December 23, 2019
While many on the left now reject gender categories, they seem determined to enshrine racial categories. Let’s do better In 2012, writer Thomas Chatterton Williams – a biracial African American expatriate living in Paris – took to the New York Times op-ed page to declare that not only do “mixed-race blacks have an ethical obligation to identify as black”, but that interracial couples “share a similar moral imperative to inculcate certain ideas of black heritage and racial identity in their mixed-race children, regardless of how they look”.Williams argued that embracing a black identity served as a form of solidarity between biracial African Americans such as himself and those with darker skin. “And so I will teach my children that they, too, are black – regardless of what anyone else may say – so long as they remember and wish to be,” he concluded.Then everything changed: he and his wife, a white French woman, had their daughter Marlow. As Williams held Marlow, he took in her blonde hair and blue eyes and his conception of America’s strict racial dichotomy between black and white started to collapse before him. He began to see racial categories as an obstacle to social progress.Eventually, he came to see himself as an “ex-black man”. What’s more, he suggests that the rest of us may be better off if we shed our racial labels as well.> Must our empowerment be tied to skin or blood?Williams chronicled this journey in his recent book Self-Portrait in Black and White: Unlearning Race, which challenges us to think beyond America’s racial binaries.The reaction to the book from many of the author’s critics has been unfortunate but predictable. While the left has in recent years sought to unsettle gender categories – noting that gender is a spectrum and that the binary does not fit all people – they have circled the wagons even tighter around the sanctity of exclusionary racial categories.While Williams believes it’s a “mistake for any of us to reify something that is as demonstrably harmful as it is fictitious,” Ismail Muhammad, writing in The Nation, argues that “no matter how socially constructed racial identities are, our lived experiences of those identities – the cultures, communities, values, prejudices, policies, and socioeconomic obstacles that follow from inhabiting social constructs – is anything but fictitious and cannot simply be willed out of existence.” Furthermore, Muhammad argues, Chatterton Williams “fails to see how racial identification … can also be an empowering act.”But must our empowerment be tied to skin or blood? As Williams argued at an event I attended in October, when we Americans talk about race, we’re often confusing it for another category, such as culture or social class.Discarding race doesn’t mean discarding the rich cultural achievements or shared values of human beings we have spent centuries labeling “black” or “white”. Culture and values are things that humans create and celebrate together, and there is no reason for these qualities to be defined by the amount of melanin in our skin.> Unlearning race doesn’t mean ignoring racismIn my college years I befriended a professor who was a tall white man with a thick beard who had converted to Islam years ago during a decade-long stay in South Asia. Despite his white skin and European name, he knew more about the religion I practiced (Islam) and the country my parents emigrated from (Pakistan) than just about anyone else I had ever met. The culture we shared, and the experiences we reveled in, were not defined by our race, which became as trivial a quality in our interactions as our differing heights.Unlearning race doesn’t mean ignoring racism. Too many Americans continue to discriminate against each other on the basis of skin color, and persistent inequality is a feature of American life. In response, we can and must adopt social policy approaches aimed at spreading opportunity far and wide to every corner of society, without adopting the fiction that people are defined by their race.Some would argue that while Chatterton Williams is right on the merits, his proposal to discard race is hopelessly naive.But Pew polling shows 85% of whites, 26% of blacks, and around 40% of Asians and Hispanics say their race is not extremely or very important to them. Many of us are already moving in the direction Williams advises.To those who continue to be skeptical we can shed our racial skins, I would just ask them if they could name my tribe, caste, or sect. In India and Pakistan, these categories trapped my ancestors for centuries, defining every aspect of their lives, from the jobs they held to the people they married.But here in the United States, I live freely outside these boxes, something my ancestors would have seen as unimaginable.In a way, I’m living the future Williams describes. And nothing could be more empowering.
A provocative new book argues we must unlearn race. We absolutely should
* Zaid Jilani writes about olarization for UC Berkeley Greater Good Science Center. He is the co-host of the Extremely Offline podcast
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