Schrödinger’s Black Man

After much debate, the leaders of the United States calculated an enslaved Black person’s life to be worth three-fifths of a free (mostly white) person’s life. The fourteenth amendment ended this miscarriage of human rights in 1868, over 80 years later.

Of course, Black people still weren’t full citizens until the 1960s. It took another 100 years for Black people to gain the same agency that is and should be bestowed upon every American citizen when they are born. It took America almost three centuries to see that what they were looking at wasn’t three-fifths of a human or seven-eighths of a human, but a full human. The full image of a Black person had finally come into focus.

In Thomas Chatterton Williams’s Self-Portrait in Black and White, he quotes Albert Murray who says, “But any fool can see that the white people are not really white, and that black people are not black.” Presumably, anybody could see that Black people were never three-fifths of a human and yet that was how Black Americans were treated for over 80 years. The question we have to ask ourselves now is, when we (you, they) look at Black people, what do we (you, they) see?

A particle

Before Self-Portrait, Williams wrote Losing My Cool in which he traces a direct line from hip-hop to his youthful indiscretions. Coming from a stable two-parent, middle-class family, the only explanation for his distorted worldview is hip-hop. The reason Williams hits his girlfriend in high school or can’t identify a baguette at a supermarket while at university is because of the narrow worldview that hip-hop has given him. He’s not a victim of white supremacy or a victim of economic blight or the intersection of both, rather he’s a victim of a misogynistic culture that nearly undid the parenting of his dedicated father and mother.

Art as influencer is an argument that has been used to explain school shootings (Marilyn Manson), devil worship (Slayer) and cop killings (Ice-T) among other crimes and misdemeanors. While it’s true that hip-hop (and other genres and forms of media) has corrosive elements, a person’s individual identity and upbringing are more likely to be indicators of whether or not they do drugs or know the name of French cheeses. If white supremacy cannot be used as an excuse for all of the problems of Black people then hip-hop shouldn’t be used either, not if individual autonomy is believed to exist.

Poring over Losing My Cool it is quite difficult to find positive descriptions of Black Americans besides Williams’s father who is by all accounts a remarkable man. In the book there isn’t a single Black American Williams encounters at Union Catholic High School or Georgetown University or Howard University that hasn’t been infected by the cultural disease of hip-hop. Williams’s high school friend Charles goes to university, gets an opportunity to study at Cambridge, graduates from said university magna cum laude and gets a job at JP Morgan, and yet he is still described by Williams as being culturally poisoned. To be sure Charles is a misogynist and a capitalist but is that unique to Black Americans or hip-hop? The United States has done a first-rate job of creating an anti-intellectual populace obsessed with money and fond of mistreating women regardless of race. The #MeToo movement has exposed powerful men, who have absolutely zero affiliation with hip-hop, to be some of the worst misogynists in US history.

It’s not to say that these misdeeds shouldn’t be cataloged and called out; it is to say that Williams could have thought about these problems in the context of the culture at large. He could have considered that his narrow worldview might have more to do with provincialism (to borrow a word he uses) than with a music genre. And so, Losing My Cool does not really work as a critique of hip-hop. As a non-fiction bildungsroman it’s fine. Williams repeats throughout both books that he is a memoirist. In the memories of his formative years he encountered almost no like-minded Black people. At the end of the book Williams comes across a man wearing expensive clothing similar to something his college friend Playboy might wear. The man sees Williams and quotes lyrics from a hip-hop song. Williams’s interpretation of the encounter:

“…as flush with resources and credit as he may have been, he was actually living the inane lyrics of a rap song as unthinkingly and literal- mindedly as the most hard- core and insulated thug. Of course, I immediately recognized the song he was quoting because I also listen to the music. I don’t think it’s possible to shut your eyes and ears completely to a culture as pervasive and aesthetically seductive as hip- hop — and I wonder whether it would even be desirable to do that. I don’t fault this man for being aware of what is simply around him. I do, though, find myself contemplating and feeling sorry for the guy. It is precisely this intangible smallness of mind and inability to transcend skin- deep superficiality, this moral childishness and sheepish conformity, that is the root problem in black life today and the true subject of this book.”

Williams himself knew the song but he didn’t interact with it the way this man did, or so Williams assumes because he doesn’t actually talk to the man. He doesn’t know anything about the man other than the fact that he too knows the lyrics to a hip-hop song. He simply assumes that this man is like all of the other millennial Black men that Williams has encountered. Earlier in the book Williams talks about the fact that Black people don’t listen to hip-hop ironically like his white friends do. In Williams’s estimation Black people are either unwilling or incapable of performing this task. He, however, is capable of said task. He is capable of listening to the music but not becoming the music, of being in the culture but not of it.

Williams’s tone changes in the second book. He acknowledges his status. Williams admits that he isn’t “subaltern” and he acknowledges colorism and class throughout Self-Portrait. Age and experience have clarified his viewpoints and softened his tone. The premise of Self-Portrait is better than the premise of the first book as well: Racism is a construct created by the same powers who shaped racist policies in their own self-interests. Self-Portrait posits that by eradicating race we will eradicate racism as well as racist policies.

It is a passive solution to a problem that has only gotten better with direct action: policy change brought about by demonstrations or protests or lawful seizure of political power. This progress only happened as a result of people organizing themselves into groups to fight for their group’s rights and representation. For people who already feel they have rights and representations, many would probably be happy to adopt nonracial status or they would unwittingly adopt it or they have unwittingly adopted it. There are also racial groups that could renounce their race and retain a cultural identity that is closely related to their race (i.e. a former Asian person might identify exclusively as Chinese, a former white person might identify as Pennsylvania Dutch and Irish, etc.). It would be different for Black Americans who often can’t trace back their roots without the aid of technology.

So, convincing individual people is possible but will it change the power structure? Why would the power structure change because of a passive admission? The power structure has a vested interest in maintaining the status quo. People suddenly declaring that race doesn’t exist would have the same effect that going off the gold standard did: nothing. Many, many people realized the fundamental absurdity of unbacked, paper currency (which is slowly but surely going extinct and being replaced by the-even-more-farcical digital currency) but it hasn’t shaken up the world’s financial system. The knowledge of this illusion does nothing because there are benefits to keeping up the charade. For the people who benefit from racist policies, there is reason to keep up the illusion with or without the cooperation of the subjugated.

The people most hurt by racist policies aren’t just Black or people of color, they are very often from low economic classes. Williams admits that it might not be feasible for people who are economically at the lower rungs of society to follow his example in exactly the same way: “I’m not denying the practical impossibility of transcendence for my enslaved ancestors or even for Spivak’s contemporary subaltern.” What good is a strategy to end racism that doesn’t start with ending it for the people who are most exposed to and hurt by it?

Self-Portrait does offer practical advice for Black people in higher economic classes. The chapter “Marrying Out” focuses on Black people marrying outside of their race and the stigmas attached to it. People should have the right to marry whomever they love but it’s one thing to accept interracial relationships and another thing to promote them. If it’s wrong or shortsighted or racist to encourage people to marry inside of their race how can it be okay to encourage people in the opposite direction? At the end of the chapter Williams says, “…is it possible that marrying out, if shorn of any belief in or aspiration to “whiteness,” could be a useful, even indispensable part of the solution to the quagmire of racism without race? The answer to all, I believe, is, Yes.” This does not sound like encouraging people to love who they want, it sounds like a suggestion to destroy racism by marrying people from other races and that seems to be putting the cart before the horse. One would hope that freedom to love and marry whomever one desires would come from acceptance and growth and not from facing a reality in which a “white-beige population” is the majority. Williams mentions the work of professor Ralph Richard Banks whose 2011 book argues that Black women, who have the lowest marriage rate in America, ought to consider looking outside of their race for marriage. Banks has data that supports these ideas. Even in this era of Big Data, however, numbers have limitations. Ideally matters of the heart should be left to the heart. Teaching people that they can love whomever they want should be enough. Creating a strategy to beige the population feels like dystopian overreach.

But Williams does want to help. He believes that his strategy for ridding the world of racism is better than the strategy of “woke” anti-racists. According to Williams those anti-racists and their white supremacist counterparts share an ideological belief that race is real. While this is true it seems disingenuous to conflate anti-racists acceptance of a system that was forced on them with white supremacists’ creation, manipulation and perpetuation of said system.

Racism devalues the lives of the people it demeans, it makes them less than a person. In order to rid the world of race and racism, the systems and institutions and racists and white supremacists and bigots of all shapes, sizes and shades have to change the way they view the person in front of them. They have to decide if what is in front of them is a full person or something less than that. Artificially and prematurely exiting the “all-American skin game” will do nothing for the people left behind in the trenches. These will be the people lost by racism’s intersections with various other societal problems, notably class. Fighting for equal rights for all citizens regardless of their race, income, sexual orientation or gender is important, but not doing more for people who are disproportionately affected by racist policies is tantamount to erasure.

For the people who depend on the culture to survive, abandonment by the Black middle class would be disastrous. Williams acknowledges that under today’s political climate banding together has its benefits. Beyond the political, there is the fact that the culture sustains people, it keeps their spirits from breaking, it keeps people going, through the hard times. The culture, for many, is the thing that keeps their body from being torn asunder.

By his own admission, Williams has never been part of the subaltern and from reading his first book it’s obvious that he didn’t find much of contemporary Black culture useful or intriguing or worthwhile. In that context, it makes sense that he would be willing to relinquish his Blackness. Holding on to a Black identity does not enhance Williams’s inner life. A person who finds more value in contemporary Blackness might have a tougher time in renouncing their race. Presumably they are looking at the same thing as Williams and seeing something different.

A wave

A piece in The Atlantic by Conor Friedersdorf contained an interesting snippet that the memoirist later tweeted as a screenshot:

“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 naïve and much less likely to succeed than anything urged in Self-Portrait in Black and White.”

There are three things this statement asserts. First, the prevailing notion is that the introspective exercise of thinking about one’s privilege (in this case whiteness) isn’t, doesn’t and needn’t be applied by other groups of people, ex: that Black people don’t need to look at their relations to race and privilege. Every person in the world should be doing this, but especially in an economically-advanced, multicultural society that values tolerance. If the U.S.A. believes itself to be a tolerant nation shouldn’t its citizens be asking themselves if they are truly being tolerant when they make prejudiced jokes or vote for politicians or support legislation that hurts people outside of their race, ethnicity or sexual orientation?

It might be naïve to think that every single person will become racially tolerant, but it is equally naïve to think every person will stop identifying themselves by race. And what happens if they do? When people stop being Black and white they’ll still be Catholic and Buddhist, rich and poor, gay and straight, male and female, and all of the things in between and outside of those narrow categories. The plan for teaching tolerance with regards to other differences can’t possibly be eliminating the language that describes those differences. Surely teaching people to recognize their status and respect differences makes more sense.

Second, white people will be unwilling to do the necessary work to rid the nation, once and for all of racism. The issue here seems to be threefold: racist white people won’t care, some non-racist white people will feel victimized for being called racist (classist, sexist, etc.), and not every white person needs to declare their whiteness and think about it constantly. Similar arguments could be made against becoming non-racial: racist white people will ignore the idea and non-racist white people will probably be ambivalent about the idea. Ultimately both ideas are naïve; an end to racism is almost impossible to imagine and therefore difficult to accomplish. Whichever strategy is adopted will be far from foolproof.

Third, white people have to atone for an unchosen sinful condition. It suggests that this atonement is unjust or that people could feel that it is unjust. This is a sticking point in many modern debates about race. Many white people feel they haven’t done anything wrong. Additionally, some “woke” anti-racists have put the onus completely on white people without holding others accountable.

On Williams’s Twitter he mentioned Ibram X. Kendi, not as a person who expects white people to do all the work of eradicating racism, but as somebody who has a competing ideology. Looking him up his work seemed to be adjacent to but different from Williams’s work. As an anti-racist, I wondered if Kendi held non-white people accountable.

Kendi’s book, How to Be an Anti-Racist, represents the more accepted position of American liberals, especially the younger and more radical or progressive (depending on how you define those terms) sect of liberals. Kendi makes intersectionality a cornerstone of his book. It’s through the prism of intersectionality that he argues that the best way to defeat racism and prejudice of any kind is to identify racism and prejudice of every kind at a national and individual level and then rid people and the country of those malignant strains. In this regard Kendi has Williams beat; even if one believes Williams has a better plan for eliminating one type of racism, he does not have a plan, not in his book at least, as comprehensive as Kendi’s plan for defeating all of the prejudices which intersect with racism.

That comprehensive plan would fall apart if it didn’t require the introspection of every member of society. However, How to Be an Anti-Racist holds everyone accountable. It acknowledges that others races (read: non-white) can be racist, that marginalized groups can marginalize each other, that different ethnicities within a racial group can be prejudiced against each other, and on and on. Kendi is essentially asking everyone to engage in introspection and see if they are harboring intolerance: “…the only way to undo racism is to consistently identify and describe it-and then dismantle it.”

Williams is right that this will not be an easy plan to implement. Luckily it has already been implemented. Kendi’s plan is really a continuation of what has gone on for decades in this country. Marginalized people have fought for rights, brought their issues to the forefront of American politics and forced people to reevaluate how they see a particular group and how they view actions they’ve taken, intentionally or otherwise, towards that group. It has not been easy to do this and it remains a difficult task. Another difficult task is policing more radical parts of this movement. There is a danger of creating an army of liberal anti-racists who are empowered to call anyone and everyone racist at the drop of a hat. That would certainly be an abuse of power, albeit mild in comparison with the powers that have been wielded in the opposite direction. Misuses of power by anti-racists do not discredit Kendi’s ideas nor are they what Kendi is calling for.

How to Be an Anti-Racist covers all the ways that racism influences America. The double-edged sword of this is that Kendi’s book is a more comprehensive treatment of the issue of race but it also travels down so many avenues that the reader can become lost, flustered or (more likely) find something with which they disagree. Not every single page of How to Be an Anti-Racist is gospel. The overall premise, however, is pretty straightforward: fight racism by acknowledging race and racism and changing the ideas and policies that perpetuate racism. It is the inverse of Williams’s premise, which is to say they are related. Williams’s premise, like Kendi’s, has also already been implemented. Plenty of people already subscribe actively or passively to either one of these ideologies. Many of us believe in a little bit of both.

Entanglement

I’m a Black man. My father is a Black man from Louisiana. My mother is white. My wife is Chinese. She and I live in Nanjing. I see myself as a Black man partially because my father is Black and partially because of historical precedents in America that deemed me Black and partially because I have always loved aspects of Black culture and even though I know there is nothing inherent in Black people that makes them participate in these cultural things, these are things that American Black people have hewn from a mass of suffering to form a culture and a strong one at that.

From my biography, I have a lot in common with Thomas Chatterton Williams. I don’t know the man. I don’t know exactly what he thinks or feels, but based off of his books I would say that our biggest difference is that I find the culture to be useful and that because American Black culture is tied to race instead of ethnicity, on a personal level, I can’t go along with him. I can’t imagine asking my wife to cease being Chinese, she could care less about being labeled Asian (亚洲人), but you’re not going to get her to erase that part of her identity that is connected to her culture.

Much like Williams I love living abroad. There is a level of anonymity from being an ex-pat that is as fictional as race: because it isn’t your culture it can feel like you’re not really there. I have been at home writing for hours, left the house for coffee or food, put in headphones, listened to a podcast and then been startled when removing the headphones and hearing Chinese being spoken to me. My headspace was in America and my body in China, the jolt of bringing the former back to the latter can be jarring.

The anonymity of an ex-pat is an illusion, especially in China where the society isn’t very multicultural (Yes, I’m aware of the fifty-odd ethnic groups. The vast majority of people, however, are Han Chinese.). I am seen and I am called foreigner (外国人 or 老外) by passers-by on the street. It isn’t supposed to be rude, but it is rude. The passer-by doesn’t care because seeing a foreigner in Nanjing, even in 2020, can be a jolt to the headspace of a local. I don’t want to paint a false picture of Nanjing. There are plenty of foreigners here and most Chinese people don’t feel the urge to shout randomly at people from different countries. And even the people who do shout at you are usually super excited to see you. It’s a first for them.

Like Williams, I’ve been mistaken for everything. I’ve been Cuban, Brazilian, Persian (This also happened in Los Angeles at a Starbucks in a Persian Jewish neighborhood. It was odd.), Egyptian, Moroccan and occasionally American. A few winters ago, at a family gathering when asked why was I growing a beard my wife’s uncle cut in and dutifully explained to the family that I’m a Muslim. I am not.

When I explain to people that I’m Black they almost always respond that I’m not “that Black” and they mean that literally, not in the Quentin Tarantino way. They describe my pigmentation as coffee-colored(咖啡色)which would be true if I drank my coffee any other way than Black.

Sometimes I have to explain to people that I’m a mixed-blood child (混血儿). They ask where my parents are from and I explain they are both from America but one of them is Black and the other is white. Half of the people accept this, but the other half never quite come to grips with the idea that America has more than one race of people. The thought simply hadn’t occurred to them. I’m sure that all of them could name President Obama or Michael Jordan or any number of famous Black Americans without really being able to change the idea in their head of Americans being white. The white Americans are the real Americans. The other ones are some kind of interlopers getting in on that representative, liberal democracy they got going on over there. They’ve seen Black Americans but somehow, they’ve still managed to not see them. Of course, in this, they are not alone.

That is more or less what it’s like to be Black in Nanjing. Well, that’s more or less what it’s like to be a Black American in Nanjing. It’s a different experience for Africans and other members of the diaspora, a less pleasant one from what I’ve been told.

On the whole I love living here, but there are times where it can be difficult, especially when dealing with the family dynamic. The term I used earlier to describe a foreigner, 老外 (laowai), could be interpreted as “always outside.” That is, to remain on the outside looking in forever. There are parts of Chinese culture, like every culture, which are very difficult to access. There are puns and slang terms and dialects and cultural heroes from thousands of years ago. There are customs and traditions and ways to save face that feel incalculable. This gulf in culture is exasperated by my initial lack of proximity: there was much more influence from Black, European and Latin American cultures on my life as a native Californian. My familiarity with Chinese culture came from films and a few friends, but the true understanding came when I moved here.

That being said, even after 8 years the culture occasionally feels inaccessible. It feels like I’m in it but not of it until I slowly notice all of the aspects of the culture that I’ve adopted. I speak the language, I enjoy the cuisine, I observe holidays and customs and traditions. A Chinese coworker last year said that I was closer to being an old Chinese man than a 30-something Black American. I was flattered by the comment, but it was obvious hyperbole. I’m not Chinese. Nothing would ever make me Chinese including speaking the language and enjoying aspects of the culture. This society doesn’t allow for that type of multiculturalism; there are 55 ethnic minorities in China but they are from the landmass that is China. It’s different for a literal 老外; I will remain on the outside looking in even as I become more immersed in the culture.

Eliminating race wouldn’t fix this problem. We would also have to eliminate a language and about 5000 years of culture. If we did that it might be possible for people here, and in other countries, to not see themselves as a little different.

Black Americans don’t have 5000 years of culture, but we do have about 400. It’s a culture that was hard-earned. Why should we give it up? We had the misfortune of being called Black, of having our ancestries wiped away, and we turned that misfortune into a culture. This is completely different from white Americans who can trace back their roots; when they stop being white they will continue to be German and Irish (like my mother) or French or Italian. What will Black people be?

They will be what Williams is in France and what I am here to an even greater extent: they will be an “other.” Without race, in this specific instance, there isn’t a Black cultural experience. It doesn’t seem fair that Black people should have to give up an identity they created out of necessity because it would inconvenience too many people to learn how to tolerate and embrace differences. But beyond it being fair, it also doesn’t seem possible. If the race hadn’t morphed into a culture or if the race could be ignored and dispersed into smaller units then it might be possible, but as presently constituted, Black American culture, despite the wishes and prognostications of many, has become too strong to fail.

There will always be differences. Differences in religion, ethnicity, sexual preference, gender; I would be happy to eliminate the term Black as it relates to race as long as I can keep it for ethnicity and culture. Will that help? Or do we have to rename the culture? Will that keep it from being targeted by bigots? Will other cultures undergo a similar name change?

Sometimes we have cultural disputes in the 李-Wilson household. I disagree with something she thinks or she disagrees with something I think and really neither one of us is wrong. It’s just that I’m Black and she’s Chinese or that I’m American and she’s Chinese or that I’m western and she’s eastern? Basically, the problem is a difference in cultures, a problem that would persist whether or not my culture is labeled Black, American or Western. The solution is for us to respect each other’s culture and come to a resolution. So far, in this household, we haven’t had any lasting issues.

Race, however, is a lasting issue because we’ve made it one. The racists created race to subjugate and the subjugated have used it to unite and gain access and power. Williams doesn’t want us to see race at all and Kendi doesn’t was us to see any race (or ethnicity or gender or class or…) as less than any other race. They are remarkably similar ideas with similar goals and identical intentions. Adopting either approach is better than doing nothing. It comes down to a matter of perspective. When you look at a person what do you see? With proper motivation and empathy that’s easy enough to control, but how does one project their personhood onto the viewer? You can’t. And so, for those who are unwilling, they must be made to see.

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Bobby Wilson

Bobby Wilson

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I write and teach. Books, Film, Basketball, Hip-Hop. Host of “Most Dangerous Thing in America” podcast (about Black books). http://tinyurl.com/2aeex