2020-07-23 Thomas Chatterton Williams
Thomas Chatterton Williams on Race, Identity, and “Cancel Culture”
On July 7th, Harper’s Magazine published what it called “A Letter on Justice and Open Debate,” which quickly became part of the conversation around the subject of “cancel culture.” The letter, which has been signed by more than a hundred intellectuals, academics, and authors, noted that “the forces of illiberalism are gaining strength throughout the world and have a powerful ally in Donald Trump,” and argued against an “intolerant climate that has set in on all sides.” The letter continued, “While we have come to expect this on the radical right, censoriousness is also spreading more widely in our culture: an intolerance of opposing views, a vogue for public shaming and ostracism, and the tendency to dissolve complex policy issues in a blinding moral certainty.” It went on to say, “The restriction of debate, whether by a repressive government or an intolerant society, invariably hurts those who lack power and makes everyone less capable of democratic participation. The way to defeat bad ideas is by exposure, argument, and persuasion, not by trying to silence or wish them away.”
The letter was signed by the novelists Martin Amis, J. K. Rowling, and Salman Rushdie, leftists such as Noam Chomsky and Gloria Steinem, and journalists, including several New Yorker contributors. Among the signatories was Thomas Chatterton Williams, a contributing writer at the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Harper’s, who also had a hand in writing the letter. Williams is the author of two memoirs, “Losing My Cool” and “Self-Portrait in Black and White,” which recount his struggles with racial identity as a teen-ager and as an adult. The son of a Black father and a white mother, he describes himself in his second book as “an ex-black man.” He is known for his critique of Ta-Nehisi Coates, whom Williams believes overemphasizes race and racism, creating “a fantasy that flattens psychological and material difference within and between groups.”
I recently spoke by phone with Williams, who was at his office in France, where he lives. During our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, we discussed what the Harper’s letter aimed to accomplish, whether cancel culture has always existed in various forms, and his concerns about Black Lives Matter and the media’s focus on COVID-19 mortality rates among people of color.
What was the genesis of the letter?
It’s no secret. No one is trying to be evasive, but it came out of conversations that the five of us—[the Atlantic staff writer and former New Yorker staff writer] George Packer, myself, [the Columbia professor of humanities] Mark Lilla, [the journalist] Robert F. Worth, and [the historian and professor of journalism] David Greenberg—started on an e-mail chain five or six weeks ago, talking about something that I’ve been talking about with some of them for years. A mood or climate seems to have set in, especially in the past almost four years, with the intensity that Trump brings to every topic, and social media—the growth of the importance of social media can’t be taken away from anything we’re talking about. I remember I was on Facebook and other things more, but Twitter has become all-consuming, especially if you work in the media or in academia, and so it feels like Twitter has taken on this invisible, impersonal force that works through people but no one in particular, that sweeps through and enacts public humiliation and punishment, and has become another figure in all of our lives, like the spectre of Trump hanging over us.
At some point, we decided to see if we could draft an open letter. We really didn’t even know if anybody would pay attention. The five of us started talking about who we might be able to reach out to and see if they might sign it. We went through multiple drafts on our own, and then about a month ago, we started sending it out to other people, and we got yeses and nos, and some of the people that said yes and some of the people that said no had really smart responses, with incredible feedback. We then came back and incorporated it, so like twenty people contributed writing to it.
Did you do more of the writing than anyone else?
No, I wouldn’t say that, even. I contributed in an early draft. I was very involved, and then it was a real collective. This is a document that doesn’t have an author, but it has the hands of over twenty people, and especially the hands of five people.
What did you say when you reached out to people?
You need to understand that this is something that we didn’t realize we would get anybody interested in. Some of the people that we knew the best said that they were uncomfortable or afraid of the backlash or couldn’t get involved, and some of the people we didn’t know very well stepped in, so we didn’t have a way of gauging. Everybody knew some names and began contacting them on their own, with their own language. Sometimes I was texting people three lines. Sometimes David was writing beautiful long letters full of tons of evidence of why the people might want to sign. Nobody that any of us contacted was, like, “Let me see who else is signing, and then I’ll get back to you.” Not a single person. I don’t think any of us have ever done this before, so it didn’t even occur to us that that could be a critique down the road.
How important was racial or gender or ideological diversity, especially getting people on the left? I know you have previously said that the letter started out more focussed on the sins of the left.
There was always disagreement. There was never one way that the letter was conceived. There was always some feeling that Trump should be more important and some feeling that in a short letter you have to focus on the kind of culture that’s coming in our own industry, which Trump doesn’t actually fully control. Then there was a feeling, after talking to more and more people that we respected, that we really do have to acknowledge the fact that nothing exists in a vacuum outside of Trump.
You said, “The critique is against censoriousness and so after realizing that the letter would be incomplete by solely focusing on the left, we felt it was necessary to be absolutely clear that Trump is the canceller-in-chief.”
Right, exactly. We all talked for quite a while about how we can’t really think of someone who has been more cancelled in American culture recently than Colin Kaepernick. We were talking about the Black reporter in Pittsburgh who was unable to cover the protests because of a tweet. We are against Twitter being involved in your office decisions and your H.R. department. Do you see what I’m saying? It was interpreted in a different way. It was a constant conversation of “Let’s always be thinking of ways that we can make this as ideologically diverse as possible,” and, also, we know from our own lives that you can’t predict how people think based on their color category, religion, or gender identity, or any of that.
You mentioned ideological diversity and the importance of it. As far I could tell, there were no open Trump supporters who signed the letter. Did you feel that it was important to not have signers beyond a certain level of conservatism in part because then critics could say you don’t really care about liberalism? Trump has the support of more than forty per cent of the country, so aren’t we all drawing our own lines somewhere about ideological diversity?
There was a lot of discussion of that. It was not something that we didn’t know would be a point of contention, but we also basically made the decision that we have to be as idealistic as possible within the bounds of understanding that we have to be pragmatic too, and rhetorically effective. You simply cannot have a document that was as successful as ours, I believe, at this moment, with throwing every single viewpoint in. Even one person who I reached out to, who isn’t, I don’t think, a Trump supporter, said, “No, I won’t sign this because I don’t believe that Trump is the greatest threat in the nation.” We were kind of skeptical that you could have a defense of liberal values, a serious defense of liberal values, with someone who was really a diehard Trump supporter, too. We also felt that if you got somebody who was, you might very well lose some other people that you need to make this a rhetorically effective document.
Bari Weiss, who just resigned from the New York Times, and who signed the Harper’s letter, mentioned in her resignation letter that she had been brought in after Trump’s election to bring more ideological diversity. But the Times didn’t hire a pro-Trump columnist, which I don’t have a problem with if I’m honest with myself.
But you’re seeing a contradiction.
I suppose I’m wondering whether we’re all drawing the line somewhere, and therefore if in fact both you and people to your left who you view as restrictive are drawing lines on a spectrum, rather than there being some giant chasm about what the meaning of liberalism is.
I think it’s right and not right. I think it’s absolutely undeniable that nobody really advocates for complete total speech without any consequence or absolute freedom of expression. There’s a line that most of us agree on somewhere. We wouldn’t want calls for pedophilia. But that’s not actually what we’re talking about. We’re not saying that there are no standards or no lines. This letter is about the climate of censoriousness and self-censorship and fear that happens when people are made an example of on social media with no recourse and there are calls for their stigmatization. That’s the part of it that goes beyond just speech or disagreement within the bounds of civility. It’s this extra step that seeks to punish and also banish from the community a respectable opinion. What happens is that your employer is contacted and you must be fired from your job, but then you’re supposed to not be employable anywhere. The really seriously troubling case that I can think of that happened recently is David Shor. That’s a quintessential example of what we’re talking about.
Right, so David Shor was a researcher who tweeted a research paper done by Omar Wasow, whom I have interviewed, and who is a very smart guy who studies how protests affect elections. People on Twitter criticized Shor, and then his employer, Civis Analytics, panicked and fired him. I think most people who have been following these issues view that case as pretty disgraceful. Are there other cases where you think that people have been fired and have been told they should never be hired again for sins that minor?
This is not my personal example, but I think there was a great amount of debate over [the resignation of former New York Times opinion editor] James Bennet. I wasn’t organizing a letter around something like that, because I think that gets in the way of making a larger point.
There have been many, many academics who have been silenced. There was a U.C.L.A. professor who got in serious trouble for just reading “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” [William Peris, a lecturer in political science, reportedly came into conflict with students over his decision to read aloud the N-word in King’s letter and show a documentary about lynching. U.C.L.A. told The New Yorker that there was no formal investigation, but that the situation was being “reviewed.”] There is an academic at the University of Chicago who questioned some aspects of the orthodoxy on Black Lives Matter. [Harald Uhlig, a professor of economics, compared Black Lives Matter activists to “flat-earthers and creationists.” A student then claimed that Uhlig had made racially discriminatory remarks in his classroom. The university conducted an investigation and found that there was no basis for further proceedings.]
A lot of people say there’s no such thing as cancel culture and then you name an example and they’re, like, “That person deserved it,” so then there is cancel culture, but it works in its accountability. But you don’t actually need that many people, because all you need is a few high-profile cases that make examples and the rest of us see and we change our behavior accordingly. We also don’t just change the behavior that might be argued against as being wrong. We steer far clear of the boundary, and so it has a narrowing and I think really stifling effect on not just speech but on thought, and that’s really terrifying.
How do we know the free exchange of ideas is becoming more constricted, as the letter claims?
I’m sure some of your readers on Twitter can already imagine, like, laughing that it’s anecdotal, but I have tons of people who tell me they wouldn’t write certain things, that they wouldn’t say certain things, that they’re not comfortable even entering into a conversation on Black Lives Matter, on Israel, or any of these things, because they didn’t feel that they could even get into a conversation without enormous repercussions that would be detrimental, because they don’t possess the identity that gives them what I would say is the epistemological authority to even weigh in, and so it’s just a land mine. You must possess a particular identity to be able to participate in certain conversations or you face a backlash that comes at you so fast that you can’t even defend yourself against it. It penetrates your workplace.
I think that we agree that there are certain areas, involving racial and gender identity, for example, that are becoming more contested to talk about. I also think there have always been things that people were scared to talk about, whether it was religion, or Israel, or the military, or police officers. The letter says that things are becoming more constricted. Are things over all becoming more constricted, or are new groups making their voices heard in ways that are perceived as constricting sometimes, but in ways that different groups in America and throughout the world have always done? I don’t want to defend that as always being good, but why are we certain it’s new?
People are, like, well, nothing is new. Jesus Christ was cancelled. Of course, people objecting to certain people’s behavior or speech has been with us forever—certain views being silenced and others being prioritized. There was a counter-letter that was, like, Black people have always been cancelled and shut out, or have been on the edge of being cancelled. I’m the son of a Black man who was born in the segregated South. I’m very familiar with the kind of cancel culture that he had to pass through and the ways in which he experienced exactly what they’re talking about. But what bothers me and worries me is that the world that we’re creating and that’s enabled by the Twitter reality that takes hold is one in which we’re not actually trying to make everybody as secure as the straight white man who used to be super-secure. We’re actually trying to make everybody as insecure as my father used to be, but everybody can catch it now. That’s why the letter calls for putting ideas out in the clarifying light of open debate where they can be either defended or defeated but in good faith, and not looking to appeal to the fury of the mob. I don’t want to live in a world where the white men I work with have to be reduced to being as insecure as my father used to be.
Do you think we’re really in danger of that? You said your dad grew up in the segregated South. I’m a white man who works for a liberal media institution. I feel like I’m very far from what you just described. [my emphasis]
You are, but the world that I feel like is taking hold—and I don’t want to get into hyperbole. I think that I’m using that language that sounds hyperbolic only when repeated back, because that’s actually language that comes in the critique of our letter. They say Black people have always been cancelled. I wouldn’t start with that. I’m responding to that assertion. My dad comes from a culture of having felt that you could be cancelled. I don’t want to extend that insecurity as far as we can. I always write from the position that we are not in the same country that my father was and that none of this is the same as it used to be, and we should all step back from hyperbolic language that overestimates the challenges we face in light of the challenges that we’ve already overcome.
I agree that, generally speaking, we want a less censorious society rather than a more censorious society. I worked at a magazine, The New Republic, where in 2003 Tony Judt was stripped of his contributing-editor title, because, in a different publication, he wrote a piece saying a one-state solution for Israel might be a good idea. I don’t want to defend that, but was he cancelled from the magazine, which he never wrote for again? I do wonder whether these things have been going on for longer than we think, and I do sometimes feel that, when it comes from certain quarters now, it’s viewed as a bigger threat to liberal democracy than it used to be in the past. Do you think I’m off there?
[What is Chotiner’s argument here, exactly?]
I think there is something that has to be part of the definition of cancel culture now that is not contained in the description you used in the New Republic example but that can’t be extricated from the technology aspect. Yes, there are views that could get you in trouble or there are views that would affect your employment in the past, but cancel culture now relies on outrage, and then there has to be a whipped-up movement through—it often happens to be through social media—and then it has to be contacting your employer, and then it has to be not attaching to your idea or the work that you did but actually attaching to you as a stigmatized person. That’s what cancel culture actually does—you are outside of the circle of respectability. I don’t know enough about the case at The New Republic. I don’t believe that it operated that way.
Did you follow the case of Blake Neff, who worked for Tucker Carlson’s show and was fired for posting horribly racist things on a message board unrelated to his work?
A little bit, yeah. I think that once your employer—here’s the thing about cancel culture. It’s not about you violating your employer’s clear rules. I’m sure that what Blake did was against the rules of his employment. Cancel culture also operates on another level that makes it very difficult to defend against, which is that the rules are changing. Part of it is that you have broken some rule that is not specified yet or clearly in your employment contract or even necessarily in our public understanding of norms. You’ve tripped a new wire, and you’re being made an example of. Being fired for bad performance or for having an alter ego that posts incredibly racist stuff is not cancel culture.
Explain to me why, though. Forget whether it happened to be in his particular employment contract or not.
[Chotiner is getting into a Socratic definition rabbit hole. Why?]
I think it matters quite a lot. If you’re tweeting research and you attach no commentary to it and then you’re fired because people attach a context to it that you didn’t anticipate and couldn’t be expected to anticipate, that is very different than if you are sneaking into an alter ego that is tweeting racist language that is against the rules of your employment.
We keep coming back to David Shor, which I agree is terrible. I think most people think it’s terrible—I obviously don’t want to defend it.
Taking a knee is not against the rules of your employment either.
In the N.B.A., the rule is still that you have to stand for the national anthem. I assume you don’t think that if someone knelt for it that they should be fired.
I’m not aware of that being a part of your employment contract that you must. [The N.B.A. rulebook says that “players, coaches, and trainers must stand and line up in a dignified posture” during the anthem.]
I asked the question in a bad way. Even if someone didn’t violate their employment contract, if someone was going on a Web site and saying, as Blake Neff did, some awful racist stuff, which I don’t even feel comfortable reading, or got fired like Nick Cannon did, for anti-Semitism, by Viacom—is that cancel culture?
We have to have some agreed-upon standards. Part of what the problem is in this debate is deciding how we’re changing our standards right now. I understand this is not a science, but if there’s a punitive aspect to the collective response to something you do and it’s around a not-yet-solidified norm, that seems to me to be very different than to transgressing what seems to be a commonly understood norm. I know that you can say that there’s lots of difficulty in understanding, but you know that there actually is a difference.
Neff, it’s true, violated what I think a lot of us would agree as norms by saying a bunch of awful things. At the same time, he works for a television show that is able to broadcast these things every night, which the President watches and tweets about. Nick Cannon, who circulated anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, had prominent athletes speak up for him, before they recanted. I think some people would see these things as cancel culture. They would say people are overly sensitive.
You’re looking at something that is new, and, when there’s enough of a quantitative difference, you have a qualitative difference. This is something that has been with us—an impulse to punish and to single out and to scapegoat and to ostracize and stigmatize, that’s not new. But when you have a quantitative difference that technology affords—and I don’t mean to keep coming back to technology, but it’s inextricable from the experience now.
This letter was an attempt to open a conversation, to start thinking seriously about something that many people have noticed is going on. You don’t get an international conversation with a three-paragraph document like this if it doesn’t touch on something that many people understand is going on. This letter has been reprinted in France, Germany, the Netherlands, Japan. I’m getting interview requests from Chile. It was printed in Mexico. There were three articles at least in the Guardian about it in the U.K. This is something.
I’ve seen you talk about the fact that, as you once put it in an interview, no one owns any topics. Essentially, we should look at the content of what people say, not their identity. Is that accurate?
I understand how experience informs insight, but I don’t think there are topics where some identities must simply be silent. What I reject is what the economist Glenn Loury calls identity epistemology, which is that I as someone partially descended from slaves have access to an understanding of American reality that can never be open to you. I reject that idea. I think that if you actually care enough to figure it out, you can understand much of my experience to the extent that anyone can understand an individual. You can, if you want to. Now, a lot of people don’t actually try hard enough.
What about people having the right to say certain things based on their identity? I was wondering if you thought that people could be privileged to say certain things or speak on certain topics, or that the most important thing was to judge the words themselves.
I studied philosophy. I genuinely believe that the most important thing is to judge the quality of the insights, the idea, the language, the argument. I don’t think that there is a Black point of view, because Black people don’t all agree on anything. When you say that somebody has more authority to speak as a Black person, what does that mean?
In “Losing My Cool,” you wrote, “Where I lived, books were like kryptonite to” the N-word [the text uses “niggas”]—“they were terrified, allergic, broke out in rashes and hives.”
I stand by everything in that book.
That’s not something a white person can really say in most polite societies. It’s also an idea that I think a lot of people would find very problematic—that books were like kryptonite to Black people.
That’s why the context is important. The whole book was about how books were my father’s life and that the Black culture that he comes from was one that prioritized education as the most important thing that a human being could participate in, the act of cultivating yourself. That comes in the context of me saying that the kind of street culture that I was in was making a false claim that books were kryptonite, that they were not for us. We were fooling ourselves in that we were participating in a culture that was monetizing the glorification of our anti-intellectualism, which is my argument against hip-hop culture. When it’s sliced into this little bit on Twitter, it’s to make me look like some type of racist who hates his Blackness. When, in fact, the book is a love letter to the kind of Black culture and tradition that my father comes from.
Just to give the context, you finish off that paragraph by saying, “Charles Dickens was something that swung between your legs, not the author of Martin Chuzzlewit. You could get your ass kicked for name-dropping and using big words. Brothers weren’t out to be poets or theoreticians; most of the time, they weren’t even trying to be articulate—they talked with their hands (fists, daps, slaps, pounds, peace signs, jump shots, tabletop percussion) and yearned to be athletes and rappers, not scholars or gentlemen.” The point I was trying to make was that this is something that you can say and get published in a book because of your identity and other people can’t.
Other people can’t, but is that the best way that we can have conversations around knowledge and human experience, that other people can’t? That I’m not sure about. Because I can imagine a situation where you could understand my experience enough where you could actually suggest some insight into the dynamics that play around toxic masculinity or street authenticity that gets conflated with racial authenticity.
The fact that you’re not allowed to publish that is not my choosing. I think that there’s a way that you could engage in that that would be good-faith and would be equally insightful even if you’re coming from outside the identity. It’s not the blood or the skin that gives you the ability to understand the spirit.
I know that the kryptonite and book line is from a Chris Rock bit from a long time ago.
But it also seems to me an idea that has a racially charged history to it, and that we should want to be careful when people say things like that. Maybe that’s where we disagree.
Here’s where I draw a line, and this is why it takes people to actually listen to arguments and not scan quotes for gotcha clickbait. I’m not saying you. I’m saying that people love the gotcha as a very good way to get likes and a good way to get the dopamine hits. I engage in it just like a lot of us, because we’re all incentivized to behave this way, and it’s worth something to resist. But, if you engage in a good-faith way, then I think you can actually have conversations about difficult subjects. What I’m saying is that we’re not reading each other in the way that’s conducive to everybody having the ability to encounter the other’s experience. We’re engaging each other in ways that contribute to the fortification of identity epistemology, and I think the thing that’s so sad about that is it limits the amount of conversation we could have. That is impoverishing if what you actually care about is knowledge and ideas and making a kind of multi-ethnic society work.
I guess my point would be that if a white person said that line, I’m not sure the appropriate response would be to sit and thoughtfully listen to them.
It really depends on what made a white person say that.
I can think of one thing that might.
I was kidding. I wanted to ask about what you wrote about Black Lives Matter in your second book. You said that such groups “reinforce the same racist habits of thoughts they claim to wish to defeat. I do not mean this point rhetorically—I mean it literally.” You went on to say that, although you “overwhelmingly share” Black Lives Matter’s aims, “its very framing—the notion that some lives are essentially black while others are white—is both politically true in a specific sense and, in a broader way, philosophically inadequate.” And “We will never be able to outwit such complicated and tenacious pathologies with the stale and deficient mental habits that produced them in the first place. If, as the cliché has it, one definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results, how could we?” Do you feel that’s held true in the past few months?
Black Lives Matter in the past few months has been effective in mobilizing quite a lot of empathy, and who knows what the polls will show next year, but right now it seems like, overwhelmingly, the public supports the objectives of the movement and it recognizes that racism is a problem in American life. I believe the part you’re reading from refers to my larger argument that I don’t think we’re going to solve the problem of racism if we don’t keep our eye on actually abolishing and getting rid of the categories that come out of the collision of Africa and Europe in the slave trade and the New World. If we don’t get rid of these categories, which most of us would say we don’t believe have a biological basis, then actually they imply certain racist ideas that can’t be overcome.
So Black Lives Matter is effective now, and I’m rooting for it, but my position is that there are not fundamentally, inherently, essentially, Black or white lives. There is human life, and we have different ethnicities and cultural traditions, but we have to abolish the idea of race, full stop, or we’re always going to have the residue of racism.
So you still believe that Black Lives Matter reinforces the same habits of thought that they claim they wish to defeat?
I think that there’s a limit to what can happen so long as we believe that there are Black lives and white lives. I think it’s effective in what it’s trying to achieve now. But my argument in the book is about how does a society ever unlearn race, and you can’t unlearn race by holding onto the categories that racism creates. We don’t live in a society anywhere near getting rid of those categories. Black Lives Matter doesn’t get us closer to getting rid of those categories. What it does raise fundamental awareness of is how Black people and other people suffer disproportionate violence and mistreatment, and I think that is really positive. But I don’t see how the framing gets us closer to a society where white people give up their whiteness and Black people are free to finally move beyond the stigmatization.
How would one frame the fact that tens of thousands more African-Americans have died from the coronavirus than we would expect from their percentage of the population, without resorting to the categories that you’re critical of?
Oh, I think that we would have a serious conversation about what happens with class in this country. Oftentimes, we conflate race and class, and in many ways they’re sticky and they’re difficult to disentangle, but I think that many people point out that you can’t solve the racial problem in a meaningful way if you don’t address the class problem, and, maybe more important than that, just diversifying the top one per cent won’t help those people either.
O.K., but we know that the people who have been disproportionally hurt by the coronavirus are not just people without means, but also specifically Black and Latino people who face issues with getting proper medical care even compared with whites of similar circumstances.
Yeah, also, they are disproportionally essential workers, and many fewer Black and Latino people worked in positions that they could do remotely.
I agree with you—class is a huge issue. But I’m just not quite sure how we have that conversation without saying that doctors treat Black and white patients even of the same socioeconomic class differently. I don’t know how we don’t talk about all those things.
We can talk about lots of things that have been talked about. The kinds of cultural experiences and racial experiences that lead some Black people like my father to be more mistrustful of seeking medical care. We can talk about lots of aspects that contribute to the fact that Black people have found themselves in lines of work that expose them to COVID-19 more—the fact that even experiencing racism can take physical tolls that then make you have co-morbidities and lots of things.
I’m not saying that we’re not living in a very racist country, but I am saying that I start to get uncomfortable when it’s called “the Black Plague” as though the disease affects Black people differently biologically, as though there is a biological weakness in blackness, as though we can meaningfully talk about contagion by racializing it in our own contemporary terms with understanding our own social divisions. That’s where I get worried. And also there’s a long history of equating disease with inferior groups, and so I think we have to be very, very, very careful when we casually call things Black. “The Black Plague” was a title of a piece in The New Yorker that I think was actually a little bit dangerous. I think it’s even dangerous from a pragmatic level. The only country in the world that is experiencing the kind of surges of COVID-19 right now and not complying with official guidance is the United States of America. It’s a complete outlier, and why is it? It’s because the disease is racialized in America, uniquely. [Wow!] There is no European country, no matter how multi-ethnic, including France, which is a very multi-ethnic society and doesn’t collect data based on race.
And you think—
And, when you call it the Black Plague, you end up with a bunch of white people saying that the disease doesn’t affect them and behaving in all types of ways that actually end up spreading it.
So pieces like the New Yorker piece are one of the reasons that it’s out of control in America and it’s killing tens of thousands more Black people? Is that what you mean?
No, that’s not what I’m saying, and please don’t put that kind of wording on it. I’m not saying that pieces like the New Yorker piece are why. I’m saying that America has a problem, as reflected in the language of the New Yorker piece. It wasn’t the New Yorker alone. There were many publications that racialized COVID-19 as a Black disease.
Didn’t they racialize it because—
Then you have a situation where everybody isn’t responding to the disease as though it affects everybody. Even though in the outer banlieues, in the less affluent suburbs of Paris where the population is heavily Black and Arab, you do have disproportionate cases but the disease was never racialized.
I can only speak for myself as someone who did interviews on this. My thinking was that the coronavirus was affecting Black and Latino people much more than white people, per capita, and I thought that was something to highlight. I don’t think that’s the reason that many white people didn’t take the disease perhaps as seriously as they should have.
Once the disease became widely racialized in the public conversation, there was a lack of vigilance that set in in certain white communities, especially in the red states. That’s pretty well established. There was a Washington Post article that said that once the disease was considered to be something that affected Blacks disproportionately and didn’t really claim young, healthy whites, then they kind of tuned out. [The article, which was published on May 17th, interviewed people in an upscale suburb of Atlanta, who were largely unconcerned about the virus. It was not about race, though one man noted, “When you start seeing where the cases are coming from and the demographics—I’m not worried.”]
That I get, but the media commenting on the fact that it was affecting Blacks disproportionately—
I really don’t want you to say that I am saying that the media is responsible for that. I’m not saying that. I’m saying that the language of racialization and the idea that it became a Black disease did lead to white people tuning out.
There was a brief controversy where you tweeted “you look interesting” at a nonbinary person, which got a lot of anger on Twitter. Do you want to explain what you meant?
Sure, I just want to say that I actually was walking into an interview at France Culture at the time I saw the tweet. I didn’t click on the writer’s bio, and I just tossed off a “you look interesting.” I didn’t know that the person was nonbinary. I regret the whole thing, but you can’t actually answer these things when you get a pile-on like that, because you won’t be taken in good faith. There’s an idea that I meant something much more than what I meant in that. My response is to disengage, because I thought I was dealing with somebody as an individual. I didn’t even know how they’re identified. I want to stress that the person’s name is Matt, and I didn’t click on their bio. And then it came to my attention, but you can’t argue your way out of that on Twitter.
[After our conversation, Williams wrote on Twitter that he had deleted the tweet, which “in retrospect was mean spirited. I’m mad at myself for commenting on someone’s looks instead of their ideas, especially so because I didn’t realize their identity, which obviously could make my comment more hurtful.”]
I know there was a funny thing that went around Twitter about you kicking someone out of your house, or someone “self-ejecting” from your house, for saying something not nice about Bari Weiss. Do you want to just, for the record, tell people what happened?
That got more attention than I can believe. Can I just say something that might not completely satisfy you? I really can’t comment on that for the sanctity of my own household sanity.
A previous version of this story misstated the language used on online message boards by the former “Tucker Carlson Tonight” staffer Blake Neff.