I’m proud to say that this is the only time I’ve ever had to introduce her like that (though, if I’m honest, there certainly was an ignorant time in my life when I would’ve thought little of doing so); I’m proud because she’s way more than just my black friend (though that’s not to say that being black means nothing). She’s beautiful, hilarious, smart, caring, and best of all tough, having mastered the art of seeing through people’s bullshit—something I’ve always needed given my tendency to be full of it. I acknowledge every day, every time I see her name pop up in a text on my phone and even when we argue and fight (she must love that I’m admitting this), that I wouldn’t have developed into the man I am today, and I won’t be the man I’d like to be tomorrow, had it not been for her.
Unfortunately, too many people do this at one point or another: we see people who should ultimately mean so much more to us than the color of their skin as simply our friends of color (once more, not to say that the color of their skin is meaningless). I imagine that many of us have been guilty of it; we develop a habit of using these people, innocently albeit still lowly, as convenient methods of affirming our openness when it comes to race. We unintentionally trivialize race to feel better about ourselves. Worse yet, others take it further: they use their friends of color to intentionally trivialize race, to push the ideology that race doesn’t mean anything, and they presumptuously and pompously go about their lives like it shouldn’t mean anything. In short, people fall into the trap of using their black buddies as an excuse for pushing racial indifference, which, for one, is arguably as damaging as being an all-out racist, and secondly, ignores the realities that make race so important to so many.
In Some of My Best Friends Are Black, Tanner Colby explores the history of race relations in America. More specifically, he analyzes the social fallout of forced racial integration through awkwardly ineffective, poorly conceived legal and political means, demonstrating how racists managed (and still manage) to cleverly dance around desegregation policies to preserve Jim Crow attitudes, stringent separation policies, and racial “purity” via vicious scapegoating, stereotyping, KKK terrorism, evangelism, gerrymandering, abandonment, and the exploitation of political loopholes. The book’s subtitle is “The Strange Story of Integration in America,” which is my only point of criticism of this book (seriously); I read this thing from cover to cover, and after all of that, there’s really no way I can look at the subtitle without feeling like “Strange” should be swapped with “Tragic.”
Before I get carried away with how important this book is, I need to address the fact that some may take the description I just gave and run away with it, thinking it’s a big alarmist sermon. If you want the truth, Colby is indeed preaching, but he’s not preachy; rather than force feed us ideas of right and wrong, he gets us to think about the way things are and why. I’ll also say that he’s a fantastic writer, a man after my own heart, or rather a writer after my own pen:
“A Nashville clergyman, Buckner H. Payne, sold a translation of the Bible in which the devil in the Garden of Eden wasn’t actually a serpent but a Negro man-beast. Race mixing wasn’t just a sin; it was the original sin. And the ‘serpent’ that Eve found so tempting was … well, you can guess what that was.”
Colby writes with energy and wit. Some of My Best Friends Are Black is as compelling and engrossing a case as Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine, or Bill Maher’s Religulous—but fear not, my right-wing readers (if I even have any anymore); Some of My Best Friends Are Black is by no means a liberal work (…ish). If there is a case study out there about racism in the modern world as accessible and enjoyable as it is informative and illuminating, it’s this one.
I also admire the way Colby, a white man, puts himself out there to write so honestly and truthfully not just about race, but about his place in the conversation, which is best illustrated in the lead-up to his analysis of discrimination in New York’s advertising industry:
“Madison Avenue is Whiteytown. It is, according to Sanford Moore, ‘The last business where undereducated, undercredentialed white people can make big money.’ On this point he is certainly correct. I should know. The poster child for undereducated, undercredentialed white people making big money in advertising is the author of this book.”
I’m not saying this hasn’t been done before by other non-black writers, but principled self-awareness—and in his case, a little bit of self-deprecation—is always profound, always welcome, and never old. And honestly, the above instance, as can be said of similar instances throughout the rest of the book, isn’t really all that self-deprecating insofar as it’s simply a realistic view spoken bluntly. And that’s important to point out because I’m not so naïve as to think that white people enjoy reading about how “privileged” and “worry free” and “evil” they’re often made out to be in conversations about race; I’m not so much of an idiot to believe that white people actually enjoy humoring and indulging in bad generalizations about themselves. I know unfounded self-deprecation is counter-productive and just plain unfair—and I’m willing to bet Colby thinks that way, too.
Some of My Best Friends Are Black is by no means unfair. Colby points out bad guys, but he doesn’t dwell on the fact that they’re white.
Writing style aside, in profiling visceral accounts of the long-term consequences of badly handled racial integration, whether they be in the forms of White Flight, the commodification of white American suburbia, the elimination and destruction of qualified black teachers and of storied black schools as black students were bused into white schools and vice versa, or the perpetuation of racial stereotyping in the workplace and elsewhere in society (e.g., in pop-culture, marketing, etc.), Colby provides us with a conclusion as troubling as his analysis is revealing: that in addition to having never reached Dr. King’s “promised land,” we’ve never really constructively dealt with ending racism either (and so long as we refuse to do so, we’re never gon’ get to that “mountaintop”). We’ve been bred into a society in which too many of us believe in defeating racism by not defeating it all, let alone confronting it, but rather by ignoring it, pretending it doesn’t exist, thinking it’ll die of loneliness, and being indifferent.
People just don’t want to deal with history, and I don’t blame them. If the excerpt below is any indication, being an indifferent, closeted racist certainly has its advantages, its profit potentialities, and its conveniences—undeniably alluring qualities for the assholes among us. Why bother to empathize? Why care to confront prejudices? Colby’s book is brilliant because it reminds us that, while the history of race may mean little to many, those who’ve suffered and continue to suffer this history know more intimately and more painfully than the rest why this history means everything.
♦ ♦ ♦
Excerpt from Some of My Best Friends Are Black
“Blockbusters were predatory real estate speculators. They’d buy a house in a white neighborhood, rent it to a black family, wait a few weeks, and then start calling the neighborhoods the neighbors. ‘The coloreds are moving in. Don’t you think you should sell? I can get you a good deal—before it’s too late.’ The scare tactics these men used could get quite creative. Some would go into the ghetto and pay a few bucks to the biggest, scariest, right-off-the-chain-gang-looking fellow they could find. Then they’d bring him along, knocking door-to-door, politely informing white residents that ‘this gentleman is looking in the area.’ The FOR SALE signs would start to go up.” —Tanner Colby
Originally published in PolicyMic (07/20/12).
Edited by Elena Sheppard.