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Between Thomas Chatterton Williams and Me

On race, fatherhood, and the many uses of memoir

Antoine Doyen/Contour/Getty

A few weeks ago, we took a summer vacation on one of those island towns beloved by the East Coast elite. The stores and restaurants on Main Street had just emerged from the hibernation of lockdown. There was take-out lobster and fish and chips, outdoor seating where you could share a bottle of wine and a tray of oysters harvested from local waters. After uneasy, claustrophobic months in our apartment in New York City, you could breathe easier here, so to speak. Every morning we would walk to Main Street for an overpriced breakfast. My daughter would ride ahead on her bike, down brick-paved sidewalks, past the white clapboard houses trimmed in black. The white picket fences were tendrilled with roses, their fallen petals resting on the grass like clots of spring snow.

The town reminded me of places I had visited in my own childhood, places where my American relatives lived or went on vacation themselves, and where, invariably, I would be made to feel my foreignness. My name often tripped people up, as it still does. Nowadays, putting my name down for takeout in a provincial town in New England is an occasion for light cross-cultural awkwardness: People are surprised, confused, and ultimately embarrassed; I am, in turn, self-conscious and apologetic for having burdened them. Back then, the self-consciousness surrounding my name, and the culture from which it sprung, was greater, shading into something like shame. It was the kind of mortification that made me wish I could be like my white cousins and dissolve into the crowd—that made me wish I was white, with a white name.

It is embarrassing to admit this now, though the feeling is common enough among nonwhites. (I am reminded of Derek Walcott’s boyhood fantasy of his “dun flesh peeled white” by the moonlight.) Truly the last thing I would want is to be white! It was a child’s fleeting instinct, nothing more. Accepting who you are—and, with any luck, being proud of it—is part of growing up. Still, it’s the kind of experience that, in subterranean ways, can be formative. Even now, so many years later, my sense of otherness lies somewhere near the core of who I am.

So it was with no small amount of wonder that I watched my daughter bomb down the streets of this quaint town on her bicycle, against the backdrop of the picket fences and the rose petals and the houses prim as nuns. She did everything with such cavalier ease; there was no barrier to overcome, no friction to roughen her passage. I realized this world would be open to her in a way that it never was for me, because she is, by all appearances, white. Her hair is a light brown that streaks blonde in the summer. Her eyes are green, like her mother’s. Ironically, she has inherited my tawny skin color—the physical trait that more than any other has caused so much grief when it comes to the issue of race—but because she does not have my dark hair and dark eyes she does not scan as Asian. (As if we needed more evidence that race is a construct!)

My first feeling, as she glided across the petals strewn before her, was relief—relief that she would never feel a stranger in her own home. But this was soon followed by sadness and regret, over what she might miss from not knowing what it’s like to be other.

I bring up my experience of fatherhood because it is so similar to an experience that forms the premise of Thomas Chatterton Williams’s memoir, Self-Portrait in Black and White: Unlearning Race. The book opens with Williams and his white wife celebrating the birth of their daughter Marlow, which shakes the very foundations of his self-conception as a Black man: “The sight of this blonde-haired, blue-eyed, impossibly fair-skinned child shocked me—along with the knowledge that she was indubitably mine.” Though he is biracial (his mother white, his father Black), Williams believed in the old American adage that even a single “drop of black blood” made one Black, since it meant one could not be accepted by society as white. Marlow changes all that. Her existence suggests the possibility of an existence beyond blood, beyond race, catalyzing a metamorphosis in which Williams leaves behind his Blackness—in which he emerges, in his words, as an “ex-black man.”

The response to this provocative thesis—that race is a fiction that can be transcended—has been mixed. On the approving side are those skeptical of identity politics and all its persistent demands for recognition; in Williams, these critics have found a man inside the color line who has also rejected the primacy of race. Mark Lilla, the Columbia professor who has argued that “the age of identity liberalism must be brought to an end,” praised Williams’s book as a “stirring call to genuine liberation.” On the dismissive side are those scornful of the notion that Black Americans can have any say over whether they are Black or not, when Blackness is the identity that this country has violently thrust upon them. The critic Tobi Haslett, writing in Bookforum, accused Williams of trying to “leap through his little trapdoor in history” by downplaying both his personal advantages and all the ways that race and class and state power intersect to keep Black people at a disadvantage.

In the 10 months since the book came out, these debates have gained a new context, while Williams’s profile has expanded significantly. He has placed himself at the forefront of a campaign against “cancel culture,” spearheading a widely discussed open letter published in Harper’s condemning the rise of “illiberalism” and “censoriousness” on the left. He has been a ubiquitous presence on Twitter, a tireless engine at the heart of the culture wars that have raged across social media this pandemic summer. He now talks less about the distinctive personal experiences that form the backbone of Self-Portrait in Black and White and spends more time making the kinds of sweeping gestures and grand pronouncements that are perhaps more suitable to a national conversation about who can say what and what the consequences of speech should be. His professed belief in a neutral realm of ideas and debate, largely unconstrained by the claims of identity politics, has led him to see “ideological conformity,” “coercion,” and “dogma” in a season dominated by protests for equality.

The function of his memoir, however, is to turn “away from the abstract, general, and hypothetical and back into the jagged grain of the here and now, into the humanizing specificity of my love for my father, my mother, brother, wife, and children.” Memoir is Williams’s most powerful device, the lived reality that provides crucial ballast to all his ideas, but it does not magically resolve the contradiction of a figure who uses his identity with one hand and abnegates it with the other. I’m not in a position to determine whether it is possible, as Williams suggests, for Black people to slough off their racial identity without America undergoing a wholesale reckoning with its racist past and present (though I find Haslett’s reading of the book convincing). But I do know what it is like to be, like Williams, on the cusp between one racial identity and another. I know the temptations of being a postracial person, staring down a lineage in which my descendants may never have to concern themselves with the confounding complications of being a minority. And it makes me uneasy, in a way that only strengthens my belief in identity politics.

The Williams of this book is far more measured and ambivalent than the swaggering Williams of social media. Having a child who can pass as white makes him uneasy, too. “How can I deny that there is a part of me—a real one—that feels relieved,” he asks, “and how could this relief in turn not look a lot like treason?” The feeling of betraying one’s race—which amounts to betraying a whole culture, a heritage—will be familiar to anyone who has tried to assimilate to the American way of life, which tends to be synonymous with a white way of life. I myself know this feeling all too well, having long ago chosen to be an American, much to the chagrin of the Japanese side of my family.

Williams and I have several more things in common. We are the same age. Our daughters are nearly the same age, too. We have both had the experience of being loved and nurtured by a white parent. We were both raised in a “small but gloriously book-crammed house,” as he describes his own home in New Jersey (his father was a professor, mine a foreign correspondent), which afforded cultural privileges that helped make up for whatever material privileges we might have lacked. We have both spent significant portions of our lives as expatriates, though in reverse order: It was in adulthood that he chose to leave America behind and settle in France; I spent my childhood in Hong Kong, the Philippines, and India before emigrating to America at 18, where I have lived ever since.

There are also vital differences between us. I have never experienced the specific cruelty of anti-Black racism, as Williams has. But compiled together, our respective biographical facts roughly point to a shared profile: a nonwhite man who can move easily through many different kinds of spaces—including white spaces—and who can, on a personal day-to-day level at least, forget that his skin color is different from most of the people around him.

When I am gazing at a bank of white faces in a Zoom room, I understand what Williams means when he says, “Some inner mechanism tends to yank me back, and I am aware again that the room is white. And I realize, too, that I have grown comfortable in these rooms.” I can only nod along when he writes, “Of all the things I feel, I do not feel myself to be a victim—not in any collectively accessible way.” When a white person garbles my name, I do not feel it as an aggression, micro or otherwise. These kinds of incidents, as Williams writes, “can either be seized on and blown up or de-emphasized whenever possible,” and I, like him, instinctively tilt toward the latter, brushing it away like so much dirt on my shoulder. As a result of being amenable to the prevailing order, we both enjoy what he describes as a “kind of freedom—a sovereign liberty to improvise and create the self without external constraints.”

No experience has had a greater impact on Williams’s attitude toward race than his time abroad, which revealed to him—as it has revealed to other Black Americans, from James Baldwin to Ta-Nehisi Coates—that race changes its meaning entirely in a non-American context. “For many of these expats, it was not that the color of their skin went unnoticed; it didn’t,” he writes. “It was instead that, even when seen it carried a crucially different set of meanings and lacked others still.” His mind freed from the stifling American paradigm, Williams sees the possibility of a true postracial society where Black people are no longer judged by the color of their skin and where they can finally escape the taint of history’s long shadow.

I, too, am familiar with race’s arbitrary, shape-shifting nature. I am distinctly East Asian in places as disparate as India and New England; I am very nearly white in Japan; I am virtually raceless in the cosmopolitan hodgepodge of New York City. I also have to believe in the possibility of a postracial world, because I have lived it, as a boy who came of age in a vibrantly international school, where race was not the barrier between people that it is in the United States.

But the fact of the matter is that America is not an international school in New Delhi, and here is where Williams and I part. When I first moved to America for college, I retained the kind of racial innocence that he seems to admire. When I saw that there were tables in the dining hall where all the students were Asian—or all Black or all Latino—I would wonder: Why do they group together by race? Why can’t they get along with everyone else? Why can’t they be like me? I was so oblivious to the racial dynamics here that it took me months to realize that, in the same dining hall, I was often the only Asian among whites. I will never forget that awakening, as if a spotlight were suddenly shining down on me. This was the dim dawning of race consciousness, which only grew more acute over the four years I lived in that predominantly white campus. I was an other once again, trapped in the peculiar racial codes of American life.

These are the codes that Williams would have me unlearn. And there is no denying that they are oppressive and absurd in equal measure, implicating everyone, very much including decent, well-meaning people, in the twisted logic of a racist system that extends back centuries. Who in their right mind, if they had the choice, would not want to abandon this system altogether? To, as Williams puts it, “bow out of its perverse customs and mores, rejecting its false boundaries even as they work tirelessly to claim you”? I could do so tomorrow; nothing would be easier for me personally, a half-white cosmopolitan with education and means. But I choose not to bow out, because abandoning the system is not the same as overcoming it—because I am no longer the child who thinks why can’t they be like me?

Williams admits that his quasi-utopian vision is defined by what can be described as a clear-eyed naïveté. “I am determined to live with precisely this level of childlike foolishness,” he insists. I have mentioned that memoir is the most effective tool in Williams’s rhetorical kit, giving his cutting-edge ideas about racelessness the heft of sincerity. But it is simultaneously his weak spot, for if some memoirs aspire to connect the individual to the universal, Williams’s book only succeeds in underscoring just how un-universal his experience has been. His path to postracial enlightenment—which included a book deal in his twenties that allowed him to travel around the world and establish himself as a writer—is so narrow that it is hard to imagine more than one person walking down it, let alone an entire country.

He attempts to bridge the chasm between himself and the world through the universality of his ideas and ideals: “The truth is that ideas matter.... If we really want to repair what is wrong in our society, it is going to require not just new policies or even new behaviors, but nothing less heroic than new ideas.” Later, he writes that a “durable rejection” of racism “will have to be based on the convincing expression of shared ideals and democratic values that are accessible to all.” These shared ideals and values stand in contrast to “narrow identities” adopted by nonwhites, who are fatally hampered by “abstract racial categorization and reflexive tribalism.” Or as he put it on Twitter, in inevitably cruder form: “Ideas > Identities.”

The notion that identities are inherently narrow and divisive is a hallmark of the campaign against identity politics. As Mark Lilla has written, “The fixation on diversity in our schools and in the press has produced a generation of liberals and progressives narcissistically unaware of conditions outside their self-defined groups, and indifferent to the task of reaching out to Americans in every walk of life.” The backlash to identity politics, in my reading, is the animating ghost of the Harper’s letter that both Lilla and Williams signed, even if identity politics is never named explicitly. The letter’s examples of the left’s censorious streak are kept vague, but they are rendered in a tellingly passive voice:

Editors are fired for running controversial pieces; books are withdrawn for alleged inauthenticity; journalists are barred from writing on certain topics; professors are investigated for quoting works of literature in class; a researcher is fired for circulating a peer-reviewed academic study.…

It is clear that the force at work in each case is not illiberalism per se, but the assertion of identity, racial or otherwise, over the free exchange of certain ideas. Just try to figure out the subject of these clauses, if they were made active instead of passive: Who wanted the editors fired? Who considered the books inauthentic? Who wanted to bar the journalists from writing? Who was scandalized by the works of literature in question, and who got the researcher sacked? The answers to these questions are as plain as day.

As Williams has exemplified in his own memoir, politics is not just about ideas. It is also about experience—all the ways in which the tectonic movements of the world have subtly entered our lives. Like Williams, like all people of good faith, I want to reach that place where our politics is universal, working toward the benefit of everyone. The question is how to get there. Is it through teaching our children ideas inscribed on a piece of paper? Or is it through inculcating empathy for other people, even those who may seem foreign to us?

The latter is the principal appeal of identity politics, which is not narrow or divisive, but the opposite: a vehicle for solidarity, community, and true inclusivity. The way to solve the race problem in this country is not to transcend race but to embrace it, to use it as an invitation to everyone to understand humanity’s limitless variety. Whatever politics I possess rests on this truth, familiar to all who still call themselves people of color: that the other is, both literally and figuratively, me.