The alternative to identity politics

The Atlantic published an interesting piece today titled “Unraveling Race.” The focus is a writer named Thomas Chatterton Williams, an American living in Paris who has written a new memoir which raises some fundamental questions about race. Williams’ father is black and his mother is white but he grew up with the idea that he would always be considered black, at least in America. And in high school he found himself embracing some of what he thought that meant:

Williams loved being black as a kid––like the father he idolized, like the victims rather than the perpetrators of American slavery, and like the athletes and entertainers he most revered. At 7, he read The Autobiography of Malcolm X. In middle school, he discovered that projecting aggression on the playground and the basketball court gave him a seductive sense of power over white classmates. Throughout high school, he mimicked hip-hop artists he saw on bet, reveling in their vision of “keeping it real.” And he was influenced by that milieu’s misogyny.

His attitude changed in college and changed most dramatically after he married a white, French woman and had his first child. His first born, a daughter named Marlow, had blonde hair and blue eyes:

“A year before Valentine got pregnant, I published an essay in the New York Times defining my future children as unassailably black,” he wrote, words that later made him wince, because Marlow’s birth changed everything. “The sight of this blond-haired, blue-eyed, impossibly fair-skinned child shocked me—along with the knowledge that she was indubitably mine,” he explains. “The reality of Marlow’s appearance had rendered my previous ‘one-drop’ stance ridiculous in my own eyes. When I look at my daughter now, I see another facet of myself, I see my own inimitable child. But I also know that most people who meet her will––and will want to––call her ‘white.’”

Suddenly the racial expectations Williams had were dashed and he wondered if there was any long-term value in the concept of race. He decided that ultimately, whiteness and blackness were two side of the same coin. You can’t eliminate one without also be willing to give up the other:

“I will no longer enter into the all-American skin game that demands you select a box and define yourself by it,” he writes. He sees whiteness as a disastrous illusion undergirding all aspects of race, so whether an essentialist belief in it “results from vicious bigotry or well-meaning anti-racism,” it must be overcome. So too must “the proud and resilient identities that formed in reaction to it,” since whiteness and blackness are both built on pernicious falsehoods. They must rise or fall, persist or give way, together. “I am not renouncing my blackness and going on about my day,” he emphasizes. “I am rejecting the legitimacy of the entire racial construct in which blackness functions as one orienting pole.”

Doing so is necessary not only to vanquish racism, Williams thinks, but also to permit all people to become themselves, which he casts as a reward at the end of the path he is urging all readers to take. “At various points in my own life, I have been laughed at scathingly for calling myself black,” he writes. “More recently I have been berated for rejecting the label. Both reactions are less than comfortable, but such discomfort may simply be, for now and the foreseeable future, the occasional levy placed against the act of self-definition. I think it is more than worth it.”

Conor Friedersdorf, who wrote the Atlantic piece, points out how this view is nearly the opposite of the identity politics which are currently fashionable on American college campuses. He questions whether the identity politics project of people like Robin DiAngelo (pictured above), which is to make white people accept that their identity is inherently problematic, is likely to ever succeed.

Many societies have existed without the categories of white and black as they are now understood in the United States, whereas a prominent strain of anti-racist thought in academia, corporate America, and beyond aims at something that has never happened in history: to convince a rising generation of light-skinned Americans that whiteness is both core to their identity and “problematic.” In such circles, the statement “There is only one race, the human race” is deemed a microaggression and white people are expected to have a self-critical, if not self-loathing, relationship to their racial group.

For two decades, the academic and author Robin DiAngelo has been paid by colleges, private corporations, nonprofits, and government entities to teach audiences a kind of “whiteness studies.” She is treated as an expert by national networks and the public broadcasters NPR and PBS…

I find it highly improbable that fair-skinned Americans will not only put whiteness at the center of how they understand the world, identifying with it so constantly that it governs their every interaction with people of color, but also regard themselves as racist, regardless of their awareness or intentions, and perpetually strive to atone for that unchosen sinful condition, even as they move from majority to minority demographic status in the United States. That all strikes me as much more naive and much less likely to succeed than anything urged in Self-Portrait in Black and White.

As I’ve written before, I don’t think this is likely to work. It’s far more likely that some portion of whites, after being clobbered over the head with the idea that race is fundamental to identity, will simply concede the point. The result will be the rise of some kind of white identity politics that is currently a space occupied by a fairly small fringe of neo-Nazis. In other words, this seems likely to backfire rather than to achieve racial harmony. It also suffers from the problem that it has no limiting criteria. The racial self-incrimination doesn’t have an end point.

Alternatively, the idea Williams is proposing seems like the ultimate fulfillment of Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream, i.e. a place where character matters and race really doesn’t or doesn’t have to. An America where people are seen as individuals rather than members of a group seems like a better America. It also seems like a very American ideal, built on the recognition of every person as an individual.

What the Atlantic piece suggests that I don’t think is often pointed out is that taking this alternative path requires minorities to abandon that “seductive sense of power” that comes from the group identity. Identity politics and intersectionality feed the belief that group identity is fundamentally important while Williams’ approach suggests it’s ultimately getting in the way of something better. But to people like Robin DiAngelo, any dispute of her premises is just and example of white fragility and to be ignored. Her outlook is toxic because it doesn’t leave any room for discussion on an issue where it is still needed.