Changing Colors — Reflections on The Last White Man

15 November, 2022

 

The Last White Man, a nov­el by Mohsin Hamid
Hamish Hamilton/Penguin 2022
ISBN 9780241566572

 

Jordan Elgrably

 

We’ve all imag­ined what it might be like to expe­ri­ence an utter­ly dif­fer­ent life, to be some­one else — haven’t you ever won­dered, for instance, what you would do if you won the lot­tery and became a mil­lion­aire overnight, or how you would deal with los­ing your home and becom­ing home­less? If you woke up one morn­ing and you were dirt poor — so broke that you were no longer you? Have you not imag­ined your­self so changed that oth­ers wouldn’t rec­og­nize you?

Mohsin Hamid’s is avail­able from Pen­guin.

Imag­in­ing what it’s like to be “oth­er” is, I would argue, human nature. We can’t help but think, “if I were her, I would…” Han­nah Arendt was chan­nel­ing philoso­pher Emmanuel Kant when she talked about hav­ing “enlarged men­tal­i­ty,” where­in you try to inhab­it the mind of the oth­er — walk a mile in anoth­er person’s shoes, as it were. “To think with an enlarged men­tal­i­ty,” Arendt wrote, “means that one trains one’s imag­i­na­tion to go visiting.”

In Mohsin Hamid’s new nov­el, The Last White Man, a bland guy named Anders awak­ens to a trou­bling new self: “One morn­ing, Anders, a white man, woke up to find he had turned a deep and unde­ni­able brown.” First using the reverse fea­ture on his cell phone cam­era, and then the bath­room mir­ror, Anders “saw that the face look­ing back at him was not his at all.”

Inspired, per­haps, by Kafka’s sto­ry “Meta­mor­pho­sis,” in which a man wakes up one morn­ing as a giant insect, and no doubt ask­ing him­self what white soci­ety would do if its peo­ple were to change col­ors overnight, becom­ing “dark” or “col­ored” or “no longer rec­og­niz­ably” them­selves, Hamid decid­ed to com­pose a fable, a veneer of a nov­el (more of a novel­la, in truth) on this premise of shift­ing identity.

Anders can­not believe that he is now a dark-skinned man — nowhere, by the way, in The Last White Man, here­after TLWM, does Hamid use the terms “Black” or “African Amer­i­can” — and he is supreme­ly upset about it, so much so that he calls in sick to work and spends a week hid­ing out from every­one, wear­ing a hood­ie when run­ning vital errands in the neighborhood.

Anders looks for him­self in the mir­ror, but “the more he looked the less white he seemed, as though look­ing for his white­ness was the oppo­site of white­ness, was dri­ving it fur­ther away.” The nar­ra­tive con­tin­ues in this vein, with Anders feel­ing rather sor­ry for him­self, until he has to go back to work, where his white boss at the gym where he is employed says that if it had been him — if he had caught the dark skin dis­ease — “I would have killed myself.”

The read­er has to won­der at this point: does a per­son of col­or ever want to kill him­self mere­ly because he is dark-skinned? Short­ly after Anders’ racist boss at the gym encour­ages his sui­cide, the local TV news reports that a mutat­ed white man has killed him­self. Here the plague is not Covid but chang­ing skin col­or, where­in white peo­ple morph, tran­si­tion, trans­mo­gri­fy, mutate and metas­ta­size, as if being black or brown is a cancer.

In TLWM, as in his pre­vi­ous nov­el, Exit West, Hamid cre­ates his own nether­world, writ­ing in a “once upon a time” mode where almost any­thing can hap­pen, but he avoids lan­guage that would asso­ciate his lit­er­ary fic­tion with mag­ic real­ism or fan­ta­sy. In Exit West, a civ­il war in an unnamed coun­try forces a young cou­ple to flee, and they escape through an unex­plained phe­nom­e­non, a “door” that opens in their coun­try, allow­ing them to appear moments lat­er on a Greek island. These mys­te­ri­ous “doors” mate­ri­al­ize across the world, facil­i­tat­ing the escape of mil­lions of des­per­ate migrants, most often to coun­tries that do not want them. Here, in TLWM, white peo­ple become dark-skinned peo­ple overnight, one after the oth­er, like falling domi­noes, and, pre­dictably, chaos ensues.

A sto­ry about white peo­ple becom­ing black or brown has tremen­dous poten­tial, but alas, in TLWM, that poten­tial is unre­al­ized, for Anders is an aver­age white man with a poor imag­i­na­tion, and the oth­er char­ac­ters in the book are not much deep­er. Only his girl­friend Oona appears to oper­ate with agency; the oth­er white peo­ple, includ­ing Oona’s moth­er and Anders’ father, are pre­dictable. They love their chil­dren, and accept them when they become dark-skinned, but they do not imag­ine what this new world might be like, they do not seize the day and embrace the change of col­or. Instead, they live in fear and avoid con­tact with others.

Are we real­ly so hide­bound that we would fail to meet the chal­lenge of a new life? And how changed would you real­ly be if your skin were sev­er­al shades dark­er? After near­ly 50 pages, the read­er asks him­self, already ener­vat­ed by Anders, whether becom­ing a per­son of col­or will make the char­ac­ter more inter­est­ing — because he’s a drag. You don’t know if you can fin­ish the nov­el; you don’t have time for this dullard. Thank­ful­ly, Oona begins to make things more inter­est­ing, when — want­i­ng to know what it feels like to be Anders — she applies make­up on her skin to dark­en her­self, but then regrets it, though soon enough she’ll become as dark as Anders. Mean­while, across the Inter­net, “the con­ver­sa­tion had moved on to the search for a cure” and her mother’s racism is predictable:

It was not that we were bet­ter than them, although we were bet­ter than them, how could they deny it […] we would not par­tic­i­pate in our own erad­i­ca­tion, that had to end, and now there was no time to wait, now they were con­vert­ing us, and low­er­ing us.

Nowhere in TLWM does any­one have a sense of humor about chang­ing skin col­ors, nor does the author. In fact, becom­ing dark, for some, is a con­spir­a­cy, a “plot against their kind […] a plot that had been build­ing for years, for decades, maybe for centuries.”

The change of soci­ety seems so dire that Oona’s moth­er fears “The final chaos was approaching…a descent into crime and anar­chy, and can­ni­bal­ism, can­ni­bal­ism out of hunger, and, worse, out of vengeance, and blood would flow, and all should pre­pare for the end.”

At this point, you want to learn more about “the great replace­ment the­o­ry” — the ide­ol­o­gy gird­ing Charlotteville’s neo-Nazis. Accord­ing to the Nation­al Immi­gra­tion Forum, the the­o­ry “states that wel­com­ing immi­gra­tion poli­cies — par­tic­u­lar­ly those impact­ing non­white immi­grants — are part of a plot designed to under­mine or ‘replace’ the polit­i­cal pow­er and cul­ture of white peo­ple liv­ing in West­ern coun­tries […] the the­o­ry often uses mar­tial and vio­lent rhetoric of a migrant ‘inva­sion’ that must be stopped before it ‘con­quers’ ‘white America.’”

While Hamid is suc­cess­ful in explor­ing white fear of replace­ment by peo­ple of col­or, through­out the nov­el I expect­ed to come upon black and brown char­ac­ters, and hear their opin­ions. But alas, with only one fleet­ing excep­tion, they nev­er appear. There is one per­son of col­or, the jan­i­tor at the gym where Anders works. For a time, Anders tells him­self he’d like to get to know this man, whose last name escapes him, but in the sin­gle brief scene where Anders does talk to the jan­i­tor, we learn nei­ther his name nor any­thing about him, oth­er than that he would like a raise.

Through­out TLWM, in fact, peo­ple of col­or are stark­ly absent. We have no idea what they think about the phe­nom­e­non of white peo­ple becom­ing dark-skinned. Per­haps the author intend­ed to focus exclu­sive­ly on white fear and expose it for what it is, but the nov­el would have been much more effec­tive had those miss­ing voic­es found their way into the nar­ra­tive. Because they are not allowed to speak for them­selves, peo­ple of col­or become objec­ti­fied; and con­verse­ly, white peo­ple as a result seem less three-dimensional.

While com­ing to the end of TLWM, I hap­pened across this remark by the Nor­we­gian film­mak­er Deeya Khan, in her TED talk, where she iden­ti­fies with both brown and white people:

When I was a child, I knew I had superpowers…I thought I was absolute­ly amaz­ing, because I could relate to and under­stand the feel­ings of brown peo­ple, like my grand­fa­ther, a con­ser­v­a­tive Mus­lim guy. And also, I could under­stand my Afghan moth­er, my Pak­istani father, not so reli­gious, but laid back, fair­ly lib­er­al. And of course, I could under­stand and relate to the feel­ings of white peo­ple, the white Nor­we­gians of my coun­try. You know, white, brown, what­ev­er, I love them all.

Read­ing TLWM, we know what some white peo­ple think about peo­ple of col­or, but what do peo­ple of col­or think of us? (To clar­i­fy where I fall on the col­or spec­trum, though I have Moroc­can grand­par­ents and am near­ly 50 per­cent African by DNA, I am one of those hybrids who pass­es for white.) To begin to answer this ques­tion, I recent­ly spent time wan­der­ing around Mont­pel­li­er with a black friend, a writer whose race radar was always on as we walked into any room or pub­lic space. This person’s vig­i­lance rarely fal­tered, whether the ener­gy was good, bad or indif­fer­ent. It seemed like a tremen­dous invest­ment with dubi­ous returns. Anoth­er black friend (and for­mer room­mate) relat­ed that, on the con­trary, he was not in the least con­cerned about what white peo­ple may think of him. “I am ful­ly aware that racism exists and that it is occa­sion­al­ly point­ed in my direc­tion,” he explained, but “I real­ly could care less about what ‘peo­ple’ think of me.”

But the mem­oirist and nov­el­ist Michael Datch­er (Rais­ing Fences: A Black Man’s Love Sto­ry and Amer­i­cus) relat­ed to me that his approach, “When com­ing into a new room or into a new space or walk­ing down the street and encoun­ter­ing peo­ple, is to speak so that the peo­ple in the room can hear my dic­tion, my lan­guage use and obvi­ous edu­ca­tion. This allows me to influ­ence the per­cep­tion of me based upon actu­al data as opposed to their per­cep­tion of me based upon stereo­types of who I could be. This approach does­n’t always work but it does usu­al­ly have an impact. The sad part is that this and oth­er tech­niques that I use are weari­some. To para­phrase James Bald­win, I love being black but it’s exhausting.”

Hamid, a Mus­lim Pak­istani from Lahore, has writ­ten about what it was like to feel that he had some white “pass­ing” priv­i­lege in New York, as an edu­cat­ed writer, but how after 9/11 the world treat­ed him dif­fer­ent­ly. Arabs and Mus­lims no longer passed eas­i­ly after that cat­a­stro­phe. Any­one who looked Arab/Muslim wear­ing a back­pack, for instance, was imme­di­ate­ly sus­pect, and feared. I recent­ly par­tic­i­pat­ed in a book group con­ver­sa­tion about TLWM, in which an Arab Amer­i­can woman said, “As an Arab Mus­lim woman, I’ve felt this pres­sure to prove I’m not a threat, I’m not an extrem­ist.” She explained that while Arabs/Muslims know all about West­ern soci­eties, “the West doesn’t know much about us.” A read­er in the same group, an Alger­ian Amer­i­can, won­dered whether being Arab would ever be uni­ver­sal. He explained, “Before 9/11, peo­ple were fas­ci­nat­ed by my Mus­lim back­ground; after 9/11, they would ask me, ‘why are your peo­ple so violent?’”

It would seem that whites fear peo­ple of col­or, they fear Mus­lims, they fear migrants com­ing over the bor­der, they fear becom­ing a minor­i­ty and los­ing pow­er. It goes with­out say­ing that the 74 mil­lion Amer­i­cans who vot­ed for Trump in the most recent pres­i­den­tial elec­tions oper­ate more on fear than logic.

Hamid as a writer explores strong emo­tions, includ­ing fear and shame. In both Exit West and TLWM, his pro­tag­o­nists feel shame. His char­ac­ters Nadia and Saeed in the for­mer nov­el feel shame because they are dis­placed and home­less, they are unwant­ed migrants; in TLWM, the shame is in being a dark-skinned per­son of col­or who has lost white priv­i­lege. But col­orism isn’t seri­ous­ly treat­ed here; it’s white­washed (pun intend­ed). And what of peo­ple who are eth­ni­cal­ly ambigu­ous? Where do the hybrids fit in, in TLWM’s near­ly dystopi­an world? Is every­one who does not pass for white a threat?

In the end, the nov­el should have its char­ac­ters answer­ing the ques­tion “how does it feel to be a prob­lem?” But whites becom­ing blacks and browns are too busy feel­ing sor­ry for themselves.

 

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