Mohsin Hamid’s novel ‘The Last White Man’ imagines a post-racial world

British Pakistani novelist Mohsin Hamid explores a provocative question: Can white supremacy persist, if no one is white any longer? 

"The Last White Man," by Mohsin Hamid, Riverhead books, 192 pp.

Mohsin Hamid focuses on a different societal ill in each of his novels, but he’s no scold. His aim is to imagine and point us to a better world. His last two books included “How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia,” a pseudo self-help manual which sardonically flagged the dubious steps necessary to advance in a crooked society. In his most recent novel, the masterful “Exit West,” Hamid humanized the increasingly urgent issue of global migration with a propulsive love story about a couple fleeing their devastated city for their lives. (It is currently being adapted into a movie for Netflix by Barack and Michelle Obama’s Higher Ground Productions.)

Now, in his audacious fifth novel, “The Last White Man,” Hamid tackles racism and tries to picture a post-racial world. The concept behind this allegory is provocative: All the white people in an unnamed country turn “dark” (Hamid’s word) over the course of a few months. The transition period is rough for everyone, triggering dismay, paranoia, and violent flare-ups, but we’re quickly assured that things eventually settle down into “a kind of reprieve” in which people were “not visibly different, not obviously identified as being of one tribe rather than another.”  

The novel begins promisingly with an echo of Kafka’s “Metamorphosis”: “One morning Anders, a white man, woke up to find he had turned a deep and undeniable brown.” To say that Anders, a weight trainer at a local gym, is discomfited is to put it mildly. His racial prejudices erupt through every pore. Hamid writes: “He was overtaken by emotion, not so much shock, or sorrow, though those things were there too, but above all the face replacing his filled him with anger, or rather, more than anger, an unexpected, murderous rage. He wanted to kill the colored man who confronted him here in his home.” 

Anders calls in sick and stays home for days. His facial features, hair, and sense of self have changed along with his skin color. When he finally ventures out, he hides behind sunglasses, gloves, and a hoodie, even though he realizes the outfit is likely to make him appear more threatening to people who are still white. “People who knew him no longer knew him,” Hamid writes. He looked like “not just another person, but a different kind of person, utterly different.” 

In an author’s note that accompanied my advanced reading copy, Hamid traces this novel’s beginnings to 9/11, which more directly prompted his second novel, “The Reluctant Fundamentalist.” “I was 30 then and had lived 18 of my years in the West,” he writes. “I had always been a brown man with a Muslim name. That had not changed. And yet something had changed. I had lost something profound. But it took some time for me to understand what it was: I had lost my whiteness. Not that I had been truly white. But I had been white enough – as a relatively well-paid, university-educated inhabitant of cosmopolitan cities – to partake in many of the benefits of whiteness.”  

Hamid transmutes this altered sense of identity into “The Last White Man.” We’re told early in the novel, before people start to transition in greater numbers, that his protagonist notices others’ whiteness in a new way and feels vaguely menaced, with “a kind of strumming anxiety.” But apart from his initial reaction, Anders’ responses to the situation feel muted, even when, upon his return to work, his boss, who has no idea of what lies ahead, says, “I would have killed myself. … If it was me.”

What should be a riveting, incendiary tale fails to spark much tension save in a few scenes – or to match the power of Hamid’s author’s note. Anders’ girlfriend, Oona, a yoga instructor, who is already feeling emotionally tapped out after the recent death of her twin brother and the strain of caring for her unhinged mother, doesn’t enliven matters with her own subdued reactions. 

Eventually, other people start turning dark, and Anders has trouble distinguishing between those who were always dark versus those who have recently turned. He wonders whether “people who had been born dark could tell the difference.” When violence erupts, with armed right-wing militants patrolling the streets and running dark people out of town, Anders hides out in his dying father’s house.

My summary makes this sound more gripping than it is. Despite its provocative premise, the novel is oddly flat. In his attempt to lend universality to his fable, Hamid has avoided particulars. Anders and Oona, the only named characters, lack passion and verve. Ironically, the unnamed characters, like Oona’s mother, who feeds on right-wing, racist conspiracy theories and later admits to nostalgia for “the whiteness that could no longer be seen but was still a part of them,” are more vivid. 

I couldn’t help comparing “The Last White Man” to Toni Morrison’s brilliant, recently republished story, “Recitatif,” in which she wielded racial stereotypes to highlight readers’ prejudices and keep us guessing about which characters were white and which Black. Hamid’s novel, on the other hand, doesn’t keep us on our toes. The telling is too bland, and the stakes don’t feel high enough. Yes, he touches on some intriguing questions, including whether an all-dark world might mitigate racial divides. But he doesn’t explore them deeply enough. Hamid is a gifted writer who has earned our attention, but this book feels like a missed opportunity.

Heller McAlpin reviews books regularly for the Monitor, The Wall Street Journal, and NPR.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
Real news can be honest, hopeful, credible, constructive.
What is the Monitor difference? Tackling the tough headlines – with humanity. Listening to sources – with respect. Seeing the story that others are missing by reporting what so often gets overlooked: the values that connect us. That’s Monitor reporting – news that changes how you see the world.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to

QR Code to Mohsin Hamid’s novel ‘The Last White Man’ imagines a post-racial world
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today