Do you identify by the color of your skin? Do you identify others by the color of theirs? If you do either, is it the only way you identify yourself and others?
Thomas Chatterton Williams asserts that, no matter how you answer the first two questions, the answer to the last is most definitely no. In his compelling memoir, “Self-Portrait in Black and White: Unlearning Race,” Williams traces his own experience as a mixed-race son of a black man and a white woman and of his awareness of his daughter’s whiteness as the child he conceived with his white wife.
His daughter’s birth, he explains in his book, shocked him when he first took note of her blond hair and fair skin. From a culture that imposed the “one drop” rule, he had assumed that his daughter would be identifiable as “black,” just as he was identified as “black” by the bully in grade school who called him a “little fucking monkey.” His daughter’s birth led him to a reconsideration of his assumption, pressed on him by his father and that grade school bully, that he was a black man, and that he had to identify himself as such.
Williams intends his memoir to be instructional. In it, he comes to grips with his own identity through his daughter and proclaims himself to be “post-racial” even as he urges society to reject the non-biological labels of skin-color based racial distinctions.
He begins by considering the biology of the matter. His skin color is, in fact, so “un-black” that in France, where he and his wife live, he is most often thought to be an Arab. That point leads him to contemplate the skin color designation more deeply. Do Arabs (e.g., Saudis and Egyptians) have black skin? Do South Asians (e.g., Indians and Pakistanis)? Or are people from those parts of the world identified by some other color? Latin Americans are deemed to be “brown,” but there, too, the color designation is more often a falsity, as some Latinx have skin that is at least as white as the skin of many “white” Americans.
From a purely physical perspective, identification by skin color is at least open to factual dispute since the color of one’s skin is rarely, if ever, purely one color. Among those classified as “white,” for example, are the very fair skinned descendants from the Nordic and Scandinavian countries at one extreme and those from the region of Mesopotamia whose skin, like mine, is more an olive color, if not even darker.
Even in America, where the word “black” is seemingly less subject to misinterpretation, isn’t the skin of some black people, even those whose ancestors were African, considerably lighter than others? Are they less “black” as a result? At what point can they be considered not really “black” at all? Williams realized soon after his daughter’s birth that these questions didn’t have a meaningful answer. In fact, if the “one drop” rule has merit, then everyone may be “black,” since the human race is thought to have been born in the heart of Africa, making all of us, as Michael Arlen noted in “Passage to Ararat,” “kin to begin with.”
And so, Williams concludes, to identify by the color of one’s skin is biologically unsupportable. And, he asserts, it should be sociologically viewed as equally untenable. But having reached that conclusion, he is then stuck with the reality of the prejudice and bigotry that is directed at people of color. He experienced it as a child, and he acknowledges that even his daughter may experience it if/when her one-quarter “black” ancestry is discovered by the society in which she lives.
Williams doesn’t really offer a magical solution for his daughter (and the son he and his wife subsequently conceived). Instead, he preaches for an awakening to a post-racial world, one in which the only race that anyone identifies with is the human race.
But would his solution really solve the problem for those who suffer from prejudice and the structural disadvantages that exist in America today? Haven’t irrational attitudes based on perceived differences always been part of the human condition? Skin color is but one way that we discriminate and create barriers for those who are different. Religious beliefs (the cause of most of the genocides of the last century) are certainly another, as are sexual orientations, gender identifications, ethnic identities and national origins. Levels of wealth (or castes, as Isabel Wilkerson now argues in “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents”) have certainly been a basis for destructive prejudice for most of recorded history. Even body shapes and sizes are prone to engender demeaning prejudice. I think thin is once again in, but in past eras roundness was considered a sign of the good life and those who lacked a requisite amount of avoirdupois were considered inferior.
Most hateful prejudice is irrational. To focus on skin color, as movements like Black Lives Matter do, only makes the irrationality seem credible. We may not be able to ignore skin color differences, but we also don’t need to accentuate them, as the BLM movement seems to insist on doing. Is it really offensive to say that all lives matter? Obviously, it’s offensive if in saying so, the speaker is seeking to dismiss the unjust prejudice towards people with “black” skin. But wouldn’t it be a better world if by saying all lives matter, the speaker was rejecting skin color prejudice and all other forms of irrational distinctions between humans as well?
Mr. Williams seeks such a society. In doing so, he is seeking no more than Martin Luther King, Jr., James Baldwin, and W.E.B. Du Bois, among many other civil rights leaders, sought.
“I have a dream,” King said in his 1963 Lincoln Memorial speech, “that … children will one day … not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
“You have to decide who you are,” Baldwin wrote, “and force the world to deal with you, not with its idea of you.”
And Du Bois, before them both, had said, “I believe all men, black, brown, and white, are brothers.”
Today the search for skin color acceptance is represented by Black Lives Matter. In an earlier struggle the cry was “Black is beautiful,” which then became “Black Pride” and, ultimately an angrier cry of “Black Power.” The struggle will continue after BLM has morphed into yet another attempt to gain acceptance based on skin color.
Meanwhile, attitudes do change. Not cataclysmically, but incrementally. Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s skin color barrier in 1947. Football and basketball eventually followed suit. Today, athletes who identify as black are dominant players in most sports and certainly face no barriers in being paid mega-bucks for their talent.
In 1947 the color of one’s skin could limit severely any thought of holding elected office. Today people of color hold positions in the legislative, executive and judicial branches of government in every region of the country. People of color are still highly under-represented at the top levels of Fortune 500 companies, but, even there, attitudes are changing. Ditto the entertainment industry and most other areas of life.
Indeed, the progress in civil rights that has, in fact, been achieved over the last 75 years makes the lives that people of color lived three quarters of a century ago almost unrecognizable in relation to the lives that people of color live now.
Is it enough? Certainly not. And continuing incidents of police brutality directed at people whose skin color is dark understandably enrage those who feel aggrieved by past injustices to earlier generations.
But wouldn’t it be strategically more effective to include people of all colors in the fight against police brutality? Indeed, wouldn’t it be more effective to demand equality of treatment in all areas of life for everyone, irrespective of skin color.
Why focus on skin color when people also suffer discrimination in many parts of the world for a multitude of different characteristics. People are discriminated against for being gay, or for being a woman, or for being a Muslim (or Hindu or Jewish or name your religion), or for being Polish (or Irish or Italian or name your country), or for being disabled, or for being short, or bald-headed, or “unattractive” (whatever that means).
Ultimately, can’t everyone identify a characteristic or feature that elicits cruel and irrational prejudice? Why not make the cause one of universal acceptance, instead of one of isolation in a specific type of identity? Wouldn’t the fight for social justice be much more widely accepted and joined if those seeking it included everyone?
People of color—especially, in America, people with darker skin—have every right to feel aggrieved by the injustices they suffer or are prone to suffer in a society that places them in an institutionally inferior position. But institutionally-based systemic injustice can be more effectively fought on a broader scale by being more inclusive of those who are victimized.
Police brutality can be better fought if the emphasis is on the brutality instead of the victim of the brutality. Corporate glass ceilings can be shattered more effectively if the emphasis is on the ceiling instead of the specific individual stuck under it. Inferior education can be attacked and remedies for it more effectively sought if the emphasis is on the poor results instead of on specific communities of children who suffer from it. Equal rights can be more meaningfully asserted if the emphasis is on the rights denied as opposed to any specific group of people who are denied the rights.
Instead, the current strategy seems short-sighted, if not entirely misguided. Emphasizing differences pushes groups apart. Focusing on similarities brings groups together. Black Lives Matter may be a rallying cry to those who identify with that skin color, but it is likely to be offensive, if not threatening, to those who are implicitly accused of skin-color prejudice when they fail to acknowledge “systemic racism” in their institutions. Defund the Police may be meant to have a nuanced meaning, but it sounds like an invitation to lawlessness and anarchy to people who see stores trashed and burned in violent protests and who just want to feel safe and secure in their homes.
We can’t change the color of our skins, and we can’t avoid noticing that people have different skin colors. What we can do is learn to think no more of skin color than we do of hair color or any other physical characteristic. Prejudices will always exist. The goal should be to eliminate the destructive aspects of their existence.
It may not be realistic to dream of a society that is “color blind,” but the society that Reverend King, Mr. Baldwin and Mr. Du Bois all sought would be such a society. Reducing the emphasis on skin color, either as a basis for prejudice or as a means of fighting that prejudice, will greatly enhance the realization of their dream. And, as Mr. Williams proclaims, identifying as “post-racial” is a step we can all take, irrespective of the specific color of our skin.
Because, after all, we were all kin to begin with.