMBER, Thomas Chatterton Williams appeared on a podcast with four other black intellectuals who had gathered to discuss the state of race relations in America. Together, the men, who included Brown University economist Glenn Loury and Columbia University linguist John McWhorter, comprised an “all-star” team of what in our crude political nomenclature might be called black conservatives, though at least one of them confessed to voting for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election. They were not there to discuss the nature of affirmative action or racial inequality, but rather to discuss how those types of things get discussed: an hour-and-a-half-long discourse on racial discourse in the United States called “On Anti-Racism.” They seemed to agree on many things, especially the failures of #BlackLivesMatter, but their central concern was that that there is no hope of getting past racism in this country as long as commentators on the left keep calling things racist when there are more complicated explanations at play. As a listener, I was not entirely unsympathetic to this view.

If there was an intellectual nemesis in the conversation, it was Ta-Nehisi Coates, whose blistering polemics on the intractable and unchanging nature of racism has dominated racial discourse over the past six years. If there was a political nemesis, it was perhaps DeRay McKesson, the de facto leader of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, and maybe Barack Obama, who came in for a mild rebuke, even though I don’t think any of them harbors any particular animus toward the former president. The conversation was fascinating, frustrating, enlightening, bizarre (at one point McWhorter asked, “Why should I care that a certain number of whites are racist?”), but ultimately it was less than satisfying — the format hopelessly ill-suited to the type of ambitious, boundary-expanding discussions these men were interested in having. Williams’s new book, Self-Portrait in Black and White, represents a better medium for such ambition. It is equally bizarre…

Read the entire review here.

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Is it time to unlearn race? Thomas Chatterton Williams says yes

Posted in Articles, Autobiography, Identity Development/Psychology, Interviews, Media Archive, Passing on 2019-10-15 19:18Z by Steven

Is it time to unlearn race? Thomas Chatterton Williams says yes

The Guardian
2019-10-15

Summer Sewell, Assistant Editor of Features


Thomas Chatterton Williams: ‘I think you have to be an optimist.’ Photograph: Alex John Beck

The author and critic discusses why we should move away from race categories defined ‘using plantation logic’ – and suggests ‘retiring from race’

The American writer Thomas Chatterton Williams is racially ambiguous enough to be mistaken as Algerian in Paris, where he and his French wife are raising two children, their heads capped with airy blond curls.

It was the birth of his older child, Marlow, six years ago, that set off an instant panic in him. She can pass for Swedish, he says. So what did it mean that he, then a self-identified black man who had always accepted the black/white binary, had a child who would be perceived as white?

It meant, at first, he would apply camera filters to darken her skin – to make her belong, to him and to a race. Eventually, it meant asking questions complex enough to alter how he identifies himself now: what does it mean to belong to a race, part of which for black people can include “an allegiance to pain”? And why would passing that down to his daughter make her black?

In his second book, out Tuesday, Self-Portrait in Black and White, he calls for us to consider why we uphold race categories defined “using plantation logic” and encourages us to do away with the arbitrary nomenclature altogether. Not to be confused with the term “post-race”, he suggests “retiring from race”, “transcending race”, “unlearning race”. It’s a big ask, he admits.

Because both of us are mixed-race people who grew up with one black parent and one white parent, Chatterton Williams thinks he and I have a head start on dismissing the barriers of race. We both remember the first time we were “raced” by a stranger and simultaneously separated from our white parent, and setting out from then on to continually contemplate race in our respective lives. For him, this has come to mean examining the artificiality of it.

On the campus of Bard College, a private arts college upstate New York where he taught a four-week course, Can we retire from race?, this fall, we discussed the privilege of proximity to whiteness, whether it is asking too much of black people to let go of race while retaining the pride of an identity forged in the face of systematic oppression and, finally, why he’s optimistic norms can change…

Read the entire interview here.

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How Moving to France and Having Children Led a Black American to Rethink Race

Posted in Articles, Book/Video Reviews, Europe, Identity Development/Psychology, Media Archive, Philosophy on 2019-10-15 00:07Z by Steven

How Moving to France and Having Children Led a Black American to Rethink Race

The New York Times
2019-10-14

Andrew Solomon


Eiko Ojala

SELF-PORTRAIT IN BLACK AND WHITE: Unlearning Race
By Thomas Chatterton Williams

Thomas Chatterton Williams is the son of a black father and a white mother, but grew up identifying as black on the basis that even one drop of black blood defines a person as belonging to that often besieged minority. His father claimed that his mother was a black woman at heart, and brought up his son to oppose the implicit racism of passing, though Williams has a complexion more tanned than sub-Saharan, and is often mistaken for an Arab in France, where he lives. Williams married a white woman and both their children were born with blond hair and blue eyes. Are they, too, black by the one-drop rule? In questioning their determinative race, he has plumbed not only his own but also the complexity of racial identity for people outside the prevalent white/nonwhite binary.

Williams, a contributing writer at The New York Times Magazine, is well educated, intellectually sophisticated and prosperous, and he tries to limn the complex relationship between race and class, to figure out where racism is classism and where classism is racism, an almost Escher-like maze as snobbery casts a thin veil over racial hatred and vice versa. Williams can say, “I do not feel myself to be a victim — not in any collectively accessible way.” He is unabashedly the product of a society that champions diversity and encourages people of color to think in terms of identity politics, but he opposes racial essentialism and is an exponent of compromise on some of the niceties of political correctness. He fears the integration that will be available to his blond daughter, Marlow, enabling her to erase aspects of her identity, but he also decries the segregating intolerances that come from both the majority and the minorities…

Read the entire review here.

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Self-Portrait in Black and White: Unlearning Race

Posted in Autobiography, Books, Identity Development/Psychology, Media Archive, Monographs, Philosophy on 2019-10-14 23:53Z by Steven

Self-Portrait in Black and White: Unlearning Race

W. W. Norton
2019-10-15
192 pages
5.5 × 8.3 in
Hardcover ISBN: 978-0-393-60886-1

Thomas Chatterton Williams

A meditation on race and identity from one of our most provocative cultural critics.

A reckoning with the way we choose to see and define ourselves, Self-Portrait in Black and White is the searching story of one American family’s multigenerational transformation from what is called black to what is assumed to be white. Thomas Chatterton Williams, the son of a “black” father from the segregated South and a “white” mother from the West, spent his whole life believing the dictum that a single drop of “black blood” makes a person black. This was so fundamental to his self-conception that he’d never rigorously reflected on its foundations—but the shock of his experience as the black father of two extremely white-looking children led him to question these long-held convictions.

“It is not that I have come to believe that I am no longer black or that my daughter is white,” Williams writes. “It is that these categories cannot adequately capture either of us.” Beautifully written and bound to upset received opinions on race, Self-Portrait in Black and White is an urgent work for our time.

Note from Steven F. Riley: See Chatterton Williams’ article “Black and Blue and Blond” in the Volume 91, Number 1 (Winter 2015) edition of the Virginia Quarterly Review.

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Book Reviews: Self-Portrait in Black and White

Posted in Articles, Book/Video Reviews, Europe, Media Archive, Philosophy, United States on 2019-09-26 01:31Z by Steven

Book Reviews: Self-Portrait in Black and White

Tablet
2019-09-24

Daniel Oppenheimer

Curtain Gradient

The rewards of subordinating racial or ethnic identity, in the new memoiristic essay by the author of ‘Losing My Cool

Thomas Chatterton Williams’ new book, Self-Portrait in Black and White: Unlearning Race, is a few things. It’a memoiristic follow-up to his first book, Losing My Cool: Love, Literature, and a Black Man’s Escape from the Crowd; a meditation on what it means for a black man to discover that he’s fathered white children; and an impassioned argument for rejecting the whole modern paradigm of black and white.

It’s also, I think, an effort to answer for himself one of the essential questions that many older liberals, who were formed before the rise of identity politics, simply can’t answer or even adequately ask. What does one get in return for subordinating one’s racial or ethnic identity? Folks like Mark Lilla, Francis Fukuyama, Sam Harris, Laura Kipnis, Andrew Sullivan, Jonathan Chait, and Jonathan Haidt are on the front lines of the present culture war making compelling arguments that our society needs shared values and narratives to sustain itself, that collectively it is in our best interests to privilege our commonalities over our differences. They’re not, however, providing interesting or persuasive psychological answers to why any given individual would be moved to let his or her racial or ethnic identity attenuate when it is actively providing strength and solace. Or why young people, not yet fully formed, would abstain from the identities that are not just au courant but manifestly powerful in their capacity to compel deference or compliance from the establishment. They’re not offering a new synthesis that incorporates some of the insights and aesthetics of identity politics. They’re mostly arguing for a return to the previous liberal synthesis…

Read the entire review here.

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It has become commonplace to acknowledge the following point, but it bears repeating anyway: The idea of racial classification, as we understand it now, stretches back only to Enlightenment Europe.

Posted in Excerpts/Quotes on 2019-09-19 23:15Z by Steven

It has become commonplace to acknowledge the following point, but it bears repeating anyway: The idea of racial classification, as we understand it now, stretches back only to Enlightenment Europe. I have stayed in inns in Germany that have been continuously operating longer than this calamitous thought. But even though we can trace race’s origins without much difficulty, it seems impossible — and worse than that, woefully naïve — even to speak of an end to such persistent and flattening thinking, thinking that has led to so much human suffering, precluded and squandered so much human potential. And yet I am convinced that we will never overcome the evils of racism as long as we fail first to imagine and then to conjure a world free of racial categorization and the hierarchies it necessarily implies.

Thomas Chatterton Williams, “My Family’s Life Inside and Outside America’s Racial Categories,” The New York Times Magazine, September 17, 2019. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/09/17/magazine/black-white-family-race.html.

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My Family’s Life Inside and Outside America’s Racial Categories

Posted in Articles, Autobiography, Family/Parenting, Media Archive, Passing, Philosophy, United States on 2019-09-18 00:39Z by Steven

My Family’s Life Inside and Outside America’s Racial Categories

The New York Times Magazine
2019-09-17

Thomas Chatterton Williams

Thomas Chatterton Williams at home in Paris this summer with his wife and children, from left, Marlow, Valentine and Saul.
Thomas Chatterton Williams at home in Paris this summer with his wife and children, from left, Marlow, Valentine and Saul.
Christopher Anderson/Magnum, for The New York Times

My father was raised under Jim Crow. My children could pass for white. Where does that leave me?

I left the cafeteria where my brother, Clarence, was racing the wooden kit car he built with the older Boy Scouts, and made my way down the long corridor to the restroom. The building was virtually empty on a Saturday and charged with that faint lawlessness of school not in session. When I finished, I fixed myself in the mirror and, on the way out, ran and leapt to swing from the high bar joining the metal stalls to the tiled wall. In third grade, this was hard to do, a feat of superior athleticism that I savored even in the absence of a witness. The bounce in my legs linked me with my favorite athletes. I wore my hair like them, too, shaved low on the sides and back and slightly higher on top with a laser-sharp part engraved on the left. As my feet thrust forward, the door shot open and B. stepped in. An eighth grader, the eldest of three freckled, blond, almost farcically preppy brothers — Irish Catholic but still WASPier than the sons of Italians, Poles and Ukrainians who formed the backbone of the student body at our parochial school — he watched me dismount. In his costume of boat shoes and Dockers, B. was far from an intimidating sight, but he was bigger than me, and he smiled at me strangely.

I made to pass him on the way out, but he blocked me, his smile turning menacing. “What?” I managed, confused. We’d been in school together for years without ever having exchanged a word. “Monkey,” he whispered, still smiling, and my whole body froze: I was being insulted — in an ugly way, I could sense from his expression more than from what was said — but I couldn’t fully grasp why. I’d been swinging like a monkey, it was true, but this was something else. I tried again to step around him, at a loss for words; he blocked my way again, looming over me, still with that smirk. “You little [expletive] monkey,” he repeated with deliberate calm, and to my astonishment I realized that, although I could not understand why, there was, however vague and out of place, suddenly the possibility of violence. Out of nothing more than instinct, I shoved past him with all the determination an 8-year-old can gather.

He let me go, but I could hear his laughter behind me as I made my way back to the cafeteria, my heart pumping staccato, my face singed with the heat of self-awareness, my inexperienced mind fumbling for the meaning behind what had just transpired. But I knew enough to know that I could not tell my father what happened. I could see his reaction — see him shoot from his leather desk chair where he spent a majority of weekends as well as weekdays bent over a book. “Let’s go,” he would say in a clipped tone, with that distant expression, as if he were looking at something else, not at me, and by that time he would already be at the hall closet throwing his dark gray overcoat around his broad shoulders, keys jangling in his strong hand.

If I had told him what that white boy said to me in the restroom, Pappy — as we called my father, in a nod to his Southern roots — would have descended into an indescribable fury, the memory of which can tense me up to this day. He would have lost a week of work and concentration — that was as certain as two and two is four. But I also knew that he would be shot through with pain, unable to sleep, up at his desk in the dark, transported to his past, agonizing over this awful proof of what he’d always suspected: that no matter how strong he was, he was not strong enough to shield — not fully — his sons from the psychological warfare of American racism that whispers obscenities at little boys when they find themselves alone…

Read the entire article here.

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