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In Praise of “Self Portrait in Black and White: Unlearning Race”

(Dominique Nabokov)

“With the benefit of distance—writing from the other side of the Atlantic—Williams came to understand how poisonous the concept of race is in the United States.”

Can constantly talking about a problem actually make it worse? I believe that—sometimes—this can be the case. Race and racism make for a case in point. Consider the title of two books. First, Race Matters by Cornel West. Its author is a well-known anti-racist, and, in the book, he argues that we must talk more about race because that is the only way to end racism and oppression. The second book is Why Race Matters by the philosopher Michael Levin. Judging by the titles of the two books, one might be inclined to think that both authors are in broad agreement. Yet, that is far from the case. Levin argues that IQ is largely genetic and that blacks have a lower IQ; therefore, for Levin, blacks are biologically inferior and should not aspire to high positions in society.

Someone like West might be eager to see everything through the prism of race, and, consequently, approve of identity politics—all in the name of progress and liberation. But, sooner or later, this backfires. Once everyone talks about race, people like Levin, who undoubtedly exist, seize the moment to push their own reactionary agendas, ultimately making racism even worse. West and Levin have more in common than they would like to admit. Their relationship is only a microcosm of the current state of affairs in the United States. Like it or not, the Black Lives Matter movement and the Alt-right are cut from the same cloth: with that cloth being an obsession with race.

Thomas Chatterton Williams’ recently published Self Portrait in Black and White: Unlearning Race is a beautiful memoir about someone tempted to dance to the tune of this obsession but who ultimately resists. Williams has a black father and a white mother. Until very recently, on account of an informal “one-drop rule,” the United States had very little room for “biracial” or “multiracial” identities. So, Williams grew up, as James Brown would say, black and proud. He embraced stereotypical blackness with fury because that is what he felt he was expected to do: hip-hop, basketball, and the rest. In his words, “I consciously learned and performed my race, like a teacher’s pet in an advanced placement course on black masculinity.”

Then, he moved to France. It struck him that—over there—he wasn’t considered black by many. Some people took him to be Algerian; others noticed his skin color but did not care much about it. He began to ponder whether his blackness really makes for the most important aspect of his identity. He already had hints of this during his days campaigning for then-candidate Barack Obama. Coming from a middle-class background, he realized that poor blacks in Baltimore inhabit a whole different universe than he did—and often had very different concerns. He came to recognize that his previous full-on embrace of a stereotypical black identity was a form of essentialism, the same kind essentialism that groups people according to physical traits and denies individuality, while also side-stepping other relevant differences (most notably class but, also, personality style, profession, etc.). 

He even began to ask if race should matter at all. The last straw of this introspection was the birth of his daughter, who could very easily be taken to be Swedish (Williams married a white woman). Could he continue to think of himself as the nigga of his teenage years, now with a blue-eyed daughter? Williams came to realize that—in life—there are more important things than race.

But, then, he asks a very commonsense question that most anti-racists fail to ask: if the very concept of race is so poisonous, why continue obsessing with it? The only reasonable way to put an end to racism is to unlearn race.

With the benefit of distance—writing from the other side of the Atlantic—Williams came to understand how poisonous the concept of race is in the United States. He is perfectly aware that this was a recent invention of oppressors (colonialists and slave traders), as he poetically puts it: “I have stayed in inns in Germany and eaten at taverns in Spain that have been continuously operating longer than this calamitous thought.” Williams further knows very well that race is a social construction, with no biological foundation. But, then, he asks a very commonsense question that most anti-racists fail to ask: if the very concept of race is so poisonous, why continue obsessing with it? The only reasonable way to put an end to racism is to unlearn race. If this social construction has caused so much damage in the first place, how can the damage be healed, if the social construction gets stronger by the day?

By now it is surely a cliché; however, Martin Luther King’s dictum that people should, “not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character” is still eminently relevant. With a large degree of sophistry, people like Ta-Nehisi Coates want to argue that—somehow—the only way to end racism is by constantly thinking about people’s skin color. One might call it “racial homeopathy”: in this view, the antidote needs to be more of the poison itself. With his book Self Portrait in Black and White: Unlearning Race and its call to “unlearn race,” Williams emerges as the much-needed anti-Coates.

In fact, Williams explicitly takes Coates to task. When one sees everything through the prism of race, he ends up developing very poor judgment. Coates—in his undeniably engaging style (I will give him that, but not much more)—narrates in his memoir this occasion when he had an altercation with a white woman because she pushed his son aside in an escalator. For Coates, this was all about race. Williams rightly notes that—sometimes—a mean woman is a mean woman, regardless of color. For all we know, that woman could have been a civil rights advocate who just happened to be having a bad day. We simply don’t know the mindset of that woman (or anyone else), so jumping to conclusions serves little purpose.

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Coates—and all the race-baiters that are so fond of him—should be more like Freud and less like the Freudians. 

More broadly, though, Coates needs to cool down. For Freudians, a cigar might be a phallic representation satisfying an oral fixation; for Freud, famously (and perhaps apocryphally), a cigar is just a cigar. Coates—and all the race-baiters that are so fond of him—should be more like Freud and less like the Freudians. 

People who oppose this colorblind approach typically assert that authors such as Williams are simply ostriches hiding their heads in the sand, refusing to see reality. Nice metaphor. But, I reply: if we are in the business of using metaphors, then, surely, we ought to say that Coates has a hammer, and for him everything is a nail. 

A prominent race-obsessed scholar, Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, would probably argue that Williams is promoting “color-blind racism.” And—in Bonilla-Silva’s opinion—if we ever come to unlearn race, as Williams hopes we do, then we will become like Latin America. For Bonilla-Silva, the “Latin Americanization” of race in the United States would be a catastrophe because south of the Rio Grande—in his view—racism is all over the place; it’s just that nobody wants to talk about it.

I know a thing or two about Latin America, so allow me to weigh in on this. Inequality is a big problem in Latin America, and class mostly aligns with skin color. So, yes, racism is there. Brazilian sociologist Gilberto Freyre liked to think that his country was an example of a “racial democracy,” but he was only fooling himself. That being said, I should point out that—in Latin America—you seldom hear of police shootings targeting minorities (of course there is police brutality, but it makes no color discrimination), lynchings, Ku Klux Klan-like associations, ethnic gangs, etc. You are far more-likely to see interracial friends and couples in that region of the world. Of course, there was slavery, but, once it was abolished, there was never anything like Jim Crow. This is probably because—though racial inequalities continue to exist—most Latin Americans are simply not as conscious of race as the gringos are. The mixing of races was not the panacea to the disease of racism in Latin America, but, overall, it has worked out better than in the United States. Racial inequality in Latin America still lingers, but racial integration is considerably better than in the United States. So, contrary to Bonilla-Silva’s fear-mongering, I would hardly argue that the “Latin Americanization” of race relations in the United States would be a catastrophe.

But, even if unlearning race were a bad thing, one may wonder why we should take Latin America as a cautionary tale, instead of, say, Rwandaor the former Yugoslavia. Those bloody conflicts were ignited by excessive race talk, the kind of games that Coates and Bonilla-Silva want us to play. For the Hutu militant killing a Tutsi family with a machete, everything was about ethnic identity. Same thing in the Balkans. The nefarious rise of identity politics convinces me that—when it comes to race relations in the United States—the threat of balkanization is far greater than the threat of “Latin Americanization.”

This all makes Williams’ book so timely. In his words, we need a “racially transcendent humanism.” Maybe—just maybe—unlearning race will make police officers focus more on a suspect’s actual behavior, rather than on his skin color. In fact, as I have argued elsewhere, diversity-training fails as much as D.A.R.E. (the program that so ineffectively endeavored to get kids to stay away from drugs) and probably for the same reason: by obsessing with a problem and presenting it in a panicky manner, one too often ends up making it worse. The best way to get kids off drugs is to make them lose interest in it. By the same token, the best way to end racism is to get people in the habit of not caring about race. Kudos to Thomas Chatterton Williams for setting us down that road.

Dr. Gabriel Andrade is a university professor. He has previously contributed to Areo Magazine and DePauw University’s The Prindle Post. His twitter is @gandrade80

2 thoughts on “In Praise of “Self Portrait in Black and White: Unlearning Race”

  1. Dear Andrade, “Levin argues that IQ is largely genetic and that blacks have a lower IQ”: Is this a fact or an opinion?

    1. It is a fact that Levin argues that. I don’t know if what he says is a fact or an opinion. It is well-established that IQ scores are lower amongst African Americans, and it is also well-established that IQ has a genetic basis. But, I am not sure we can rush to the conclusions Levin makes.

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