Dude, Read My Book! Tanner Colby, Kansas City, and the ‘Psychological Wages of Whiteness’

I was excited when I heard that Tanner Colby was coming to Rockhurst University in Kansas City, Missouri, to discuss his “best-selling” book, Some of My Best Friends are Black: The Strange Story of Integration in America. His being at Rockhurst (a private Catholic/Jesuit institution), held on Monday, April 18, 2016, was promoted to be a “conversation on diversity, inclusion, and cross-cultural communication,” and it was facilitated by Lewis Diuguid who is a columnist with the Kansas City Star.

A little bit about my excitement: I had read parts of Colby’s book at the recommendation of my colleagues at the University of Missouri Kansas City. Initially, I thought those parts that I had read detailing what is known locally and perhaps beyond as the “Troost racial divide” in Kansas City (what Colby describes on pg. 77 as “the Berlin Wall of Kansas City”) were worthwhile and compelling. Kansas City is a place that has a very visible racial divide between black and white neighborhoods/residents/communities; and, throughout the city there are many pockets or spaces of uneven development that articulate socio-spatial disparities and the complexities between race, class, gender, sexual orientation, religion, etc. At one time in Kansas City, black residents couldn’t even think of going west of Troost to socialize and to own a home. Kansas City’s earliest and most notable racial divisions were set in place largely because of the the infamous developer/real estate practices of J.C. Nichols (and others) who crafted racially restrictive covenants to create exclusive all-white neighborhoods and spaces in areas that were once the white suburban hinterlands of Kansas City and the neighboring suburbs of the Kansas, and thus what we know as the Kansas City metropolitan area is “hypersegregated.” Unfortunately, Nichols wasn’t alone. The landscape and thus many of the neighborhoods located east of Troost are mostly black, poor and lacking in development and resources (you might want to check out this recent video documentary on KC, “Our Divided City,” but please note that I think that it is lacking on several accounts!). They were created through the exploitation of human fears of the other or the unknown. Due to racist real estate practices, white xenophobia about black humanity and any other culturally-othered groups for that matter (including Latinos), the landscape west of Troost has been constructed as white, privileged, and a preferential focal point of local community and neighborhood development. In contrast, the landscape east of Troost has been consistently othered, ignored and demonized by real estate and business developers, .e.g., one might say many areas or neighborhoods east of Troost are consistently underdeveloped.

Ironically, Rockhurst University is situated in 49/63, which is a neighborhood on the east side of Troost. In the 1960s, residents of the 49/63 Neighborhood Coalition organized against racist real estate practices and real estate brokers; specifically they stood up to Bob Wood, who rather blatantly took advantage of its white residents’ racial fears. In his book, Colby wrote about Wood – a real estate developer – who openly spread the word to neighborhood whites that blacks would be moving to the neighborhood and he then offered to buy their homes at a low rate and then resell them to blacks at a higher rate (This is called “blockbusting and it is what most decent and rational people would characterize as predatory and unethical lending). In an effort to stop Wood, the organization of the 49/63 Neighborhood Coalition created a local movement to mitigate neighborhood white flight and the furthering of the “racialization of space” (for more on this subject I recommend Kevin Fox Gotham’s book: Race, Real-Estate, and Uneven Development: The Kansas City Experience, 1900-2000).

Upon hearing of Colby’s talk at Rockhurst, I wondered how he would articulate the basis for his book and I was definitely curious about how he would talk about diversity, inclusion and cross-cultural communication (especially given the fact that he did not grow up in the Kansas City metropolitan area nor does he live here at the present time – he lives in Brooklyn, NY). But, I regret to say that Colby’s delivery and conversation about his book and about race, racism, diversity, inclusion and cross-cultural communication were so disappointing that I don’t know if I will ever use it or recommend it again. Here is why.

Lewis Diuguid, who first-off reminded me of “Grady” on Sanford and Son, was probably the most non-challenging facilitator who could have been chosen to moderate the talk with Tanner Colby. If you know anything about Sanford and Son (a 1970s sitcom – and it re-aired in the 1980s ) and if you know Mr. Diuguid then you might understand why my reference to the character “Grady” is even worth mentioning (if not maybe it will come to you when you watch this link). On the other hand, I do think that Diuguid asked some very useful questions, like “How long did you [Colby] spend in Kansas City researching for the book?” – to which his answer was one month; and ,”What are your thoughts on racism?” I also think the conversation with Mr. Colby would have been very different had the questions been asked by someone who didn’t talk like a therapist, but most of all if the questions were asked by someone who has made the study of racism and urban systems central to his or her life’s work. Indeed, this is NOT to say that journalists like Diuguid and Colby cannot or do not speak intelligently on the racialization of urban space, but, if CNN or other media outlets have anything to show us it is that often high-profiled journalists’ understandings of these issues are often quite limited and often quite elementary.

Secondly, I took issue with Colby’s claim that there is nothing that can be done about the racism or racist thinking of his generation or those otherwise known as Generation X (according to Colby “they are already half-baked”). Much to my dismay, Colby believes that there is hope for his children (he has two under the age of five) to overcome racism and the legacy of racist real-estate practices. This was shocking and beyond comprehension to me. I mean how on earth are the children of “half-baked” parents going to learn from parents who model acquiescence or compliance with the status quo; how will they learn to make or be friends with black or other non-white people when their parents have admittedly failed to do this? Is it the responsibility of the society at large? Or maybe it is their primary or secondary teachers who must, according to Tanner Colby, have the ability to do something other or greater than their parents? I found it interesting and even compelling that it was the subject of friendship that gave him the initial motivation to write this book. Colby noted that it was his realization that he did not have any black friends that led to this book project (which was accepted by his publisher although initially he did not have an intended audience or an idea of “who would buy the book”). I think it’s pretty clear what Colby needs to do if he wants more black friends – as one person in the audience pointed out quite audibly – : to make friends with black people “you have to go where they are.”

Third, this whole idea of making friends with black people, as the basis for the book, is dripping in white guilt vis à vis white privilege. On the one hand, I do think that Colby has some important things to say to people – mostly white people – who have never thought about why they do not have many or any black friends, nor why they have little to no knowledge about the structural and spatial production and the racialization of space. However, when I did a little research on Tanner Colby he has openly asserted in at least one article that whites have all the power and that blacks are dependent upon whites for this power which leads to access. I found this sentiment particularly condescending and unfortunate. No doubt, this attitude [highlighted in the comment below] is standing in Mr. Colby’s way of making friends with black people. In a very poignant way it reflects what the late sociologist W.E.B. DuBois termed “the psychological wages of whiteness,” or the belief (philosophy) that whites in the U.S. are, by virtue of their skin privilege, entitled to material accumulation and social status.

…The result is that black people end up with integration fatigue. Many black writers responded to [a] Reuter’s poll with essays on why they didn’t want white friends, and didn’t need them. White friends weren’t worth the bother.

This is their prerogative, but ultimately, it’s to society’s disadvantage because white people control the access to, well, just about everything. If you don’t have white friends you might have a decent job and a comfortable life, but all the doors of opportunity in this country are not open to you.

Listening to his lecture, I got that feeling from Mr. Colby. Implicitly, he communicates a kind of superiority and apologetic posture for whites who have fled to the suburbs – and this notwithstanding that he is an Obamaphile. Being a fan of Obama will not solve his dilemma: his lack of or desire for black friends. Rather, what might help him gain more black friends and understand why so many other whites like him do not have many black friends (although I don’t know what number of friends he is trying to achieve) is that he drop the “possessive investment in whiteness,” which is a term enunciated by Black Studies scholar George Lipsitz in his book The Possessive Investment in Whiteness: How White People Profit From Identity Politics. Black communities, neighborhoods, people are not waiting on white people to befriend or to save them. Nor are they waiting for Generation X’ers like Colby who see themselves as half-baked and ineffectual when it comes to the problem of race and racial integration but who think that miraculously, somehow, their children will be able to do what they have not done or modeled before them. In response to a rather abrupt question from someone in the audience about whether Colby now has any black friends – asked by a person who actually grew up on the east side of Troost – Colby defensively responded, “Dude, read my book!” And there it was. Colby’s knee-jerk response demonstrated an attitude that is not all that uncommon for journalist-types or writers who believe that because they have written a book, or because they have become “best-selling” authors that that is actually doing something or anything to change things for the better. And, here is the thing: if I go to hear and see an author in person and that author cannot or will not explain the subject of his book in a clear and concise way, or answer tough questions without kind of losing it, then why would I read or buy the book (and on such a hot-button subject for crying out loud)? Because he has written it? Because he is white? C’mon man, really?

And, if reading the book or buying Colby’s book is written by a man who 1) sees himself as half-baked when it comes to changing social and spatial inequities, and who 2) does not understand or articulate how it is that white people have profited from their identity as whites while also maintaining a possessive investment in whiteness and the psychological wages of whiteness that have dubbed them into thinking that black people need them to be valuable or worthy of being in possession of fair and decent housing, or education, or employment or much of anything else that is needed to survive in this terribly racist social and spatial reality that we live in, especially in urban places or cities like Kansas City, then what is the purpose of reading Colby’s book? What words of wisdom does he actually have to give? And why in the world is he invited to speak about diversity, inclusion and cross-cultural communication? What qualifications make him a go-to writer on the subject of race, diversity and inclusion in Kansas City? For crying out loud, just before writing this book Tanner Colby had NO BLACK FRIENDS!

What do I think about Tanner Colby and his book now that I have had the chance to see him talk about it in person? Here is what I think: Dude, if you want friendship with black people you’ve got to make friends with black people. And, unfortunately, history has shown us that when whites have committed to being in authentic friendship with black people (which is not about liking people on Facebook, nor is it simply a matter of being in close proximity to black because of work, church or working on a political campaign); when whites have decided to situate themselves as equal partners with blacks and non-whites they have often been labeled as race traitors and in some cases they have been killed by those who hate to see and know that blacks and whites have aligned and especially when that has been to break down the structural and spatial barriers that have been constructed and placed between them to make them believe falsehoods about themselves (usually upwards or downwards). Reading a book or even writing a book does nothing to change the fact that whites and blacks have been divided, and we will continue to be divided no matter how many Tanner Colbys are remarkably able to write and publish books because they have realized that they have no black friends.

To all the Tanner Colby types out there I will say this: if you want to be friends with black people, you’ve got to be willing to put yourself on the line with black people and to know and treat them with respect and dignity as your equals and you cannot see yourselves as their saviors. On the other hand, I regret to say that doing this, seeking friendship with black people and giving up a savior’s complex also means that you must let go of the the possessive investment in whiteness although doing that in a culture that is dominated by thinking that says that “white is right” will be seen as “treason” to whiteness, and thus if you challenge or offend the ideological power of whiteness you will probably also be targeted, lied on, demonized, hated and perhaps killed by those who have a vested interest in keeping black and white people and their communities separate and unequal. But, Dear Mr. Colby, if you are not willing to break your loyalty to whiteness then…Dude, it is probably best that you stick to writing books while the rest of us get down to the nitty-gritty of stopping racism in its tracks and transforming society and making neighborhoods and real-estate development more equitable and more diverse (like the 49/63 Neighborhood Coalition in Kansas City was able to do many decades ago). In the end it will be because of these people and these efforts that your children will be able overcome the awful legacy of segregation that has led to the construction of so many horrible socio-spatial racial divides. And, unfortunately, they will not learn how to do this by reading your book!

© 2016 annalise fonza, Ph.D.

P.S. I would like to send my sincere thanks to a very important but private person for helping me to develop my thinking for this blog. He knows who he is.

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