'Unlearning Race' with Thomas Chatterton Williams

On this episode, Watson Economics Professor Glenn Loury talks with writer Thomas Chatterton Williams. Williams’s 2010 memoir ‘Losing My Cool: Love, Literature, and a Black Man’s Escape from the Crowd,’ combined cultural criticism with his own personal story of falling in (and out) of love with hip hop culture growing up. His 2019 book ‘Self Portrait in Black and White: Unlearning Race,’ continued his exploration of issues at the intersection of race, culture, family, and his own story. Whatever your views, he and Glenn's discussion will be sure to challenge your assumptions about race, class, and identity in America.

You can learn about and purchase 'Losing My Cool' here.

You can learn more about and purchase 'Self Portrait in Black and White: Unlearning Race' here.

You can learn more about Watson’s other podcasts here.


[MUSIC PLAYING] SARAH BALDWIN: From the Watson Institute at Brown University, this is Trending Globally. I'm Sarah Baldwin. On this episode, Watson faculty Economics Professor, Glenn Loury, talks with Thomas Chatterton Williams.

Thomas' Twenty-Ten memoir, Losing My Cool: Love, Literature, and a Black Man's Escape from the Crowd, combined cultural criticism with his own story of falling in love and then out of love with hip-hop culture. It also established Thomas as one of the most insightful and thought-provoking writers on race today.

In this Twenty-Nineteen book, Self-portrait in Black and White: Unlearning Race, he continued his exploration of race, culture, family and history.

On this episode, we're rearing a conversation that Glenn Loury had with Thomas for Trending Globally in Twenty-Nineteen. Regardless of your views on politics and race, I can almost guarantee this episode will challenge how you think about race, class, and identity in America. Here's Glenn.

GLENN LOURY: I'm here with Thomas Chatterton Williams, writer extraordinaire. Welcome.

THOMAS C. WILLIAMS: Hey. Thanks for having me.

GLENN LOURY: You're welcome. OK. So, Self-portrait, it sounds like it's about you. Another memoir?

THOMAS C. WILLIAMS: Yeah. I realize that two memoirs in under 40 years might raise some eyebrows, but it's actually not a memoir. I find that I write-- Oftentimes, I jump off from personal experiences. I try to use things that I observe and things that have happened to me as a way of getting into a conversation about more universal things.

And so, I certainly wasn't out looking for a second memoir. But I spent my whole life really believing the dictum that a drop of Black blood makes a person Black. And my first memoir is very much about navigating the cultural pressures that come with a Black identity, trying to achieve a racial authenticity.

And then I married a white woman. I'm already a Black man of mixed race heritage. And somehow, though, I assumed my kids would be Black in an uncomplicated way, they came out looking rather white, you could even say almost Scandinavian looking.

And so, this kind of racial diversity in my family that I had not really allowed myself to think was there, made me began to question the racial divisions and the racial constructions that exist in the society at large, outside my family too.

And so, the writing started from this personal point, but then I got-- It became, essentially, a first person essay against race, against the way that we box ourselves into these abstract color categories.

GLENN LOURY: I see. I think the listeners should know that your first book, Losing My Cool, is a coming of age account of your moving away from the parochial and more toward the universal, if I may say so. Coming out of suburban New Jersey, and very cool African-American middle class familiar. And finding your way, now, to Paris. I assume you're speaking French pretty well.


GLENN LOURY: You know what a baguette is by now.

THOMAS C. WILLIAMS: I know what a baguette is now.

GLENN LOURY: OK. So, it's not just navel-gazing, you writing about your life. It's you, using your personal experiences as a platform to make more general points. And it sounds like you're against race.

THOMAS C. WILLIAMS: I didn't start there, but I ended there. I don't see really what good can come out of these kind of inherited identities that have been passed down to us from the slavers of yesterday.

I don't see how you're going to transcend racism so long as you believe in the racial categories that came out of the collision of Europe and Africa, and the oppression that resulted from this exchange.

I think that we need a new way of conceiving of ourselves and of each other. A new way of belonging to each other. A new way of orienting our societies that take into account the kind of complex mixtures that have always been there, but that we've kind of simplified into the white, Black, binary that dominates American social life.

GLENN LOURY: I got to ask you a question, and I apologize in advance. But I can hear the critique. So let me channel the critic here. You would never ask Jews to give up Jewishness on behalf of the project of killing anti-Semitism. Why are you asking Black people to give up Blackness, on behalf of a project of killing racism? Like the Jews, Blacks are not responsible for the racism and the hatred that they must endure, why must their identities be fashioned in such a manner as to negate something that's not their fault?

THOMAS C. WILLIAMS: That's a good question, but I don't-- I would never say that I'm asking Blacks to give up their racial identity, and for everybody else to continue business as usual. I think that white people have to give up whiteness, and that's even more important and crucial to the project of a racially transcendent humanism.

But I do think that Blacks should be incentivized to stop buying into the racial system as it's operating now. I don't see much of what you get out of forming your identity out of the perceptive habits of the oppressor.

Commentary Magazine piece in:

Forming yourself out of the perceptive habits of the oppressor, seems to me just a very bad way about going about creating a self. So I think that Blacks have every reason to reject it. But I think that whites, Asians, and people of goodwill across the spectrum, also have a lot of incentive to stop buying into the farce that is race in the absence of human races.

GLENN LOURY: Let me continue channeling the critic. Solidarity of Black people on behalf of collective political ends, is one way to counter the very real negative consequences of racism.

And that solidarity-- I'm talking about voting for the right candidate, and I'm talking about community organization and service on behalf of social goods and stuff like that. I'm talking about marrying within the race. That kind of solidarity is instrumental to securing freedom.

Without a benign racial affiliation, the capacity for us to act collectively on behalf of goals that no one else is going to pursue, would be severely undermined. Can't we envision a world-- I mean, when there's no longer whiteness, there's no need for Blackness. OK. But we're not there, and we're not anywhere close to there.

Meanwhile, there's a need for kids to be adopted who don't have parents. There's a need for big brothers and big sisters to befriend those who are coming along looking for some guidance. There's a need for churches that plant themselves, and that minister to communities based upon affiliation, which will, as a matter of cultural, historical reality, often be along racial lines.

I mean, the African Methodist Episcopal Church is a real institution, it's 200 years old. It comes out of the reaction of African-Americans to their racial oppression.

Long and short of it is that Black people need to be able to act collectively on behalf of Black interest. There are such a thing as Black interest. And collective action is something that you see other groups exhibiting in the world.

So again, I want to ask, in this world without race, how is it that Black people can mobilize themselves to act effectively on behalf of interests that no one else will act for them?

THOMAS C. WILLIAMS: I'm not exactly sure that Black people's number one interest are Black, as such. I think that a lot of interests that we tend to think of as racial or ethnic, are actually class-based interests.

And I think that it might not be such a bad thing if a lot of groups, including Blacks, started to organize their interests along those lines, as opposed to strictly biological categories.

In the book, I have this moment where I go down to Baltimore, to West Baltimore, campaigning or canvassing for Barack Obama, and I'm with a Jewish friend and a German friend. And we're walking through this neighborhood where it's mostly Black, most people haven't heard of either Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton. They have a lot of things going on in their lives that have nothing to do with theoretical concerns.

And I wonder-- As I look back on this experience, I wonder if the essential thing that's unifying these people and somehow unifying me with them, is a color category, is a racial identity.

It seems to me that, what they're dealing with and what is going on in their lives, has a lot more to do with class. And that what I'm experiencing in my life and what's separating me from them, is a lot more than what's unifying us based on some genetic slice of a 23andMe pie chart.

I think that we can still have the same concerns, and we can still have political concerns. And certainly, I don't think that always your political interests are best served by sticking with a strict identity group.

GLENN LOURY: But I wonder how that plays out in the reality of American contemporary politics. I mean, Barack Obama gets himself elected in Two Thousand and Eight, as the first Black president of the United States.

Imagine trying to persuade somebody who's determined to vote for Barack Hussein Obama because he's a Black man, and there's never been a Black president before, and they feel tremendous pride in that, that they're allowing one dimension of their complex humanity to overwhelm all the others. And that's going to seem otherworldly to such a person.

THOMAS C. WILLIAMS: But race is such a fungible concept to begin with. I mean, Obama is an interesting example. Because when he first came on the scene, most Blacks overwhelmingly supported Hillary Clinton compared to him, because they didn't consider him Black.

Because Black in this country, for a lot of African-Americans coming from Southern slavery, was not about having an absent Kenyan father and a white Kansan family, and being reared in Hawaii.

So he was an outsider from the Black community, from the way that we construct Blackness, until he was able to sufficiently convince enough members of the Black community that he was one of them, and until he was able to win in Iowa.

But prior to that, I mean, writers like Stanley Crouch were saying that he's not really Black. Most Americans, to this day, respond to questionnaires saying that Barack Obama is mixed race. And whether they mean Black by that, whether they buy into hyperdescent or not, I'm not sure.

But most Americans, white and Black, say Barack Obama is mixed race, and don't say that he's uncomplicatedly Black. So I think that he's a perfect example of the way that race becomes what is most useful for it to be.

A person's racial identity, it was useful for Obama's identity. It fit this narrative that, I myself, was certainly swept away with. It's much less seductive to say that we had the first partially African descended American presidency, than it is to say we had the first Black president.

But the fact is that Barack Obama doesn't have a racial or an American experience that correlates to most African-Americans lived experience.

GLENN LOURY: You're living in Paris now. What's it like being a Black man in Paris? If I can put it that way. Black American in Paris. How do you contrast the lived experience of race as an expatriate American living in France, with what you know to be the social patterns that we are used to here in the United States? Do they have a better understand-- A more subtle, supple view about racial identity, the French? I'm asking.

THOMAS C. WILLIAMS: They have a different view. Race is like politics. It's local, it's made where you are standing. And so, one thing that I've certainly picked up on, that's been written about a lot by writers like James Baldwin, is that, in France, being a Black American can be quite liberating because you're not black, you're just American. And oftentimes, you-- Certainly in previous areas, if you're coming from America, you didn't really have an American experience, you only had a Black experience. And you didn't really know what that felt like until you got out of the country.

Richard Wright said that in one square block of Paris, he felt more freedom than the entire United States of America. I don't think anybody that I've ever met, coming from former colonies in Africa or in the West Indies, feels quite--

GLENN LOURY: Who's living in France?

THOMAS C. WILLIAMS: Living in France, feels quite that way. But in my own experience, being a mixed race Black man, and being visibly mixed, the French have different perceptive habits than Americans do. My internal racial identity is not often what institutions and individuals I interact with reflect back to me.

So, I often have this jarring experience of perhaps being received as an Arab, because that's what my physical characteristics more closely track with for my French interlocutor. Or simply by opening my mouth, having the ability to be a swarthy, white American, or whatever people mistake me for, without really thinking that hard about what I am because I've got a blue passport.

And I'm not the other as, in its problematic form, as it can be in France. And that was a new experience for me. I mean, when I first moved to France-- Not in Paris, in a less cosmopolitan area in the North, on the border of Belgium, when I was right out of college. People would often come up to me in the street, or in a kebab shop, and just begin speaking Arabic to me. And It took me aback, because it was the first time I'd ever had my identity so clearly misread.

I didn't really know how to react to that. Nothing like that has ever happened to me in the United States of America where we have the perceptive habit of kind of understanding what a light and highly mixed Black person, highly europeanised Black person is like. And where whites and Blacks basically accept that this is another aspect of Blackness in America.

It's not exactly the same in France. People often, once they knew my background, would ask me, but why would you define yourself as Black? Once they know that I have Black ancestry. Because it didn't necessarily follow in their French way of seeing the world, that one would have to, or one ought to even.

GLENN LOURY: OK. I want to ask the question about marrying out. You have a whole chapter under that title as I recall in the book. You're married to a French woman, which means you're married to a quote, "white woman." Close quote.

I know many African-American women who would judge you harshly for marrying out. They would say, so many brothers are dead in prison, unemployable, unmarriageable. Here we have a good one, and he takes his goods and he goes over to the other side, or something like that.

Are they completely off base in that thinking? Or how would you-- And I know you spent some time writing about this in your book. How would you answer them, if you feel that you're obliged to answer them at all?

THOMAS C. WILLIAMS: I did feel obliged to answer that, because I do think there's an enormous amount of pain wrapped into that question. And Black men marry out at rates that are only surpassed by Asian women. Black men marry-- 25% or so, marry out of the race. And it gets much more than that, the higher you go up the education ladder.

That leaves quite a lot of people, like an ex-girlfriend of mine that I write about in the book, without a Black partner. And so, I reached the conclusion that you have to live your life, and you have to live your life on your own terms. And that it might even be quite a radical act of defying the racial color caste system by refusing to play by its rules, by refusing to let its rules orchestrate your thinking.

But I do think that it's important not to be glib about that, and not to dismiss the fact that the real result of the kind of sexual marketplace is that Black women and Asian men often get left, when everybody takes their seat, get left standing.

GLENN LOURY: How'd you meet your wife?

THOMAS C. WILLIAMS: Through a mutual friend. I had spent some time in Paris, working on Losing My Cool. Borrowed a friend's apartment. And made a group of friends that trip, in Two Thousand and Eight.

When I returned in Twenty-Ten, one of these friends brought my wife to a bar, and we briefly met. And I said, if you're ever in New York, shoot me an email. And about a month later, she did. And then she came back. She had found a work reason to be back in New York a month after that. Then I was in Paris a few months after that. And then, a few months after that, she came back to New York with me. And three days into the trip, I proposed. And it was a pretty quick decision, but it was a good decision.

GLENN LOURY: Well, congratulations on that. Not everybody is that lucky, I think. I once knew an African-American woman who had fallen in love with a Frenchman, and he took her home to the family's estate in the countryside. And they didn't accept her. And the relationship, unfortunately, came to an end because he wasn't prepared to defy his parents.

I think there was some inheritance issues involved. And she wasn't prepared to be, as it were, in the closet with him, but not able for him to take her home. So I'm wondering, did you find acceptance with Valentine's parents?

THOMAS C. WILLIAMS: I did. I expected it, and I also found immediate acceptance. Although, I found myself, in retrospect, giving her father and also her grandmother a lot of credit, simply for having been really decent in these interactions.

And I think that I had to question why I was giving them so much credit, simply for treating me as I'd given them every reason to treat me. Her father, when we told him that we were engaged, his reaction was simply to jump up and kiss both of my cheeks, and tell his younger daughter to go out and make a reservation at a table down the street so we could drink some champagne.

I thought that was really-- It was a wonderful reaction. It was a normal reaction. It's how I would think that I would react to anybody my daughter would bring home.

Her grandmother too, from a very different time than we live in now, could have raised an eyebrow or something like that, and she didn't. Although, in the book I write about, in her grandmother's house, there can be artifacts of what would be called, in today's discourse, they can be microaggressions that speak to a racial discourse of domination.

That, were I to allow them to, could set me off in a way that, I guess, I don't find worth it to be set off. I basically made the decision-- She has the head of a kind of a slave woman or something, on her coffee table. And you open the head, and you have lollipops and stuff, or you put your keys inside. And it's kind of a grotesque artifact from the colonies, that I don't understand why anybody would want it.

And that's like standard definition of a microaggression, visual language of oppression. But I've talked about this with my wife a lot. My wife and her cousins, they're ashamed of this thing, they hide it when people come over. But in the here and now, I'm interacting with my grandmother in law, as an equal.

We're actually making a multiracial family that works, and that I would go so far as to say that actually loves each other. And she's from another time, and she has an artifact. And am I strong enough. And am I capable of getting through my day, knowing that she has this porcelain sculpture, and moving on about my business, making this family work, and not really being asked very much beside that.

And I basically came to the conclusion that, that doesn't really hurt me that much. I'm actually strong enough in both my self conception of my life, that I can survive that, and it's not a big deal.

I certainly will talk to my daughter about it, if she's old enough to see it, if it's still around. But it hasn't really derailed my sense of self. And I guess that was important for me to give up the anger. Because I found-- Speaking of performing. When I first married my wife, I found myself getting into arguments with her about the bus to kind of performing a role of outrage that really wasn't my outrage.

I came to wonder why I saw myself so much in this bus that was staring at me, as opposed to seeing myself in the real interactions that were happening day in and day out, in which my dignity wasn't being demeaned.

GLENN LOURY: Yeah. That bus sits there like a prop, available to be used at any moment that you intend to seize, to exploit. You've got a ready made outrage prompt there for you. So you've chosen not to play that card.

THOMAS C. WILLIAMS: It didn't seem worth it, and it still doesn't seem worth it. And I think that she wouldn't even fully understand what the outrage was about. She would be mortified, she'd be really embarrassed. And so, I sometimes wonder, we're already living-- If you can get to a point where you're already living the kind of social relations you want to live, why not accept that, as opposed to keep pushing.

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We already recognize that those things are wrong. At what point can you just move on, instead of constantly pulling off the scab? I find that there's a kind of exhilaration of reawakening the wound, of exciting the wound. And I don't want that in my own life.

GLENN LOURY: Have you thought much at all about the political implications of embracing, in a full throated way, the kind of transracial or supraracial sensibility that you advocate?

I mean, what happens to the Democratic party, or whatever? What about affirmative action reparations, and all this kind of talk? There's a lot of people who've invested a great deal in seeing the world in this particular way, who'd have to completely reorganize their ways of thinking, if the sensibility that you seem to be advocating were to be more broadly embraced.

I'm just wondering if you've thought much about that?

THOMAS C. WILLIAMS: I think that's absolutely right. I think it would do the Democratic Party some good, actually. Mark Lilla makes the point most powerfully in The Once and Future Liberal. He takes a look at the Republican National committee's website and the Democratic National, the DNC website.

The Republican website, for all its problems, it has one platform that applies to anybody that wants to get onboard with the Republican Party. They just have a list of values and interests.

The DNC website has 17 different platforms depending on your identity, whether you're Latinx, or trans, or LGBTQ, or Black, what have you. It's fragmented the party into a constellation of interest groups that might get together at times when a candidate like Obama comes along, and might splinter to the point of putting Donald Trump in office when a centrist like Hillary Clinton comes along. It doesn't fully unite or excite their identity receptors.

I think this is a bad way of doing politics. I think that, for the Democratic party to align itself around more universal values, perhaps class based values, would be a much more winning strategy, would be able to grow the tent even more than trying to keep all of these identity groups together under a cloak that doesn't quite fit.

So, yeah, I see an upside to embracing that. And I also see, you've made this point, and it's quite persuasive, identity politics is a sword that anybody can pick up and use, even those whose identity you don't agree with, like white supremacists.

And I think that, if you don't like the Richard Spencer's of the world making an identity based argument, you have to model what the opposite of that looks like, whether it's fair or not that he's white and enjoys privilege or not.

GLENN LOURY: Yeah. I want to underscore Mark Lilla. The book is The Once and Future Liberal. And he does make a very full throated critique of identity politics. And he thinks that the Democratic Party is losing its way, just as you explained.

And he has this phrase there that I love, really. He says, identity politics is Reaganism for lefties. What he means is, Reaganism is just straighforward, conservative view that the government should be small and we're all on our own. Every tub on its own bottom. Don't bother me with your social program, cut my taxes.

And identity politics is Reaganism for lefties, in the sense that it is too the enemy of solidarity across the lines necessary in order to enact collective programs that are strengthening the safety net, taking care of people who need to be taken care of, and so forth and so on.

So the white people in Eastern Kentucky, or Southwestern Ohio, or whatever, who are catching hell, might find common purpose with Black people in central city Baltimore, Detroit, or Los Angeles, who are catching hell. And get themselves some health care, or some universal Pre-K, or a tax system that is more supportive of working people, or more pro-union kind of sensibility and labor legislation, or whatever the program might be.

But if we're all tending mainly to our particular identity group, it's harder to achieve that as a political outcome.

THOMAS C. WILLIAMS: And I would just make the caveat that, working class solidarity has often been undermined by white racism, so it would require some real reaching across the aisle from whites. It really is something that-- I don't think that this is something that can be achieved by minorities alone, willing it into being.

I think that well-meaning white people really have to step out of whiteness for this to really be able to function.

GLENN LOURY: OK. I think we might want to be calling this to a close. But let me ask you one final question, because you're a writer. And I'm wondering about, who amongst contemporary writers, fiction-- Or nonfiction, for that matter.

But who, in the pantheon of the great writers of our time, do you think are treating this subject of race and racial identity with the subtlety and the sophistication, and the sort of respect for universal human values that you would be prepared to affirm? Who are you reading that is getting it right?

THOMAS C. WILLIAMS: I think Zadie Smith gets it really right, especially in the essays that are collected in Feel Free. I think that she sees through a lot of the identity nonsense, and she has-- I think she has a kind of a similar conclusion that I'm trying to get towards.

Paul Gilroy, the British sociologist, author of Against Race, has profound ideas about finding new ways of belonging to each other and getting rid of biracial concepts of the self.

I was really inspired by Barbara and Karen Fields, two sisters who are academics, and wrote a very, very brilliant book called Racecraft.

GLENN LOURY: Oh, yeah, I know. I know.

THOMAS C. WILLIAMS: And they make the argument that race, essentially, functions in modern society the way witchcraft functions in certain African societies, and functioned in the West in the past. Where there is no such thing as witches, but you can die for being a witch in a society that believes in witchcraft.

I think that that book is almost scandalously overlooked. It should have been a much more influential book. And writers, like Coates, have drawn from it, but without really with that book ever getting the attention it deserves in the past. I mean, I consider him a kind of contemporary, he just died a few years ago. Albert Murray and The omni-Americans was getting out a lot of these ideas too. James Baldwin was also making a lot of these points. Early Baldwin.

GLENN LOURY: The early Baldwin, yeah. Everybody protests novel Baldwin.

All right. I've been here with Thomas Chatterton Williams, writer extraordinaire, who was passing through Brown University. Resident of Paris. Author of the forthcoming book, Self-portrait in Black and White: Unlearning Race. This is Glenn Loury, Watson Institute, Brown University. Thanks very much, Thomas.

THOMAS C. WILLIAMS: Thanks for having me.

SARAH BALDWIN: This episode was produced by Dan Richards and John [INAUDIBLE]. Our theme music is by Henry Bloomfield. Additional music by the Blue Dot Sessions. I'm Sarah Baldwin.

If you like us, leave us a rating and review on Apple Podcasts. Or if you have a friend who you think would like the show, tell them about it. We'll be back next week with another episode of Trending Globally. Thanks.

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