Tanner Colby, 37, is white. Born in Louisiana, raised in Alabama, he now lives in Brooklyn, NY but by his own admission, has no Black friends. In fact, after voting for Obama in 2008, he realized that besides our 44th president, his life was suspiciously devoid of color. And that bothered him. But rather than run out and try to collect a posse of new Black friends, Colby – a former advertising executive turned biographer – decided to write a book about segregation, or rather, this country’s failed attempt at integration.
The result is the just released, Some of My Best Friends are Black: The Strange Story of Integration in America (Viking), an immensely readable narrative about the push for integration in schools, housing, churches—and the advertising industry. Of course, considering Colby’s previous two books were both about dead, white comedians, and his limited experience with the Black community, one has to wonder what qualifications he actually had to tackle such a complex issue.
In the preface of the book he offers the following explanation, “ …to be a white person writing a book about race, ignorance was the only qualification I would need.”
We had a few more questions.
EBONY: First of all, do you really think being ‘ignorant,’ or perhaps the better term would be ‘unexposed,’ really makes you qualified to write a book on race?
Tanner Colby: I didn’t write a book about race. I wrote a book about people and how they dealt with race. I’m a storyteller and I like writing about people. I think that’s my biographer influence coming in. And all of us can always learn something new from hearing the stories of other human beings, because it’s one of the ways in which we become better humans.
EBONY: So, when you decided to write the book, who did you imagine would get the most out of it? Who was your intended audience? Black people or White people?
TC: Really, I was writing it for myself. I wanted to see if and how the journey of writing the book would change me. The hunch was that enough people would be interested enough to buy it and see what I learned. I didn’t really have a target audience in mind. That being said, I think everyone can learn something from the book. Certainly white people have a bigger knowledge gap to fill in terms of the larger history. But on the other hand, black people who grew up in urban Philadelphia probably have very little knowledge of how Jim Crow played out in a small-town Louisiana Catholic Church.
EBONY: That’s what I really liked about the book. I consider myself pretty knowledgeable about this country’s racial history, but I still learned a lot through the individual stories of the people you profile.
TC: Thank you. I think I was able to offer a unique lens onto what may be a familiar subject for so many. As Baratunde Thurston says on the back of the book [How to Be Black], Black people have been going over the racial issue in and amongst themselves for decades. And generally, the only white people who engage with the topic of race are doing so as part of a political argument, whether liberal or conservative. It’s rare for an average white guy like myself to write something like this. So I just hope that the book offers a fresh perspective on a topic that gets talked about constantly but about which almost nothing new is ever said.
EBONY: Did you discover anything new about integration in your reporting? That is, new to everyone and not just new to the white guy with no Black friends?
TC: I don’t know that I “discovered” anything, but one thing I tried to bring to the fore that never gets talked about on the white side of the aisle, is that integration is really two different struggles or debates. One is the tension between white and Black America and to what extent white racism does or does not impede the progress of integration. We debate that all the time in this country.
Far less discussed in my world is the second struggle, the tension in the Black community over whether or not to integrate, whether ethnic solidarity or social assimilation will bring the greatest good to Blacks both as individuals and as a community. In many ways, Black America has been demanding “diversity” in white institutions while still fighting to maintain the health and vitality of Black institutions. So is Black America moving forward on two fronts, or are those efforts canceling each other out? That’s a thorny question, and therefore it’s a question white people avoid, but it needs to be a bigger part of the conversation.
EBONY: Okay, so, here’s my last question and this is kind of personal, but considering you’re from southern Louisiana, the descendant of sharecroppers and let’s describe your skin tone as ‘tawny,’ did it ever occur to you, that you might be Black?
TC: It’s entirely possible. There are lots of [Black] people in Southern Louisiana who have lighter skin than me. I haven’t done it yet, but I’ve been meaning to do one of those DNA tests. Wouldn’t that be the ultimate irony?
EBONY: Yeah, that would be pretty funny. The white guy with no Black friends is Black! But you do have Black friends now, don’t you?
TC: Yes, I do.