Naive Thinking on Race


Roger Berkowitz
Interviewing Thomas Chatterton Williams, Otis Houston asks Chatterton Williams about a line from Terence “I am human; nothing human is alien to me.” Isn’t that naive, Houston asks? Chatterton Williams responds in praise of a certain naivete.

I think people would say it’s naïve. In my book, I have an interaction with a student at Bard, an undergrad, dark-skinned son of Jamaican immigrants in Queens. He took issue with me, saying that I was naïve because at Bard he’s black, period, because that’s the way the white people in Tivoli treat him. The way he saw it, to try and transcend race would be disloyal to the working-class Queens neighborhood he came from. I understand exactly where he’s coming from. But, in going to college, he’s already making a class transcendence from the background he described. And, oftentimes, switching classes or getting outside of your class condition can feel like a racial betrayal. And, for the reasons we were talking about before, allowing your self-definition to be dictated by other people is not necessarily the most fulfilling move.

So, I said to him in response that I think he’s right that it sounds a bit naïve, but a certain type of naïveté is actually necessary to break through some of the gridlock we’ve had on this issue for a very long time. I think that we’ve already gone to the limits of what a sophisticated relationship to race thinking can do for us.

I think that you need to have this kind of childlike way of looking at things, as the writer Albert Murray described, and which you see with children before they’ve been conditioned into race-thinking, which is that the color of your skin is not white. The color of my skin isn’t black. Those colors don’t even manifest on human flesh. We don’t even describe ourselves in words that are actually accurate to flesh tones. Any fool can see that white people are not actually white and black people are not black. This spectrum of pigmentation, we all have the same capacity for it. It’s activated in certain populations and not in others. And there will always be visual differences between people. What can change, and what we’re in control of, is the kind of meaning that we derive from these physical differences.

Thomas Chatterton Williams will be speaking at the 2019 Hannah Arendt Center Conference “Racism and Antisemitism.” Save the Date. Oct. 10-11, 2019.