Thomas Chatterton Williams’s new memoir, Self-Portrait in Black and White: Unlearning Race, is a bold experiment in reimagining American racial narratives.
Demographic change is one of the tectonic forces shaping American life, but popular narratives of it have a tendency to slip into either glib triumphalism or equally glib despair, when they could instead use it as an opportunity for reimagining. That’s the challenge Thomas Chatterton Williams takes on in his new memoir, Self-Portrait in Black and White: Unlearning Race.
The son of a “black” father and a “white” mother — the quotation marks here are deliberate — Williams married a “white” Frenchwoman. Before the birth of their first child, he proclaimed in a New York Times essay that he would teach his children “they . . . are black.” The baby’s birth, however, was a conceptual uppercut: She was a “blond-haired, blue-eyed, and impossibly fair-skinned child.” This caused Williams to reconsider his own mixed heritage, and he appeals again and again in Self-Portrait to the promise of mixedness as a means of dissolving the totemic power of race in American culture.
The aim of this book is bold. Williams seeks to “unravel” the “idea of race”: “I am not renouncing my blackness and going on about my day; I am rejecting the legitimacy of the entire racial construct in which blackness functions as one orienting pole.” From this perspective, all racial classifications carry with them either visible or invisible quotation marks — recognized as social categories of the moment while also seen as profoundly limited (and often invidious).
Self-Portrait is an essayistic memoir that explores narratives of race and its unmaking through the lens of Williams’s personal experiences. It is emphatically not a work of academic sociology, weighted down by rows of footnotes and pages of charts. Indeed, Williams implicitly declares his rhetorical independence from the academy and wonkery. He criticizes that “pervasive sense in the university — which amounts to a kind of territorialism — that one cannot engage in a certain subject without first submitting to the conventions and dictates of whatever hyper-specialized subfield already regulates it.” Instead, he samples a wide range of thinkers, from John Locke to the 20th-century essayist Albert Murray.
In the tradition of many of the great essayists, Williams’s memoir chronicles the interplay between ideas and lived experience. He chronicles his childhood in a “mixed race” household, his uncertain identification with “blackness,” and how being father to a blond baby changed him. A thread throughout is the essential mixedness of “blackness,” the inescapable fact that many Americans who identify themselves as “black” have more than a few “white” ancestors. So much of American racial discourse assumes some kind of polarity between “black” and “white” as racial categories. For centuries in American life, this radical distinction was maintained by the force of law and private violence. Yet biological mixedness undercuts such efforts to maintain strict racial boundaries, and the weakening of state-sanctioned racial separation has made the conceptual duality even harder to maintain. Williams makes no effort to deny that racism exists, nor does he seek to dismiss the very real impact of racism past and present on contemporary America. He does, however, challenge his readers to doubt whether racial categories should have such force in American life.
While Williams focuses on the black–white polarity that has long been so essential to American discussion about race, his argument has significant implications for bigger questions of race in the 21st century. He implies, for instance the ways in which two major identity blocs were socially constructed in the latter portion of the 20th century: Asian (as a race) and Hispanic (as a pan-ethnic identity). The “Asian” racial identity includes a huge range of ethnic types, national backgrounds, religions, and languages. As Williams observes in a footnote, “Asian” as a racial category is both extremely heterogeneous and unstable. He cites a Census Bureau working paper that finds that someone from India, who would be classified as “Asian” today, would have been classed as “Hindu” between 1920 and 1940, as “other race” between 1950 and 1960, and as “white” by 1970. Similar points might apply to the “Hispanic” ethnic category, which refers to descendants of the native peoples of Central and South America, the scions of the Spanish conquistadors who conquered those peoples, and the children of immigrants from Italy, Japan, and elsewhere who settled south of the Rio Grande. Much more than intrinsic biology, American cultural narratives seem the fundamental glue that holds “Asian” together as a racial category and “Hispanic” together as an ethnic one. Ethnic or cultural differences that might be important in an immigrant’s native land are often dissolved by American discourse as it sorts people into certain Census-designated blocs. (Speaking of the Census: One of the central themes of American racial politics is the role of the federal government in instituting certain paradigms of race.)
The task of Self-Portrait in Black and White is to reimagine these narratives. Biological mixedness points, Williams suggests, to cultural mixedness. He muddies racial boundaries by noting their social contingency, but another powerful motivation influences his efforts to deconstruct race: the quest to recognize the individual as an individual. Williams continually returns to the ways that preset narratives of race and ethnicity risk obscuring how we see others, and confining the conduct of our own lives.
Williams at one point calls himself an existentialist “to the extent that I start from the premise that, though forces beyond my control influence and pressure and certainly constrict me, I am ultimately responsible for my own beliefs and actions.” This sense of personal responsibility urges him on in the experiment of unlearning race; he cannot force all of society to surrender its constructed ideas of race, but he can himself choose not to subscribe to them, to try to carve out an autonomous identity. From his earliest childhood, Williams was nurtured in the tradition of standing apart. In forging their interracial marriage, his parents left some family connections behind. He went to a Catholic school, but his parents kept him from attending Mass. He now lives as an expatriate American writer in Paris, married to a Frenchwoman and often treated as an “Arab” rather than an “African American” in his adopted home.
Many others might not be willing to travel as far from home as Williams has in pursuit of a self-created identity, preferring instead a stable place of belonging. But Williams makes clear that his project of reimagining race need not only speak to the Promethean impulse. He attacks hard-and-fast racial divisions for occluding the search for “gray areas and common ground.” He sympathetically quotes the economist Glenn Loury, who calls for “racially transcendent humanism being the American bedrock.” From Loury’s perspective, sorting everyone into mutually antagonistic tribes is a recipe for obscuring deeper human connections and commitments.
It is telling that part of what prompted Williams’s whole experiment in “unlearning” race was the birth of his child, which highlighted the failure of society’s racial narratives to match or explain his lived experience. The tension between social abstraction and what Williams terms the “jagged grain of the here and now” suggests other possibilities, too. Even as Self-Portrait in Black and White speaks of “unlearning race,” it at times suggests that this “unlearning,” like race itself, should not be absolute, or at least need not obscure all senses of ethnic heritage. Reflecting on the many people who came to visit his family after the birth of his second child, Williams writes, “I don’t know if I can ever attain — or should want to attain — a state where I do not notice the various ethnic and social differences among us, but I have already ceased to allow those differences to dominate and determine the exchange.” This is different than dissolving all ethnic differences or the abstractions upon which they are based. Instead, it demands recognizing the complexities of ethnic heritage while rebuking the idea that this ethnic heritage should be taken as the determinative, essentializing core of a person.
Williams’s experiment might be seen within a broader American tradition of softening identity categories, especially ethnic-identity categories. While American culture invested considerable energy in creating a sharp distinction between “black” and “white,” it also has a tradition of blurring ethnic categories. After the waves of Germanic migration into the United States in the 19th century, the division between “German” and “Anglo-Saxon” seemed compelling to many American cultural observers in the early part of the 20th century. In 2019, this distinction has nearly been effaced, as have the distinctions drawn between the many European ethnicities in earlier waves of migration. Some of the equivalent racial barriers have been softened, too. Opposition to interracial marriage has plummeted, and, more broadly, the collapse of regimes of de jure segregation has helped spur on the racial and ethnic mixing of American life.
Softening identity categories in such a manner does not mean ignoring them. After all, despite the lessened salience of many European ethnicities in American life, we still have Oktoberfests, the Sons and Daughters of Italy, and the Polish National Alliance. For many Americans (and many people in general), ancestral identity matters a great deal. They might find great meaning in the triumphs and struggles of their ancestors in bondage and war, their inherited cultural traditions, and the historical arc of their families inside and outside the United States. Our heritage is one way we situate ourselves in the tidal sweep of time and generations. There’s a reason why ancestry websites and DNA registries are so popular: They speak to that craving in the human heart. Such an attention to ancestry can be exclusionary, but it can also become a vehicle for civic good, for nurturing social solidarity, and, over time, inclusion. Through intermarriage, immigrants and their children can join bloodlines with those who have long lineages in the United States. We all might claim the founding generations of the American colonies and the United States as our civic ancestors, but intermarriage also means that a growing portion of Americans can look upon them as biological ancestors, too. The descendants of slaveowners and slaves, who often themselves have slaveowner ancestors, can create new unions that embody the complexity of American history.
It’s not hard to see how, by insisting upon hard racial/ethnic distinctions and separations, those who stigmatize “cultural appropriation” could cause problems for this project of softening identity categories, which is meant to promote fluidity and integration. For advocates of softening and cultural proliferation, one of the points of culture is to appropriate and share, not to abolish existing identity narratives but to make new ones. Cultural experimentation and fusion result in new forms, as the English language, with its vocabulary drawing upon everything from German to Latin to French to Hindi, demonstrates.
Self-Portrait in Black and White is not a programmatic policy book but an experiment, a journey toward a new way of looking at the world. In drawing attention to the lived textures of experience, it examines how certain formalizations of identity may not live up to the complexities of life. In a time when rickety ideological narratives (of ethnicity and quite a lot more) have helped cause so much paralysis and vitriol, that more open-ended exploration of identity can help us be aware of the horizons we take for granted.
Williams’s experiment could also have fascinating implications for the relationship between the individual and his community, which is at the heart of recent debates about “liberalism” and “nationalism.” On one hand, various identity categories might seem to circumscribe us, but on the other, they also give us meaning and their own kind of freedom. Through taking on certain burdens — such as a noble calling or duty to our families — we discover new depths within ourselves and new possibilities. Conversely, the endless attempt to remove ourselves from all attachments can become the ultimate imprisonment. Our inheritances define us, but they do not do so absolutely, and we can simultaneously acknowledge them and claim the ability to revise them as part of our birthright.
Indeed, responding to demographic change as a shift in populations might also involve demographic change in another sense — reimagining the contours of the demos in order to establish new bonds with our neighbors and our countrymen. (There are good reasons why a democracy might want to nurture some fellow-feeling in its citizens.) Williams calls for his readers to find ways of “seeing and relating to each other that operate somewhere between the poles of tribal identitarianism and Panglossian utopianism.” It is in that gray area that the common ground of an inclusive but substantive civic life can be found.