OCTOBER 15, 2019
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.
Williams’s first book, Losing My Cool, made him famous. It was a memoir of his upbringing as the son of a black Southern father who had married white and how, during the 1990s and the rise of gangsta rap, Williams, who had until that time never been really exposed to black people, fell into “performing blackness” in high school — imitating, to his detriment, the crude images of gangsta rappers he saw on BET. I can attest that the book was an important, if flawed, intervention in the discourse around rap: as a certified public high school teacher, I have seen firsthand the harm that the glorification of hyper-violent and hyper-sexual images of manhood, along with widespread poverty and fatherlessness, has had on student behavior and achievement. But Williams, who went to Georgetown for undergrad, eventually pulled away from the poor social influences of his friends and began to live up to the vision of adult black intellectual manhood that his father had envisioned for him his entire life.
What I found less appealing about the book was the relative lack of contextual social analysis to ease the burden of judgment that the adult Williams placed on his former classmates and himself — though he “escaped” and rejected that world and, according to him, they mostly did not. No real mention was made of the violence and social degradation of the ’90s crack cocaine epidemic, out of which gangsta rap emerged and which, according to economists Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner, did more to arrest the development of the black community than any other phenomenon since Jim Crow. And too little was made of the fact that the popularity of gangsta rap was fueled by white suburban kids who consumed it in droves. Black kids may have made the fateful choice to imitate the genre’s debased images, but the buying power of racially prurient white kids was the reason the images had become so ubiquitous in the first place. Williams trained his eyes squarely on the behavior of the fish, but I wish he’d said more about the poisoned water they swam in.
Williams has made an adjustment with his new book, both in tone and substance, shoring up the story of his life since college with significantly more historical and sociological detail. In Self-Portrait in Black and White, Williams wants to argue against the American public’s obsession with race, a desire that has been growing in him since his final days in college but that apparently flourished after. In so doing, however, he denotes very clearly the race and ethnicity of nearly everyone he encounters, often with the phrase “happens to be black” or by putting quotes around the word “white,” “black,” and “Asian.” It is an unexpected example of the “the only way to get over race is to constantly discuss race” tack that “anti-race” conservatives typically disapprove of in the left. Neither they nor the leftists are wrong per se, but Williams’s perpetual pointing at racial identity — even in quotation marks — makes him come across far more racially fixated than he might at first appear. Can someone who has written his only two books on race really claim to have overcome it? I’d have rather expected a book on fly-fishing.
What occasioned this new effort was the arrival of his first child, Marlow, after marrying his wife, Valentine, the white, blond-haired scion of an elite French family. Williams fell in love with the French language as an undergraduate when a wealthy student said the word “baguette” to him, and Williams was embarrassed that he didn’t know what it meant. He was still heavily in the throes of what he refers to as his “performative” phase of blackness, but somehow this moment broke something open in him. He eventually left the States and spent time in France, where he began to date women whose foreign cast of mind was, according to him, so different from the women he’d previously dated that the experience in France made him feel freer than he ever had dating black and biracial American girls. This feeling was complicated upon his daughter’s birth. Prior to that, he had assumed his daughter would always be “black like me.” But the fair-skinned Williams produced with his wife a “blond-haired, blue-eyed” daughter who could’ve been a poster child for Nordic Airlines. According to Williams, his daughter’s features, carrying not the slightest visible trace of “black blood,” upended his antiquated ideas about race and set him on altogether unforeseen paths of racial discovery. These are the bare bones of Williams’s biography since college, and he uses them to make some unusual claims.
The most prominent of these claims echoes the November podcast, namely that the left’s pessimistic belief that white people are still fundamentally and unchangeably racist is itself a form of racism, doing as much to divide the country as the anti-black racists they seek to expose. Williams refers to this form of race thinking as “racial essentialism” — the notion that there is some element of one’s identity that is inextricable from (and essential to) one’s race. So whites are always racist, and blacks are always violent or hyper-sexed. Williams counters the racial essentialists by insisting that race is purely a fiction, a social construct that has no inherent genetic or biological essence and that society would be infinitely better off if we stopped thinking of and identifying ourselves as having any racial classification at all. These are not really radical or original ideas, of course, “race as social construct” being around since at least the late 1970s, and pro-miscegenation fantasies of a post-racial world, at least the 1990s. Nevertheless, any book advocating for the end of racial divisiveness will always have the power to stir in a world as heavily and violently racialized as ours. But Williams is not simply interested in ending racial violence and identification. He also wants to point to practical means to these ends. And this is where the book takes its strangest turns.
A very early anecdote provides an example. After reading both Williams’s author’s note describing his aim to reject terms of racial designation like “white,” “black,” and “mixed” and about his recoil at an earlier essay he’d written, insisting that his then unborn children would always be “black,” I began to wonder about his daughter’s name, Marlow. In France, we are told, the father is given the de facto prerogative to name the child, and that it must be done within three days of the child’s birth. Williams’s father-in-law joked that he should to take the chance to name his daughter whatever he wanted. Feeling a sudden rebelliousness, Williams writes, “A part of me was seized by the desire to scribble down Jemima — or even Shaniq’wa — on that official blue paper of the République Française […] an amusing reappropriation […] of lingering ethnic stigma.” The line made me cringe, but not until I was much deeper into the book and had fully absorbed William’s claims of “rejecting the legitimacy of the entire racial construct in which blackness functions as a orienting pole” and his belief that “whiteness — the disastrous illusion undergirding all aspects of race — will have to be overcome” did I understand fully why it bothered me so. His wife (wisely) rejected the stereotypically “black” names, insisting that his “half-serious” joke “was manipulative to the point of irresponsibility.” But why were the only options Jemima and Shaniq’wa? Why not offer his wife beautiful Nigerian or Senegalese or Chinese names to choose from?
Williams tells us that his daughters name is taken from a character (Marlo) in The Wire. This buried reference notwithstanding, “Marlow,” if for no other reason than its being shared by the most famous colonialist narrator in the Anglophone tradition, remains as white as Chatterton, the English poet from whom Williams gets his middle name. Attributing its provenance to a decade-old American TV show doesn’t change that. The real manipulation staged by Williams’s “almost” naming his white European child Shawniq’wa was not of his wife or daughter but of himself; it was a threat of rebellion he’d never actually go through with. Offering beautiful, traditionally nonwhite names would have forced him to take seriously his own project of rejecting racialization. Williams quotes George Orwell’s stirring maxim that “the worst thing one can do with words is surrender to them,” but when it came time to put this into practice, to make a sincere linguistic choice to alienate his own daughter from her race just as he’d made steps to remove himself from his, Williams surrendered, bowing to the pressure to keep his child “white” in the wealthy European world she was born into and that he’d joined. This partially undermined my faith in Williams’s self-presentation.
Elsewhere in the book, Williams argues that blackness is defined primarily by what it is not, that there is essentially no “there” there. (McWhorter in the podcast from November made a similar point.) This seems to be a way of suggesting that black people shouldn’t be so gung-ho to hold on to an identity that doesn’t amount to much more than a rejection of whiteness. But I’m not sure that Williams is the best messenger for this idea. Williams’s account of his life reveals a man who never had a natural, easy, or instinctive connection to black people, just one in which, by his own admission, he imitated what he saw black people doing on BET. His parents deliberately and inexplicably kept him and his brother away from his black relatives but regularly allowed his maternal grandmother to visit him as a child. After hanging out pretty much exclusively with black students his freshman year at Georgetown, he seems to have emerged with no close black friends from college at all. (He remains in touch with a black friend from high school.) Today, as an adult, Williams still knows none of his black extended family but is intimately acquainted with relatives on his mother’s side, even the mildly racist ones. Where he lives today in France, Williams is regularly assumed to be Middle Eastern (by other people from the Middle East no less) and not black at all. And he writes that he has traveled “often and extensively” as far as St. Petersburg, Russia, lived for nine years in Western Europe, and for some months in Argentina, but that he has never visited sub-Saharan Africa. While it’s arguable that none of these biographical details may be problems in and of themselves, it suggests that for Williams, relinquishing his black identity has been a less psychically costly affair for him than it would be for most black people, myself included.
Needless to say, the history of “deracination” is a long one in the black tradition, from fictional accounts of “passing” like Frances Harper’s 19th-century novel Iola Leroy to Philip Roth’s The Human Stain (2000). In real life, the modernist Jean Toomer and New Yorker writer Anatole Broyard famously “passed” into whiteness, but this was of course always accompanied by shame and secrecy. Williams is pressing for black people to sign on to the lightening of their skin color and Europeanizing of their facial features (and for white people to do the reverse) out in the open and with a certain raceless pride.
But in doing so, Williams puts his readers in a difficult position, even ones like me who share his desire for an alternative to the view of racial relations offered by Ta-Nehisi Coates, Nikole Hannah-Jones, and other commentators on the left. He uses his unorthodox biography to support very idiosyncratic ideas, ones that he ultimately wants not to be seen idiosyncratically. And a critic hoping to explain why his ideas are so peculiar inevitably has to look at the evidence of his life choices and question whether any serious numbers of people should be interested in replicating them. What if I — a black, gay, Harvard graduate with friends of different races whom I love and respect, who adores Kafka and Emily Dickinson and Seamus Heaney and Toni Morrison — don’t ever want to live in Europe, wed a white European, and produce white European children? Moreover, as of the last official tally in 2011, there were only seven million black people in Europe, a continent of some 740 million people. If all seven million were to casually marry without regard to race as Williams ultimately advocates, and their children did the same, it would eventually lead to the eradication of black people in Europe, while white people would continue to thrive in every corner of the continent. A similar thing would happen in the United States. Surely, this isn’t the “raceless” society Williams is calling for?
Except that in some way it is, which highlights one of the biggest weaknesses with the book: Williams’s perplexing ideas on the nature of interracial marriage. He acknowledges the existence of men who marry white because they want to be white, diagnosing their disposition as deeply unhealthy. But he implies that he and other writers, artists, and academics who have white spouses and populate the world he inhabits are not unhealthily motivated, and that presumably only the O. J. Simpsons and Kanye Wests of the world are afflicted this way. But this is both elitist and untrue. Witness National Book Award–winning poet Justin Phillip Reed’s comment from last year that he no longer interacts with white men sexually after examining the motives behind his “finding partnerships with almost exclusively white men” because he knew it was coming from a psychologically destructive place. Writing important books doesn’t prevent a black man from disliking himself or his race, even if we were to believe that this isn’t necessarily the case for Williams.
But had he shined a fuller light on the motives behind the black men who marry non-black partners, the story of racist essentialism that he decries (and that he believes can be cured by more marriages like his) would, nonetheless, still be woefully incomplete because he has likewise failed to investigate the motives of the non-black spouses. To do so would have discomfited his readers, surfacing a long history of fetishistic attachments to — and simultaneous fear of — black masculinity that he perhaps dares not touch. (This, it should be said, is a failure that he shares with Coates, who made nothing of fetish in his discussion of the black body in Between the World and Me.) In the 10 years since Williams wrote his first book, however, such fetishization has become pervasively mainstream. There is an episode of Keeping Up with the Kardashians, a family of Armenian women who share some 600 million Instagram followers, in which one of their clan openly says, “Hashtag, I only like black cock.” The fair-skinned Latina Cardi B, the biggest female rapper in music, raps in her song “Money”: “I like my niggas dark.” The Asian co-host of the talk show The Real, Jeannie Mai, who currently dates rapper Young Jeezy, set off a firestorm recently when an old clip resurfaced featuring her saying that, though she mostly dates white men, she keeps “dark meat on the side.” Slave play has become so prevalent in pornography both gay and straight, that black sex workers have begun to call for boycotts of the industry. And having worked in Hollywood for most of my professional career, I know that in many white progressive circles a certain social (and sexual) prestige attends to non-famous white women who marry famous black men. Are these increasingly explicit proclivities not forms of racial essentialism? Considering all of this within the framework of Thomas Jefferson’s most chilling argument for black inferiority — “The negro’s own judgment in favor of [white women], declared by their preference of them [sic] […] and the [white women’s] superior beauty” — and Williams call for more interracial coupling between black men and white women seems like a much less salutary antidote to our perennial race problem than Williams would have us believe.
In all, Self-Portrait is an elegantly written, pastiche-driven memoir that branches off into tantalizing but not fully explored ideas. If there is a methodological problem, it’s that there is no methodology. Put another way, Williams should have written a more boring book. Rather than quoting Faulkner, Camus, and Orwell, he might’ve quoted the work of contemporary scholars working on understanding and eliminating racial bias — on the networked intersections of race, class, gender, and sexual maturation that have preoccupied his own story since his first book. But citing academics makes for a less thrilling read than one weaving together the work of James Baldwin and John Locke. Nowhere in these pages does Williams give any indication that he is interested in complex questions of identity formation as it crosses with race: At what stage of development does a child first think of themselves as having a race? When does a child attribute negative or positive attributes to race? How does someone go from being embarrassed by their racial identity to being proud of it? What is the psychological mechanism, if any, that triggers the switch? Why do some people develop sexual race fetishes and not others? Is there a connection between extreme violence and skin color fetishes in men, as the infamous cases of O. J. Simpson, Jeffrey Dahmer, Ed Buck, and Bill Cosby might indicate? What about in women? Williams’s book is a polemic and it should have been a case study.
And what, too, of Faulkner and Baldwin in this newly raceless world that Williams yearns for? How will historians teach and novelists write? Should novelists writing about the Civil War not mention the words “black” or “white”? Or is putting them in quotations or saying the enslaved just “happened to be black” the proper way to eliminate race while still studying the effects of race? Should we be studying the effects of race at all? There is no inherent limit to the kind of transcendence of identity categories that Williams is pressing for: race is no more or less a social construct than religion, or nationality, or political parties and, in fact, is much less so. Two Republicans may raise a child who eventually becomes a Democrat. Two Jews can raise a child who becomes Christian. But albinoism and skin bleaching notwithstanding, two dark-skinned people will only ever produce a dark-skinned person. Never a blonde. Despite race’s relative “permanence,” Williams wants it to function just like any other identity marker that can be shed at will or code-switched away.
Williams and his fellow anti-race thinkers seem to be narrowly defining their work against that of Ta-Nehisi Coates and his fellow leftists. But however un-nuanced or racially fixated Coates’s work may sometimes be, when he retired from Twitter, he had a little over one million followers. To argue on behalf of a de-racialized world while simultaneously suggesting that Coates and his peers are in any meaningful way the ones preventing it, that they have been nearly as forceful in keeping racist and racially essentialist ideas alive as the Kardashians and their 600 million followers, a rap music genre that has for almost 30 years pushed the most racist tropes about black male sexual nature, the tens of millions of white kids around the world who devour the music daily, slave and race play in porn, black athletes, actors and, yes, writers and academics who (in the words of Thomas Jefferson) believe in white women’s “superior” beauty to that of black women’s, the cops who shoot and kill plainly unarmed black men, the jurors who exonerate them, Fox News, the viewers who love it, and, of course, Donald Trump, is simply not tenable.
Williams will have to draw more convincing arguments from his very peculiar life.
Correction: An earlier version of the article incorrectly claimed that Williams’s wife was the scion of French aristocrats.