Beneath the skin of our obsession with whiteness lie deeper fears about our place in the world

It is Viktor Orbán’s worst nightmare: “One morning Anders, a white man, woke up to find he had turned a deep and undeniable brown.” It is the opening line to Mohsin Hamid’s new novel The Last White Man, a line that deliberately echoes the opening to Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis.

Ever since he first bedazzled with his 2000 novel Moth Smoke, Hamid has shown himself willing and capable of tackling big, divisive subjects: the war on terror, immigration, identity, corruption, poverty. With his latest novel, he attempts to engage with another biggie: “whiteness”.

Whiteness is a condition that pleads to be given novelistic treatment and to be rendered through a Kafkaesque lens. It has become a kind of metaphor, a myth even, through which we project all manner of anxieties and fears about the world and our place in it. And this is true of all sides in the race debate. For racists, whiteness is an expression both of pride and of loss. An embodiment of a sense of superiority and specialness but also a rendering of a world that seems to be slipping away.

Hungarian prime minister Orbán caused outrage recently by rejecting “race mixing” between Europeans and non-Europeans. Countries in which such mixing had taken place were, he said, “no longer nations”. The erasure of whiteness was also the undoing of “western civilisation”, which was “losing its power, its performance, its authority, its capacity to act”. “The west in its spiritual sense,” Orbán claimed, “has moved to central Europe”, for only there are truly white nations. The rest of Europe is “post-western”.

Where once those who proclaimed whiteness did so from a sense of superiority, now many cling to it as to a raft in an unfamiliar ocean. There is much talk on the far right of the need to defend white “homelands” and fear of a conspiracy to “replace” white people. And not just on the far right. These themes have also found a home among mainstream conservatives, many of whom worry about white people becoming minorities in European cities.

If, for many racists and conservatives, whiteness is a metaphor for a disappearing world, for many anti-racists, shaped as they often are by the contemporary climate of identitarianism, whiteness has become symbolic of power and privilege. Where once anti-racists might have seen their mission as combating racism, now many see it as confronting whiteness or, rather, combating racism and confronting whiteness have come to be seen as one and the same project.

For many anti-racists, too, the focus on whiteness is rooted in a sense of pessimism about the possibilities of overcoming racism. “The earthquake cannot be subpoenaed. The typhoon will not bend under indictment,” wrote Ta-Nehisi Coates in his book Between the World and Me about the possibilities of overcoming racism.

Combating racism and confronting whiteness have come to be seen as one and the same project

Coates is perhaps the most celebrated contemporary African American essayist, a figure who, in the words of the late Toni Morrison, “fills the intellectual void that plagued me after James Baldwin died”. But where Baldwin never lost his hopes for social redemption, Coates despairs that it is no more possible to challenge racism than it is to prevent an earthquake or a typhoon with legal regulation.

The modern roots of such racial pessimism lie in the work of the legal scholar Derrick Bell. Few people will have heard of him. Yet few have been more important in shaping contemporary thinking about race, particularly in the US. He is the godfather of what has come to be called critical race theory. Racism, he wrote, “is an integral, permanent and indestructible component of this society”. Black people “will never gain full equality” because white people “simply cannot envision the personal responsibility and the potential sacrifice… that true equality for blacks will require”.

Those inspired by Bell’s work have rarely tumbled as far as he did into the well of despondency. Pessimism has nevertheless shaped much of today’s thinking about race. It has helped sustain the perception of whiteness as the source of racism and as the permanent obstacle to overcoming it. While this is a particularly American phenomenon, its threads can also be found on this side of the Atlantic – witness the insistence by some that Rishi Sunak is losing the Tory leadership contest because of racism, a claim for which there is little support and much contrary evidence.

Getting under the skin of whiteness to dissect its many meanings, and locating them in the turmoil of the contemporary world and in its obsession with identity, would seem a task handmade for a novelist with Hamid’s vision. Yet, for the most part, The Last White Man skates on the surface, meandering rather than dissecting.

In the novel, Anders is not the only white person changing colour. Soon, everyone becomes “dark”. The eponymous “last white man” is Anders’s father, who dies of cancer. It is the “great replacement” conspiracy theory given fantasy flesh. As whites are replaced by darks, society disintegrates. There are riots. “Pale-skinned militants” take to the streets to wreak violence. But all this happens at a distance, the story focusing rather on the changing relationships between Anders, his lover Oona, Anders’s dying father and Oona’s mother, a Q-Anon-type conspiracy theorist. Even in exploring these relationships, one has the sense of always peering in from the outside through an obscured window.

It recoils from its Kafkaesque origins in never using that surreal fictional world to expose to us something dark and uncomfortable

“I believe fiction has a strange power,” Hamid wrote in a note to readers in advance copies of the book, “that enables it to destabilise the collective imaginings we inherit and reproduce.” The trouble is, there is nothing in the novel that does destabilise our “collective imaginings”. There is little that is disturbing or discomfiting.

The Last White Man is Kafkaesque in the sense of its characters being pitched into a world in which their customary habits of thought and behaviour are dislocated. But it recoils from its Kafkaesque origins in never using that surreal fictional world to expose to us something new and dark and uncomfortable.

Perhaps that tells us something about the place of whiteness and, more broadly, of identity, in the contemporary world. That whiteness and identity have become so much part of the ways in which we perceive the world that even a novelist as gifted and engaged as Hamid should become so tongue-tied in describing it. That is something that should discomfit us.

• Kenan Malik is an Observer columnist

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