Identity is Always a Negotiation
April 15, 2019 2:08 AM   Subscribe

We had this very Scandinavian-looking child, and for the first time in my life what I now call the fiction of race was thrust into my consciousness. It’s an experience that most people, black or white, don’t have to have because most people don’t live on the racial margins and don’t see how ridiculous it is to say something like, “My father is black, and my daughter is white, but they have the same smile.” And my daughter is blond-haired and has blue eyes and white skin, but she’s of 20 percent West African descent. Most people don’t actually have these kinds of contradictions. So, her birth really set me down this path. An interview with Thomas Chatterton Williams in the LA Review of Books posted by chavenet (24 comments total) 29 users marked this as a favorite
 
It will take some time for me to get through all the links, but I already think this is an interesting post.
posted by mumimor at 3:02 AM on April 15 [2 favorites]


A significant part of the interview linked above the fold relates to an in-group discussion for a group that I am not a member of, so I will stay out of that discussion. Williams brings up class as well as race, and I think in his discussion of what an acceptance of race as a socially constructed rather than biologically inherent category means, he provides an interesting argument for analogizing the dynamics of hierarchies based on both of these categories, and the difficulties inherent in organizing on the basis of a category when the ultimate goal is to eliminate it as a basis for social categorization.

For example, in the case of class, I've seen it said in various places that one of the difficulties with anti-poverty advocacy is that, if successful, it will eliminate the very category of people it is advocating on behalf of. There is a crucial but subtle difference between that statement, and a more leftist idea of working class solidarity and activism, which seeks to eliminate class not by "raising" everyone out of the working class, but by eliminating the capitalist class as a distinct category, spreading the economic power accrued in that class around more evenly or democratically. Williams touches on the analogous distinction a little bit. Where he talks about the construction of whiteness, I think it's quite clear that he is not advocating getting rid of class distinctions by erasing Blackness in the way that we might talk about getting rid of poverty - he definitely has some critiques of whiteness as a default or standardized identity or category as well. But what about the idea that a goal of organizing racialized and colonised people as a class with the goal of eliminating whiteness as a class? We know now that the idea of a uniform "white race" was largely constructed during the European colonial era to aid specific political and economic goals. And although I wouldn't advocate a resurgence of the sort of prejudices and squabbling/wars between different European countries or ethnicities that existed before the colonial era, some sort of disaggregation of the social construct of whiteness will be necessary for Western society to overcome racism. People who currently identify as white will need to come to see their personal heritage as merely one co-equal thread in the broader human diaspora.

I note, though, that the class based analysis of the more leftist working class solidarity and activism does not consider all economic classes in the current hierarchy as equally valid. Similarly - and if I've understood the interview, this is where I may differ from Williams' thinking - I think one can treat whiteness as a necessary racial category to eliminate, without making the exact same demands on other racial categories. In a hierarchy, categories are not "separate but equal"; so in the practicalities of ridding ourselves of an unnatural or unjust hierarchy such as the social construct of race, it is not necessarily productive to treat all racial categories as equivalent. None of which is to say that Black identity and its variations is not a reasonable or valid topic for discussion! Rather, my takeaway is that those of us who are (currently) white need to work at figuring out what it would mean to help eliminate that category from within, and that it is also entirely fair for non-white folks to focus on the elimination of the category of whiteness in a way that they may not be focused on eliminating other racial categories.
posted by eviemath at 6:41 AM on April 15 [4 favorites]


I would like to live in this man's future, but I don't feel like my world can afford his "naiveté".
posted by Slothrup at 6:43 AM on April 15 [2 favorites]


it was weird spending the last 8 or so hours reading and writing about race (sarah ahmed and asad haider in particular) then deciding to check mefi before going to sleep and coming upon this. i got to the part about “woundedness” about halfway through and... had to stop. i found the anecdote about the student at bard especially, like, okay i’ve read that paragraph three times now and the line of argumentation doesn’t really make sense to me? maybe i’m just too tired but it sort of seems like the naïveté of which he is speaking is like a “fake it till we make it” (as in “act colourblind until we race is history”) because race doesn’t really exist, and also shed your wounded attachments - something to that effect? just strikes me as nothing original, though would be glad to be contradicted
posted by LeviQayin at 6:45 AM on April 15 [4 favorites]


Likely projecting a fair amount of myself onto my reading here, but I found this passage perhaps fairly illuminating about Williams' internal state:

Even in my own life, back in high school, a lot of us felt very good at the segregated black table, and we kind of felt that we were defying all the odds and it was us against the white world that didn’t want to see us do well. Just being part of that was exhilarating. You were in opposition; your identity felt opposed to the world around you. And we derive self-confidence from that. I think that has to be given up. In the new book, I wrote about how white people have to give up whiteness. But in some ways, it’s very difficult to convince — not all, certainly, but many — members of oppressed groups to give up their hard-won identity. They’re not going to want to do it because when you do, you have to be responsible for creating yourself anew. You have to be responsible for finding new ways of belonging to each other, new values, new ways of construction. In reality, that’s terrifying.

When I was first entering the upper middle class in terms of my own economic position, there were a number of identity-related questions that I had to grapple with, that were not as difficult as a lifetime spent in the working class/lower middle class would have been, but also were not easy. Williams seems to be making a similar transition in his personal racial identity - nearby in the interview, he mentions that people in France where he now lives seem to see him as Arabic rather than Black; and I imagine that now, with white-appearing children, his non-whiteness is becoming even more invisible when he's out with his whole family. If we take his conclusions to date (he does indicate that his thinking on the topic is still evolving) on what his personal situation can say about the broader issue of race and try to apply them to generalizing my personal experience of an economic class transition to the general issue of class, well, I would certainly not make (and have not made) the analogous generalizations (which is basically what I was trying to talk about in my first comment). This could mean that the analogy that Williams draws between race and class is not a particularly apt one. Or it could point to some flaws in the rest of his reasoning. (I am assuming, of course, the correctness of my own reasoning on matters of class hierarchies and how to eliminate them!)
posted by eviemath at 7:03 AM on April 15 [3 favorites]


when you’re talking about stop-and-frisk, you’re not actually talking about something so broad as a color category, and especially not a color category that can stretch all the way from someone lighter than my complexion to someone darker than Kmele Foster

Pretty sure, with stop-and-frisk, you actually are talking about color. Poor white people don't get stop-and-frisked in nearly the same numbers/proportions as people of color.

While he makes some interesting points, they seem to ignore the realities of structural biases. And, I can see the right latching onto this line of discussion in a useful idiot kind of way.
posted by kokaku at 7:25 AM on April 15 [8 favorites]


I've read all the articles now, but I haven't finished digesting them. However, one huge thing is that he has moved to France. As he says himself:
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.
It is incredible, but the French police can tell the difference between an American and an Algerian immigrant, and will not stop-and-frisk the American. It isn't entirely weird that has made him think about racism in a new way. As a European, I was definitely on the "it isn't about race, it's about class"-boat when I was younger, so I can recognize some of where he is, though I've changed my mind on it completely.
As half-Jewish, I can also recognize his feelings about his white-looking daughter. Half of my family look very Jewish, my daughters don't look Jewish at all, but they have Jewish names. For them, anti-semitism is a theoretical issue. For me, it's a history of pain and exile and enduring mental health issues in our family, after the Holocaust.
posted by mumimor at 8:19 AM on April 15 [11 favorites]


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.

But then you push it back a level: why should an origin in the West Indies--which are, after all, in the Caribbean--be disqualifying as belonging to the "West," when being American is not? Is this an issue solely of relative wealth of countries? I...really think not.
posted by praemunire at 8:30 AM on April 15 [3 favorites]


Pretty sure, with stop-and-frisk, you actually are talking about color.

I think, when talking about stop-and-frisk, you're talking about racism with a heavy dose of colorism on top. Sure, a very dark-skinned person is more likely to be read as black and to be targeted than a very light-skinned person. That doesn't mean the underlying concern isn't race. Treatment of proximity to blackness as contaminating is, in fact, quite racist.
posted by praemunire at 8:34 AM on April 15 [6 favorites]


But then you push it back a level: why should an origin in the West Indies--which are, after all, in the Caribbean--be disqualifying as belonging to the "West," when being American is not? Is this an issue solely of relative wealth of countries? I...really think not.

No, I think it has to do with France's model of colonialism, which was very different from the British/Anglo model.

In their African colonies, French authorities were at once less accepting of African cultures and more accepting of African people than British authorities. The British made a big show of wishing to respect local cultures (not that they really did, but they made a show towards it), while the French wanted people to culturally assimilate. But, while the British never gave citizenship or representation to indigenous Africans, the French were willing to - provided that they gave up their own culture and language. If you spoke French, dressed and lived in a French manner, you could gain French citizenship and vote for representatives in the French legislature.

This is not to say there wasn't discrimination by individuals or institutions based on skin colour (of course there was). But the government/authorities had a different approach to ethnic division than the British. Even looking into North American history, the French were more interested in converting and assimilating indigenous people, while the British claimed to be 'protecting' their culture (while really just wishing that they would disappear).

I think that this history still affects the nature of discrimination in France, giving culture greater salience in how people form their biases. So I can imagine that an African American person - coming from a rich, developed country, especially if they are educated and otherwise 'middle class' in culture - would be perceived as being more Western and more acceptable than someone from a Muslim or Caribbean country.
posted by jb at 9:19 AM on April 15 [6 favorites]


In their African colonies, French authorities were at once less accepting of African cultures and more accepting of African people than British authorities. The British made a big show of wishing to respect local cultures (not that they really did, but they made a show towards it), while the French wanted people to culturally assimilate. But, while the British never gave citizenship or representation to indigenous Africans, the French were willing to - provided that they gave up their own culture and language. If you spoke French, dressed and lived in a French manner, you could gain French citizenship and vote for representatives in the French legislature.

It is absolutely jaw-dropping to me that you are talking as if these attitudes weren't specifically informed by racism. I mean I can't get my mind around why you would offer this explanation as downplaying the role of race.
posted by praemunire at 11:15 AM on April 15 [2 favorites]


praemunire: no, I'm saying that 'race' is more complicated than just skin colour, and that assuming all places have an American definition of race is both ignorant and unhelpful.
posted by jb at 11:29 AM on April 15 [6 favorites]


His kids are white and he thinks that people are too hard on white people. So, he is sort of in the same rhetorical position as women with sons who think that feminism is a little too extreme. Which is to say that his personal context aside he has a lot to gain from shoring up white privilege, or at least not looking at it too hard, but I do not see him meaningfully address that. His arguments also tend to fall flat for me when they stray too far from criticizing Coates specifically towards criticizing a sort of straw-activist who is going "berserk."
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 12:03 PM on April 15 [1 favorite]


I hardly think you can come away from reading his entire interview with the simplistic statement that: he thinks that people are too hard on white people.

That's not what I got from his argument at all. And he's definitely not shoring up white privilege.

Can we talk about complicated notions instead of diluting someone's authentic layers of ideas and experience into binary thinking?

I think he adds much to the conversation about race. The problem is, people don't understand complexity; people want to distill an argument into either good or bad so they can decide quickly how to engage with the idea and move on. So, I'm disappointed in some of the reactions to this piece that only further move us away from any sense of hopeful and helpful discourse.
posted by jj's.mama at 12:28 PM on April 15 [8 favorites]


His kids are white and he thinks that people are too hard on white people
That is not what he is saying or doing. He is in a context where "black" and "white" are defined differently from what he knew as growing up American and he is clearly and publicly reflecting, a reflection that is accelerated by his MFA education. IMO, he is courageous for sharing that reflection publicly.
Being a black American in Europe is a completely different experience from being a black American in America, or being an African in Europe. Back in the jazz days, musicians were treated as semi-gods in Europe. Even now, it is cool to be a black American in a way that is just very different from anything you can imagine in the US. This doesn't mean there isn't racism in Europe, there is. So much. It means specifically that it rarely affects black Americans. To the extent that two men who look the same and do the same but have respectively African and African American backgrounds will have completely different life experiences.
I can even get why he directs so much of his emotion towards Ta-Nehishi Coates, because Coates also did a semester or something in Paris, and must have met the same freedom and the same questions.
posted by mumimor at 12:35 PM on April 15 [9 favorites]


He's not just talking about his experience and ideas, though: he's talking about the world and expressing opinions about, specifically, antiracist activism/work/theory. I understand complexity, especially when it comes to race and parenting: I'm mixed, I have a child, this kind of thing is on my mind all the time and I read all of his work hoping for something interesting to grab onto, but I simply did not find much besides his critiques of Coates' work. There was, instead, a lot of stuff like him saying that he doesn't bother too much with representation as an issue because, in part, only 12% of the US is black (for example) and so he never expected to see black representation "everywhere." That's not at all an accurate representation of why people want to see representation or what kinds of representation they want to see. For example, it completely elides (ignores? avoids?) the fact that there's a difference between seeing representation "everywhere" and seeing it nowhere. It avoids the issue of having the only representation be harmful or stereotypical. And that is just one way in which he flattens the discourse by treating complex critiques of whiteness and white privilege in the US as though they were childish or thoughtless, and, yes, by doing so, he shores up white privilege. When you make critiques of white privileged into strawmen, call their proponents "berserk," and then knock them down, you are shoring up that privilege.
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 12:36 PM on April 15 [7 favorites]


Internet fraud detective squad, station number 9, I'm sorry but your explanation does not help me understand why you're reading his argument this way. But, that's fine. I just didn't want someone else to come away from this thread with a misrepresented view of the interview.
posted by jj's.mama at 12:43 PM on April 15 [1 favorite]


So you read his memoir in full?
posted by jj's.mama at 12:45 PM on April 15


That is not what he is saying or doing. He is in a context where "black" and "white" are defined differently from what he knew as growing up American and he is clearly and publicly reflecting, a reflection that is accelerated by his MFA education. IMO, he is courageous for sharing that reflection publicly.

Leaving aside whether he is courageous (but not accepting it, because there is a lot of racialized baggage around the idea that he should be "afraid" for expressing criticisms of antiracist work or theory), I note that in the stuff here he is largely not talking about his experience in France, but instead, what he thinks about the construction of race in the US. Much of his perspective seems to be that the conception of blackness is created or perpetuated by black people and/or antiracist activists in a way that is harmful. This is understandable and, I think, interesting in the specific but harmful and naive in the general, at least how he frames it. I think this even though he and I agree on certain issues (for example, I also resent it and find it disturbing when affirmative action is framed as being permanently necessary because of---it's implied---some kind of permanent incapability).

So you read his memoir in full?

I read the interview he gave which is here and which was posted here as well as the other materials posted here. I'm glad to hear that his memoir is different, if that's what you're saying. It certainly wouldn't be the first time that someone's work was publicized in a way that did not fully represent it. At the same time, these are his words.
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 12:55 PM on April 15 [2 favorites]


OK "courageous" is disingenuous in this context. Sorry about that.
My reading is that he is projecting his French experience back on the US. In my initial comment I tried to implicate that I don't think that works like he thinks it does. But I also think it is valuable that he tries it out.
posted by mumimor at 1:03 PM on April 15 [1 favorite]


praemunire: no, I'm saying that 'race' is more complicated than just skin colour, and that assuming all places have an American definition of race is both ignorant and unhelpful.

It would be interesting to know who's doing that.

So I can imagine that an African American person - coming from a rich, developed country, especially if they are educated and otherwise 'middle class' in culture - would be perceived as being more Western and more acceptable than someone from a Muslim or Caribbean country.

This is literally just another form of operation of racism. "The more you're from a country perceived to be not primarily black, or to have assimilated away from blackness, the more acceptable you are" is profoundly racist. Are we really in 2019 going to have another one of these discussions where a Europhile tries to explain that racism isn't really so much of a problem on the continent and that treating people whose origins are in the former French colonies worse than others is a manifestation of some other phenomenon?
posted by praemunire at 1:49 PM on April 15 [1 favorite]


Are we really in 2019 going to have another one of these discussions where a Europhile tries to explain that racism isn't really so much of a problem on the continent and that treating people whose origins are in the former French colonies worse than others is a manifestation of some other phenomenon?

"It would be interesting to know who's doing that."

You can take your own answer for that. Please stop insisting on misreading and mischaracterizing other posters' comments.

My comment, for example, was specifically to note that French racism in the colonial era worked differently from British racism. Not better, not worse, just different.

If this reads as explaining "that racism isn't really so much of a problem on the continent", then then problem is yours, not mine.
posted by jb at 2:12 PM on April 15 [3 favorites]


This is literally just another form of operation of racism. "The more you're from a country perceived to be not primarily black, or to have assimilated away from blackness, the more acceptable you are" is profoundly racist. Are we really in 2019 going to have another one of these discussions where a Europhile tries to explain that racism isn't really so much of a problem on the continent and that treating people whose origins are in the former French colonies worse than others is a manifestation of some other phenomenon?

Well, a lot of what is happening in Europe right now is racism, and Williams acknowledges that. It's just that racism is very different in Europe. It doesn't have anything to do about wether your country of origin is primarily black or not. Europeans can be racist about Irish, Spanish people, Italians, Bulgarians, Polish people as well as all Muslim people and some Asian people; I'll stop here, go visit the Brexit threads. I can see how this takes the color out of race for someone like Williams.

I think, and I'm not entirely sure about this, that what Williams is saying is that when it can be proven both scientifically and sociologically that race doesn't exist and that racism is always a social construct that has absurdly diverse manifestations, a solution can be to abolish race for white people. If white people could learn to stop seeing themselves as a (superior) race, maybe we could all move along. It's a very optimistic point of view, and right now I don't have that hope, but I did when I was Williams' age. Maybe I should get it back.

I recently heard an anthropologist specialized in genetic archeology recount that while he has originally been quite nationalist, he had realized through his research that humans move about and interact all the time. And he had seen that initially, when populations meet, there are always conflicts. But then they start interacting, and within a very short span of time (seen from his archeological perspective), they integrate.
posted by mumimor at 2:14 PM on April 15 [7 favorites]


The reason I originally thought this was an interesting post is the well-known but not sufficiently published fact that before Western colonialism, PoC were seen as equals in all aspects of society. St. Augustine was African, and so was Pushkin. There were African emperors of Rome. Obviously Jesus was a person of Middle Eastern origin. There were vast Asian, African and American empires with knowledge, art and technology to match their power. I know I'm stating the obvious, but we all need to repeat this to our kids and students.

I am a teacher, and when I for a brief period had my own unit, I imposed a very local affirmative action, which was one of the things that caused resentment at the art academy I worked at. There, I saw racism every day. Now I am at a tech university, where it is normal to have students from all backgrounds and there is much less racism. One of the points in Williams' writings is that Fine Arts are still not very open to PoC. He chooses to focus on the positive, reading Dostovjesky, I, as an educator see it as a problem. Our literature, even within engineering is still extremely Euro-centric. One student - from Australia - called me out on it, and I'm now working on a new text-book for my foundation course, since I couldn't find one that wasn't based on the European canon.
posted by mumimor at 2:37 PM on April 15 [4 favorites]


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