20|11|16 Unlearning Race | Interview (livestream) with author Thomas Chatterton Williams
Unlearning Race | Interview (livestream) with author Thomas Chatterton Williams | Monday 16 November 2020 | 20.00-21.15 hrs | LUX, Nijmegen and online | Radboud Reflects and Radboud Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Office
"Heel erg genoten van dit gesprek juist in deze tijd. Thomas Chatterton Williams gaf een nieuw perspectief op mijn manier van kijken." (Uit een deelnemersevaluatie.)
Announcement - The American author and cultural critic Thomas Chatterton Williams spent his life believing the American dictum that having black heritage makes a person fundamentally black. Williams never questioned this idea, until his white, blonde-haired daughter was born. What of his black heritage still existed in his daughter? The birth of his daughter led him to put forth the idea that we should let go of the racial categories of black and white. But what are we actually talking about when we talk about ‘race’? In the light of the Black Lives Matter movement, are these categories not absolutely necessary? Come and listen to Thomas Williams about racism and why we should let go of the notion of ‘race’. See full announcement text below.
Aankondiging - De Amerikaanse schrijver en cultuurcriticus Thomas Chatterton Williams identificeerde zich altijd als zwarte man, die het binaire zwart-wit denken in termen van ras omarmde. Deze kijk op de wereld werd radicaal op de proef gesteld en veranderde toen hij een witte, blonde dochter kreeg. Hij stelt dat we het begrip ras moeten loslaten. Maar waar hebben we het over als we over ras spreken? En is het concept niet noodzakelijk in de strijd van bewegingen als Black Lives Matter? Kom luisteren naar Thomas Williams over racisme, onderdrukking en over het belang van loslaten van het begrip ras. Zie de volledige aankondigingstekst onderin.
Verslag/Review - Unlearning Race to learn Inclusion
It seems almost natural for us to distinguish between people based on the racial categories of black and white. But are we really aware of what these categories imply? Are they scientifically grounded? And what if by unlearning exactly this notion of race we could transcend racism? On Monday, 16 November, the American author and cultural critic Thomas Chatterton Williams, addressed these questions engaging in a conversation on the contemporary debate on race and racism with Rona Jualla van Oudenhoven, Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Strategist of Radboud University, and political scientist Tjidde Tempels.
From Within the Box to Outside of Categories
At the start of the interview Thomas Williams explained how he is the son of a black father from Texas and a white mother from California. Thomas and his brother were raised in what, from the outside, looked like a multiracial family. They, however, defined themselves as black and were regarded as black. They sticked in a box and identified themselves in it. At the age of thirty, Williams moved to Paris where he married a blonde French woman. There he gradually started to question the American one-drop logic that having black heritage makes a person fundamentally black. He struggled with this idea, his own sense of self, increasingly finding himself less convinced of the particular conception of race. Despite these struggles, Williams initially held on to the idea that no matter what his wife and children would look like, they would have been black, because black is a matter of choice, moral and culture. Yet, when his daughter was born the author felt forced to radically rethink his ideas of race. Seeing Marlow, his blonde and white daughter, he started to wonder what calling somebody white means: what did it meant for him to be black and for his daughter to come into being as white? These questions led Williams to write a memoir about how having a child changed his conception of race, arguing against race and racism.
Tearing the Veil of Race
When asked by Rona Jualla van Oudenhoven to summarise the essence of his book – Self-Portrait in Black and White: Unlearning Race – Williams answered that the only way in which he was able to move beyond some of the questions that he had asked himself for all his life, was to stop representing two different groups, namely black and white: “I started seeing the individual within the interaction.” People simply cannot be reduced to groups and what we need to do is try to look at them as individuals, without being blinded by the veil of race and otherness. The categories we are used to applying, come from a collision between Europe and Africa that ended up in a domination of the whiteness over the blackness. For Williams, holding on to the concept of race does nothing but strengthen this logic of domination, only further enhancing its unjust structure.
Race is Biologically Meaningless
In the conversation with Rona Jualla van Oudenhoven, Thomas Williams stressed how the concept of race is biologically meaningless: it is something elastic and changeable. He gave the example of whiteness expansion in America. In the 1900s, Italians, Jewish, etc., were not considered white. Only later on, in the ‘50s and the ‘60s, these groups were included in the idea of monolithic whiteness. Moreover, he pointed out how scientists have shown that race categories are only popularly conceived and that there is no difference between groups on a biological level. Whereas we cannot deny ancestry, Williams argued, it is not possible to meet someone on the street and say something valuable and biologically relevant about them using the concept of race. In a society like America, it is even ridiculous to talk about different races. There are millions of Americans that consider themselves white, while still having a black ancestry, a large group of invisible, so called, “black DNA”. That is why, when we try to get what makes somebody black, race disperses and blackness becomes a matter of choice and culture, the author argued.
A Social Mirror of the Self
The problem of the tension between self-identity and society was introduced by Rona Jualla van Oudenhoven. The notion of the self, occupies a central role in Williams’s book where the inner conflict is evident. But, what role does society play? In answering this question, Thomas underlined the fact that one’s identity is never just what one thinks of themselves: “it is a negotiation of what you think and what society reflects back on you.” While living in France, it became clear to the author that what he thought of himself was different from how he was understood by society. This clearly means that race is also socially constructed.
Towards a World of Inclusion
At the end of interview Williams pointed out that we have to pay attention to the notion of race and have to carefully analyse racism without downplaying it. But, at the same time, we have to keep our eyes on the society we want to build. This society, Thomas said, is not a society in which we are all equal in the separation from each other. Rather, it is a universal group that shares the same values. We do not want a world where every group works for its own interest, we want a world with a universal aim. A world where we encounter each other on equal terms, transcending stereotypes. Movements like the Black Lives Matter are just short-term victories. Black people get disproportionally killed by police, but still, what we should be concerned with is the fact that no American should be killed by police. Moreover, George Floyd case is also racial, but not only racial. The author stressed that we should also pay attention to the underlying class differences that lie at the heart of structural injustices in society. We need to share a set of universal values that is valid for all.
How can we move towards a world like this? On this, both Rona and Thomas agreed: we have to change things through debate, deliberation and discussion. People have to be able to speak freely, they have to be able to say what they really think and be confident to be heard when talking about race. White people are finally trying to understand questions of racism and what it means to be black, of colour, or Muslim. Williams and Van Oudenhoven ended on a positive note, by stating that the fact that people are now finally engaging in these conversations and asking these questions is in fact really hopeful.
This report is written by Sabrina De Biasio as part of the Research Master Philosophy at Radboud University.
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The American author and cultural critic Thomas Chatterton Williams spent his life believing the American dictum that having black heritage makes a person fundamentally black. Williams never questioned this idea, until his white, blonde-haired daughter was born. What of his black heritage still existed in his daughter? The birth of his daughter led him to put forth the idea that we should let go of the racial categories of black and white. But what are we actually talking about when we talk about ‘race’? In the light of the Black Lives Matter movement, are these categories not absolutely necessary? Come and listen to Thomas Williams about racism and why we should let go of the notion of ‘race’.
Williams emphasizes that there is no such thing as a biological ‘race’. The idea that people with different skin colors biologically differ from each other is disproven by science. Instead, racial categories were invented by white people to legitimize slavery and violence against black people. In the contemporary public debate, we are asked to reflect on the racial categories of black and white. These categories are becoming more and more important, but also lead to polarization. Williams decided to no longer categorize himself as a black man, and he urges everyone to also let go of the idea of ‘race’. He argues that we can only transcend racism if we learn to ‘unlearn’ the idea of ‘race’.
Culture and identity
Williams sheds a different light on the dominant discourse about race and identity. At the same time, his position raises questions: to what extent is it possible to let go of the notion of ‘race’, since being black is for many people an essential part of their culture and identity? Which groups would benefit from letting go of racial categories? What is Williams’ view on the Black Lives Matter movement? And how important is the notion of ‘race’ in fighting structural racism, injustice and suppression?
Privilege and justice
During this evening Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Strategist Rona Jualla van Oudenhoven will engage in a conversation with Thomas Chatterton Williams about his book Unlearning Race and the contemporary debate about racism. Together with a scholar of Radboud University we will talk with Williams about race, privilege, racism and the (un)desirability of letting go of the categories of black and white.
About the Speakers
Thomas Chatterton Williams is an American cultural critic and publicist. He studied philosophy and cultural journalism and was a fellow at Bard College (NY) and The American Institute in Berlin.. He writes about racism, identity and politics and published the books Losing my Cool (2011) and Self-Portrait in Black and White: Unlearning Race (2019).
Rona Jualla van Oudenhoven is a sociologist and works as the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Strategist of Radboud University. Before, she was Director Diversity and Inclusion at Durham College and worked as an international development consultant.
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De Amerikaanse schrijver en cultuurcriticus Thomas Chatterton Williams identificeerde zich altijd als zwarte man, die het binaire zwart-wit denken in termen van ras omarmde. Deze kijk op de wereld werd radicaal op de proef gesteld en veranderde toen hij een witte, blonde dochter kreeg. Hij stelt dat we het begrip ras moeten loslaten. Maar waar hebben we het over als we over ras spreken? En is het concept niet noodzakelijk in de strijd van bewegingen als Black Lives Matter? Kom luisteren naar Thomas Williams over racisme, onderdrukking en over het belang van loslaten van het begrip ras.
Williams vraagt zich af waarom we aan onwetenschappelijke raciale categorieën zouden vasthouden, terwijl er biologisch niet zoiets bestaat als het witte of het zwarte ras. Hij stelt dat we ons door dergelijke concepten vasthouden aan oude onderdrukkende narratieven die bedoeld waren om de slavernij te rechtvaardigen. In het huidige maatschappelijk debat worden we juist opgeroepen om na te denken over de categorieën zwart en wit, maar dit leidt ook tot polarisatie in de samenleving. Williams kiest ervoor om zichzelf niet langer te categoriseren als zwart en pleit ervoor om het begrip ras volledig los te laten. Alleen op die manier kunnen we volgens Williams voorbij het probleem van racisme komen.
Cultuur en identiteit
Williams biedt een alternatief perspectief binnen het dominante discours over ras en identiteit. Tegelijkertijd roepen zijn ideeën ook vragen op: in hoeverre is het mogelijk om een dergelijke begrip niet meer te hanteren, aangezien voor sommigen zwartheid of witheid een essentieel onderdeel van hun cultuur en identiteit is. Is het voor bepaalde groepen van kleur wel wenselijk om een dergelijk idee los te laten? Hoe denkt Williams over Black Lives Matter? Is het begrip ‘ras’ niet van juist belang in de politieke strijd tegen structurele en historische onrechtvaardigheden, racisme en onderdrukking?
Privilege en rechtvaardigheid
Tijdens de avond gaat programmamanager Diversiteit, gelijkheid en inclusie Rona Jualla van Oudenhoven in gesprek met Thomas Chatterton Williams over zijn boek Unlearning Race en het huidige racismedebat. Samen met een wetenschapper van de Radboud Universiteit spreken we verder over ras, privilege, en racisme en de (on)wenselijkheid van het loslaten van het idee van zwartheid en witheid.
De voertaal is Engels.
Over de sprekers
Thomas Chatterton Williams is publicist en cultuurcriticus. Hij studeerde filosofie en cultuurwetenschappen en was verbonden aan Bard College (NY) en The American Academy in Berlijn. Hij schrijft over kwesties rondom ras, identiteit en politiek. Hij is de auteur van de boeken Losing my Cool (2011) en Self-Portait in Black & White (2019).
Rona Jualla van Oudenhoven is socioloog en programmamanager diversiteit, gelijkheid en inclusie aan de Radboud Universiteit. Voorheen had ze een vergelijkbare functie aan Durham College en werkte ze als consultant op het gebied van internationale ontwikkeling.
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