Self-Portrait in Black and White: Unlearning Race by Thomas Chatterton Williams
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Thomas Chatterton Williams’ memoir is a deeply personal exploration of the evolution of his thinking about race and identity. The candor and honesty with which he engages these often divisive and controversial issues is refreshing. And, maybe more importantly, enlightening. I am not sure I quite fully agree with or even wholly understand some of what Williams is arguing. But he asks and attempts to answer for himself important questions about his own identity and what that suggests about the issues of race and identity more generally. Though the cases are somewhat different, these questions are quite relevant for my own questions about my Jewish identity.
The basic idea I take him to be arguing for is that we need to transcend race. He is, as I understand him, arguing that we need to find a way to celebrate or just acknowledge the connections we each individually have with our family, culture, and history (and the diversity these all contain). But, he argues, race is an artificial construct that adds little, if anything, to this. He’s not striving for a muting out of differences, but a recognition that the categories of race just don’t capture what is important about each person. But we have come all too often to treat these categories as totalizing; we reify them in ways that have caused so much harm and damage – for everyone.
Williams uses his own family to illustrate and motivate this mediation. He comes from a mixed family: his mother from European ancestry and his father with African ancestry by way of slavery. Williams married a French woman with whom he has had two children—both of whom by his account are blonde, blued-eye Parisians. This straddling of so many different concurrent identities is part of what makes Williams well-situated to ask these questions: it both gives him the space to ask them and the motivation to do so.
In the end, agree with his view about race and identity or not, Williams’ poignant engagement with these issues is definitely worth one’s time.
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