‘I never thought ideas were about signaling allegiance,’ says Thomas Chatterton Williams.
Thomas Chatterton Williams and I are having one of those awkward moments that we have all become so lamentably familiar with over the past 18 months or so. “Do we, er — ?” I offer as he arrives, unsticking myself from the chair on the Parisian terrace I have been sitting at in the sweltering August heat, and scanning his body language for clues as to the appropriate greeting. Does one do la bise with an American in Paris? During a pandemic?
“As you wish — I’m all discombobulated now,” he says. “No one agrees on the same things any more.”
This strikes me as an apt comment, coming as it does from a thinker and writer whose next book focuses on the recent escalation of the culture wars, and who is known as one of the leading critics of the “progressive” identity politics gripping the west but doesn’t sit comfortably on either side of the divide. To his detractors on the left he is an “anti-woke” crusader who gives racists and transphobes a platform; to others on the right he is an “enabler” of just the kind of illiberalism he denounces.
I finally shove my arm out over the table and shake hands with Williams as he is approached by the maître d’, who would like to see his pass sanitaire. He shows her proof of his Johnson & Johnson vaccine, muttering something to me about how he would have preferred the Pfizer jab. I got the AstraZeneca one that France snubbed, I tell him. He laughs. “Oh, the one that got cancelled!” He’s good at this.
In July 2020, Williams was one of the organisers of “A Letter on Justice and Open Debate”, an open letter signed by 152 scholars and writers, published in Harper’s magazine. It warned of an “intolerant climate that has set in on all sides” across cultural institutions and a “vogue for public shaming and ostracism”, and stressed the need “to preserve the possibility of good-faith disagreement without dire professional consequences”.
I lost a couple of people that I had been very good to on an interpersonal level because of the Harper’s letter
Although its authors were careful to not use the phrase “cancel culture”, it was obvious this was the letter’s target, and it provoked a backlash from the progressive left, who argued that such a culture does not exist — or at least is nothing new — and who criticised the choice of signatories, such as JK Rowling, who has been accused of being “anti-trans”.
“I lost a couple of people that I had been very good to on an interpersonal level because of the Harper’s letter — people who unfollowed me and blocked me with no explanation. They actually know me. That’s crazy,” says Williams, clearly upset by this. “The details of what’s right or wrong don’t matter, it’s that ‘you’re not with us’. I never thought ideas or writing were about signalling allegiance.”
Even before the Harper’s letter, though, the 40-year-old had stoked controversy because of his views on race. Alongside other public intellectuals such as John McWhorter and Kmele Foster, Williams is a prominent figure in a kind of counter-movement pushing back against the radical and uncompromising doctrines of the so-called “anti-racism” taught by writers like Ibram X Kendi and Robin DiAngelo. According to this ideology, you are either a racist or an “anti-racist”, and to be an anti-racist you must accept that all racial inequity is caused by the racist policies, structures and systems underpinning western society.
The son of an African-American father born in the Jim Crow South and a Wasp mother from southern California, Williams grew up without ever questioning the “one-drop” rule that categorised anyone with even a trace of African ancestry as “black”. Indeed, in a 2012 New York Times opinion piece, he argued that “mixed-race blacks” such as him had an “ethical obligation to identify as black” and that when he had children with his French wife, the writer Valentine Faure, he would teach them that they too were “black” if they wished to be, regardless of their skin colour.
But the birth of a blonde, blue-eyed daughter the following year made him fundamentally rethink the idea that race exists as anything other than a damaging social construct. As he describes in his 2019 memoir, Self-Portrait in Black and White: Unlearning Race, these days he prefers not to use terms such as “black” and “white”, racial categories he has felt hemmed in by, instead trying to use more specific language to identify himself.
“There have been no people in the history of the world that have been treated with the condescension of ‘black’ Americans,” he says, an arm wrapped tightly around his crossed legs. “I don’t want a moratorium on reading standards,” he says, referring to a recent decision by the governor of Oregon to suspend a basic skills test as a requirement for graduating from high school. “I just want to participate in a culture that was created by people that persevered against some of the worst odds that any group has been faced with. I’m very proud of them. And I don’t need to make slogans or trivialise that.”
Williams has chosen Le Comptoir du Relais for our lunch, a 1930s-style brasserie on a bustling crossroads on the Left Bank, run by Yves Camdeborde, pioneer of bistronomie. It is a lovely spot, though it wasn’t Williams’ first choice — he had called around most of his favourites and found them closed for the customary fermeture annuelle. Even a pandemic that left restaurants closed for most of the year can’t stop Parisians from taking August off, it seems.
“If it’s OK with you, I think because it’s been so hard for us to find the location, we have to treat ourselves during lunch. We have to self-care!” Williams laughs. I reckon it is OK with me, so he orders us two glasses of champagne “as an aperitif”.
Le Comptoir du Relais
9 Carr de l’Odéon, 75006 Paris, France
Oeufs mayonnaise €5
Tomato and watermelon salad €11
Tuna tartare €16
Penne with blue lobster tail €38
Salade niçoise €16
Strawberry vacherin €12
Choux craquelin €12
Café allongé x2 €6
Iced black coffee €3
Glass of champagne x4 €60
Rosé Pétillant Exilé €40
The champagne arrives in standard wine glasses branded with the name of the restaurant — not the chicest, I suggest, but I am corrected: “My sister-in-law, who is an effortlessly chic Parisian woman, always says this is more chic. The flutes are actually for people being fancy.”
Williams is quite chic himself, bordering on the fancy. He is tall and athletic, his attire something of an ode to the continent he has now lived on for a decade: beige suede loafers from Naples, turned-up white jeans from Lisbon, a tote bag from Zurich, a lava-stone bracelet from Greece and a basic white T-shirt “because I don’t want to be pretentious”. That’s despite a leather Hermès keychain swinging from his neck and a limited-edition Rolex adorning his wrist, which he can afford thanks to the considerable speaking fees he charges — as much as $12,000 for a lecture or panel appearance.
Next, Williams chooses a natural sparkling rosé with the name Exilé — because “I feel exiled sometimes” — and for his starter, a watermelon and tomato salad. I try to go for the gazpacho, which feels befitting of the 31C heat, but he tells me to get the tuna tartare instead, so I comply. He orders us the classic brasserie oeufs mayonnaise to share. His French is good — good enough for him to be interviewed on French television, albeit with prepared questions, about his book, published in France earlier this year, which was well received, he says, on both the left and the right.
“They have this tradition of wanting to believe themselves universal, and to believe in what they would call the republican ideal — that everyone is a citizen, and that privately you might be of Celtic or of North African descent, but in the public sphere we are all citizens, we’re all equal . . . So it is not considered controversial to say that we should transcend racial categorisations in France . . . It’s even a cliché, the black American who comes to Paris and feels liberated from the racial binary they’re locked in back home and gets treated just as an American in Paris. James Baldwin is probably the most eloquent writer on this topic.”
There are black cultural contributions I don’t want to give up . . . I don’t want to give up a certain way that I will shake your hand the next time I see you, you know — dap?
We are brought our starters, and the tartare advice turns out to have been sound — it is exquisitely refreshing, served with cucumber, calamansi juice and, somewhat surprisingly, shavings of Granny Smith apple. Williams tells me his salad is “crazy”, a word that he uses a lot to describe things being both excellent and execrable.
Most of the cultural figures Williams gets excited about — his great hero Baldwin, essayist and critic Albert Murray, hip-hop group A Tribe Called Quest, rapper Black Thought — are black. “Oh, but culturally I’m black,” he says without hesitation. “Even though I reject these categories of racialisation . . . there are black cultural contributions that I don’t want to give up. I don’t want to give up black music, I don’t want to give up black slang . . . I don’t want to give up a certain way that I will shake your hand the next time I see you, you know — dap? I don’t want to stop that. And I don’t think it has anything to do with blood and skin.”
I put it to him that it’s all very well for a light-skinned, privately educated member of the intellectual elite who lives in Paris to give up on race, but that it might not be so easy for less advantaged black Americans. He counters that his family was not wealthy enough to go on holidays, to own their home or even to have health insurance.
He does say he was “culturally privileged”, however, because of the education he — and many of his friends — received from his now 84-year-old father, whom Williams calls “Pappy”, a teacher and sociologist. “Every single tough guy I ever met in my life that I thought was cool when I played basketball and I brought home — they dropped that shit immediately when they came in . . . He sat there and talked to them about Plato, and they listened.”
On my way to lunch I had checked Twitter and had noticed Williams tweeting about a New York Times article suggesting that a 16th-century painting of a mythological scene “invites #MeToo evaluation”, and calling the Roman god Jupiter a “serial abuser”. The story wasn’t just reminiscent of The Onion — the satirical site had actually foretold it two decades earlier. He rolls his eyes when I bring it up. “It’s crazy . . . to think that Jupiter/Zeus needs to have his #MeToo moment now — it’s so anti-intellectual it’s actually scary.”
His tweets about the article had got hundreds of likes and retweets — not unusual for Williams, but I ask him if he ever worries that while he apparently eschews tribal identity politics, he himself has become part of a tribe, a tribe that his critics would call “anti-woke”.
“I am not ideologically anti-woke, I’m just not woke — I think that’s a very important distinction. I think you can get into your own blind religious fervour with anti-wokeness, and then you reproduce the same errors you’re ostensibly trying to counteract,” he says, leaning his head against the bright red exterior wall of the restaurant.
I’m in this because I’m trying to be honest, I’m not in this because I want to play for a team
Williams recently co-wrote an op-ed for the New York Times that he knew would be badly received by some people who consider themselves to be on “his team”. He and his co-authors argued that new laws being passed in Republican states seeking to ban the teaching of what they label as “critical race theory” are antithetical to free speech principles and pose a danger to liberal education.
Williams opposes CRT — until recently a niche academic theory emphasising the structural nature of racism in America but now one of the hottest topics on Fox News — because he doesn’t share the idea that racism is permanent, and because he thinks CRT recreates and exacerbates the forces it claims to want to counteract. But he wanted to make clear that outlawing something you don’t agree with is not the answer.
“It’s not like it gets any good points with the people that hate you from the left — they say it’s too little too late . . . and you get nothing but hate from the right . . . But I’m in this because I’m trying to be honest, I’m not in this because I want to play for a team. I’ve lost people who had become allies — I lost a bunch of them with that op-ed, me and Kmele [Foster, one of the co-authors], people that we thought respected us for thinking clearly. No, they just wanted people on their team, and they’re just as tribal as the worst people they say they’re against.”
We have already been sitting down for several hours by this stage but somehow we have only just finished our mains — mine was the largest salade niçoise I have ever seen; his a more humbly sized portion of creamy lobster-tail pasta. We move on to some superb desserts, and then two more glasses of champagne (this time we need a digestif).
Williams is in the process of writing his third book, Nothing Was the Same, which he says is “a meditation on the paradigm shift of 2020”. I ask him to explain.
“I think a confluence of events changed our paradigm,” he says, playing with his leather keychain. “You had the mix of the pandemic, with everybody . . . being aware of their own insecurity and vulnerability . . . and living in this fake screen-land that becomes more real than real life. Then you have the campaign year with the spectre of Trump behind all of this, and the idea that really was taking hold was that American democracy itself could die . . . And then you have one of truly the most disturbing deaths I have ever seen — this extraordinary death [of George Floyd] that turns into this almost Christ-like meme of a crucifixion in broad daylight.
“These things allowed what were fringe academic views and arguments . . . like critical race theory . . . and ‘defund the police’ to suddenly get a hearing.” He adds that Trump is “the biggest instigator of wokeness”.
So if the paradigm has shifted, where are we now heading? Williams is less sure about that.
“I think we’re in a hinge moment where it’s on us — it’s unclear, and I think that we’re in danger of making very big mistakes. We’re giving up things that we consider indisputable, inalienable liberal values. We’re giving those up for cheap, short-term Pyrrhic victories,” he says, gravely.
“We say: ‘Trump’s here so we can’t have freedom of speech.’ Really? You’re gonna part with freedom of speech that quickly? I think it’s because we’ve lost touch — we’ve been children of the summer, to use Game of Thrones language. People who part with free speech — they forgot what winter was like.”
Jemima Kelly is an FT columnist and Alphaville reporter
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