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Thomas Chatterton Williams

Thomas Chatterton Williams

Cultural Critic, Author & The Atlantic Contributing Writer

Thomas Chatterton Williams

Cultural Critic, Author & The Atlantic Contributing Writer


A cultural critic for extraordinary times, Thomas Chatterton Williams brings his insightful perspective to subjects of race, Black identity and history, cancel culture, social justice and inequality in America and the world. His thought-provoking talks touch upon some of the most urgent issues confronting American culture today — intertwined with his own family’s compelling multigenerational story of transformation from what is called Black to what is perceived to be white.

Called “a remarkable new literary voice,” Williams is the author of two highly acclaimed books: Self Portrait in Black and White: Family, Fatherhood and Rethinking Race, a TIME “Must Read” book, and Losing My Cool: Love, Literature, and a Black Man's Escape from the Crowd. Both memoirs artfully blend his own story with larger themes of family, race and social justice.

A visiting professor of the humanities and senior fellow at the Hannah Arendt Center at Bard College, he is a contributing writer at The Atlantic. Previously a contributing writer at The New York Times Magazine and a columnist at Harper’s, his work has appeared in The New Yorker, the London Review of BooksLe Monde and many other places, and has been collected in The Best American Essays and The Best American Travel Writing.

A 2022 Guggenheim fellow and recipient of the Berlin Prize from The American Academy in Berlin, he was a 2019 New America national fellow and is currently a visiting fellow at AEI. His next book, Nothing Was the Same: The Pandemic Summer of George Floyd and the Shift in Western Consciousness, will be published by Knopf.

Speaker Videos

Has Cancel Culture Gone Too Far? | Amanpour and Company

Big Ideas At Aspen Ideas Festival

On Race | Bill Maher

On Cancel Culture and Race | Bill Maher

Speech Topics

How to Engage in Important Debates

Is it possible to engage in important debates in today’s divisive climate, in which scapegoats are publicly humiliated and everyone is constantly on edge, waiting to be ambushed, screenshotted, ratioed, dunked on, reported and potentially fired? Thomas Chatterton Williams, cultural critic, author and The Atlantic contributing writer, believes it is achievable. And in this talk, he’s going to show you how. He’ll share the top do’s and don’ts and why healthy debates are so critical to relationships, your community and at work.

Unlearning Race

“It is not that I have come to believe that I am no longer Black or that my daughter is white,” Williams wrote in his standout memoir, Self-Portrait in Black and White. “It is that these categories cannot adequately capture either of us.” Through the story of his own family’s multigenerational transformation from what is called Black to what is assumed to be white, Williams questions the very foundation of how we choose to see and define ourselves. With ample references to America’s “maddening and inspiring racial history,” Williams challenges audiences to reject socially dominant categories of race. Inspiring us to think outside social constructs, he boldly examines race, racism and identity through the engaging power of personal narrative and insightful cultural commentary.

Beyond Black History Month: Achieving Authentic Antiracism

As a student, Thomas Chatterton Williams felt uncomfortable during Black History Month. While he recalled a “patronizing feeling” and a lack of respect shown by white classmates toward the content, he could not fully articulate the root of his unease until many years later. In this provocative talk, drawn from his noted Wall Street Journal essay, Williams calls on all of us to move past the well-meaning Month and toward achieving authentic antiracism—an antiracism that ultimately demands we think beyond the racial categories that prejudice and hierarchy thrive on instead of fashionably reinforcing them. “If we care about solving the racial dilemma once and for all, we should first strive to create a society in which Black people, and by extension, all other identity groups are not considered and celebrated as different,” he writes. “We need to arrive at a psychological place where we no longer require a Black History Month.” Contending that the history of Black Americans should be taught as a central part of U.S. history, not set aside and contemplated in isolation, Williams envisions a society that has moved beyond the binary of Black and white by transcending the very concept of race itself.

The Summer of George Floyd

There are moments in history that can define a generation. As Woodstock shaped the Boomers and 9-11 molded Generation X, Thomas Chatterton Williams examines how the Summer of 2020—the Summer of George Floyd—is on track to define the culture, outlook and hopes of Generation Z. In this insightful talk, Williams unpacks the unparalleled confluence of race and pandemic that spurred a perfect storm of social awareness and upheaval. From COVID shining a harsh spotlight on health and economic disparities to the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and others at the hands of police, Williams scrutinizes a season of history that has forever changed America—leaving an indelible impression on those that are coming of age during this time. 

The Dangers of Cancel Culture to Ideological Diversity

By now, most of us are familiar with “cancel culture,” a form of ostracism in which someone is thrown out or “cancelled” from social or professional circles because of objectionable opinions or behaviors. Thomas Chatterton Williams was one of its earliest and most ardent critics, helping draft and organize the landmark “A Letter on Justice and Open Debate,” that appeared in Harper’s Magazine. Signed by more than a hundred notable authors, academics and intellectuals, the letter condemned an atmosphere of creeping censoriousness and illiberalism for constricting “the free exchange of information and ideas” and creating “an intolerance of opposing views and the tendency to dissolve complex policy issues in a blinding moral certainty.” Williams addresses the danger to ideological diversity and debate that cancel culture poses, its chilling effect on experimentation and risk taking, and the threats to free speech in our cultural institutions that it creates.