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Self-Portrait in Black and White: Unlearning Race

3.99  ·  Rating details ·  91 ratings  ·  27 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
Hardcover, 192 pages
Published October 15th 2019 by W. W. Norton Company
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Bruce Katz
Oct 28, 2019 rated it liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
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
Jul 05, 2019 rated it it was ok
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
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 ...more
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
Sep 27, 2019 marked it as review-copies-to-read

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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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,
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.
Oct 17, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Williams is becoming a serial memoirist in the best sense: an extended essay, with lots of references to philosophical and sociological sources, on the idea of retiring from one's race. Adrian Piper is mentioned a lot.
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.
Tricia Sean
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Apr 15, 2019 marked it as to-read
Interest piqued by this:!
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
Nov 01, 2019 rated it really liked it
I got this the day it came out but just got around to reading it. From a philosophical standpoint, it goes in a different direction from current mainstream thought on race, and I always value anything that gives me a new perspective, regardless of whether I wind up agreeing with it or not. Yes, his ultimate position is naive, but he explicitly recognizes this and sees that naivete as profound, like that of a child who hasn't yet learned about (and been poisoned with) the culture's beliefs about ...more
Daniel Cuthbert
Oct 29, 2019 rated it really liked it
A short but certainly profound and, as the author acknowledges, provocative exploration of what race means and how society might find a way to unburden themselves from the complex constructs that have enveloped the topic. "Self-Portrait in Black and White: Unlearning Race" is a combination memoir of the author's own upbringing and the sort of internal reexamination he goes into when his child is born, who looks much more "white" than the author, who has always perceived himself as "black," and ...more
Oct 21, 2019 marked it as to-read
Shelves: wishlist
I don’t know if the book is worth reading, but this prepublication interview for the LA Review of Books is fascinating, arguing that race should not be the thing that defines us; it’s far more complicated than that. We are doing a great disservice to ourselves by concentrating so much on past and present inequalities and to reduce it down to racial terms does not reflect reality. Online outrage and campaigns for more representation on screen and literature for marginalised groups give a focus ...more
El C
Oct 30, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Williams appears on page 136 to attribute American slavery to Enlightenment(sic) rationalism. I find this to be a horrendous and scandalous claim given that enlightenment rationalism was believed to be a self-imposed constraint. Immanuel Kant, a liberal racist which seems appropriate considering Williams Self-Portrait might very well be also, limited rational inquiry to three questions in his critique of pure reason: "what can I know? What should I do? What can I hope for?". Enlightenment ...more
Naomi Raquel
Nov 18, 2019 rated it really liked it
On the whole, I recommend this book. It is a moving meditation on "race" and identity, and the ways in which American society is trapped in a vicious cycle when it comes to challenging systemic racism. Much of Williams's experiences resonated with me personally as I too am multiethnic and the dark-skinned, biological mother of a son presumed to be white. I have also written a book about my experience, Strength of Soul (2Leaf Press, April 2019) and felt comfort knowing I am not alone. I do think ...more
Sebastian Wocial
Nov 18, 2019 rated it really liked it
“The truth is that ideas matter. Our language, formal and informal alike, shapes our reality. The terminology we use and accept to be used matters. The images we make and allow to be made of ourselves matter, and each other, who we are, where we come from, and where we think we are going. If we really want to repair what is wrong in our society, it is going to require not just new policies or even new behaviors, but nothing less heroic than new ideas.”

If you like memoirs about identity;
Oct 08, 2019 rated it really liked it
Shelves: giveaways
This short book was well written and compelling. I was interested in Williams's point-of-view and his rationale for rejecting race as an arbitrary way to define humans. As he pointed out, in this time of finding your genetic makeup, it's clear that we're all a mix of many different cultures and others defining our "race" has more to do with our outward appearance than our genes. I don't agree with all Williams's points in this book, but I do know I will be thinking about race a little ...more
Nov 12, 2019 added it

It was difficult to make it through I didn't.
The premise was fairly intriguing, but the execution was disappointing. Thomas and I have very different conclusions when it comes to race and while Thomas recognized that he holds a good amount of privilege (that affords him avoidance in this case), it still doesn't quite settle with me that he attempts to erase the concept of race.
Of course, race is a construct. But claiming that does not work to undo the ways race/racism are
Jackie Wolfred
Nov 19, 2019 rated it really liked it
"Self-Portrait in Black and White" is a memoir by Thomas Chatterton Williams.

Fascinating memoir about the author's process in coming to terms with his place in his world. Very intense introspective narrative on his life. Reading this likewise, awakened introspective work in my own life albeit from a much different perspective.

Very thought-provoking.

I won a copy of this book in a Goodreads Giveaway.
Nov 01, 2019 rated it liked it
This book is worth reading simply because raises important questions about the entire concept of "race" in current discourse.

Ultimately, there is only one man, Jesus Christ, who can provide an enduring identity for us.
Oct 30, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Nov 03, 2019 rated it really liked it
Thought-provoking work that requires working through the ideas Williams presents.
Vikram Rao
Nov 21, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Excellent rumination on the contours of race, what they entail, and what they don’t entail in modern America.
Oct 21, 2019 rated it really liked it
A compelling and (dare I say) courageous book
Tom Mayer
rated it it was amazing
Aug 29, 2019
rated it it was amazing
Sep 01, 2019
rated it really liked it
Oct 21, 2019
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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.