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tv   After Words Thomas Chatterton Williams Self- Portrait in Black and White  CSPAN  December 30, 2019 12:01am-1:01am EST

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>> they have introduced us and said who we are so we can start talking about your wonderful book. the best way to do that is the book that makes an argument about who you are so you grew
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up in new jersey. >> im from the segregated south born in 1837 under segregation and jim crow. he moved to the west as soon as he could under the great society initiative and met my mother in san diego she was fresh out of college she is the daughter of evangelical christians and he was very much a part of the mainstream american society that opposed interracial marriage in the sixties and seventies.
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>> my mother is white. [laughter] and he was really unhappy when my parents got together so eventually they moved up to oregon and washington state and denver and through 1981 when i was born. >> and the job in new jersey? >> by the time i was born my father was tutoring students who would come to the house in private for the sat or lsat or math and science and he was supporting his family so my brother and i became captive students very small and modest
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but it was packed from wall to wall so we studied with him on the weekends and over summer break so that was the mediocre parochial catholic school. >> why did you go? >> for a variety of reasons my father believed the discipline would be better there and he wanted to get us out of our neighborhood it was in formally segregated part of new jersey there was a white side in a black side of town so as a silent protest against the attempts to steer us to the white pocket and in the
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1980s and nineties that came with some racial dynamics my father wanted to get us out of's we went to a catholic school a couple towns over. >> but actually my father is an atheist and my mother is a protestant so when we would go to mass we would just sit back it was an early experience of standing apart. >> was it a significant difference from the others? >> no one else not a single other person most were from catholic families? >> i was not even aware meeting children of other faith until i got to georgetown in 1999. >> c went to catholics school. >> and jesuit college that i had a catholic education. [laughter] >> how did that go?
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you said you got the best out of education out of your home but more important than the school that it seems. >> so what is the composition? >> technically my mother is a white anglo-saxon protestant so not as a social elite she is derived from anglo-saxon but that's about as far as that goes so that was my experience but then i grew up in new jersey that my parents referred to as ethnic white polish and italian and irish kids so that was my experience those that pretended to be
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catholic then once i got to college and realize they tended not to be at all the elite white. >> many of them were not it was the kids in the neighborhood but also the kids in the school. >> so what percentage were blac black? >> up through high school i was a handful of black students and was really aware of that i could interpret my race identity as i wanted to but by the time i got to high school it was a deliberate choice i chose to go to a school that was much more black and latino. >> you are offered a choice. >> yes i could've gone to a pretty good all boys catholic school that was pretty white but i very much wanted to be
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with black people so i chose to go to a school with academics and in terms of basketball i believed i was good enough basketball to make up for that i knew my father would make me study with him no matter what so i didn't worry about my sats so i went to a school that was heavily black and latino. but it was catholic. >> so how serious were you about your basketball? >> i was pretty serious until there was a conflict until i left the school and my high school girlfriend behind serious enough i tried a few times at saint anthony's and then the trials went well i
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tried my luck to be on the team when i was 15 or 16 but at the last moment i didn't have a desire to leave the girl that i was madly in love with and the racial self conception. >> because in a way it is eccentric. >> and she was your access to normal. >> i realize in retrospect it was different about my family my father left the segregated south with this upbringing that caused him pain and my mother had this stifling racism coming from her own father so my brother and i
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were raised out of the context of the family members on the black or white sides warehouse we were a force unto ourselves i didn't realize how different that was until i became an adult and i saw how many cousins my children have and how important extended family is to them so may racial identity always came directly from my father but also my mother agreed we were a black household so we grew up with a white mom and black dad but it wasn't that complicated of a question for us the black kids were used to looking all kinds of races so it was an uncomplicated sense of myself i didn't realize depending on how i behaved her dressed others could perceive a more
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or less authentic racial identity so i grew into the idea the girl that i was with was also the fulcrum. >> i refer to stc in the book she was one year younger than me and actually from a household that was pretty middle-class but was in the neighboring black town and lived more of an inner-city experience. she exuded that intoxicating cool that it was shocking to me. here is a girl to take the sat test nobody asked her to or told her to. she would cut school.
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>> her life plan? >> she didn't have one. she needed one. but she didn't have one and when i was a senior she was a junior my father tried to prepare her on his own for free i think she was one of the first kids he ever worked with you just could not reach her she just did not care i think she exuded like that cool culture she exemplified that. >> at the time it was very exotic to me she was completely outside of that context in the home i was trying to lead a double life and to share that home life that i had in my social context at school.
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>> so they didn't know you were studying. >> most of them didn't understand and they were shocked and then i had invitations to go to schools. >> you said you didn't have the extended family you might have had for good reason with your father not wanting to go to the segregated south. >> my grandmother would come and visit us every year but in retrospect i realized her husband could've come but never did and never called she made the effort to come. >> but not in her place. >> and she had other grandchildren.
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>> it was from afar. >> that impacted his sense of myself. >> all the people that defined themselves of who we are i have abreast friend i called charles in the book his mother was puerto rican and his father black american and he was one of these kids extraordinarily smart very good-looking and popular early on he latched onto me and started coming home with me because i live much closer to the school saw what my father had access to with all of these books and he said i want to participate was the opposite of my high school girlfriend so he came over
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every day and did prep work outside of the classes. he did little bit on the sat got straight a's and went to oxford want to the top law school in the country and made a smashing success of himself so we were like brothers but he was also extraordinarily cool. >> i was trying my best.
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>> you had a sense it was the way that you were at home. >> it did not translate to what my peers would value although in retrospect but i really don't know. i felt as though. >> having done well on the sat i had a perfect score the principal wanted to honor me that everybody would tease me and make me and cool and everybody watched it and when we stepped out into the hallway i brace myself for the teasing but nobody even acknowledged that one day on - - one way or another because had i had anything on the
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basketball court that would have registered much more but it meant nothing. >> what about college? >> what i'm aware of quex it depends a definition of college quite a few stopped at high school. my girlfriend got pregnant and that was it there were a lot of students like that. >> what did your school think about this quick's. >> and why i was dating this girl and delicately that he
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was concerned as well. so you are separated and then to realize and in new jersey she was going to move in with him and she scolded me the first time it was awkward like you are tripping what happened to you so i realize when i came home that there was something that i realized to express about who i was and then that happen. >>. >> your friends quex so in
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high school and academic stuff because you are intellectually engaged. >> and to be pretty diverse from new jersey and we spent a lot of time together and my friend henry and and i had nothing against my dorm mates but i move through the world
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but then i don't know why and moving into the segregated breakdown i also went to howard on the weekend and i just saw this larger reality but then i was very ill in the dormitory went to take a shower and there was one student who was still awake two doors down from mine he invited me in to have some tea and a jewish kid from brooklyn and that's the first time i talked to him and i live next to him for six months and i never really paid attention as though black culture began and
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then none of us listen to jazz that my dad basically didn't have music in the house. so we became friends over jazz. and introduce me to all these other musicians that i started to love that i realized he's the first jewish guy i had ever met. there are people from all over and gradually i started to realize my group is all the pressure from that. >> so somebody who could have had a more complicated relation because he was
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connected with the african identity that was 100 percent rooted. >> that's right in america he was made black so to other black americans but he put on some close from time to time and then they did go back but they knew where they came from i think he had allied self-esteem all of his brothers approach school and then with that tenacity of the immigrants and then to become scientist in all of this
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all-in-one generation to become successful. >> talk about the success to be routed somewhere makes you want to step back that your parents took it for granted that you are black what do they thank you should know about black history? >> my father did the best to read james baldwin. but also to always believe my identity did not begin or end with the reality of my blackness so he had his life saved with a black boy in texas but he stumbled upon
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plato's dialogue and he tried his best to read and it didn't make sense at first but there was something out there that would link him with the greek mind and that if he could access that he could access the wider world and would find books and he would be in the closet with a flashlight his family would say what you doing you're going to get in trouble don't read those books but aesop's fables were huge for him. he always had a sense you could see yourself in many different places so the identity of not just being black. >> you're going through a phase that blackness is cool. >> a very narrow understanding.
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>> thinking that he whereas eccentric but then this comes with the experience of the more diverse community. >> and the first time i ever met black students from other social economics colleges where black america that's not just immigrants that socially and economically it's more from newark or new jersey and getting into jazz to take all these writers more seriously so i began to wonder why my friends and i and why he was to exemplify.
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>> and you were talking about the sense and then how you came to change her mind but i'm just interested how you got from your high school so i really grew up believing primarily because they can never be white but there is something essential about racial identity there are more and less authentic ways to enact that identity so my
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first book was a coming-of-age memoir beginning to question not only racial identity but that narrow frame being sold to my generation we had two very different experiences to self sabotage those values and habits to participate for those around me. >> that extraordinarily generous way that male-female relations were a form of getting over and for example that became something i really
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regret it and came to deal with them the book but possessions and success as opposed to inner freedom so it's a monolith but that version we all modeled our identities and it is really offensive so the book was a rejection of that but a questioning of the racial construct that later was more like an experience. >> so taking black for granted but also the conception of what it is. >> that's right.
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i should have done the research but there were people who did not like that. [laughter] looking at the historically black colleges but a lot of black readers going to these elite colleges agreed with the book. to say you don't know that black experience and then said this resonates. >> and those that are the anti- sexist. >> so maybe the critique of
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the materialism. >> and i should stress is not that jazz is better than hip-hop but it is a way to have this secular type of religion that affects people's entire life. . . . . i always se french requirements in school and the summer before i
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graduated to finish my credits i went and studied for two months on tour just to get the credits and what happens is i ended up falling in love with this country, just the freedom to sit at a café, cliche stuff. i haven't been daring in my culinary pursuits prior to that. i came back from that experience and begin dating briefly a french exchange student. we have a had an intense relatip during that time i didn't know what to do. i kind of wanted to take a year just working and she found me a job teaching english and by the time that came around we had broken up that i said just to let you know, i got this job,
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interest in this country now. let me go and see what's out there so i lived in this northern town on the border of belgium. it was rainy and gloomy that i felt the freedom i never felt before. i taught english for ten hours a week and had just enough to pay my rent and buy a couple of meals and i sat in cafés reading cliché stuff that really world opening things. as that year came to him and my father told me you need to come back home and figure out what you're going to do. so i took the test and didn't get into the program i wanted and decided i've got to get a job. i thought maybe i would do that and go to law school.
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i worked a 36 hour day and left on a thursday and i decided i had such bad experiences i needed to try to be a writer that's what i want to try to do so i applied to nyu in the journalism school and i got a fellowship that made it possible for me to go so i approached it with a kind of naïveté to come up with a deal to. >> host: the first moment you thought you might be a writer was sitting in cafés writing what was happening to you. that sense of freedom writing
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about europe if these biographies about arriving at and realizing for the first time that everybody was reacting. is that part of the freedom? >> guest: that took me more years to realize and articulate, but one of the first experiences was i would often eat at shops and i remember walking into the shop o on late-night end of the man speaking to me in arabic. i looked at him and said to speak arabic and i said why. he said why didn't your parents teach you your language and i said what do you mean. he said what are your origins and i said my dad is from texas and my mom is from california. he said where are you from and i said i'm back.
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he looks at me with incredulity and says you're not black. since you're not black. michael jordan is black. i had to sit there and explained to him but that is the first time i realized to be that i think of myself isn't necessarily come into changes the way i am a. it was a very diverse. my phenotype looks more like the north african phenotype. it was the first time i'd been mistaken for my identity someone didn't accept my own self-definition and it was also the first time i realized the most salient thing about me.
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>> host: here you are becoming a writer getting the qualifications of a do you already know what you are going to write about? the teachers of assignment was to write anything you want to to taktake a position it argued forcefully. i was reading a lot at that ti time. why is this so much richer than what i thought i had access to when i was growing up and i
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wrote a piece arguing that the culture in the hip-hop era isn't black culture, it is black street culture this could actually be published somewhere. and a beautifu the beautiful tht going to these programs is that they know somebody that can give you -- they said it is and fresh enough, wait until there is a new event. so they took it and it ran into generated a lot of comments. i said i would love to expand because it was about 800 words. my professor introduced me to an
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agent and i worked on a proposal and came back to finish my degree. i was naïve enough to know. i didn't have any family money or anything back home so i knew i had to actually support myself by my writing. you have a published statement so you have to go somewhere and do this. >> guest: initially i went back to my apartment i was sharing with my long-term girlfriend from college. we had a bit of time off. a woman who really taught me the complexity of identity was a
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mixed girl. her mother's family comes from the north of italy and her father's family comes from nigeria and she was above washington-a mostly dominican and had this kind of identity of knowing. so she spoke japanese, lived in japan and she identified as black. my father's blackness was completely foreign to her. she didn't even consider herself having anything to do with those who mostly populated she felt that i was completely foreign. i'm starting to write and we are beginning to grow apart and
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began to break up. a friend of mine allowed me to borrow his apartment and i went back and felt free again but i got three chapters and felt energized. i no longer have my apartment and had without knowing anything about it went back down to buenos aires, got an apartment for a few months and works like i've never worked in my life. >> host: it doesn't say much about how. it's a rather bold thing to do. there was an english-speaking community.
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i was obsessed with the literature. we were going to go to mexico city because i was obsessed where we were going to go to buenos aires because there was a friend about have been living there. >> host: that did most finishing the book. >> guest: i did much of the book there. it's one of the situations where you just didn't have to worry. it was a fraction of the price of living. that is the true competition you get paid in freedom and you can do it where you want to. >> host: the book comes out and you get these reaction. how do you end up --
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>> guest: so when i was waiting for the book to come out, i was not yet sure how to make it as a magazine journalist, and i took a job working for a french university flying around the united states kind of taking meetings with high achieving high school students have you thought about studying, they have a program in english now come into this kind of a wonderful job and i came to paris a couple of times with the trends that i had been making when i graduated college and when i was writing my book i met up with some friends at a bar and we talked to each other for a couple of minutes and kept in touch. when she came to new york, things moved from there and before i knew if i was proposing to her and she moved for a year to new york and then i think we quickly realized she is a writer as well and we would do better off in a social democracy than
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brooklyn. >> host: now from the point of view of an american -- >> guest: that was very much my point of view when i met her. and in a way part of what happens -- >> guest: when i began to live in france for the second time, i was struck people didn't just accept the fact that it was self-evident. my wife is french but like my mother, she was blonde haired, blue eyes, fair skin. people would ask why do you say that you are black, there are many ways you might describe yourself. i would explain to them the dissent and then they would
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basically say okay but i know that there is a kind of resistance to just buying into that but i never noticed it before. >> host: never? >> guest: not really. i never met somebod somebody tht identified as biracial until georgetown. you didn't even have the option of checking or than one box until 2000. my thought was very much aligned with what barack obama eloquently explained which is if they were doing something wrong with it as you would say there'k guy doing something wrong. that was very much my reasoning. i didn't get a lot of resistance to that. but you know, we got married in 2000 and by 2012 i was starting to realize that if we have kids, my kids might not pretty light. i wrote an op-ed in "the new york times" which in retrospect
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is kind of glib but arguing my future children would be blocked, period. but i really believe that. i was writing an op-ed in arguing to myself publicly your kids must be blocked into this kind of a moral obligation. i was arguing it so often i even kind of prevailed upon my wife to accept the view even though it was very foreign to her european mindset. so she said okay. i'm going to have black kids, cool. and then i kind of put that aside and about myself several more months. by the time we ended up in the delivery room i can honestly say that i walked into the delivery room one person and left a completely different person. and it's not because i had white children. it's because the presence of my blonde haired blue-eyed children shattered my belief of races.
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with a white mom and black bound. >> host: do you think it would have been different if there were different genetics with darker hair? >> guest: the fact of knowing she's one fifth sub-saharan african descendent and when we travel to visit friends and passes as a local it is that absurdity that shattered my belief not only in our situation that made me realize that the categories don't explain anybody's full complexity but most visible. >> host: you could have responded by saying i am a black man with a white child. what completes the argument and what is the argument?
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who are you now? what is the position that you are asking us to persuade? >> guest: to perhaps join me. my belief in the categories are deeply damaged. by way of working through the questions to write about them i wrote an essay for the quarterly review called a black and blue and wind and it was much more questions, not answers and so i was wondering what does it mean to change the race of people, what does it mean to be the decision-maker that steers the train from one track to another and i didn't know tha but that y
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was grappling with this kind of fear i was feeling like metaphorically was the implication of that and what would it mean to have 20, 30 years down the line children and grandchildren that could potentially just toss off the comments among the roomful of people. my classmates used to talk about having cherokee blood or something like that. no emotional significance. so grappling with those questions and i realized i didn't have enough space to write the book. i wasn't having an argument yet and i started reading a lot on
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the way that witchcraft functions in previous societies but you can buy a stake if you are proceeding to do and that is the paradox and that creates race not the other way around and that became a fundamental insight. >> host: i would have thought of that as a thought you could have had. i was studying german idealism. about the question even if i paid more attention now that they are making this point i went back and reread them, these arguments were already there.
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there were new feelings about it because you have a daughter and this wasn't theoretical. >> guest: became angry red against race which i thought was astonishing, but none of that still bugs me to the point of understanding how to finish this book until i profiled in 2018 the artists who -- >> host: who by the way i interviewed -- >> guest: you did so. >> host: the piece, the transitional article was by my husband who persuaded her to write it.
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it was an astonishing piece. there was black ancestry on both sides of the family, but her father was so light he could pass in the military had received two birth certificates. the first said he was white and the other on his mother's insistence that he wouldn't have a white birth certificate but many people didn't know what to make of this. a graduate student at harvard philosophy. >> guest: they say you are about as black as i i am and it shattered the idea of these kind of questions that would interfere with the life and mind. but in 2012, she publicly retired from being black and
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when i read that i was astonished by this and i wanted to write about her and she wasn't interested in doing much press but after about two months of going through e-mails and having interesting conversatio conversations, we had these conversations and something in talking to her [and release something in me her example gave me permission to say i want to step out of this perverse all-american game that operates on the idea that there is a white and black binary that's real and that monolithic greatness lumps jews, sometimes even arabs, anglo-saxons together as opposed to. i want to step out of that and i want my children to be the type
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that don' the just easily blendo the wife. the thing that gives me pause and scares me is maybe my children won't have this kind of pain and guilt that touches me to the community and she said, if they don't have to be burdened by guilt, why would you want to burden them by guilt. they can know who they are and where they come from, but isn't the point of struggle to at some point not have to struggle anymore? i never had a conversation with somebody where they were so straightforwardly questioning what i assumed to be a necessi necessity. >> host: from the retirement home where you are retired -- you are also trying to raise
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your kids, -- we have like five minutes left but practical challenge is what's possible for your children is going to depend. you can't do this on your own. to say at a very minimum it would require me and my children to be in this game is suggesting we would be better off if we left the game of race. the response is going to be from some people that risk of leaving
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behind who need it blackness as the one thing they've got to create solidarity and resistance that may be a pretty racist portal. frankly most of the people who are thinking about what yo you'e denying them, most of them aren't going to read your book they are not in the business of making this kind of argument or responding to this kind of argument so we have to make it for them. what is your view of that is the best case were for the other side? >> guest: i think that very often when we talk about race we are talking about ethnicity and class and culture and things
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like this. i don't think that subverting and resisting means you have to lose touch with your communities or the cultural traditions that matter to you. i think that white people and people rendered not white in society have the least incentive to uphold what keeps the hoping going. this book is very much an appeal for those that are necessary if there can be sufficient numbers subverting their own and rejecting and understanding how the race has been made in achieving the perspective that resists that racial identity is an appeal to the trajectory. >> host: and how do they do that? >> guest: one of the things
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you can do right off the bat is used language that really matters that describes the word choices we make matters so you might stop saying you're white and get a specific conception of who you are and where your mother's family comes from, where your father's family comes from and do some genealogical research. you might actually do some research into people that dig far enough will find things that contradict their perception of themselves and you might interpret that who you are with specifics of dorsal fin on the other hand you might actually just have a much more universal system tuesday i'm a member of the human race. people will laugh at you. >> host: you mention when you made the argument against the culture it turned out they were
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going to go along for the ride and i hope that you are finding there are people everywhere who want to do this and the challenge i think is that they are made by us together and it's kind of a team effort and while you don't have to bring everybody along for it to work, we have to bring an awful lot of people. >> guest: you need sufficient numbers that they can and do change and i don't think you can actually stumbled by accident in a better future you can first ambition but there's an element of labor that does have to happen before it seems like a longshot. we have to defeat the racial dilution, i'm paraphrasing here asking the impossible but we know our children nothing less than the impossible.
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>> host: and that is home for no? >> guest: that's home to. >> host: when is the next book? >> guest: there's not going to be another war. if they do a third one before the age of 40. >> host: so a novel perhaps? >> guest: it didn't come together the way i want so maybe i will try a new novel or i might step out of myself and get into some reporting. >> host: terrific. we have stepped out of our time. we are at the end of the time available and i wish you all the best in this book and project and escaping race. >> guest: it's been a pleasure. thank you so much.
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