Sunday, December 22, 2019

Self-Portriat in Black and White: Unlearning Race by Thomas Chatterton Williams

Tis the season.  Here's some Christmas Renaissance Music.

Oh, OK.  Here's a few more photos of Israel.  I took so many you're going to see them all year round, I think.

At Jericho, I got to ride a camel.

He was a friendly camel.

Here are the remains of the oldest city in Israel, Jericho.  Do you see the burn line?  That level dates back the time of Joshua.  "Joshua fought the battle at Jericho, Jericho, Jericho..."

Self-Portrait in Black and White: Unlearning RaceSelf-Portrait in Black and White: Unlearning Race by Thomas Chatterton Williams
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
I have always been fascinated by race: what constitutes race; how do people self-identify; how important is it, and how has it impacted culture and history.

Thomas Chatterton Williams grew up in a bi-racial home. His mother was a white woman, the daughter of a conservative preacher, and who attended Wheaton College in Illinois. His father, a black man, grew up in the South. Williams grew up in the northeast and led, what some would call a privileged upbringing.

It sounds to me rather that he grew up in a household with a father who expected him to succeed and he did. He attended college in New York City and while still a student was offered an advance to publish a book on race. Because I listened to this book on Hoopla, I am unable to refer to specific facts, such as what university he attended and whether it was this book or a previous book he wrote that was published while he was still in college, so for the sake of accuracy, I won't say.

Being a man that considers himself black while not looking black (many people, especially in Europe assumed he was an Arab) caused Williams, maybe not an identity crisis, but certainly led him on a journey, the fruit of which is this book.

What does it mean to be black? Is it cultural? Genetic? Both? Williams himself married a white French woman. How should their children view themselves? They look less black than he does.

So are they black? What is the "black experience"?

While I thought Williams was fairly even-handed, even though his political slant veered away from my own, neither did he jump on the bandwagon of "evil whitey who is the source of all the black man's problems". He points out that authors, such as Ta-Nehisi Coates who writes in a way that assumes every white person is a type rather than an individual and any interaction with black people can only be racially motivated-whether with hostility or kindness (they're only being condescending) really only serves to create racial division and mutual suspicion.

Williams protests against seeing anyone as a "type". We are just individuals and if we are going to accomplish racial unity, we're going to have throw out the old paradigms.

He believes this can be accomplished in a couple of ways. One, as the population of bi-racial people grow, there will be more and more people like himself that cannot view themselves as either black or white but as both. In other words, if we blur the lines of racial divisions to such an extent, people will not be able to view each other in such delineated ways.

Secondly, he believes race is an artificial construct. Humans created the concept of race, when, in fact, there is only one race, the human race. As people change their views on this, racism can one day be eradicated.

I think with the first point he is right to an extent. I recall a concert venue in Detroit that wanted to charge white people double. Backlash resulted in rescinding the policy, but what was not given enough media attention, in my opinion, was that not only white, but many bi-racial people refused to attend because it meant one of their parents was being treated unfairly.

I also agree that race is a man made construct that has an entrenched history and clearly delineated cultural lines. Instead of helping to erase those lines, many "woke" people today of all races seem to want to persist in the hatred. Maybe it gives them "raison d'etre", I don't know.

However, I must also point out that, human nature being what it is, if America became populated with a new race, people would only find other things to hate about each other.  Look at the African countries.  They have been beset with tribal warfare for hundreds of years, probably thousands, and it has nothing to do with race.

So it is indeed bold of Williams, while still very much liberal, to take an unpopular stand about race and its definitions and the repercussions of those definitions.

To complain, I will say I felt there was a little too much naval gazing. Surely every minority does not go through life with their wrist against their forehead, muttering "What am I? How do others view me?"

Most people of any color or combination thereof, surely have more meaningful things to do with their life. We cannot control how others view us. We are only in control of how we deal with the good and ugly things that life throws at us.

I think primarily the difference between Williams and myself is that he is an atheist, therefore must turn to Utopian hopes and ideals, while my identity is that of a child of God and this life is very short. Focus on eternity.

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mudpuddle said...

a wise and thoughtful post... even the thought of riding a camel is disturbing... seems very uncomfortable, somehow... i remember reading in a book Beau Geste, maybe about a camel biting a persons knee cap off yuk

Marian H said...

I'm probably weird, but I think camels have the sweetest faces! It looks like you had a wonderful time! :)

This sounds like a thought-provoking book, on a familiar theme...I've been called "white" by a Chinese person, and white people tend to ask "where I'm from" or if I'm Chinese or Korean (when I'm actually half-Vietnamese). These are innocuous questions, but they point to the bigger issue, which is like you say, we have this tendency to want to put people into predefined "types." I like Kazuo Ishiguro's outlook on this, which he said back in the 80s:

"People are not two-thirds one thing and the remainder something else. Temperament, personality, or outlook don’t divide quite like that. The bits don’t separate clearly. You end up a funny homogeneous mixture. This is something that will become more common in the latter part of the century—people with mixed cultural backgrounds, and mixed racial backgrounds. That’s the way the world is going."

Sharon Wilfong said...

Hi mudpuddle! This was a really mellow camel. My parents lived in the Middle East in the sixties and they said that camels could be pretty mean. They liked to spit and their aim was really good.

Thank you for the compliment. That means much coming from you.

Sharon Wilfong said...

Hi Marian,

You know, I grew up in the military and it was pretty common for GIs to marry women from other countries. I had a lot of friends whose mothers were Asian. In fact my very first boyfriend was Vietnamese. I lived in Florida at the time and that is where the Vietnamese Boat people as they were called were brought to America in the 1970s.

I also had friends who were black or bi-racial. None of us ever thought anything of it. Now it seems identity politics are making everyone ultra aware of people's racial backgrounds. I think people should enjoy all their heritages and appreciate what it contributes to their life without having angst over it. You can never control other people's prejudices, but we don't have to make it our own problem.

And if you think that camel was cute, you should have seen the baby camel I was playing with.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Sharon - I guess that great minds think alike as I put up my post on this book today :)

Indeed Williams is taking a bit of flack from the far left. I see it on Twitter. On the other hand he is being celebrated by the "universal liberals challenging the postmodernist left" crowd as well as by some conservatives. I do not mean that to be disparaging, as I am very sympathetic to the universal liberals and even some conservative views on this.

The utopian aspect is interesting. I did not think about that when reading the book but I suppose there is a little bit of utopianism to Williams ideas. I do not believe in utopias but I believe that things can be improved. So I think that some of Williams's views might improve things if they became more widespread.

I love the camel pictures!

Have great day!

Sharon Wilfong said...

Hi Brian! I just read your post. It's very good and you make some points I did not think about. I do like how the author doesn't give the same cliched race positions. And I think he's right that the tide is changing because the population of people of various races is growing and I think thata is a good thing.

Have a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.

Sarah @ All The Book Blog Names Are Taken said...

Love the photos! I am incredibly jealous, and I want so badly to go to Israel.

Sharon Wilfong said...

Hi Sarah. You really need to go. It's a life changing experience. Maybe when you're daughter is old enough, so she'll remember it as well.

Sarah @ All The Book Blog Names Are Taken said...

That is my plan! There are so many places I want to travel with Eleanor, so much I want to show her!

Sharon Wilfong said...

Hi again, Sarah! You'll be able to do it. It takes ingenuity, sometimes but you'll find a way and your daughter will thank you for it. Have a happy new year!