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Self-Portrait in Black and White: Unlearning Race

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4.05  ·  Rating details ·  824 ratings  ·  148 reviews
A meditation on race and identity from one of our most provocative cultural critics.

A reckoning with the way we choose to see and define ourselves, Self-Portrait in Black and White is the searching story of one American family’s multigenerational transformation from what is called black to what is assumed to be white. Thomas Chatterton Williams, the son of a “black” father
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Hardcover, 192 pages
Published October 15th 2019 by W. W. Norton Company
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Average rating 4.05  · 
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 ·  824 ratings  ·  148 reviews


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Bruce Katz
Oct 28, 2019 rated it liked it
I wanted to like this book more than I did. The author is obviously intelligent, thoughtful, and -- judging by the character of his "voice" -- kind. And I truly would love to sit down and talk with him over beer or wine (particularly since he lives in Paris). But the book frustrated me enormously. Williams starts from the premise that "race" is not, biologically speaking, real. Nor is it entirely a social construct. Moreover, he points out that words like Black and White cover so many variations ...more
Barbara
Feb 04, 2020 rated it it was amazing
"One way or another, we are going to have to figure out how to make our multiethnic realities work, and one of the great intellectual projects facing us - in America and abroad - will be to develop a vision of ourselves strong and supple enough both to acknowledge the lingering importance of inherited group identities while also attenuating, rather than reinforcing, the extent to which such identities are able to define us."

If your race identification changes depending on what country you're in,
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Eilonwy
3-1/2 stars

The wordy summary of this book is this:
Do you believe that color is inherent (let alone meaningful), or are you willing to entertain that whatever color you might think you see is itself the result of the perceptive act?
[T]he inclination to erase and define ourselves against some
other, is something we can never allow ourselves to condone. We must always be on the side that celebrates and cultivates variety, accepting without fetishizing difference.

The catchy summary would be:
Famalay
...more
Steve
Jul 05, 2019 rated it it was ok
At times interesting read, more than anything his description of his biracial daughter and his own internal struggles with where his perspective should lie on the role of blackness with his visually white daughter. This could have been an entire journey into itself, given the global expansion of mixed races.

In making the case for abandoning race altogether however, I can’t get there based on this book. The main arguments border on naive (not acknowledging legitimately that society has incentive
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Sharon Barrow Wilfong
I have always been fascinated by race: what constitutes race; how do people self-identify; how important is it, and how has it impacted culture and history.

Thomas Chatterton Williams grew up in a bi-racial home. His mother was a white woman, the daughter of a conservative preacher who attended Wheaton College in Illinois. His father, a black man, grew up in the South. Williams grew up in the northeast and led, what some would call a privileged upbringing.

It sounds to me rather that he grew up i
...more
Amber
Dec 22, 2019 rated it it was amazing
As a Black person parenting a racially ambiguous child, it's impossible for me to give a fair review because most of this book spoke very directly to my own personal struggles/questions around race. I ultimately agree with the authors challenge that we unlearn race but also wish he'd spent more time examining his unique position as a light-skinned mixed race person living outside the U.S. Much easier to be "ex-black" in Paris than any city in the U.S. Fascinating overall.
Caitlyn
Dec 10, 2019 rated it liked it
3.5 stars? I'm perplexed. Williams takes on a dicey proposal: opt out of race. I know that race, like gender, is a social construct, and because of this we tend to live our lives by ascribing to preconceived notions about how we should act and be. This is problematic. But choosing to no longer identify with any race, such as Williams' stance as an "ex-black man," poses problems too. I won't get too deep into identity politics here, but many people find strength in their racial or gender makeup. ...more
Angel Eduardo
Nov 20, 2019 rated it really liked it
What a fantastic, thoughtful, and insightful book. The title alone may cause some to scoff and dismiss it outright, but I challenge them to read it anyway. Thomas Chatterton Williams is a gifted and incisive writer, and—given the subject matter as well as the honesty with which he explores it—I don’t think it hyperbolic in the least to say, a brave one as well.

Challenging us as he challenges himself, and deftly navigating the minefield this topic is at this point in history and public discourse,
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Sheri
Nov 15, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: race
I was sent a copy of this book to review. Personally I really like and agree with a lot of what Williams has to say. I also recognize that his experience (as does he) is unique. He evokes many of the other middle group race academics (Loury and Whorton) with whom I also agree and I think really highlights the intersection between class and race in America.

I see race as the social construction manipulated by elite whites to pit lower class whites against all the other groups in a struggle for lim
...more
Terzah
Nov 17, 2019 rated it really liked it
What a kind and thoughtful book, the most nuanced I've read so far on the subject of race post-Trump. Williams, a man born to a black father and a white mother who came to a reckoning with his racial identity when it turned out his newborn daughter looked decidedly white, believes that in order to solve the problems caused by racism in our society, people need to abandon the biologically-incorrect idea of race, even in the face of its real force as a social construct. Calling himself an "ex-blac ...more
John
Feb 06, 2020 rated it liked it
It's a beautifully argued book, but it's not a beautifully written book. The prose could use some serious editing for clarity and brevity, and the overall structure is a mess. I agree with other reviewers who feel that this is a book-length essay more than it is a book.

Why should you read it then? Because it offers a humble, necessary, and dire course correction to the out-of-control hegemony within pop culture and social-media culture of what passes for received knowledge when it comes to race:
...more
Danielle
May 18, 2020 rated it really liked it
Brilliant and thought provoking. His language and vocabulary can make his concepts seem out of reach at times. I can see how many would not agree with him, but his rhetoric is persuasive and engaging.

Not a light read 😁
Rick Gross
Jan 02, 2020 rated it liked it
What a well written book! Once I heard Thomas Chatterton Williams on the New York Times book review podcast I ran to the library and was the first to borrow the book. I always want to learn about race and issues dealing with race relations. This book however was more self-serving than enlightening. I understand the world changing event that having a child can be yet following Chatterton-Williams on his journey of racial discovery seemed as if he was searching for a way, a reason to rid himself a ...more
James
Mar 07, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I rarely read memoirs by young people; I find the wisdom that comes with age more sharply focuses the memory on what’s essential while at the same time softening the passions of youth. I’m very glad I made an exception in this case.

SELF PORTRAIT IN BLACK AND WHITE reveals a young writer with exceptional insight into the issues of race and society, along with a fearless self-awareness.

Mr. Williams asks difficult questions about the very nature of race and whether it has a role in our modern worl
...more
Mia George
May 03, 2020 rated it it was ok
I was really torn as to how to rate this book and had to let it sink in before commenting. In the final analysis, I perceive the gestalt of Williams' analysis as a variant of embracing one's dominant identity (ie, if both 'black' and 'white,' choosing whiteness) and of choosing to identify with the white women in his life. Generally I would call this book, in the gestalt, a paean to white women.

Also, it is a statement about individuality that effectively minimizes or erases the power of collect
...more
Sandra
Oct 18, 2019 rated it it was amazing
His previous book, Losing My Cool was such an engaging and easy read, probably because it stayed close to the surface of the issue, and because it had me rooting for, and admiring decisions of the author's younger incarnation.

This one, though, is a far more introspective and studious approach to the questions of race in America. It looks at the cruelty and unfairness of the racial divides, and the nebulousness of the belief that it is possible to delineate where, along that black-to-white contin
...more
Steve
Jan 06, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Really loved the book. A great writer with a background in philosophy speaks about race and racism, in very personal ways and also in a broad view of where we all are, where we have been, and where we might be able to go. I found it inspiring and I admire his bravery.
Katrina
Nov 28, 2019 rated it it was amazing
A convincing argument for “retiring from race” while still acknowledging & valuing human differences. Right up there with Fields & Fields’ Racecraft. Highly recommended. ...more
Daniel Hageman
Jun 18, 2020 rated it really liked it
A personal story that provides more insights than someone who hates 'anecdotal evidence' might think.
Ivan
Jul 21, 2020 rated it really liked it
Williams walks through a minefield in this memoir and helps me think through some of the most complex questions over race.
Sarah
Feb 25, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Learned about Thomas Chatterton Williams and his book from the Sam Harris podcast. I would recommend listening to their discussion before reading this book. I enjoyed engaging in this material in that order anyway.

"I know it's not fashionable today to call yourself an existentialist, but that is what I am, to the extent that I start from the premise that, though forces outside of my control influence and pressure and certainly constrict me, I am ultimately responsible for my own beliefs and act
...more
Kirk
Nov 04, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Kmele Foster, host of The Fifth Column podcast and perhaps the most articulate non-writer I've had the pleasure to learn from, recommended Self-Portrait in Black and White: Unlearning Race several times over the past couple weeks. Foster had no shortage of praise for the book, and was excited by the clarity of thought, courage on the part of the author, and importance of the message contained therein. Foster (referenced in Chatterton Williams' book, pages 34 and 142) recently released a special ...more
Shana
Feb 25, 2020 rated it liked it
Upon becoming a father to a seemingly white-presenting daughter, Williams begins a deep dive into racial identity and all that goes into it. Part family history, part manifesto, and part self-exploration, he shows how racial identity has shifted within just a few generations of his own family. Williams writes well on personal issues, but also excels in an academic tone. To me, the best parts of the book dealt with his own experiences and the conflicted feelings he has had throughout his life. As ...more
Tricia Sean
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Tucker  (TuckerTheReader)

Many thanks to W. W. Norton for sending me a copy in exchange for an honest review

i'm not sure that i'll have anything valuable to add to the conversation of race. being white (well, white/latinx), i've been blessed to not had to face racism. that said, i really appreciate W. W. Norton sending me this!

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Kelly
Dec 18, 2019 rated it it was ok
"The truth is that no matter how long and hard you try - you cannot struggle your way out of a straitjacket that does no exit. But pretending it exists, for whatever reason, really does leave you in a severely restricted posture. I want to stand tall, with my full range of motion intact."

So he makes some valid points, but his overall approach is way too personal, philosophical, and myopic. Also, the book lagged for me. I read The Nation's review of this book after I finished it, and it perfectly
...more
Michael Romero
Felt like a long navel-gazing essay to me

A short interesting read but maybe I'm not the target audience because it felt like a lot of wrestling with confusion about identity rather than insights.
Jillkremtz
Oct 19, 2019 rated it did not like it
This is a deeply flawed book. The writer should have spoken with more true thinkers, done much more research, and rethought his own biases against black America. It was almost disturbing that anyone would publish this. It was also not very well-written. I cannot recommend it at all.
Debra
Nov 03, 2019 rated it really liked it
Thought-provoking work that requires working through the ideas Williams presents.
Ariel [She Wants the Diction]
The writing and narration were a 4; his ideas about race a 2. It appears Thomas Chatterton Williams and Ibram X. Kendi would be friends if they ever met. I can't tell you how tired I am of Black men telling me that the way to end racism is to just stop identifying as Black, period, because so many share this naive, idealistic delusion. In their minds, a "postracial society" is apparently right around the corner. While I admit Williams' arguments are far more compelling than Kendi's, the lane is ...more
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Thomas Chatterton Williams is the author of Losing My Cool and Self-Portrait in Black and White. He is a contributing writer at the New York Times Magazine, a 2019 New America Fellow and the recipient of a Berlin Prize. He lives in Paris with his wife and children.

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