One Writer Ponders Race in America: A Review of “Self-Portrait in Black and White”

"Self-Portrait" cover

Thomas Chatterton Williams always knew there was something off about the simplistic race classifications he was forced to deal with since childhood. The son of a light-skinned black man and a white woman, Williams understood he was different, that he inhabited an interstitial space between the rigid racial categorizations society imposed on him. For years he performed intellectual work to break away from those impositions. However, holding his newborn daughter, a pale baby with blazing blue eyes, triggered a need to finally come up with a solution. Self-Portrait in Black and White: Unlearning Race is the result of Williams’s quest for answers. 

Self-Portrait in Black and White is part memoir and part meditation on race. It works well as a man’s search to understand race and how his upbringing and experiences shaped him. However, the solution it proposes—that we should abandon the concept of race by moving away from it—ultimately falls flat and adds nothing of value to the discussion. 

Williams is aware of his positionality even if he never uses the term. He lets readers know he comes from a biracial upper middle-class family that strategically isolated itself to evade criticism and judgment:

I am well aware that our situation is not yet—and may not ever be—a common one, and that I have experienced a specific set of breaks and good fortune outside of my own control that have contributed powerfully to my own sense of autonomy in the world. I was born into a loving, two-parent home, encouraged and instructed from a very young age to read and study by an unusually erudite father, crucially provided throughout my adolescence with the time to do it, and, perhaps just as decisively in retrospect, exposed to what is understood as “whiteness” through my mother and some of her family in non-antagonistic, positively nurturing ways that left me fundamentally at ease with and unsuspicious of the broader American culture.

While Williams is fearless in recognizing his positionality, he never manages to move beyond it. He interacts with a plethora of ideas and thinkers, but always comes back to his experiences to filter his arguments. This is understandable, but also problematic because it never engages with different perspectives. He discusses the women he loved, delaying work to spend a week in Corsica, travelling the world, getting an advance for his first book, driving with his father in a Mercedes, having limited contact with his family, and realizing that his school didn’t expose him to the realities of other young black men. Then there is talk of moving away from race. Unfortunately, he never recognizes racism as a system of oppression, makes no mention of institutional racism, never talks about how race often goes hand-in-hand with education, or even how it affects the publishing industry that published his books. There is no talk of rampant gentrification and Rachel Dolezal is but a footnote. He does mention the correlation between race and socioeconomic background, but never explores it in depth. There is nothing about the relationship between race and the psychogeography of crime or the extent and impact of racial profiling. There is, however, a critique of Ta-Nehisi Coates for defending his child after a white woman pushes him out of the way and the idea that marrying a white women is a good way for black men to break away from race and battle racism. 

Williams is a talented writer who crafted an engaging, powerful read with occasional flares of poetry (”One evening thrusts beyond the fog of childhood memory like a rocky peak glimpsed from an airplane window.”). There are also crucial statements that show Williams developed a solid understanding of the shifting nature of identity and the floating signifiers loosely attached to it:  

Outside the confines of the United States I was coming to the startling—and at times unmooring—realization that our identities really are a constant negotiation between the story we tell about ourselves and the narratives our societies like to recite, between the face we see in the mirror and the image recognized by the people and institutions that happen to surround us.

However, the problem with this book goes above and beyond all this. Williams’s proposition is so weak it fails to even be controversial. I’d say it’s the literary equivalent of a flat earther making a statement; we all feel free to ignore it. The difference here is that an important press published it and that makes it polemic. Here’s a book about race that was represented by a white agent, edited by a white editor, and with three out of four blurbs in the back coming from white writers. Discussions about race demand diversity, and there was little of it here. Also, this is a review by a person color in an industry where, according to Lee and Low’s Diversity Baseline Survey, only 3% of reviewers are Latinx and 1% are African American. 

In Self-Portrait in Black and White, Williams says we need to “develop a vision of ourselves strong and supple enough both to acknowledge the lingering importance of inherited group identities while also attenuating, rather than reinforcing, the extent to which such identities are able to define us.” This is a fantastic idea we can all get behind. Nevertheless, his core message, that we can fix racial relations, inequality, and racism by renouncing the construct of race, is the equivalent of telling someone suffering from depression that the solution is cheering up. Ignoring the Aryan Brotherhood or the KKK will not make them magically disappear. Ignoring race won’t solve the lack of diversity in publishing. Ignoring race won’t fix a single thing. People should read this for the way Williams tackles vital questions of race and self-identification, but they should keep in mind that walking away from a social cancer won’t make it go away and that ignoring a social construct as deeply rooted as race while ignoring its impact is like refusing to acknowledge the effects of government, religion, or time. 


Self-Portrait in Black and White: Unlearning Race
by Thomas Chatterton Williams
W.W. Norton and Company; 192 p.

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