Thomas Chatterton Williams is the author of two memoirs, Losing My Cool and Self-Portrait in Black and White, and a contributing writer at The Atlantic. His forthcoming book is Nothing Was the Same: The Pandemic Summer of George Floyd and the Shift in Western Consciousness. Williams will speak in the 2022 program track, Trust.
Your most recent book, Self-Portrait in Black and White, unearths your multigenerational family story and brings readers into the evolution of your thinking on race. How did this personal history start to unravel your idea of race?
When my daughter was born in 2013, I was still clinging to the logic of the plantation that I had grown up with—that is, the all-American tradition of believing that “race” is real and that it exists most significantly as a binary: one is either black or white. I knew that the child I was about to have with my “white” French wife would be “mixed,” like me, and possibly much more “white”-presenting, but I could not yet imagine a world in which the “one-drop rule”—the notion that a drop of “black” blood makes a person “black” because they are disqualified from being “white”—did not hold sway. It was her birth that thrust the fiction of race into my consciousness for the first time. It’s not that I thought this blond-haired, blue-eyed child with very pale skin was “white;” it’s that I realized deep inside me that these categories could not contain her, and they couldn’t adequately contain any of us if we’re being honest. That’s when I started to understand that the world I was hoping for, one in which the hierarchical, color-coded language of the plantation was truly relegated to the past, would have to be one that we participated in creating. That was the exact moment my passively received understanding of race began to fall apart.
You’ve talked about the need to transcend racial thinking, which can often get misconstrued as being “post-race” or seen as assuaging white guilt. Can you help clarify these strands of thought?
Well, it’s really a troubling misunderstanding that I’m at pains to clarify in the book. Racism and race are two separate things. Barbara and Karen Fields have argued in their extremely important 2012 book Racecraft: The Soul of Inequality in American Life, and Ta-Nehisi Coates has even echoed the point in Between the World and Me, that racism is the father of race, and not the other way around. What that means is that there are no distinct races within the species homo sapiens. But prejudice and a need to justify discrimination and the kind of brutal economic exploitation of African-descended peoples at the hands of (mostly) European-descended peoples in the supposedly free and democratic new world through chattel slavery demanded a narrative of inherent inferiority and superiority. We are still living with the repercussions of that exploitation and subsequent ones, but that does not mean the categories it imposed on us are real or worth preserving one moment longer. And I don’t think you can oppose one without opposing the other. Which is why I don’t think you can be fully anti-racist while buying into or reproducing the habits of thought racism has created and that in turn give it power.
What does a world in which we have transcended race look like? What promise does it hold for people whose racial identity creates a sense of belonging that would be hard to want to let go of?
I think a world in which we have transcended race would be one in which we fundamentally learn to interact with other people, and think of ourselves, first and foremost as individuals. We live in extraordinarily mixed societies already. I want to live in a world where we accept that a person’s physical characteristics and ostensible color category cannot adequately tell us how they will think or act, what kind of character they possess, or to which class they belong. Many of us profess to believe this already, but we don’t really behave like we do. And part of not behaving like we do is not putting too much stock in that sense of belonging based on abstract notions of “race.” I would just caution any non-white people who find it difficult to imagine giving up the solidarity and sense of empowerment they derive from membership in their racial group that this is also how white supremacists feel. Now, most well-meaning people can immediately understand the problem with a sense of meaning and pride based in belonging to a “race” when they think about “white” people professing this. We just need to be consistent now. Too often the “anti-racists” on the left start from the same limiting premises—that the racial category is impossible to transcend and therefore real, if not biologically real then so socially constructed that it amounts to the same thing—that the genuine racists hold to be true. In so doing they actually end up reproducing the very same flawed and dehumanizing ideas they wish to counteract.
Big IdeaI want to continue to recognize and oppose the injustice of racism while simultaneously advocating for and modeling an America in which my children never fall for the lie of race in the first place.Thomas Chatterton Williams
Reflecting on having conversations about race, you’ve said that “Who I want to be talking about this with is anybody whose race has been made in America, which is all people.” Can you elaborate on this? How can we unpack the construction of race while acknowledging the very real experiences of racism?
Well, I think you start by doing just that: we start by saying race is a disastrous lie, but racism is all too real. You would have to be crazy to claim that racism no longer exists. But I think you also lose credibility if you cannot concede that our society has improved drastically since, say, the 1960s, and that progress is meaningful and should not be downplayed. This is why in my books I’ve gone to such lengths to contemplate and contrast the segregated America my “black” father grew up in as a child of the 1930s and ’40s with the one I inherited in the ’80s and ’90s. We experienced two different countries. There was racism in mine, but it was not at all the same. In neither of our Americas was “race” scientifically real, but we were both socialized—like everyone else around us—to believe that it was. I want to continue to recognize and oppose the injustice of racism while simultaneously advocating for and modeling an America in which my children never fall for the lie of race in the first place.
Writing about the birth of your first child, you wondered, “Is it possible to have black consciousness in a body that does not in any way look black?” Have you found any answers to this question as your children have grown up? What do you hope to instill in them as they make sense of their identities?
I think I have, and it is something I describe in the book. What I learned from speaking with the artist and philosopher Adrian Piper, while profiling her for the New York Times Magazine in 2018, is that I was phrasing the question wrong to begin with. There is no such thing as “black” consciousness. Just as there is no singular “French” consciousness or “Jewish” consciousness or any other essentialized way to be for any abstract identity category that exists. There are ancestries, loyalties, cultural practices and traditions, and specific histories taking place in certain geographical regions that we can all value and prioritize to varying degrees. As my kids are growing and coming to understand themselves in the world, it has become enough for me that they know their grandfather and the culture that shaped him, and that because they know and love him and they know and love me, they would never fall for the lie that tries to tell them he and I belong to another “race” than they do.
The views and opinions of the author are their own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Aspen Institute.
By Maya Kobe-Rundio, Associate Digital Editor, Aspen Ideas