Thomas Chatterton Williams, a writer for the New York Times Magazine, discussed questions of racial identity at a Jonathan Edwards College Tea on Monday.

In his talk, Williams read excerpts from his book titled “Losing My Cool: Love, Literature, and a Black Man’s Escape from the Crowd” and his 2015 essay “Black and Blue and Blond.” Drawing in part from his own experiences, Williams argued that racial categories are the product of a series of political decisions. He stressed that although people belong to less rigid categories than just “black” or “white,” society is steeped in a “black” versus “white” culture.

“We behave like [race] is an actual category that means something,” Williams said. “[There are] abstract color categories that we get boxed into. [Maybe people will learn] to think about identities in a more sophisticated way.”

Williams mentioned his daughter — who is the subject of his 2015 essay — as an example of someone who doesn’t fall within the rigid bounds of “black” and “white.” Despite having a black father, Williams’s daughter is light-skinned with blond hair and blue eyes, showing no resemblance to her father’s ancestry. Williams said that at four years old, his daughter observed that people, in actuality, are not “black” or “white,” but “brown,” “yellow” and “pink.”

Still, Williams said his daughter is considered a member of the black community, due in part to the “One-Drop Rule,” which stipulates that just “one drop” of black blood in someone’s ancestry is enough to categorize them as black. While the centuries-old rule was initially used to justify the enslavement of mixed-race individuals, Williams argued that the black community has repurposed the rule, using it as a means to welcome people like his daughter into the black community.

“Black people are amazingly generous with whom they consider black,” Williams said. “That’s how you can have heads of the NAACP who have blue eyes and alabaster skin, and you can have Jesse Williams from Grey’s Anatomy, who has blue eyes, and the first black president who was raised in Honolulu by a white family.”

Williams also stressed the importance of conversing about race face-to-face rather than just on social media platforms. Getting stuck in online echo chambers is something that Williams thinks plagues many social media users, such as author Ta-Nehisi Coates, about whom Williams wrote a New York Times op-ed titled “How Ta-Nehisi Coates Gives Whiteness Power.”

When active on social media, Williams said, Coates does not focus on “debating,” but rather on “pronouncing,” which is one danger of using social media as a platform for argument.

This critique of Coates is what inspired Jordan Cutler-Tietjen ’20 to attend the college tea.

“I was interested by the arguments he brought up and the way he contended with Coates’s writing,” Cutler-Tietjen said. “Also, I always leave heartened after getting to hear someone smart talk about their area of expertise. It is empowering.”

Charlotte Foote ’21 echoed Cutler-Tietjen’s sentiments, saying that she “never [turns] down” opportunities to learn from someone as passionate about their craft as Williams.

In an interview after the talk, Williams said he appreciated the opportunity to speak to college students about issues of race.

“[College kids] are the ones having the conversations,” Williams said. “[People] actually don’t meet face-to-face and talk about things. [People] actually hunker down in echo-chambers online, but [after] this face-to-face exchange, maybe people will go home and think in a slightly different way.”

Williams earned his bachelor’s degree in philosophy from Georgetown University and his master’s degree from the Cultural Reporting and Criticism program at New York University.

John Gross | johnny.gross@yale.edu