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What Mixed-ish and Thomas Chatterton Williams Get Wrong

This omission might be read as a failure of research or of rhetoric. The book, like Williams’s first, is a confused and confusing text, full of clichéd turns of phrase that match its facile conclusion. (Of his decision to marry a French woman, for example, Williams writes that he “feared that, like a modern Oedipus, I’d metaphorically slept with my white mother and killed my black dad.”) And yet Williams’s refusal to integrate the work and legacies of certain mixed-race writers and activists into his theorizing seems intentional: He discounts the contributions of biracial people who feel and demonstrate kinship with their monoracial black counterparts. In his book, Williams describes these expressions of intraracial solidarity as farcical at best and harmful at worst. Because of criteria like the “one-drop rule” have their roots in white nationalism, he holds, black people who embrace their own blackness are deluded into accepting their fate as permanently downtrodden. “I am not so ingenuous as to think everyone can want to reconceive themselves, but I do believe the more people of good will—white, black, and everything in between—try, the more the rigidity of our collective faith in race will necessarily soften,” he writes.

This may sound like an appeal to shared humanity. But Williams’s text whiffs of disdain for black people who take refuge within their own communities, thus—in the author’s eyes—preventing progress. One of the most revealing passages of Self-Portrait comes early on: Shortly after conceding that he, as a light-skinned man, benefits from colorism, Williams writes of meeting Kmele Foster, a brown-skinned man of African descent who refuses to refer to himself as black. “Of course, the most common response to [Foster’s] position is dismissive: ‘Yeah, okay, that’s all well and good, but wait until you have a run-in with the police, and then you’ll see just how black you are,’” Willilams says, before continuing: “I take seriously the raw pain and historical experience that is behind such an objection … But this is not an argument; it’s a threat, an appeal to an event that has not yet happened.”

Rather than present black people’s objections to Foster as words of caution, the author imbues these statements with a sense of danger. It’s hard to imagine how such appeals could be construed as actual threats: For example, surely a black person familiar with the ugly realities of policing in America wouldn’t call law enforcement on Foster simply to prove a point to him about his own identity. In his attempts to defend Foster’s position, Williams ends up equating black suspicion, teasing, or attempts at self-protection with racist violence.

Elevating the snide remarks made by some black people to the same level as racist systems and actions is a curious choice. Drawing that false equivalency is a misguided but perhaps understandable move for a sitcom like Mixed-ish. That show, after all, is set 30 years in the past, and it’s only aired five episodes. There is time for the series to course correct and catch up to the stakes of its protagonists’ realities: Episode 4, for example, showed Bow learning how difficult it is to trace ancestry on her black mother’s side.

But at the conclusion of two memoirs, Williams remains stuck at the level of TV-friendly platitudes. Some readers may encounter Self-Portrait and conclude that Williams, like some other contemporary thinkers, envisions a more egalitarian future, that he wants to others to free themselves from the shackles of racial resentment. But whatever the appeal of his post-racial aspirations, Williams reserves his most ardent frustrations for the black people who will not—or cannot—follow suit.

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Hannah Giorgis is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where she covers culture.

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