On the durability of American racial satire

ANONYMOUS SET of Mohsin Hamid’s 2022 novel The last white man brings with it a certain comfort. The British-Pakistani author’s lack of specificity is purposeful: thrust into a nameless city in an unknown country, the reader has no cultural foundations to cling to, no social baggage to carry. The blank slate leaves only one aspect to focus on, which Hamid alludes to in his first verse: “One morning Anders, a white man, awoke to find himself turning a deep and undeniably brown color.” This pithy statement of fact—a rarity in a novel—establishes the binary law of the land: you’re either white or black, there’s no in between.

The last white man it comes at an uncertain time in the world’s racial landscape. The tenets and language of the “Great Replacement” theory—the conspiratorial worldview that whites in society are being systematically replaced by nonwhites—are flooding the mainstream at an alarming rate. It’s a violent, zero-sum mindset that adheres to the most rudimentary ways race can be weaponized, encouraging arbitrarily constructed social groups to feel as though they must compete with each other. Cutting out almost all context, Hamid creates space for the mechanism of racial substitution to play out in miniature, among a small set of characters: Anders; his friend and rekindled lover, Oona; his father; and Oona’s mother. The slow burn of the plot, combined with Hamid’s loose stream-of-consciousness prose, creates ample opportunity to explore the ways in which people cope with the loss of racial and social status.

Anders’ loss of whiteness at the beginning of the book reveals the intense insecurity associated with his social position—hanging by a thread, held only by the color of his skin. After confirming that his whiteness has been stolen by looking in the bathroom mirror, the omniscient narrator shares Anders’ internal response:

Emotions overwhelmed him, not so much shock or sadness, although those things were there, but above all the face that replaced his filled him with anger, or rather, more than anger, an unexpected, murderous rage. He wanted to kill the black man who opposed him here in his home, to extinguish the life that animates the other’s body, to leave nothing but himself as he was before, and he struck the side of his fist in the face, cracking it slightly, and causing it to all the accessories, the cabinet, the mirror and all of it slants, like a picture after the earthquake has passed.

There is no one around him, there is no posturing, neither by him nor by others. Anders’ violent outburst, despite his isolation, explains the racial power structure of the city he lives in, as well as how important this position of power is to the white people who live there. Whiteness is not just a descriptor – it is everything. Once gone, gentleness and confusion fill the void of his self-worth; Anders covers himself with a hat to hide his identity, cringes at the sight of the whites and seeks solace in his fragile relationship with Oona.

As the book progresses, Anders and Oona realize that his situation is not unique. Oona’s initial reaction is one of disinterest; she sees her relationship with Anders as casual and is happy to write it off as a phenomenological rarity that is simply unfortunate. But when Oona returns from a night out with Anders – motivated by his need for comfort in the midst of his crisis – she hears from her mother that people are changing everywhere. “Our people,” she says, those two words falling hard. Soon she won’t be able to bear the thought of her white daughter being with a dark man.

Anders calls his father to tell him that he is no longer white. His father, whose health is deteriorating, gets angry and does not trust the phone. But when he goes to his son’s doorstep to see for himself, he breaks down. His son is no longer in front of him: the connection with his deceased wife, Anders’ mother, has disappeared. In their place is, quite simply, a dark man.

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Whispers of white people going dark begin on the fringes of town. Internet conspiracy freaks—people like Oona’s mother—are the first to realize what’s going on. They are ignored and ridiculed until more respectable voices join in. As the frequency of change increases, the mood in the city worsens. Citizens’ actions become drastic. People commit suicide; businesses were abandoned. Extremist ideas are suddenly close, or mainstream. Oona’s mother’s obsession with finding out the “truth” about this event, fueled by online and traditional enclaves of information, pushes her towards a paranoid conclusion. She believes that this mass change is the execution of a conspiracy, a master plan against white people in the country that has been building for years, perhaps centuries. Oona’s mother cannot comprehend that her race has been switched, so she clings to this conspiracy theory to make sense of her fragmented reality. She wants to understand why she feels like her race is under attack; she wants to find the cause – root it out and reverse the change, to protect her destiny in life.

Although it is certainly not restored, elements of Hamid’s story return to him Black No More, George S. Schuyler’s 1931 satire on American race relations. The inciting events are mirror images: while Hamid’s white characters are stripped of their whiteness without explanation, Schuyler’s story sees black Americans deliberately become white through an elective scientific procedure. However, the social context in which these moments take place is extremely similar, speaking of the persistence of white supremacy through different time periods and places. Black No MoreThe race change procedure was presented as a cure for America’s racial problem. As Dr. Crookman explains:

“[O]could not possibly solve the American race problem. My sociology professor once said that there are only three ways for a black man to solve his problem in America,” he pointed with his long thin fingers, “Either leave, go white, or go along.” Since he didn’t want to and couldn’t go out and just managed indifferently, it seemed to me that the only thing he could do was turn white.

Whiteness is framed as freedom. Centuries of enslavement and colonialism, decades of lynching and other forms of racial violence, years of playing and hating blacks burdened the daily lives of black Americans. Schuyler’s main character, Max Disher (the first civilian to use Dr. Crookman’s “Black No More” treatment), longed for the ease of being white in the United States: the ability to be free from Jim Crow laws, to go wherever he wanted, to do anything what he wants. It’s addition and subtraction for the black characters of Schuyler’s satire. This desire for white privileges can be seen from the other side The last white man, manifesting in short moments. When Anders explains his situation to his white boss at the gym where he works, he tells him, “I would kill myself […] that it was me.” After the changed man shot himself, the consensus was that the dark body belonged to an intruder, killed by the white homeowner in self-defense. When gaps in the story are unknown, the city fills them in with racist prejudices and stereotypes, showing that archaic ideals are deeply rooted, even in light of a rapidly changing world. Occam’s razor, dulled by the prejudices of this society, did not afford the privilege of innocence to those with dark skin.

In both stories there is a “spiritual” reaction to the idea that white people are being replaced. It is important to recognize the historical context that surrounds it Black No Moreliberation. It arrived in the post-Reconstruction era and the decades of movement of blacks from the South into white urban areas during the Great Migration. Increased social and economic opportunities for blacks fueled a violent white backlash (“race riots”—actually the deliberate destruction of black communities, lynchings, and the erection of Confederate monuments—became common). Black No MoreWhite backlash comes in the form of the Knights of Nordics, a bootleg Ku Klux Klan made up primarily of poor, uneducated white men fighting for “[t]the racial integrity of the Caucasian race” and against “the activities of the scientific black Beelzebub in New York”. Fueled by sensationalist news stories and various cult-of-personality leaders, whites fear that their place in society is being stolen as blacks become white. While more organized groups focus on political movements to stop racial change, bigots are whipped into a rage that can only be fueled by killing black flesh.

Second part of The last white man sees violence erupt in the city as white people continue to go dark. Militants roam the streets in military uniforms, replacing the police as the rulers of the law, seeking to restore order and fight the darkness by any means necessary. And with no end to the change in sight, riots break out, militants become more aggressive, and dark body killings are filmed and spread online for the world to see. There is an amazing consistency in the reactions of the white characters from 1931 to 2022, where Hamid seems to have stumbled upon the fundamental truth that history repeats itself. Parallels, even with the unclear nature of Hamid’s race, exist with the black problem in the United States, while the lessons remain unlearned.

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As The last white manHis city turns to the complete overthrow of the established racial order, Hamid’s characters are left to adapt to the new reality. Neighbors who were dark and hiding come to light:

Oona’s mother couldn’t help but notice the dark faces in her street, there seemed to be more of them every day, maybe they weren’t wandering around, not so boldly, not yet, but briefly playing on their lawns when their lawns were littered snow and come out in the early hours to shovel their walks, and one even waved to Oona’s mother when she caught her eye, as if everything was perfectly natural, and nothing had changed, but it wasn’t natural, and everything had changed, even though it seemed that no one was able to see it but her.

It’s not like Anders and Oona had a great epiphany that resolved their anxieties about their dark relationship. The people around them hardly approve: Anders’ father shows physical discomfort when he sees a white woman kissing a dark man. Their comfort comes from being close to each other. Oona doesn’t panic because her skin is darkening; she welcomes it. Time spent with Anders, along with resistance to propaganda and her mother’s paranoia, helps her come to terms with the fact that her whiteness was nothing special.

For Hamid, color only has as much power as society gives it. Maybe that’s why the book’s solution comes as a whimper. Until the end The last white man, Anders and Oona can go out to a restaurant and bar, see a wave of dark-skinned patrons, and believe that “they were only people, and this was only a bar.” Life continues as normal, leaving you to wonder if the racial change was just a tool to effect an emotional change in the characters. They treat whiteness as a thing of the past, something that will only be mentioned in passing by those who cling to it. The big switch came and went without much of a battle, with an ending almost too neat to feel like a legitimate commentary on how the hierarchy can change.

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Matthew K. Ritchie is a Las Vegas-based writer with a master’s degree in journalism from Northwestern University. He wrote for Fairies, GQ, and The Chicago Readeramong other publications.

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