Thomas Chatterton Williams, the son of a “black” father from the segregated South and a “white” mother from the West, spent his whole life believing the dictum that a single drop of “black blood” makes a person black. This was so fundamental to his self-conception that he’d never rigorously reflected on its foundations―but the shock of his experience as the black father of two extremely white-looking children led him to question these long-held convictions.
While [Williams'] Self-Portrait in Black and White begins with assertions of his blackness, it evolves into a rich set of questions occasioned by the birth of his first child ... He rejects the anger endemic to so much current writing about race in America; he is refreshingly free of the punishing though brilliant invective of Ta-Nehisi Coates ... On the whole, Williams’s book is more rigorous than mournful, an account of solutions more than of problems, marked by self-deprecating humor and acute sensitivity ... Williams writes beautifully, but his pages include quotations from great men that sometimes seem like scattered proof of his sophistication, a reflection of insecurities he disavows. Some readers will find his rhetoric perfidious and reactionary, with its dismissal of identity politics and the concomitant particulars of the African-American experience. But he is so honest and fresh in his observations, so skillful at blending his own story with larger principles, that it is hard not to admire him. At a time of increasing division, his philosophizing evinces an underlying generosity. He reaches both ways across the aisle of racism, arguing above all for reciprocity, and in doing so begins to theorize the temperate peace of which all humanity is sorely in need.
... thoughtful yet frustrating ... When he tells his own story, Williams can be an elegant and sharp-eyed writer; when he moves beyond it, he can lapse into an excess of rhetorical questions and ponderous pondering ... In a publishing environment where analyses of race tend to call out white fragilities and catalogue historical injustices, Self-Portrait in Black and White is a counterintuitive, courageous addition. But Williams does not simply want to share his journey; he insists that everyone take the same trip ... Williams is confident that 'people of good will,' anyone 'properly motivated and educated,' can slip the bonds of identity. He concludes this despite constantly noting the uniqueness of his life, which has made his discernment more possible, his choices less constrained, his experience of racial animosity less overt; and he does so seemingly unaware that his plea for individual agency can also involve the agency to accept or embrace group identities, no matter how manufactured or imposed ... his back-and-forth negotiation is indeed endless, making this slim book read longer than its page count ... The unexamined life may not be worth living, but the overexamined life is not always worth reading ... Williams appears to reprimand anyone who recognizes race’s enduring role in American life ... his new ideas can be vague and contradictory when they transcend the self of this self-portrait.
... if you crave a 'fresh' opinion, feel free to open the New York Times—on class, read David Brooks; on gender, read Bari Weiss. And on race, read Thomas Chatterton Williams ... if Losing My Cool had dreamed aloud about a splendid new attitude for black people, his new book—Self-Portrait in Black and White: Unlearning Race, also a memoir—proclaims, with intriguing relief, that the thing we call 'black America' does not, in fact, exist ... In both works, a catastrophic delusion is debunked by our gallant hero. This is the swashbuckling intellectual style of a man born to be Incoherent; after all, Williams was raised by an 'anti-tribal' family that 'did not belong to any collectives,' so his thought is freer and fresher than ours ... Vast chasms in argumentation are spanned by the rickety bridges of TED Talk prose ... Williams has an appetite for aphorism. He opts for a kind of ideological dim sum, plucking thinkers from the sundry platters of politics Left and Right ... in Self-Portrait, class is a stick to beat race with. It brutally trumps identity claims (and is not itself the basis for a thorough critique) ... What he cannot grasp is that any effective challenge to white hegemony would have to take place not in the perfumed realm of private choices and elective affinities, but on the harsh terrain of real life ... The omission reveals the fantasy that throbs beneath this memoir: that race can be yanked from the clanging machinery in which it’s lodged ... Williams attempts to leap through his little trapdoor in history ... What is this book: cynicism or foolishness? A flash of contrarian novelty in a media industry tickled by its own fecklessness—or proof of a truly boundless naïveté?