Part of a Larger Battle: A Conversation with Thomas Chatterton Williams

Posted in Articles, Interviews, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Philosophy, United States on 2020-07-17 14:44Z by Steven

Part of a Larger Battle: A Conversation with Thomas Chatterton Williams

Los Angeles Review of Books

Otis Houston
Portland, Oregon

Thomas Chatterton Williams

I FIRST INTERVIEWED Thomas Chatterton Williams for the Los Angeles Review of Books in the spring of 2019. We discussed his then-forthcoming book, Self-Portrait in Black and White: Unlearning Race, as well as the state of the discussion about race in in the United States, including the popular movements for social justice born of the increased visibility of the killings of black Americans by police.

I recently spoke with Thomas again about what has changed in the way we talk about race and identity. We also discussed the effects of the collision of social justice theories with art and institutions, and the best-selling books that are now influencing the national mood and tracing the borders of generational and ideological difference in the United States in 2020.

Thomas is a contributing editor at The New York Times and a columnist at Harper’s. He spoke to me by phone from his home in Paris, France. The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

OTIS HOUSTON: At about this time last year we discussed Self-Portrait in Black and White: Unlearning Race. One of your main arguments was that, in order to transcend racism and the social hierarchies it imposes, we have to commit to rejecting the very concept of race and its centrality in determining our identities.

One year later, in a time of mass protests in response to the killing of George Floyd, it seems to me like we’re seeing the media and some of the most prominent voices in the antiracism movement moving further away from the view of race and identity you’ve been advocating for. Increasingly, they argue that effective opposition to racism requires racial identity to always be foremost in our minds, both in the way we view politics and society and in our daily interactions with one another. This ideological movement is perhaps most visible in the books How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi and White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo, which have topped best-seller lists for weeks now. How would you describe this shift in thinking?

THOMAS CHATTERTON WILLIAMS: I see that as kind of a lamentable movement, actually. The two books that have dominated the conversation — and I mean dominated — are books that brook no middle ground and occlude any nuance. Robin DiAngelo’s central thesis, for instance, is that white people function not as individuals, but as a category, as a monolith that is inherently racist. According to her, to deny that you’re racist as a white person is proof of your racism, and to admit that you’re racist as a white person is proof of your racism, and the circular logic is airtight…

Read the entire interview here.

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Poetry Betrays Whiteness

Posted in Articles, Brazil, Caribbean/Latin America, Media Archive on 2016-04-14 17:43Z by Steven

Poetry Betrays Whiteness

Harriet: A Poetry Blog
Poetry Foundation

Lucas de Lima (Introduction by Daniel Borzutzky)

Among the many pointed questions that Lucas de Lima raises in “Poetry Betrays Whiteness” is that of how positions of unitedstatesian privilege can be used “to fight structural inequality and global anti-blackness.” This far-reaching essay touches upon, among other things, conceptions of race in the U.S. and Brazil; afro-Brazilian artists who have offered alternative conceptions; and a fascinating discussion of the ways that Brazilian Portuguese has been shaped by indigenous and African influences.

Lucas concludes by drawing our attention to a racist and sexist post on Harriet in 2008 that I had never seen before, and which sadly seems illustrative of the disgusting racism embedded in U.S. literary institutions that has been exposed in the past few years. Lucas asks, among other things, for the Poetry Foundation to take responsibility for the publication of the racist post it provided a platform for. This is a fair request, and one that I second. We should know why such posts are published. Editorial policies surrounding racist content should be clearly articulated and transparent

…When I’m in Brazil—the country with the largest Black population in the world outside of Africa—I am not a light-skinned Latino or a person of color. I occupy the position of a white person.

Lately, moving between racial categories has magnified my political feelings. The more time I spend in the country I left as a child, the more I hone the grief and rage that whiteness, as a global logic, provokes in me. For every Black person killed by the police in the U.S., countless more are killed in Brazil. In both places, the rise of police brutality and mass incarceration is one condition of racialized life. Another is the exploding suicide rate in Native communities, particularly among youth.

I think of nation-states as inherently militarized spaces articulated through each other. When Frederick Douglass said Brazil was less racist than the U.S. in its treatment of freed slaves, he anticipated the self-fashioning of a ‘racial democracy’ whose mixture would be defined against U.S.-style segregation. Like the vast majority of Brazilians, I have mixed-race ancestry. Because my nonwhite ancestors survived, I am alive and need to be explicit about the horrors of miscegenation—the rape of African and Indigenous women by Portuguese men. My light skin is the result of policies that whitened the population by incentivizing European immigration at the turn of the century. I think all the time about how the state transmits white supremacy through my body. My phenotype encodes a national fear of being too black and brown. As in other slaveholding societies, the idea that Brazil could one day be Haiti haunted the elite…

Read the entire article here.

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High Yellow

Posted in Articles, Asian Diaspora, Autobiography, Caribbean/Latin America, Media Archive on 2015-08-30 02:04Z by Steven

High Yellow

Poetry Foundation
October 2014

Hannah Lowe

Errol drives me to Treasure Beach It’s an old story, the terrible storm
swerving the dark country roads the ship going down, half the sailors
I think about what you will be, your mix drowned, half swimming the
white, black, Chinese, and your father’s slate waves, spat hard onto shore

Read the entire poem here.

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Posted in Articles, Books, Media Archive, Passing, Poetry, United States on 2012-08-16 01:07Z by Steven


Poem via Poetry Foundation from:

Antebellum Dream Book
Graywolf Press
72 pages
Paperback ISBN: 1-55597-354-X

Elizabeth Alexander, President
The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, New York, New York

Sometimes I think about Great-Uncle Paul who left Tuskegee,
Alabama to become a forester in Oregon and in so doing
became fundamentally white for the rest of his life, except
when he traveled without his white wife to visit his siblings—
now in New York, now in Harlem, USA—just as pale-skinned,
as straight-haired, as blue-eyed as Paul, and black. Paul never told anyone
he was white, he just didn’t say that he was black, and who could imagine,
an Oregon forester in 1930 as anything other than white?…

Read the entire poem here.

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