Published this year, Self-Portrait in Black and White by Thomas Chatterton Williams is a book that is getting a lot of attention with people who are interested in race and the social issues that surround the topic. I recently read Williams’s first book, Losing My Cool. My commentary on that work is here. Like Losing My Cool, this book is a memoir. This one picks off where the earlier work ended. In addition to being a memoir, this work lays out Williams’s thoughts and philosophy on race and related social issues. I found this to be a rational and thoughtful book. I read a fair number of opinion pieces and have read a few books on related topics. I think that Williams goes in a direction here that is not typical of a lot of other thinkers. I also think that this very important book.
Losing My Cool was published over nine years ago. Since then, Williams has earned his PHD, moved to France and has married a French woman. The couple has had two children. It is significant in relation to the ideas presented here that Williams emphasizes his exposure to people of mixed race, ethnicity and cultures. The author is mixed race himself, his father is African American and his mother is a white American. His wife is French and is white. As per Williams, his children appear to be white. Many of his current friends and associates, including some ex - girlfriends represent an international group of people whose identities tend to be mixed. Williams weaves his experiences with this racial and ethnic diversity into his philosophy.
William contends that the entire concept of race was created by racists and is invalid. Furthermore, the idea of race has fueled both racism and questionable anti – racist philosophies. The author ultimately calls for the abolition of the entire concept of race. He writes,
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.
Along the way, Williams address racism in America and throughout the world. He delves into the issue both historically and currently. He is also critical of the wave of identity politics that has been dominating the discourse lately. He sees this school of thought as perpetuating the problem. The author is critical of both the right and the left here. William digs deeply into philosophy. He talks a lot about group identity and culture. Culture is obviously a very relevant issue to all this. The author is in no way calling for the abolition of culture. He writes,
The intellectual and cultural discoveries that sustained us are ours forever. But the “dreadful deceit” that would call these things racial is just that, a lie that can never be made noble.
Williams ultimately calls for individuals to renounce race like he has done.
It is my hope that as many people as possible, of all skin tones and hair textures , will come to turn away from the racial delusion .
There is a lot more here. For instance, Williams talks about the need for people of different races to try to understand the perspectives of people who are from different backgrounds and points to how much of the current discourse coming from both sides on race is all part of the same problem. He writes,
Working toward opposing conclusions, racists and many anti-racists alike eagerly reduce people to abstract color categories, all the while feeding off of and legitimizing each other, while any of us searching for gray areas and common ground get devoured twice. Both sides mystify racial identity, interpreting it as something fixed and determinative, and almost supernatural in scope. This way of thinking about human difference is seductive for many reasons but it has failed us.
Due to the fact that Williams is exposed to so many mixed - race people, one can see how this helped him formulate the philosophy that race is an illusion.
My take is that Williams is on the correct track. Both in America and elsewhere humanity must move beyond race. This is obviously the way to move beyond racism as well as the extreme identity politics comping out of the left. However, I am not sure that this will be accomplished by the founding of a philosophical movement or by people actually renouncing their race. Instead, I think this moving beyond race is already happening and will continue to happen more naturally.
I also agree with most of Williams's social criticism. There is still racism and it must be condemned and opposed. There is also a school of thought, that labels itself as anti - racist, that is now engaging in all sorts of illiberal race essentialism and stereotyping of people. I have called this trend postmodernism in some of my previous posts.
This is very important and thought-provoking book. All too many philosophies on race and racism these days fit too neatly in conservative, or far - left identity - based rhetoric. Williams illustrates a path here that rejects dogma coming from both directions. His arguments are rational and ethical. Williams goes into a lot of detail and down some interesting paths that I cannot cover in their entirety here. Though I do not agree with all of Williams points, I think that he is on to some very important truths here. Even if one does not agree with Williams, he is a bold a lively thinker who is worth reading.
Hi Brian, Thomas Chatterton Williams raises interesting points when he talks about how the initial contruct of race may have had its roots in racism and I think what Williams is saying is that as we look around the world there are different cultures, religions, histories in Africa, Asia, Europe etc that we can celebrate and learn from but the skin color of a person is or should be irrelevant. Dividing people by color though has made it an issue for centuries
Hi Kathy - It is striking to me that this stuff seems obvious. So many people seem to have trouble getting to this point of not using race to judge people.
You're right! Great minds think alike. You're actually why I read this book because you reviewed his other book and this one was at my library. It is a very interesting book. Good review! I plan to read the other one as well.
Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!
so much depends on pov... almost all people experience nameless fear and it's anxiety-relieving to have something to point at... unfortunately, it's usually differences in others... if people were educated to understand reality, the universe, and human behavior, it might alleviate some of these attitudes, which are, mainly, due to being selfish... great post it is, and a profitable direction for further research...
Hi Sharon- I think that you would get a lot out of Losing My Cool. It gives a lot of insights into Williams’s father.
Merry Christmas and Happy New Year’s to you and your family!
Thanks Muddpuddle - People do I indeed fear difference, even when that difference is benign. I think that people are getting more educated and are also becoming more empathic and that things are getting better.
I haven’t read this book or the previous one - do you need to have read the first one? Is it a memoir with philosophy?
Hi Sue - Reading Losing My Cool is not necessary before reading this. But having done so it enhanced my experience as I better understood where Williams is coming from. This was a memoir that included a lot of philosophy.
Thanks for another great post. I appreciate your bringing to our attention writers like Chatterton who I, for one, would be unlikely to read. I am encouraged a bit by the direction he has taken although I wonder about what his direction will be in another decade.
My perspective is one that has always treated humans as discreet individuals, not merely members of a group, racial or otherwise. That having been said I appreciate the importance of cultural differences among people and study both those differences along with the modes of thought that we share as fellow humans.
It seems to me that one cannot safely move "beyond race" until justice actually exists among the races. So long as injustice and inequality exist, they must be redressed. Moving "beyond race" prematurely only serves to paper over the problems, it seems to me.
Interesting topic. Great review, as always.
Thanks James - Williams’s perspective is more or less in line with a group or folks who I will call universal liberals who are currently challenging what I have been calling the. Postmodern left. Your take is essentially in line with these universal liberals and so is mine. It will be interesting to see where all this leads in ten years.
Hi Debra - This is an issue that Williams tries to address in the book. He talks about racism and inequality. It is also a subject that is being debated a lot. Many feel that the only path to justice is to stop focusing on race.
I agree that there is no such thing as race, that the whole idea is constructed. Unfortunately it is so embedded in all our lives no matter what color our skin, that dismantling it has been, and will continue to be for a long time, a slow and at times painful process. The book sounds really good and interesting!
Hi Stefanie -It will be a slow and difficult road but I think that we are slowly heading there I really do find these subjects interesting.
Interesting idea. It reminds me of Michelle Alexander's argument in The New Jim Crow that racism was a product of slavery itself - trying to keep the white slaves from joining up with the black slaves leading to protests. I disagreed with that concept, thinking that the idea of race existed before slavery, and as long as the concept of race exists, racism will exist.
Hi Rachel- Racism and bigotry are indeed very old. I have not read Alexander but he sounds off base In the end, eliminating the idea of race me will probably do a lot of good.
These memoirs sound fascinating. Wonderful commentary, as usual!
I would agree that the concept of races was created by racists, people who wanted to find support for the idea that one "race" (theirs, of course!) was superior to all others. In fact, science has pretty well established that there is not a discernible difference and we are all just one race: Human. And for the most part, we are all mongrels.
Hi Dorothy -It is interesting that in this day and age so many people still treat race like it is a valid way to judge people.
This author's memoirs do sound thought provoking. We do need to move beyond race, fantastic commentary as usual.
Thanks Naida - It seems like basic common sense that we need to move beyond race. It is suprising that so many folks seem to haver an issue with this.
Hi Brian, just dropping in to wish you a Happy New Year. May you enjoy many good books in 2020. 🙂
Happy New Year Carol!
Michael Jackson sang "Black or White" way back in the 80s. It made sense then and now. Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder sang "Ebony and Ivory" probably maybe at the same time.
I was in college during a tempestuous time period of the late 60s and early 70s.So much was going on then. 1968 was the assassination of MLK jr. The 4 day 1968 DC riots following the assassination.
RFK was assassinated a few months later. Much speculation was made about his support and dedication for civil rights leading to his death.
During the 60s and 70s, there were many interracial couples, affirmative action, openings for other races across education and jobs.
Beatles sang about a long and winding road (love relationship song), but it seems to me that it also applies to relationships between people.
Hi Susan - Great things to be reminded of. Yet for all that. So many people have an issue with these concepts.
Yes would like to move beyond race ... for all people to just accept others as human ... does he talk about ways to "renounce" race? seems so tied to identity etc.
Hi Sue - He talks about how people can renounce race. It mostly involves rejecting what he considers invalid assumptions. I mostly agree with him on this.
Remarkable commentary as always dear Brain !
i think you conveyed the message of the so beautifully here
i found this topic and read irresistibly compelling and worth ponder upon
i agree with writer that "racism " like many other issues is product of "extreme ignorance"
it is simple and easy that skin color and diversity of cultures are result of gene pool and difference between feature of planet
even people living in different rooms of same house can be different than each other in certain ways
i totally agree that idea of racism is nothing but product of ignorant and sick minds and should be erased from world like worst mistake ever
Thanks Baili. Indeed. Racial differences are genetic and superficial. As you point out, Diversity is also about a lot of things, not just race.
Racism has been one of humanities worst mistakes.
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