Unraveling Race

Thomas Chatterton Williams wants to discard traditional racial categories.

Alex John Beck

The American writer Thomas Chatterton Williams lives in the tenth arrondissement of Paris with his French wife, Valentine, and their two blond-haired, blue-eyed children––a family situation that the 38-year-old descendant of African slaves could scarcely have imagined while he was growing up.

His father was born into segregation, married a white woman, and joined her in raising a black family. There’s no such thing as “half white,” they told their sons, since “black” is less a biological category than a social one. “We were taught from the moment we could understand spoken words that we would be treated by whites as though we were black whether we liked it or not,” Williams recalls, “so we needed to know how to move in a world of black men.”

The lesson was reinforced in the town of Westfield, New Jersey, where Williams’s brother was mocked as a “monkey,” Williams was called a “nigger” by a fellow third grader at Holy Trinity Interparochial School, and a blond-haired girl who sat behind him in class wondered why his hair didn’t move like hers.

His new book, Self-Portrait in Black and White: Unlearning Race, begins on the night his daughter was born. “A year before Valentine got pregnant, I published an essay in the New York Times defining my future children as unassailably black,” he wrote, words that later made him wince, because Marlow’s birth changed everything. “The sight of this blond-haired, blue-eyed, impossibly fair-skinned child shocked me—along with the knowledge that she was indubitably mine,” he explains. “The reality of Marlow’s appearance had rendered my previous ‘one-drop’ stance ridiculous in my own eyes. When I look at my daughter now, I see another facet of myself, I see my own inimitable child. But I also know that most people who meet her will––and will want to––call her ‘white.’” The same could be said for his 15-month-old son, Saul.

This September, I met Williams in Paris. Across several hours, first at his apartment and later at a restaurant, I pressed him about the approach to racial identity that his recent work champions, his hope that his children won’t consider themselves to be white, and why he no longer considers himself to be black.

Williams loved being black as a kid––like the father he idolized, like the victims rather than the perpetrators of American slavery, and like the athletes and entertainers he most revered. At 7, he read The Autobiography of Malcolm X. In middle school, he discovered that projecting aggression on the playground and the basketball court gave him a seductive sense of power over white classmates. Throughout high school, he mimicked hip-hop artists he saw on BET, reveling in their vision of “keeping it real.” And he was influenced by that milieu’s misogyny.

When he brought those attitudes to college, he came to believe that he was adopting pernicious stereotypes to mask insecurity and vulnerability. As intimidating as it might be, he decided to shed that mask, risk the mirror, and undertake an examined life, as his father had. Even as his notions of what it means to be an authentic black man expanded, however, he never questioned his blackness.

At Georgetown University he studied Martin Heidegger. Everyone lives alongside other people, the philosopher observed, and cannot help but be cognizant of any distance between their own practices and what their community accepts. Pressure to conform is constant. But who exerts that pressure?

There is often no more definite answer than that “They” do. “They” might be anyone, yet not anyone definite or specific. And that makes “Them” hard to pin down or challenge. That we sometimes don’t notice “Their” influence only adds to “Their” power. Heidegger’s name for this force: “the dictatorship of the They.”

The theory made a kind of sense to Williams,who’d known peer pressure, but felt important to his future only after he pondered it in light of a Harper’s essay, “The Age of White Guilt and the Disappearance of the Black Individual,” by Shelby Steele.

The essay includes a discussion of the film Paris Blues, a drama set in early-1960s Paris, “a city that represented, in the folklore of American Negroes, a nirvana of complete racial freedom.” Sidney Poitier plays Eddie, an American who moves to Paris after World War II to escape the “interminable humiliation” of racism and live as a free individual, able to develop his talents without social limits. He meets and falls in love with Connie, a vacationing teacher. As their love deepens, she tells him about the rising civil-rights movement at home, which leads to the film’s central conflict: If the couple is to have any future together, it will require Eddie to move back to the United States and play some part in the struggle of his people for equal rights and dignity.

Williams was sitting in a Barnes & Noble on M Street in Washington, D.C., when he read this passage:

She brings him precisely what he has escaped: the priority of group identity over individual freedom. The best acting in the film is Eddie’s impassioned rejection of this priority. He hates America with good reason, and it is impossible to see him as simply selfish. He has already found in Paris the freedom blacks are fighting for back home. And he has found this freedom precisely by thinking of himself as an individual who is free to choose.

For him individualism is freedom. And even if blacks won the civil-rights struggle, true freedom would still require individuals to choose for themselves. So by what ethic should he leave the freedom of Paris for the indignities of America?

Clearly no ethic would be enough. But love, on the other hand, is the tie that binds. And when the object of that love is Connie, Eddie begins to see a point in responsibility to the group.

Steele went on to discuss James Baldwin’s real-life move to Paris, the freedom it afforded him, and the sacrifice he made on repatriating “to become once again fully accountable as a black American.”

The essay enthralled Williams, who grasped both the moral attractiveness of giving oneself over to a just cause and the way that situating oneself in any group means submitting to the “dictatorship of the They,” thus limiting one’s possibilities and ways of being. But if Heidegger saw all submission to others as a kind of leveling down or loss of self, Williams recalls registering a sharp distinction between giving oneself over to a group’s noble struggle, as his father had done in the civil-rights era, and giving oneself over to a dysfunctional posture of faux-toughness and misogyny, as he had done in high school.

By the time he left the bookstore, it was clear to Williams that, while his devils were not the same as Eddie’s or Baldwin’s devils, while his conclusions were not exactly those of Heidegger or Steele, and while the America he would graduate into was far removed from Jim Crow, he would nevertheless need to wrestle with all those thinkers, among others, to become himself and learn to be free.

Like so many before him, Williams went to Paris hoping that distance from his culture would help him to better understand himself. Soon after he returned and enrolled as a graduate student at NYU’s journalism school, he was working on an op-ed for The Washington Post that distilled one of his conclusions.

He argued:

In the hip-hop era––from the late 1970s onward––black America, uniquely, began receiving its values, aesthetic sensibility and self-image almost entirely from the street up. Try to imagine the Chinese American son of oncologists––living in, say, a New York suburb such as Westchester, attending private school––who feels subconsciously compelled to model his life, even if only superficially, on that of a Chinese mafioso dealing heroin on the Lower East Side. The cultural pressure for a middle-class Chinese American to walk, talk and act like a lower-class thug from Chinatown is nil … But in black America the folly is so commonplace it fails to attract serious attention.

Though Williams made no mention of his personal history, his target was the very particular “dictatorship of the They” that had once seduced him and, as he saw it, many others.

By the time I met Williams at NYU, where I overlapped with him as a graduate student, his op-ed had led to the contract for his first book, the coming-of-age memoir Losing My Cool: Love, Literature and a Black Man’s Escape From the Crowd. It was 2008, and I watched him join America’s national conversation about race just as Barack Obama was transforming it. After Obama’s victory, NPR broadcast a segment on his identity. “Obama defines himself as African-American,” Talk of the Nation declared. “His mother is a white American, and his father is a black African. This hits a nerve with some people, who wonder why Obama doesn’t use the term biracial to describe his race.”

Plumbing the same subject a few years later, two African American scholars, the sociologist Karen E. Fields and the historian Barbara J. Fields, lamented in their book Racecraft “the ever-widening campaign for recognition of a ‘multiracial’ category of Americans.” They observed that, alongside the one-drop rule, America has reproduced a “tragic-mulatto plot-line” that “sympathize[s] with the predicament of the person of mixed African and European ancestry.” But that plot line only appears tragic to people who implicitly accept the pernicious, conflicting rules that, on the one hand, “the penalty for African taint should be proportioned to its extent,” and on the other, that “there can be no such thing as a fractional pariah: one either is or isn’t.” In their view, persons of mixed background and their “well meaning but misguided champions” correctly see that “the categories imposed by racism are too restrictive to fit persons of ambiguous ancestry,” yet “they have not reached the deeper understanding that these categories are too restrictive to fit anyone.”

My former Atlantic colleague Ta-Nehisi Coates said in an interview with Fields that the book was a challenge not only to racists but also “to people like me … to African Americans who have accepted the fact of race and define themselves by the concept of race.” The book, said Coates, urges all Americans “to explore how the falsehoods of racecraft are made in everyday life, in order to work out how to unmake them.” And in Between the World and Me, a book-length letter to his son published in 2015, Coates chose the locution “people who believe themselves to be white,” casting whiteness as a dubious construct. “The power of domination and exclusion is central to the belief in being white,” he wrote, “and without it, ‘white people’ would cease to exist for want of reasons.”

As for blackness, a construct rooted in the same history, there is a “great difference between their world and ours,” Coates told his son. “We did not choose our fences. They were imposed on us by Virginia planters obsessed with enslaving as many Americans as possible. Now I saw that we had made something down here, in slavery, in Jim Crow, in ghettoes … I saw how we had taken their one-drop rule and flipped it. They made us into a race. We made ourselves into a people.”

Williams, too, is a fan of the book Racecraft. His distinct understanding of what its insights imply for blackness in America is evident in a profile of the intellectual Albert Murray that he wrote for The Nation in 2016. According to Williams, Murray emphasized that the problems of black people, while conditioned by American history, “were also timelessly and irrevocably universal, capable of being described and transcended to the same extent that humans have dealt with tragedy and chased away the blues since a man calling himself Homer went about recording the exploits of his spiteful, blood-lusting neighbors.”

This was not “a frivolous or flippant denial of the specificity of black pain,” Williams wrote, yet Murray’s approach did trouble some readers, he continued, because “it destabilizes the understandable, if Pyrrhic, comfort many feel in raging against the seemingly limitless capacity of white people to oppress.”

In Williams’s telling, “Murray thought that images of blacks as wretched victims, only ever smoldering in righteous rage or wailing in ceaseless agony under the clenched fist of white supremacy, images popular in his day and again popular in ours, are irredeemably inadequate and consequently worthy of sustained and serious interrogation.” Noting that Murray grew up with a loving adoptive father who could have passed for white but refused to do so, he argued: “What Murray discovered... was the fundamental insight that there’s nowhere good America can hope to get to when the starting point remains the illusion of race.”

As with that first Washington Post op-ed, most readers of The Nation essay could not know that the arguments and analysis Williams offered were rooted in and informed by an inquiry into his most personal experiences. The same goes for readers of his 2017 New Yorker essay on the French roots of the white nationalist phrase “Jews will not replace us” and his New York Times op-ed from the same year arguing that “woke” discourse is “in sync with” though not morally equivalent to the toxic premises of white supremacism. Both sides reduce people to abstract color categories, he wrote in the Times, “feeding off of and legitimizing each other,” while those searching for common ground “get devoured twice.”

The personal experiences that informed those arguments are brought to the surface in Self-Portrait. That Marlow is fair skinned means she won’t face a society that gives her no choice but to be black, as her grandfather did, or a subculture that encourages her to adopt a false understanding of authentic blackness, like her father did. To become herself rather than succumbing to the identity that They foist upon her, she will need to grapple with Their belief that she is white.

Her father is trying to set an example that she can consult when that day comes. “I will no longer enter into the all-American skin game that demands you select a box and define yourself by it,” he writes. He sees whiteness as a disastrous illusion undergirding all aspects of race, so whether an essentialist belief in it “results from vicious bigotry or well-meaning anti-racism,” it must be overcome. So too must “the proud and resilient identities that formed in reaction to it,” since whiteness and blackness are both built on pernicious falsehoods. They must rise or fall, persist or give way, together. “I am not renouncing my blackness and going on about my day,” he emphasizes. “I am rejecting the legitimacy of the entire racial construct in which blackness functions as one orienting pole.”

Doing so is necessary not only to vanquish racism, Williams thinks, but also to permit all people to become themselves, which he casts as a reward at the end of the path he is urging all readers to take. “At various points in my own life, I have been laughed at scathingly for calling myself black,” he writes. “More recently I have been berated for rejecting the label. Both reactions are less than comfortable, but such discomfort may simply be, for now and the foreseeable future, the occasional levy placed against the act of self-definition. I think it is more than worth it.”

Self-Portrait in Black and White is at its most persuasive in explaining why the categories of black and white are inadequate to the author and his children.

That is no small thing.

As John McWhorter, the Columbia University linguist, put it to me, “One of the most glaring holes in the logic of current ‘authentic’ black thought is that one is to revile the old one-drop rule as racist, and yet to tar as a self-hating elitist the person who is of only partially African genetic ancestry who declines to classify themselves as ‘black.’” To the extent that anyone offers a rationale for that position, McWhorter continued, “it’s that while race is a biological fiction, racism is not, and must determine how one identifies oneself. As to how healthy it is to define oneself on the basis of others’ ignorance and abuse … we are not to ask too many questions. Thomas’s work is invaluable in really digging into this Mobius strip masquerading as higher reasoning. Is any person with a drop of ‘black’ blood definitionally ‘black’ on the pain of being dismissed as a deluded jerk? You can’t engage Thomas’s work and come away thinking so.”

But is Williams’s argument universally applicable? Should everyone give up on racial categories?

Williams and I talked about that question over tapas and wine. I was especially interested in discussing a passage from Self-Portrait in which Williams grapples with how much of his family heritage he ought to pass down––if he feels any indebtedness to past suffering, any responsibility to express solidarity with past victims or guilt for past wrongs, whether he wants Marlow to feel burdened by any of that history, and whether he should.

At times, his nuanced answers reminded me of how first-generation immigrants to America sometimes struggle with what to tell their children, if anything, about painful experiences in their country of origin. What is vital family heritage? What is a needless burden? Williams does not want to pass on any guilt or pain rooted in an artificial, externally imposed identity. At the same time, he explained, he won’t allow his children to be socialized into a presumed, unthinking whiteness, nor will he simply tell them to be “color-blind.” They will be taught the roles that race played in the lives of their grandfather and their father and how racism manifests today. A formulation he offered as we finished our meal was “an achieved perspective”––that is, he believes that rejecting socially dominant categories of race does not come naturally, that one must work hard to think outside social constructs and to fight subtle bias.

I joked that he was signing up for more than his share of complicated parenting conversations. But Williams is practiced at fielding objections from young people. In Self-Portrait, he describes a campus appearance in upstate New York. Williams called on an undergraduate, who said Williams was naive and out of touch to imagine a social reality beyond the dictates of race. People in his rural college town saw him as “black, period,” the student insisted. “It’s who I am.”

Williams, who is usually perceived as black in America but seen differently in France, retorted, “I myself would be an Arab today were I to allow the perceptive habits and assumptions of French society to identify me.” In Self-Portrait, he rejects the premise that “a flawed paradigm cannot be reimagined and shifted in the future simply because we are dealing with its practical consequences as they exist today.” He concludes, “I am not ashamed to repeat now what I told that college student when he berated me. I think he was right in at least one very important regard: A certain degree of naivete is what is needed most if we are ever to solve the tragedy of racism in the absence of human races. We already know where self-certain over-sophistication inevitably leads us.”

I felt more conflicted about that passage than any other in the book. It’s made me wrestle with whether Williams’s project is too naive or overoptimistic to attempt, or if, like abolition, women’s suffrage, the civil-rights movement, and the gay-rights movement, it is a daunting, costly, generations-long undertaking that is nevertheless absolutely necessary. Perhaps what’s truly naive is to imagine that America can achieve its potential with blackness and whiteness intact, or that those categories can persist without terrible costs to the least fortunate.

Even Williams, a cosmopolitan with high openness to experience, admits that he sometimes feels “terror” imagining the total absence of race. Many find that racial identity is a positive, or at least has positive elements––even fellow intellectuals like Coates, who has a history of critiquing whiteness. Here’s Coates in a 2015 NPR interview:

I can remember for the first time in my life, a few years back, I lived in a neighborhood that was not majority black, that was not considered a “ghetto.” I quickly moved back. But I think about how I would walk down the street, and how my need to constantly be on guard, to watch everything, was suddenly removed. My body felt different. I felt more at ease than I had in any other neighborhood that I had lived in … I left because I love black people. I love living around black people. Home is home. We suffer under racism and the physical deprivations that come with that, but beneath that we form cultures and traditions that are beautiful.

Coates, like Baldwin and Williams, once moved to France with his family to explore a foreign country and language, and to reflect more fully on his own culture. That even he feels that “home is home” is a good reminder of the large cohort of people, black and white, who not only prefer feeling “at home,” perhaps at a cost to individual freedom, but who also never want to leave home at all. Racial identity may confer a sense of belonging that many value more than self-definition.

Williams understands that his path is not necessarily for everyone. “I am not so ingenuous as to think everyone can want to reconceive themselves,” he writes. “But I do believe the more people of good will—white, black, and everything in between—try, the more the rigidity of our collective faith in race will necessarily soften.”

On reflection, perhaps nothing close to unanimity is required to transform a society’s understanding of racial identity. Movements that aimed for profound social shifts, including those regarding abolition, feminism, desegregation, gay marriage, and trans rights, achieved change despite the discomfort of many.

And insofar as Williams aims to persuade people who prize openness, diversity, and difference, he cedes too much when calling his project naive, given mainstream alternatives to his approach. Many societies have existed without the categories of white and black as they are now understood in the United States, whereas a prominent strain of anti-racist thought in academia, corporate America, and beyond aims at something that has never happened in history: to convince a rising generation of light-skinned Americans that whiteness is both core to their identity and “problematic.” In such circles, the statement “There is only one race, the human race” is deemed a microaggression and white people are expected to have a self-critical, if not self-loathing, relationship to their racial group.

For two decades, the academic and author Robin DiAngelo has been paid by colleges, private corporations, nonprofits, and government entities to teach audiences a kind of “whiteness studies.” She is treated as an expert by national networks and the public broadcasters NPR and PBS.

“White identity is inherently racist,” she argues––but she is not a race abolitionist. She writes in her book White Fragility:

White people raised in Western society are conditioned into a white supremacist worldview because it is the bedrock of our society and its institutions. Regardless of whether a parent told you that everyone was equal, or the poster in the hall of your white suburban school proclaimed the value of diversity, or you have traveled abroad, or you have people of color in your workplace or family, the ubiquitous socializing power of white supremacy cannot be avoided. The messages circulate 24-7 and have little or nothing to do with intentions, awareness, or agreement. Entering the conversation with this understanding is freeing because it allows us to focus on how—rather than if—our racism is manifest.

As Kelefa Sanneh observed in The New Yorker this past August, in DiAngelo’s view “fellow white people have all the power, and therefore all the responsibility to do the gruelling but transformative spiritual work she calls for.”

I find it highly improbable that fair-skinned Americans will not only put whiteness at the center of how they understand the world, identifying with it so constantly that it governs their every interaction with people of color, but also regard themselves as racist, regardless of their awareness or intentions, and perpetually strive to atone for that unchosen sinful condition, even as they move from majority to minority demographic status in the United States. That all strikes me as much more naive and much less likely to succeed than anything urged in Self-Portrait in Black and White.

Think of Marlow at 18, having grown up in Paris among racially and ethnically diverse intellectuals, having read her father’s books and those on his bookshelf, her skin still white, her hair still blond, her eyes still blue, her grandfather and father still descendants of slaves––as she is herself. Think of her encountering a book or article by DiAngelo.

Telling Marlow that she is inescapably a white supremacist strikes me as less likely to ring true to her, or to fair-skinned people of her generation, than the alternative Williams is offering for eradicating oppressive constructs: “If the idea of separate human races is a mistake to begin with, then monoracial forms of identification are fictitious and counterproductive. But so are stand-alone ‘mixed-race’ identities, since everyone is in some way mixed to begin with.”

Of course, there’s no way to know if the rising generation will adopt Williams’s approach, either, but at least he isn’t asking anyone to live in opposition to their identity. He is urging them, instead, to see that their authentic identity is not whiteness.

“What I know now is that I used to not just tolerate but submit to and even on some deep level need our society’s web of problems called race, its received and dangerous habits of thinking about and organizing people along a binary of white and black, free and unfree, even once I suspected them to be irredeemably flawed,” Williams writes. “It is so much easier to sink deeper into lukewarm habits than to stand and walk away … but for my children’s sake I can’t linger any longer.”

Williams still has feelings of loss and moments of doubt, he confesses, but is ultimately confident that he’s right to move away from the abstract, general, and hypothetical,

back into the jagged grain of the here and now, into the human specificity of my love for my father, mother, brother, wife, children, and into my sheer delight in their existence as distinct and irreplaceable people … not sites of racial characteristics and traits, reincarnations of conflicts and prejudices past. Through these people I love, I am left with myself as the same, as a man and a human being who is free to choose and who has made choices and is not reducible to a set of historical circumstances and mistakes.

His hope is that, having shown how the idea of race unraveled in his life, it might unravel in yours.

Thoughts on this article are encouraged––email conor@theatlantic.com with your perspective.