Stepping Away From Race: A Conversation With Thomas Chatterton Williams
Thomas Chatterton Williams is the author of Losing My Cool, a memoir about the struggle of juggling the hip-hop culture of his New Jersey childhood and a father who pushed him to develop a love of literature. He is a Contributing Writer at the New York Times Magazine, and has written for The New Yorker, The American Scholar, Harper’s, and other publications. His next book, Self-Portrait in Black and White: Unlearning Race, will be published by Norton. He is a National Fellow at New America and the recipient of a Berlin Prize.
In your memoir, Losing My Cool, you reflect on what whiteness and blackness are, and what popular society tells us they are. What are the main conclusions you arrived at?
It’s a coming of age memoir, about my childhood and adolescence in New Jersey, and it’s also a father and son story about the very different black experiences I had in the East than he had in the segregated South. He’s really old enough to be my grandfather, so he had very different social experiences, he was born in the 1930’s, the pre-civil rights era.
It’s also this kind of ‘Dear John’ letter to this hip-hop culture that I felt hoodwinked me, my friends, and my classmates by being this glorification not of black culture, but of a certain strand of black street culture. I’m not talking about all hip-hop, I’m talking about this mainstream, super dumbed-down 90’s and early 2000’s version that made it seem as though racial authenticity was a kind of street, “keeping-it-real” pose.
Hip-hop has changed a bit since then, it’s a lot more sophisticated, cosmopolitan, although there’s still a lot of glorification of very adolescent impulses that don’t serve you very well as an adult, but what I really took away from the book as I revisit it now, is that what it’s about is, how does an individual define himself in the face of enormous pressure from groups to be defined, how does the individual create herself?
You have a white mother and a black father; do you define yourself as a black writer?
That’s a good question. Growing up, I never really questioned the “one drop rule,” the idea where if you have any black blood, you’re black. It didn’t mean much to me that I had a white mother and a black father, we were just a black family. But now I have children in Paris who look very white, and that’s kind of made me do a lot of thinking about the ideas I just accepted and continued to reproduce passively. At this point I’m stepping outside of racial designations completely.
But it’s not that because I have white looking kids I’m moving into whiteness. So this is not at all similar to trying to “pass.” It’s not that I’m no longer black or that my daughter is no longer white, I don’t think these categories can describe or capture people and I just think it’s much more obvious in circumstances like this where people are visibly or more recently mixed, but they don’t work for anybody actually. They’re terms of power and social terms.
So, it’s a hard question to answer. [Promoting writers as “black writers”] is well meaning, but it reinforces a mistake, which is that there are black writers and white writers, and that these things are compartmentalizable, and you can’t critique that and then participate in the identity politics side of the game. So I think that I’m towards not being a black writer.
Although, I write about race, class, black history, black themes, black issues—those are terms you can’t completely jettison—I just don’t want to identify myself in a racially essentialist rhetoric or lexicon.
I do want to get to American identity politics, but maybe we should talk about France first. How did you end up in Paris?
I was just always struggling with this language requirement since middle school, which for me was French instead of Spanish like most of my friends, and then in college I studied abroad in France and fell in love with the place, the culture, the people, and a French girlfriend.
And then through her, I spent a year after college teaching English in Lille. And then through that, I made lifelong friends that brought me back to Paris periodically, and then through friends I met my wife. We lived in New York briefly then moved back here. It’s kind of like how it always goes, people don’t move to Paris for work as much as they do for love.
France has this conception of identity where it’s supposed be covered by this “Républicain” rug, and that other sub-identities aren’t supposed to matter. That there’s just Frenchness. Do you think there are positives to that perspective, or do you think it hides a lot that we should be talking about?
It’s both. I think that ideally that’s where you want to be, but in practice it’s not how the French live, so it conceals quite a lot of inequality. That they struck race from the constitution is a good idea, but race still works in society— you have to work on lived reality and the theoretical discourse at the same time. You can’t just fix the discourse and say it’s done. I don’t think the French have solved on- the-ground racial discrimination, but the discrimination is not the same as it is in the States.
Historically, and to this day, I think that black Americans can find enormous freedom being in French society that is still withheld in American society. But people who come here from the West Indies or Africa don’t find that same freedom, so it’s not necessarily based on melanin levels. But the French can emphasize “origins” quite a lot, and they can quickly decide which is a black person that fits into their idea of the West, or of socially acceptable.
Have your views on social, national, ethnic identity and the interplay between those evolved since moving to France?
Well, living in France has changed me because here— I’ve been here for almost 8 years— I can go long stretches of time if I’m not paid to think about it or intellectually preoccupied with it, where I’m not aware of my “race” or of other people’s “race.” I’m aware very much of nationality. I’m very aware that I’m American.
You feel more American than black.
Much more American. Yeah, I can go weeks without seeing police sometimes, I don’t have that constant awareness that a lot of my black friends [in the U.S.] have of being aware of what can be potentially dangerous in an interaction, I don’t have the feeling of being “read” as black. It’s a liberation and a shock to most black Americans when they leave the States, so that’s been liberating. I’m not sure I could have come to the point with this book of wanting to retire from the all-American skin game had I not been living in Europe.
So on U.S.-style identity politics, who has the right to speak on what topics?
No-one owns any topics. Anybody can access any topic, you can judge anybody’s answer based on the merit of the answer. I don’t think that necessarily the most insightful things I’ve ever heard about being American necessarily come from Americans, or being French come from French people. I’m sure that you can make the same case about the fact that a lot of my black friends and I weren’t necessarily the most knowledgeable about forms of black music. You could find people who were outside of the ethnic designation who knew the topic much more thoroughly. I’m a firm believer in Terence’s “I am human, therefore nothing human is alien to me.” And cultural appropriation seems to me to be well-meaning in many cases, but mistaken.
In some of your back and forth with Ta-Nehisi Coates [author of the 2015 best-seller Between the World and Me - eds.] you critique him for stripping away agency— by focusing so much on the history of oppression, people cease to be actors, and the white guilt becomes almost paternalistic. How does one escape history and become an agent again?
I think we all have to become agents again instead of focusing on what our ancestors did, good or bad. It makes no sense to me why you would take pride in something people you have never met did, or why you would take too much shame in it. The problem with the discourse in America is that blacks and other minorities get constructed as purely contingent, conditional people and the only people we talk to, whose consciences we try to prevail upon, are white people. It’s considered patronizing, or racist, or blaming the victim to ask members of minority groups—to take the Coates example—to talk about violence in the Baltimore neighborhood where he grew up. And [according to Coates] that’s missing the point, because how can black people be responsible for violence when they were still dealing with the trauma of being lynched three generations before?
But we talk to white people all the time as though they can change their mind and be responsible for their behavior, decide the criminal justice system is corrupt and do something about it. The way the discourse is set up is “whites should feel bad about what happened and do better, but they’re the only people who can do better,” and this is really limiting. And it’s very difficult to get people out of this mentality.
But when you look at all the statistical inequalities that still exist, disparities in household wealth, in positions in the corporate world, in politics, in all the structural systems of power, how is it then fair to effectively ask minority groups to still extend a hand?
Well, in the case of Sarah Jeong [A Korean-American tech writer for the New York Times who tweeted disparaging things about white men, and later defended them as satirical in nature - eds.], she’s a Harvard and Berkeley educated, Asian-American woman employed by some of the most prestigious publications in the country; at some point you have to say: regardless of your ancestry, are you outside of systemic power? That doesn’t make sense to me, considering she’s above most white people in terms of education and platform access, social capital, network capital... At what point does your own life count for something and not just the box you check? I’m not saying these discrepancies don’t exist at a group level, but at some point we have to say no, she’s responsible for her actions and occupies a position of actual power, regardless of what her ethnicity is.
When I have conversations with my European friends, they’re always a bit taken aback by the very color-focused discourse in the U.S. It actually reminds me of this line from a Chris Rock stand-up show from 1999: he makes a joke about how he doesn’t have time to “dice white people up into little groups”—Irish, Italian, whatever. But Europeans will talk about racism that way.
In the American context too—a hundred years ago Anglo Saxons didn’t consider themselves the same race as Italians, or Jews certainly. Although in the 21st century Ii think a Frenchman sees a Swede or a German and thinks they’re all white; the Americanization of a white/black way of looking at race has gone global. I think we have to get beyond this, it’s not that old, “race” really got made in the new world with the collision of these different peoples through slavery, but it doesn’t have to stay that way. What all these societies, France, America, Britain, are trying to figure out is, how do you create a multiethnic society? And we know that some of what we have is worth retaining, but a lot of it is not working.
Would you say that you’ve become French, or European, since living in Paris?
No, but I’ve become Europeanized, where you go home and look at America through a more critical foreign eye. Like some of the stuff will never make sense to you again—I’m sure you’ve had this experience. What happens is you become bastardized, and you don’t have a home either place.
Do you think Europe will be successful in creating multiethnic societies? For all the problems the U.S. has, it’s more difficult in a way to become Swedish or German than to show up in the U.S. and say “OK, I’m an American now.”
Yeah, for all its flaws the U.S. is a multiethnic society. Even though it’s been an exclusionary one ruled by Anglo Saxon protestants, it has always had an identity that was more complicated than that, and in some of these places they just really haven’t. Until like 100 years ago there were barely Muslims in France, and now there are 6 million? I believe that society can function, and even be a richer one, but you can’t say that nothing has changed.
And I think a lot of people want to have a conversation where they say nothing has changed. That is a different country than it was, and you have to start from that. You don’t have to indulge anybody’s bigotry, but you can’t treat them as if what they see with their own eyes isn’t there. That’s how you end up with people going out and supporting the National Front [renamed the “Rassemblement National” after the 2017 French election - eds.], which is not in the interest of making a multiethnic society function.
But saying that these never were homogenous societies doesn’t quite track with reality.
How do you think your kids are going to end up identifying?
I feel like there’s a lot of social pressure for people to thoughtlessly, comfortably adopt a white identity. I hope they’ll have a more critical view of who they are and what society is. They know their grandfather, I hope they’ll really be able to keep in mind that some of the people they’re descended from were slaves, that some of the people they’re descended from, who were black, looked like them and that this stuff is fungible, and it’s about much more than strictly genetics. I would hope they step outside of the binary too, and if someone asked them what they were, they wouldn’t say “white.”
— This article appears in
Are We Europe #3: Uprooted