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October 26 2019
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Thomas Chatterton Williams with his daughter, Marlow, whose birth catalyzed an identity crisis that culminated with Williams’s latest book.

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

In 2012, the bi-racial writer Thomas Chatterton Williams wrote an impassioned op-ed in The New York Times arguing that “mixed-race blacks have an ethical obligation to identify as black.” The piece noted the growing incidence of inter-racial marriage—nearly a quarter of black men marry non-black women—and discussed both his own recent marriage to a white Frenchwoman, and his intention to raise any children they might have as black. The migration of mixed-race blacks into forms of multi-racial identification could result, he suggests, in a “further stigmatization” of a “historically stigmatized group” as its “outwardly mobile” members “peel off at the margins and disappear into the multiracial ether.”

Williams refers to this op-ed, written a year before his wife, Valentine, got pregnant with his first child, as a “defiant last gasp of … something—some way of looking at the world—that I must have understood, whether I wanted to admit it or not, was under dire threat,” in his new book, Self-Portrait in Black and White. The oddly distancing and speculative mode that Williams adopts with regard to his own earlier feelings and motivations is striking. He describes himself wincing at the memory of the op-ed but does not quote from it and attempts no refutation of its argument. The refutation comes in visual form.

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