One morning in an unnamed city in an unnamed country, a white man named Anders wakes up to discover that his skin has turned dark brown. His facial features have changed too. He doesn’t recognize himself in the mirror.
Anders isn’t the only one. Gradually, every white person in the city turns brown.
The Last White Man
By Mohsin Hamid
Riverhead Books, New York, 2022
I hugely enjoyed Hamid’s previous book Exit West which I reviewed here. In Exit West, Hamid imagines a world where suddenly it’s possible to transport yourself anywhere on Earth instantly, and borders and immigration restrictions have become meaningless.
The Last White Man looks at an even more fundamental question: what if racial distinctions were suddenly lost? In many ways the book is about loss as much as it’s about race.
Anders first experiences his darker skin color as a loss of identity – he doesn’t know who he is anymore. His relationships with his father, his girlfriend, co-workers, and everyone else are lost too and have to be restarted because, of course, no one recognizes him, and he doesn’t recognize anyone else either after they change color.
He loses the confidence and security that came from being white in a white majority town. He’s afraid to go out at night, or to drive in certain parts of town.
Other whites feel it too. There’s resentment as more and more people become brown and whites begin to lose their dominant status. There’s anger and a desire for revenge, a feeling that all those brown people deserve some sort of comeuppance. There’s violence, vandalism and destruction. Anders keeps a rifle close by.
Once everyone has turned brown, the town starts to return to normal, but it’s a different kind of normal. At first, it’s awkward but gradually people become more comfortable with themselves and with each other.
The Last White Man clearly echoes Franz Kafka’s famous story The Metamorphosis in which a man wakes to find himself transformed into a giant insect. It also reminded me of a 1963 science fiction story by Arthur C. Clarke called Reunion. The alien race that colonized Earth returns after an absence of millions of years. They announce their arrival and promise,
“If any of you are still white, we can cure you.”
On the whole, I think I liked Exit West a little better. In both books, Hamid writes in paragraph-long sentences. In Exit West I thought this style helped build tension in the story, but I found it a little monotonous in The Last White Man. Exit West explores the societal consequences of unrestricted migration quite deeply, while The Last White Man focuses more on the intimate personal implications of race. Both are well worth reading.
Given the demographic changes shaping the United States – declining white birth rates, immigration and mixed marriages – whites will cease to be a majority by the early 2040’s. So it’s not too farfetched to say that in a few generations almost everyone in the US will be brown.
The Last White Man gives us a foretaste of what that might be like and what might happen along the way. I don’t know if this was Hamid’s intent in writing the book, but I think it’s hopeful. Yes, there will be loss for some, and resentment and violence. We’re seeing that already. But we’ll adjust, Hamid seems to be saying. We’ll learn to live without the status distinctions that come from a false racial hierarchy. We’ll work, and fall in love and raise our kids, and we’ll just go on living.
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For another perspective, check out this review by Liz @ Adventures in reading, running and working from home.
A Nourishing Conversation With Mohsin Hamid on Social Fictions — and Real Losses
Interview with Mohsin Hamid on The Ezra Klein Show podcast, August 12, 2022
The rise of interracial marriage — and its approval rating
Article in Axios showing soaring approval rating for interracial marriage in the US, September 6, 2022