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Self-Portrait in Black and White: Unlearning Race

4.01  ·  Rating details ·  131 ratings  ·  36 reviews

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 multi-generational transformation from what is called black to what is assumed to be white. Thomas Chatterton Williams, the son of a 'black' father from the segregated South and a 'white' mother from the West, spent his whole life

Kindle Edition, 192 pages
Published October 17th 2019 by JM Originals (first published October 15th 2019)
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Bruce Katz
Oct 28, 2019 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Angel Eduardo
Nov 20, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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,
Jul 05, 2019 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Nov 17, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
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
Nov 28, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
A convincing argument for “retiring from race” while still acknowledging & valuing human differences. Right up there with Fields & Fields’ Racecraft. Highly recommended.

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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Nov 04, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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 27, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
A lie always has clear boundaries. If someone tells a lie and wants to make it convincing, they need to wall off the real evidence from encroaching upon their claim, and if they can't, the whole thing falls apart. Truth, on the other hand, sprawls in all directions, and when the subject is genuinely important, no one can neatly tie up all of the loose ends.

Williams is attempting to present a big truth about race that does not fit easily into familiar American historical narratives, and it also
Williams writes about the personal and public conundrum of racial identity with stunning clarity and beauty. (It didn’t have to be so beautifully written, but it was!) Easily the most thought-provoking book I’ve read all year. I want to talk about it with everyone I meet. Many thanks to my good friend who eagerly pressed a copy into my hands. I’d like to do the same for others.
Oct 19, 2019 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
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  ·  review of another edition
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.
Nov 01, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Vikram Rao
Nov 21, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Excellent rumination on the contours of race, what they entail, and what they don’t entail in modern America.
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  ·  review of another edition
Interest piqued by this:!
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
Daniel Cuthbert
Oct 29, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
I am just going to leave this quote here -- the book was fascinating and deeply flawed, both personally true and largely missing a bigger cultural context.


"Self-Portrait wants to be two things at once: a call to arms against the constricting power of race as an identity, which Williams calls a “philosophical and imaginative disaster,” as well as a follow-up to his 2010 memoir, Losing My Cool. As such, the new book discusses his incredibly specific
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
Oct 21, 2019 marked it as to-read  ·  review of another edition
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
Naomi Raquel
Nov 18, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
El C
Oct 30, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
Dec 01, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2019, 2019-book-bingo
This was a short book, but even as I read it it sometimes felt too long. The author ended up in a seemingly endless fight with himself about what it means to be a light skinned, mixed race (but does race exist?) person, father to two seemingly unquestionably white children (with a white mother and a biracial father). He rightly (it seems to me, given that as a species we share 99.9% of our DNA with each other) regards race as a cultural or social construct, but offers no way towards ...more
Dec 09, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This beautiful, challenging, collection of essays is one of the best books I have read this year. Williams lives in Paris, has a "white" mother, wife, daughter, and son, and a "black" father, which makes him look at race differently from the way we tend to think of it in America, which is that anyone with a little bit of black blood in their family line is "black." Taking on black male intellectual's propensity for marrying white women, his white cousin's Facebook thoughts about police brutality ...more
Oct 08, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Sebastian Wocial
Nov 18, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
“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;

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
Justin Norman
Nov 25, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: politics
This was a great read that offers a much-needed perspective on race in today's race-obsessed culture. The author paints a moving portrait of his childhood and his own experience with different varieties of racism, working toward his conclusion that we would be better off not attaching people's identity to their race labels. After all, race labels often come bundled with stereotypes and fail to communicate much of anything about the complicated people to which they're applied.

Fascinatingly, his
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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.