Thomas Chatterton Williams may well be the freshest, most thoughtful, most provocative, most genuinely progressive commentator currently engaging with the politics of race in Europe and America. Not yet 40, the author of two books, and a contributor at publications that include The New York Times and the London Review of Books, Chatterton Williams last week spearheaded the publication of an open letter in Harper’s Magazine calling for an end to the stifling, censorious atmosphere sometimes referred to as ‘cancel culture’.
The letter, signed by writers including Salman Rushie, Margaret Atwood, and JK Rowling, was immediately denounced by those sections of the illiberal Left that are currently enjoying their newfound ability to ‘cancel’ their ideological enemies. But they have not succeeded in cancelling Chatterton Williams, or indeed any of the other people – including Glenn Loury, John McWhorter, and Coleman Hughes – who form a vanguard of public intellectuals attempting to redirect the American conversation on race.
He uses the deliberately challenging term ‘ex-black’ to describe himself
Their project is determinedly anti-racist, but it runs parallel to, and is frequently in conflict with, the more mainstream position adopted by organisations like Black Lives Matter. These writers, all the descendants of Africans transported to North America as slaves, are calling for a greater degree of precision and nuance in a discourse frequently lacking in both. Which is why I have thus far deliberately avoided using the word ‘black’, taking my lead from Chatteron Williams who, in his new book Self-Portrait in Black and White: Unlearning Race, wants to ‘cast doubt on and reject’ terms like ‘black’, ‘white’, ‘Asian’, and ‘Latino’ that attempt to arrange impossibly complex human experiences into neat categories. He uses the deliberately challenging term ‘ex-black’ to describe himself, and attempts to persuade his readers to move beyond ‘the fundamentally American dictum that a single “drop of black blood” makes a person “black” primarily because they can never be “white”’. He does so through a deeply personal, and frequently painful, exploration of his own family’s relationship with race.
He begins with the birth of his daughter, Marlow, in a hospital in their home city of Paris. ‘Tête dorée’ announces the doctor as she glimpses Marlow’s head for the first time, and her father is knocked for six: ‘it hit me that she was looking at my daughter’s head and reporting back that it was blond.’ Chatterton Williams’ wife, Valentine, is a blonde, blue-eyed frenchwoman. He is the son of a dark-skinned father descended from American slaves, and a light-skinned mother descended from Northern Europeans. Chatterton Williams’ own skin is light enough that in France he is frequently mistaken for Arab. But he had not anticipated the possibility that his daughter would look so little African, and the discovery shocks him. ‘What have you done?… What have you done!’ he silently asks himself on the maternity ward.
Having years earlier written a piece for The New York Times in which he insisted that he would teach his children to consider themselves ‘black’, despite their largely European ancestry, this pale-skinned, blonde, blue-eyed little girl posed something of a challenge to an understanding of race that, he realised, was derived from a uniquely American history. Of course the toddler Marlow knew nothing of this tradition, observing ‘naively or shrewdly’ that her various family members are not ‘white’ or ‘black’ but rather ‘brown’ or ‘beige’ or ‘pink’. This anxiety around race was her father’s alone, and Chatterton Williams writes candidly of his ‘panic’ at confronting the idea that, by ‘marrying out’, he may somehow have turned his back on his ancestors, perhaps ‘wiping out myself and my father’s entire line along with me.’
Self-Portrait in Black and White recounts the process by which he let go of that anxiety, recognising that he did not need to cling on to the past in order to honour the suffering of his enslaved ancestors:
We have a responsibility to remember, yes, but we also have the right and I believe even the duty to continuously remake ourselves anew.
And after all, in the age of genetic testing services like 23AndMe, simplistic understandings of racial categories are increasingly difficult to justify. Americans who define themselves as ‘black’ have, on average, 24% European ancestry; Americans who define themselves as ‘white’ have a similar average proportion of African ancestry. It is well-known that America will soon be a majority-minority nation, but it is perhaps less well-known that the fastest growing racial group in America (as well as in the UK) are people who are described as ‘mixed race’, ‘biracial’, ‘multiracial’, or other variants.
Given this, it is troubling to see the resurgence of a form of anti-racist politics that takes an essentialist view of racial identity, seeing certain dispositions and political ideas as innately linked to one’s race. It is an expression of what Chatterton Williams describes as a ‘deeply flawed but all-too-human tribalism that democratic, multicultural societies will inevitably have to discard if they are to fulfill their promise and potential.’
As a relatively light-skinned person (‘beige’, as the young Marlow would say), Chatterton Williams is acutely aware of the fact that it is easier for him to let go of his ‘black’ identity than it would be for someone whose African ancestry were more evident. But that is not true for Kmele Foster, a public intellectual and ‘race abolitionist’ who plays something of a heroic role in Chatterton Williams’ narrative. Foster confronts racial essentialism head-on by refusing to describe himself as ‘black’ despite the fact that most people who encounter him would describe him as such. Explaining his reasoning in a recent interview, Foster said:
I have no need whatsoever for this abstract notion of ‘race’ that makes other people think that there is some bond of fraternity because we happen to look alike… when we talk about bonds of fraternity between ‘white men’, we instantly understand how grotesque that is.
Foster’s radicalism is, writes Chatterton Williams, ‘likely too abrupt an abdication for most people to be able to emulate all at once’. But it is a bold move towards letting go of a ‘one drop’ conception of race that was a creation of the American plantation. “[W]hy should I allow the slaver’s perception to define me? Why should you?’ Chatterton Williams demands of us. Why indeed?
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