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.”

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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.”

When he tells his own story, Williams can be an elegant and sharp-eyed writer; when he moves beyond it, he can lapse into an excess of rhetorical questions and ponderous pondering. For instance, while knocking on doors in minority Baltimore neighborhoods as an Obama campaign volunteer in 2008, Williams pauses to wonder “whatever superstructural, sociohistorical latticework caught us together under a single expansive color category.” Reading such a phrase, I also pause to wonder.

In a publishing environment where analyses of race tend to call out white fragilities and catalogue historical injustices, “Self-Portrait in Black and White” is a counterintuitive, courageous addition. But Williams does not simply want to share his journey; he insists that everyone take the same trip. “Most so-called ‘black’ people do not feel themselves at liberty to simply turn off or ignore their allotted racial designation, whether they would like to or not,” he writes. “But that doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t.” He calls on white and Asian Americans to do the same, to reject the legitimacy of race, not just on biological grounds, where the case is clear, but also in the realm of ideas, where he says race has produced “a philosophical and imaginative disaster.”

It’s a big ask, but Williams is confident that “people of good will,” anyone “properly motivated and educated,” can slip the bonds of identity. He concludes this despite constantly noting the uniqueness of his life, which has made his discernment more possible, his choices less constrained, his experience of racial animosity less overt; and he does so seemingly unaware that his plea for individual agency can also involve the agency to accept or embrace group identities, no matter how manufactured or imposed.

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Williams, who resides in Paris with his French wife and their two young children, writes that he is frequently the only black person in any given room, an environment in which “race recedes from my lived experience and becomes something wholly cerebral, abstract.” (Williams concedes that his experience may be unusual for most black Americans.) He also emphasizes that, as an adult, he has “never been harmed by my appearance or lineage,” never pulled over unfairly, never avoided by a white person on the street. But he believes his experiences make him less an outlier than a precursor. “I’ve been granted a view that most Americans on either side of the color line haven’t had, but from a position that an increasing number will find themselves in as the mixed-race population expands.” Indeed, Williams posits that his may be the “last American generation for which the logic — and illogic — of racial classifications could so easily contradict, or just gloss over, the physical protestations and nuances of the body and face.”

His efforts at learning and unlearning race have been, in hindsight, lifelong. His parents were fiercely anti-tribal, Williams recalls, inculcating in him a comfort with standing apart. He grew up with little contact with either black or white relatives, and he appreciates the advantages “of being cut off from any substantial we.” With little extended family relationships to draw upon, Williams reinterprets past romances as attempts at self-definition. In high school, he is absorbed by the rebellious Stacey, a beautiful dancer with teak skin, a long weave and coolness to spare. “I felt that Stacey made me whole . . . I was consumed by the idea of increasing my own physical and cultural blackness, of lessening any dilutions.” In college, he is taken by Betrys, an Italian-Nigerian American who “understood her blackness as a broad, social, cultural, and political construct . . . without ever seeking to use her links to Europe to shirk its hardships.” And later as a young writer, he meets Alana, black and upper-middle-class, with “none of that armor or scar tissue” that he once might have associated with authentic blackness but now understands as a function of class or personality.

There is something both endearing and perplexing about a writer compulsively defining himself through his past girlfriends — at times the book is more “High Fidelity” than “The Souls of Black Folk” — but the effort is consistent with the big-think pronouncements cluttering Williams’s narrative. “Our identities really are a constant negotiation between the story we tell about ourselves and the narrative our societies like to recite,” Williams writes, and his back-and-forth negotiation is indeed endless, making this slim book read longer than its page count.

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His ultimate choice of a white, foreign woman for a spouse elicits the greatest introspection. Williams wonders if he is betraying blackness by marrying outside of it, or if in fact “one of the most powerful and subversive ways — whether done purposely or not — to combat a racist society is simply to bow out of its perverse customs?” He’s unsure. “Does that really constitute an act of rebellion or is it in fact another form of capitulation still?” he asks later on. “Or is it possible,” he wonders yet again, “that marrying out, if shorn of any belief in or aspiration to ‘whiteness,’could be a useful, even indispensable part of the solution to the quagmire of racism without race?”

It must be paralyzing to be Thomas Chatterton Williams, I wrote in the margins. The unexamined life may not be worth living, but the overexamined life is not always worth reading.

Where Williams is most certain is in his attack on the “mainstream anti-racist discourse” in America today. He is understandably annoyed by those well-meaning white Americans “sincerely or performatively apologizing for their ‘whiteness,’ as if they were somehow born into original sin,” and he assails leading black thinkers whom he regards as too “easily triggered and provoked.” Yet he goes so far as to suggest that because anti-racist activists accept race, even as a social force or cultural perception, they are somehow “in sync with toxic presumptions of white supremacism,” and he decries the supposed “masochistic glee” with which they identify instances of racism. It is not enough for him to reject race and question the ever-shifting demands of woke progressivism; Williams appears to reprimand anyone who recognizes race’s enduring role in American life.

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And when an author finds himself beginning multiple sentences with clauses like “While in no way excusing anti-black racism . . .” or “Without excusing the racists . . .” as Williams does, perhaps he might want to dwell a little longer on the power of all those things he’s not excusing.

If it can be paralyzing to be Thomas Chatterton Williams, it appears thrilling, too. Limiting the ability of group identities to define us, he writes, is “one of the great intellectual projects” of our time, requiring “nothing less heroic than new ideas.” Hey, if it’s your book, why not be the hero?

But his new ideas can be vague and contradictory when they transcend the self of this self-portrait. Williams hopes his story can illuminate “ways of seeing and relating to each other that operate somewhere between the poles of tribal identitarianism and Panglossian utopianism,” a gap so vast as to be meaningless. And he acknowledges near the end that renouncing racial identity on a large scale would simply “coincide with a reawakening of consciousness of class,” which he considers a more meaningful divide.

So much for touching the universal.

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