How Moving to France and Having Children Led a Black American to Rethink Race

Unlearning Race
By Thomas Chatterton Williams

Thomas Chatterton Williams is the son of a black father and a white mother, but grew up identifying as black on the basis that even one drop of black blood defines a person as belonging to that often besieged minority. His father claimed that his mother was a black woman at heart, and brought up his son to oppose the implicit racism of passing, though Williams has a complexion more tanned than sub-Saharan, and is often mistaken for an Arab in France, where he lives. Williams married a white woman and both their children were born with blond hair and blue eyes. Are they, too, black by the one-drop rule? In questioning their determinative race, he has plumbed not only his own but also the complexity of racial identity for people outside the prevalent white/nonwhite binary.

Williams, a contributing writer at The New York Times Magazine, is well educated, intellectually sophisticated and prosperous, and he tries to limn the complex relationship between race and class, to figure out where racism is classism and where classism is racism, an almost Escher-like maze as snobbery casts a thin veil over racial hatred and vice versa. Williams can say, “I do not feel myself to be a victim — not in any collectively accessible way.” He is unabashedly the product of a society that champions diversity and encourages people of color to think in terms of identity politics, but he opposes racial essentialism and is an exponent of compromise on some of the niceties of political correctness. He fears the integration that will be available to his blond daughter, Marlow, enabling her to erase aspects of her identity, but he also decries the segregating intolerances that come from both the majority and the minorities.

“Son, don’t lose yourself,” his father warned him on his wedding day, having long before declared, when Williams at 8 showed little inclination to learn boxing, “I’ll be damned if they make you white.” Williams knows that his blackness is essential to his father. “I consciously learned and performed my race,” he writes, “like a teacher’s pet in an advanced placement course on black masculinity.” Yet he describes being treated as a gringo by the black people he met when he campaigned for Obama. “Do I really need to pretend that we are all united, socially indistinguishable, in order not to deny my African ancestry, to honor the experiences of my father’s family?” He epitomizes a conundrum, viewing himself as part of multiple societies to which he has incomplete claims. In defining himself as black, Williams lived in “an extremely complicated and willed simplicity that, for me, was a telltale sign that I was back home.”

CreditKris Graves

When he chose to marry a white woman, that self-categorization began to decay. He felt tremendous anxiety that he might be enacting racial insecurity, somehow “marrying out,” deserting his authentic self. “I would not be bullied or reverse-psychologized … into forfeiting my own personal happiness and volition. What kind of liberation is that? I’d marry this woman I wanted to marry, I told myself, and all the rest was distraction.” He describes his horror watching video of black people being beaten by the police, but acknowledges: “Even as I share their outrage, even as I remain aware that this could still happen to me, I know as well as I know my own name that this is not one of the things I need fear could happen to Marlow. How can I deny that there is a part of me — a real one — that feels relieved; and how could this relief in turn not look a lot like treason? … Or is it possible that marrying out, if shorn of any belief in or aspiration to ‘whiteness,’ could be a useful, even indispensable part of the solution to the quagmire of racism without race?” He points out that one in four black men in America marries a nonblack spouse and wonders how many are fleeing a star-crossed racial destiny.

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