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One man's bid to 'retire from race'

Thomas Chatterton Williams, second from left, with students

Thomas Chatterton Williams, second from left, with students in his Bard College course on retiring from race. Credit: Cathy Young

Amid the intense national conversation on race and racism, one author joins the fray with a radical idea: “retiring from race.”

Thomas Chatterton Williams, the son of a black father and a white mother — and the father of a golden-haired, white-skinned daughter — has come to identify himself as “ex-black,” an American of mixed heritage. But even that phrase is fraught, since it does not acknowledge that “everyone is in some way mixed to begin with,” as Williams puts it in his new book, “Self-Portrait in Black and White: Unlearning Race.”

In October, just as I had finished reading this remarkable book, I heard Williams speak at a conference on racism and anti-Semitism at Bard College in upstate New York, where he had been teaching a four-week course. I came away convinced that he is one America’s most invaluable voices at a time when our discourse is polarized between left-wing identity politics that stress white privilege and right-wing identity politics that champion supposedly race-neutral nationalism but stoke fears of demographic change.

Williams’ light-skinned appearance — in France, where he lives, he is often misidentified as Arab — raises the inevitable question of whether he can afford to “retire from race” because he doesn’t suffer as much prejudice as darker-skinned African Americans. But he insists that skin color does not equal identity, pointing to libertarian commentator Kmele Foster, who looks black and calls himself a “race abolitionist.”

To many, Williams’ nonracial self-identification will look like a betrayal. But he emphatically does not consider himself white. (Poignantly, he recalls his father shouting, “I’ll be damned if they make you white!” when, as an 8-year-old, he showed disinterest in learning boxing.) He also stresses that “retiring from race” has nothing to do with the attitude of white Americans — including some of his own relatives — who brag that they “don’t see race” when they ignore racism. Williams insists that bigotry must be confronted, but without putting ourselves in boxes devised by bigots.

While Williams would not give racism a pass, he warns against reading it into everything. He has been scathingly critical of Ta-Nehisi Coates, the author of “Between the World and Me,” for treating white supremacy as omnipresent and all interactions with whites as racialized.

Today, his intellectual opposite is Ibram X. Kendi, author of the bestseller “How to Be an Anti-Racist” — and also a speaker at the Bard event — who argues that every idea and action must be rigorously scrutinized for racism and that anything not actively anti-racist is racist. While he and Williams did not directly debate each other, the opposition was obvious. There was no doubt for me which one offered the better way; Kendi’s proposal for strict “anti-racism” enforcement by a bureaucracy of experts is downright totalitarian.

In the current terms of progressive discourse, I am “stepping out of my lane” simply by commenting on that debate. But those “lanes” are precisely what Williams wants to undo. Thus, he vocally opposes the idea that his book should be assigned primarily to black reviewers. What he calls “racially transcendent humanism” (quoting black economist Glenn Loury) is at the heart of his work, not just preached but deeply felt. While reading Williams’ previous book, the 2010 memoir “Losing My Cool,” I was struck by how much his African American father had in common with my late Russian Jewish father, including an all-consuming passion for books. This is the kind of human kinship Williams would have us foster.

His ideas may not chart a clear path to the future, but they point in the right direction.

Cathy Young is a contributing editor to Reason magazine.

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