“[On Gethen] one is respected and judged only as a human being. It is an appalling experience.”—Ursula K. Le Guin, The Left Hand of Darkness
“I am aware—and from time to time still feel it in myself—of the terror involved in imagining a total absence of race.”—Thomas Chatterton Williams
Introduction to the Letters
The proposal at the heart of Thomas Chatterton Williams’ thoughtful recent book, A Self-Portrait in Black and White: Unlearning Race, is simple. It requires, we are told, a “degree of naïveté,” a “childlike foolishness” to accept—but it is quietly revolutionary. Williams proposes that we abandon the idea of race, cease to define ourselves as black, white, Hispanic, Asian. These labels, he argues, are deceptive: they are disingenuous, harmful fictions. They divide us into colour castes; they interpose a distorting filter between us and our fellow human beings, encouraging us to generalise and stereotype: providing “an inherited shorthand,” that discourages us from reading further, “a veil of color” that blinds us to individual specificity.
In the letter exchange below (and here), Williams and I examine the core themes of the book and draw parallels between his experience and my own. The correspondence is hosted by the platform Letter—find out more about us here and see also this article’s footer.
We are both what society calls mixed race: Williams is the son of an African-American father and a European mother and I am the daughter of an Indian Parsi father and a Scottish mother. This is perhaps no accident: those of us who straddle the boundaries between conventional racial categories can render the artificiality of these distinctions especially apparent.
With a light tan from the tropical sun darkening my face by two Pantone numbers, in a kurta or sari, I feel Parsi. In jeans and an Fairisle sweater, skin skimmed-milk pale and chapped from a ferocious Highland wind, I feel Scottish and I play up the lilt and rolled Rs latent in my accent, to fit in.
My identity is, on the one hand, then, carefully styled and consciously chosen. But, on the other, it is constantly questioned: in the eyes of others, I rarely look fully Parsi and sometimes not fully British either. Likewise, Williams is assumed by most who only know him from sight to be Middle Eastern and, as he describes in the book, even berated for not speaking in Arabic by friendly, but baffled, Parisian kebab shop owners.
Memoir allows the writer to use his life as a template: Williams uses the genre to examine how perceptions of his own race have permeated his experience. Ironically, racial expectations have influenced some of the book’s critics, too. Williams’ more ambiguous appearance, they say, gives him a freedom the darker-skinned don’t have. His hue, one reader even argues, itself disqualifies him from having an opinion on the subject—and this in a book of autobiographical musings!
But these critics mistake a desire to move beyond race for a wish to pass as white or to pretend to be something one is not. What Williams advocates is the opposite: a more clear-sighted recognition of the complexity of who we are. It is precisely those of us who cannot be neatly slotted into the preordained pigeonholes who demonstrate the inadequacies of our mental filing system.
The term mixed race is itself misleading, since it implies that some people are pure. As Williams puts it, “Purity is always a lie, though it is a lie that is certainly most ostentatious when the ‘mixing’ is freshest.” We do not pass on, to the next generation, replicas of ourselves, but shuffle a unique new set of genes together with every conception. Examine your genealogy closely, the artist Adrian Piper advises in an interview with Williams, cited in the book, and you will find, inevitably, that the story is more complicated than broad racial categories suggest—whether your skin tone is closer to chocolate or chalk.
The existence of a tiny number of intersex individuals and a small percentage of trans people has led many to question the validity of a sex-gender correlation and even to opt out of the system altogether, as non-binary. Yet the presence of huge numbers of mixed race people in the west—Eric Kaufmann has predicted that the mixed will comprise 95% of the European population by 2100—has not yet induced many people to think of themselves as non-racial. Even those who acknowledge, as Ta Nehisi-Coates does in Between the World and Me, that “race is the child of racism, not the father” are reluctant to relinquish this framework—to let go of distinctions put in place to justify slavery, segregation and Jim Crow.
Why then, do so many cling to these labels?
To speak about yourself, you must first be able to assemble a sense of origin. For descendants of slaves, this has proved one of the most precious losses of self-knowledge we’ve endured. The black experience in the South is tantamount to the biblical flood; we’ve stumbled off the ark without an inkling of what things were like before it.
Their ties to family and homeland severed, African-Americans reconceived of their community as defined by shared race. Repeatedly, in the book, Williams pays homage to black culture—to “the writings of Langston Hughes … the paintings of Ronare Bearden … Michael Jackson’s moonwalk.” And yet, he argues, although we must remember and honour our ancestors, we are not their “avatars … reincarnations of conflicts and prejudices past.” We can be inspired by their achievements, without taking false credit for them, just because we share a skin tint. We can also acknowledge their suffering, without having to share it.
Williams concedes that there is continued prejudice against black people in the US, on the basis of skin colour. He writes with admiration of Black Lives Matter’s campaign to raise awareness of police brutality, for example. There are real injustices to be fought today. But he rejects the idea of historical pain by proxy. Surveying the ugly past, Williams realises,
that I am also playing a role, willing myself, even, into some strange communion with an anger that exists somewhere outside of me—an anger that has never rightfully been my own. The lived experience behind the anger belongs to someone else, to a memory.
He argues that the burden of this inherited pain prevents black Americans from living up to their full potential. He writes: “as long as black people can be so easily triggered and provoked—so long as such barely submerged ancestral pain hovers just beneath the surface—we’ll never be free or equal.”
There are greater dangers in this fetishisation of historical victimhood too. In India, past grievances—both real and imaginary—some of them originating as far back as the Middle Ages, are used to stoke present-day hatreds that have inspired waves of retaliatory violence. Our lives are short and limited in scope: it is natural to want to appropriate borrowed glory from heroic ancestors. It is also natural to feel such compassion for the suffering of our predecessors that we forget that we are not them and that the descendants of their persecutors are not the enemy. It is almost impossible to separate out the duty to remember and the impulse to identify, but we must. For these inherited grievances at best promote continued estrangement and ghettoization and, at worst, hostility and even vengeance.
So, how do we balance our need for a lineage that can connect us to those who went before and provide a sense of continuity and belonging—and still let go of the obsession with different races, whose dividing lines are as arbitrary as any national border, as embattled as any line of control, ethnic Partitions of the imagination alone? How can we, in a world still riddled with racism, abandon the notion of race?
In these letters, Thomas Chatterton Williams and I draw on ideas from Ralph Ellison, Kierkegaard, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Horace, James Baldwin and others to explore that challenge and exchange notes on how these issues affect our lives.
I notice @thomaschattwill is receiving some inexplicable hostility for his idea that we must get beyond race—an idea he explores with nuance, sensitivity & oodles of heart (I cried a LOT over his book). Read our @LetterWiki 💌 exchange here:https://t.co/00itbCpGc2
— Iona Italia (@IonaItalia) November 24, 2019
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