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

Otis Houston follows up with Thomas Chatterton Williams, author of “Self-Portrait in Black and White: Unlearning Race.”

Part of a Larger Battle: A Conversation with 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.

As for Ibram X. Kendi, he is almost totalitarian in his thinking. He presents a world in which not just white people, but every single action or idea or policy is itself either racist or antiracist with zero middle ground or complication. I can’t think of another aspect of the human condition that we say is 100 percent either/or. We don’t even think that way about sex or gender anymore, and yet some of the same people who don’t believe that humans are 100 percent male or female find Kendi’s argument convincing. And that’s not a criticism of that position [on sex and gender], but rather a demonstration that no other realm of human affairs is free of ambiguity.

This way of thinking is a lot like a secular religion, and you’re just supposed to fess up and admit your original sin if you’re white. And if you’re black, in DiAngelo’s world, you don’t need to do much more than say your truth. And she’s going to try her best to shut up and hear you, but she’s not really going to think of you as an individual. And if your truth contradicts her, if you’re a black person who says, “Well, I’m not sure that all white people are inherently racist,” I don’t know what she does with it.

We also discussed the writer Ta-Nehisi Coates last year and the influence he then held on the national conversation about race. You criticized some of his views, saying they lent an undue sense of power and importance to whiteness, and that some of his pronouncements were similar in structure, though not intent, to those of avowed white supremacists. The writings of Kendi and DiAngelo look to me like an acceleration of this rhetoric.

I’ve been writing for a few years about the way the extremes meet, and how the identitarian antiracists end up sounding, in substance, quite a lot like the identitarian white supremacists. Both start from the point that the racial category is the most meaningful category, and the one that cannot be transcended; both start from the position that black people find themselves in an inferior state; both start from the assumption that the only people who can meaningfully act are white.

This is what I talked about with one of the most reprehensible people I can think of, Richard Spencer, when I interviewed him for a piece in The New Yorker. He found these types of movements pretty exciting, because he felt they were activating a kind of race pride or race consciousness among white people that had previously been discouraged in polite society. He thought this was the first step: to get white people to think of themselves as a racial group, like any other. And the second step would be to cultivate in them the idea of white superiority that he believes in.

I’m not saying that’s what DiAngelo is trying to do, or that’s what is going to happen. And I don’t mean to suggest that they’re morally equivalent — they’re not. But, in point of fact, the left antiracist identitarians are moving us away from the vision of society that Martin Luther King once inspired the country to hope was possible. I find that to be a terrible, terrible regression.

By comparison, Ta-Nehisi Coates was doing something very different, and it’s important to note the differences between him and DiAngelo or Kendi. Coates was accused of being despairing, and I felt his texts were kind of punishing. But they were about his reading of history and the present situation and how he felt about it — they were not an evangelizing mission. He was able to reverse himself on some positions, and displayed a degree of honesty and humility in his critiques that’s often missing now that we’re in this age of extraordinary certainty and binary divisions. I had also compared some of his arguments to those you can find coming from white supremacists, but at the time I wrote “How Ta-Nehisi Coates Gives Whiteness Power,” I had no idea how much truer that critique would be when applied to DiAngelo and Kendi.

Many people my age will remember participating in a kind of anti-bias training (though likely not called such) starting in grade school, and it would have been in the vein of so-called colorblindness theory. That is, we were taught that we should deemphasize our perception of differences in terms of race, ability, and sex, so as to prevent discriminatory thinking. Modern antiracist thinkers are quick to point out the deficits of this approach, and I take seriously that criticism. In particular, a colorblind approach can fail to recognize real ongoing discrepancies and inequity. But much of the current thinking in social justice circles seems to be a 180-degree digression from the basic aims of colorblindness, which at its best sought to undermine the salience of artificially imposed categories and to discourage essentialist ways of thinking that reinforce group stereotypes and prejudice. Now the concept of racial identity as an essential and defining feature of individuals seems to have become not only acceptable, but a morally imperative view in liberal progressive spaces. What do you think explains the shift?

I think colorblindness is harder. Through antiracist discourses, you can sublimate the kind of tribal feelings that come very easily to humans in a way that is seen as acceptable, and even laudable, in today’s society, as long as you engage them via antiracism as opposed to overt racism. You can still feel superior as a certain type of white person by Venmoing a random black person $5 for a latte. I imagine that activates a pleasure center in the cerebral cortex that also gets activated through racism.

DiAngelo often claims that her theories make white people uncomfortable. But what you’re describing, the retreat to tribal instincts, seems like an easier mode of thinking. It asks less of people by allowing them to hold on to the belief that white and black people, or people of any racial category, are fundamentally different and, in a sense, unknowable to one another.

Yeah, you get to indulge the idea that we’re different. But I think what’s really challenging and difficult to accept is that we’re actually the same and we’re all one race despite our many different iterations. And it takes real effort to interact and meet as equals and get to know and empathize with people we perceive as other. Making the bridge is really tough. Doing what, for a moment, we had said we hoped to do in 2008 — that’s really difficult. And I think it was around 2011 or 2012 when people started to lose hope — the hope that Obama had inspired — alongside the increased visibility of extrajudicial police killings. And then when Obama was hounded and succeeded by Trump, I think all these things made people say, “What were we thinking? Racism is a permanent feature.” And in a way it’s kind of soothing, just to say that we’re always in this fallen condition of racism and all we can do is acknowledge it, but we can’t actually change the paradigm.

I’m not saying that everybody, or even most people, who are inspired by DiAngelo or want to hear what she’s saying are cynical. But I do think that what people like Barbara and Karen Fields are asking of us in their book Racecraft: The Soul of Inequality in American Life; what Paul Gilroy in Against Race is asking of people; what someone like Albert Murray was asking of people when he told us that we were a “mongrel nation,” and that “[a]ny fool can see that white people are not really white, and that black people are not black”; what, in my own way, I’ve tried to propose in Self-Portrait in Black and White, is that you can’t actually defeat racism by merely opposing racism. You have to actually start opposing the categories of race if you want to transcend the hierarchies and caste systems they impose. I think that’s a much harder task.

White liberals have been quick to recognize our complicity in George Floyd’s death, but were we bothered to be complicit in his life? That is, facing the abstract notion of racial guilt is easier than addressing Floyd’s poverty would have been. I also see this thinking reflected in the now-common corporate statements, which seem to express contrition rather than actual concern for the lives of black people. Many of them seem to be speaking mainly to a white audience, and the implicit message seems to be, “We all have to examine our privilege in the name of racial justice, but nobody’s asking you to give up Netflix.”

You’re absolutely right. Did you read Ross Douthat’s column today? He makes the point that whenever you see so many elites so swiftly jumping onboard something, it means that it’s probably not very challenging. So, he said Bernie Sanders’s movement is dead for the second time, and that this is the real defeat. The whole class-based revolution that Sanders was trying to inspire was tough and challenging, so the Democratic establishment closed ranks and killed his candidacy.

Now, all of the Democratic leadership can kneel in kente cloth, and even Mitt Romney has marched with Black Lives Matter. It’s certainly not wrong for Romney and the others to start to say that they care about black men being killed by the police. But the point I tried to make in my Guardian piece a couple of weeks ago is that George Floyd was not just a black man who was killed by the police; he was a poor black man who was killed by the police. The incident that had initiated his contact with law enforcement was that he had lost his job during the pandemic and was passing a counterfeit bank note. This was not just a function of his race; it was a function of his economic condition.

We do now have a movement that I am very hopeful about, which is a movement to challenge and rein in and hopefully reform an extraordinarily abusive policing culture. But what is also starting to happen — and it began very early on — is that we’re getting a corporate-sanctioned effort to diversify certain elite spaces. So, you’ll get the Poetry Foundation that will replace its board, or the National Book Critics Circle, or certain university spaces, or, as you said, Netflix will make some gestures. And we’ll probably get some more black-created content, and we’re certainly getting more diverse op-ed pages. But what does that have to do with a man who is so poor that he’s passing a fake bank note? And he’s being killed just as 500 mostly poor white people get killed every year by police, just as many Latinos and Native Americans are killed. And Native Americans are, in fact, the group with the highest proportion of fatal encounters with the police, and we rarely talk about that.

What happens to black people is very much a part of our nation’s history, but we have a broader problem with police violence. And police basically kill poor people — they break people of all colors. So, what the Douthat column was saying, and what I think really gets to the heart of the matter, is that Sanders’s proposals were much more challenging to the status quo than adding some seats at the table for “BIPOC faces.”

Roxane Gay recently wrote in The New York Times, “While I don’t believe the ubiquitous corporate statements on diversity are sincere, it is at least good to see that these companies are aware that something has to change.”

They believe that they can make a few statements, and you can still drink your Starbucks and you can still stream your Netflix. But it seems that the people who will continue to benefit the most are those who are increasing their cultural capital and power in these spaces. People like Roxane Gay are going to get more powerful. And Ibram Kendi? Forget about it! He’s now going from campus to campus promoting his antiracism center, and he’s got at least two books on the best-seller list right now. And while these people are getting more powerful, it’s unclear to me what is happening for poor black people.

Now, if you’re starting a conversation about reparations, which some are trying to do, that might actually help poor black people. And if someone like George Floyd receives reparations, that would mean a lot more than white people perpetually going through struggle sessions and confessing their guilt, as you may have seen in scenes such as the one that came out of Bethesda, Maryland, a few weeks ago, where white people, en masse, were repenting for and disavowing their privilege. That’s not going to help George Floyd. But if we could figure out reparations, as Sandy Darity is trying to do at Duke University, that could be something tangible, along with police reform, that comes out of this moment.

There’s also a conversation to be had about generational change, in which boomers are being pushed out of mainstream institutions, and a more diverse millennial-and-younger cohort is coming in and finally getting to claim space. Part of what you’re seeing at big elite institutions is younger people making their moves, and they’re using the language of social justice to get some results. But those results don’t necessarily have much to do with justice for people who are not in those institutions.

Look at what happened at the Poetry Foundation, which is one of the most extraordinary stories I have seen. They released a statement in support of Black Lives Matter, and what followed looked like a cross between Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers and Barbarians at the Gate. It was a straight-up hostile takeover and a hijacking of this huge purse, an endowment of over $250 million, within the space of a few days. The chairman of the board and the president of the foundation stepped down. And one of the demands was that funds be redirected to organizations and foundations of the poets’ choosing. And how did they do all of this? They did it in the language of social justice. This had nothing to do with George Floyd and nothing to do with poetry.

It’s worth pointing out that another of the demands in the Poetry Foundation letter was for the publication of more poetry that explicitly addresses systemic racism.

There’s an argument now that’s gaining traction that would say the very idea of a universal artistic statement is a kind of iteration of white supremacy that erases “BIPOC truth,” or that the notion of art for art’s sake is a white, patriarchal imposition. Writers like James Baldwin and Ralph Ellison engaged with politics constantly, but they also believed in the sublimity of the artistic statement. And I think it would astonish them to see what their supposed heirs are clamoring for.

Consider that in the 1950s and ’60s, a writer like Ralph Ellison, who grew up in a tough way in Oklahoma and had to get to Tuskegee by hopping a freight train, could say that you cannot “allow the single tree of race to obscure our view of the magic forest of art.” He’s talking about segregation, and yet still he can’t reduce the purpose of his novel-writing to the question of whether he can sit at a certain café or be served at a certain lunch counter. That’s how much respect he had for art, and for the universal conception of the human condition that put him in touch with Dostoyevsky, or that made the writings of Hemingway or Thomas Mann resonate with him on a level beyond identity. And though Ellison wrote Invisible Man from an extremely black place, it reached readers all over the world, and many regarded it as the greatest American novel. He had a vision that was consistent with that which has motivated artistic production throughout Western history. He had a vision he didn’t want to diminish, not because he believed things were fine, but because he believed that the realm of art was sacred. Now, people think that’s laughable, that you’re naïve or stupid to say that the realm or art is sacred.

This shift in artistic values is also part of a larger epistemological shift that attaches stigma to liberal values like universalism, individualism, and even reason and objectivity on the grounds that they are concepts based in European Enlightenment thinking, and therefore are in conflict with other cultural “ways of knowing.” I suspect that reason and objectivity are useful enough that it would be difficult to truly do away with them. But I wonder if the value of individualism is more vulnerable.

Absolutely. I’m sure you’re familiar with Richard Carranza, the chancellor of the New York City Department of Education? In a training guide that was going out to all teachers he listed concepts like “individualism,” “objectivity,” and “worship of the written word” as examples of white supremacy culture.

This would be astonishing to previous generations of black people. My father would be astonished. He’s spent his whole life in education, and the idea that because of his “worship” of verbal acuity or the written word he’s been participating in white supremacy culture is itself a form of racism. And that’s the one thing that George W. Bush ever said that resonated with me, what he termed “the soft bigotry of low expectations.” Some have even argued that math is part of white supremacy culture.

And that’s putting aside the fact that neither the written word, nor most of the mathematical systems we use, originated in Europe.

This is an example of what Wesley Yang calls the successor ideology. It’s a tool for transferring power and keeping white elites and gatekeepers on their heels, and for shaking things up. And it’s an effective tool, and one that I see as part of a larger battle that’s taking place in an economic situation where there aren’t enough jobs or positions, especially within highly competitive cultural spaces.

When we talk about making sublime, artistic statements, very few people can do that. Many more people can engage in moral clarity by making moral statements and figuring out the right position to be on in a political debate, or engage in artistic expression that channels a political movement. But how many people can write Invisible Man or Notes from Underground?

Late last year, The New York Review of Books published an essay by Zadie Smith on what she saw as a gathering consensus on a writer’s responsibilities regarding depictions of identity and culture. She wrote that she had noticed in her classroom, “the emergence of a belief that fiction can or should be the product of an absolute form of ‘correctness.’” This sounds to me like a phrase that has lately been gaining ground in discussions of writing and journalism: “moral clarity.” Smith countered: “Fiction — at least the kind that was any good — was full of doubt, self-doubt above all. It had grave doubts about the nature of the self.” The kind of art Smith is talking about is ambiguous and doesn’t exist solely to provide solid answers to the questions it raises.

Ambiguous by necessity. Exactly. And it was Proust’s insight that a great work of art has to create the terms by which it will be judged, and that works of art can seem strange at first because the audience doesn’t yet know how to incorporate them. But with social-justice-inflected art, you’re often just sliding your own individual contribution into a formula or template that’s already available. And when awards season comes, you reap the benefits, because the movement is demanding that more and more awards, fellowships, honors, and prizes go to books that have this content. And to be honest, I’m worried, man.

What exactly are you worried about?

I think what we’ve been getting at is the tension between the individual and the obliteration of the individual within the group. The latter is based on a view of race that Baldwin criticized, one which insists that it is our “categorization alone which is real and which cannot be transcended.” And we’re seeing this dynamic in every discrete issue we’ve been talking about — they all involve the individual being obliterated within the group. This used to be seen as racist and as something to be overcome. Certainly, King would have seen it that way. But we’ve now come full circle to a point where this obliteration is exactly what antiracists are fighting for. And they’re increasingly successful at bringing it to fruition in both elite and mainstream spaces.

Have we reached a kind of inflection point in the debate about identity within the left? Does it seem to you that you’re now on the losing side of the argument? And if so, how do you continue to be a part of the liberal conversation going forward?

This is what motivates me: I define myself as a liberal, and I insist that I haven’t changed. And I want to be clear that everything I’m concerned about on the left is happening in the larger context of Trump’s presidency, which has been one of the worst political developments in modern American history. But the left has moved away from many of the liberal values that I remain loyal to. And I’m willing to suffer some penalties for that loyalty.

I believe in the individual. I believe in the right to be an individual over the duty or pressure to lose oneself in what Heidegger called the They — or the herd, if we’re using Nietzschean language. And I realize that these concepts themselves are now questioned because they’re associated with dead, white males from Germany, whose ideas were also embraced by problematic people. But this idea that the group claims the individual is antithetical to the way I was raised by a black man from the segregated South, a man who transcended his circumstances by believing in himself as an individual. I’m loyal to that kind of American figure. And this figure can be found in the writing of Albert Murray, too — the idea that the individual creates him or herself and plays the hand they are dealt, but does so with verve and elegance, and a kind of wit and humor whenever possible. I just can’t give that up, and that has me on the outs with people whom I would naturally see, in many other ways, as political allies. And that’s why I may indeed be on the losing side. But you keep playing your hand and trying to convince and persuade people because it’s the losing side now, but who knows how things will shake out?


Otis Houston is a writer based in Portland, Oregon.

LARB Contributor

Otis Houston is a graduate of Pacific University’s MFA creative writing program and lives with his wife in Portland, Oregon. His work has appeared in Kitchen Work and Defenestration. (Photo by Emily Miller.)


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