Tanner Colby is a white pop culture writer, best known for his acclaimed biographies on John Belushi and Chris Farley. But when his career seemed to be following too distinct a trend — published life histories of dead “Saturday Night Live” comedians — he thought it was time to change tracks. His new book, released earlier this month, is Some of My Friends are Black: The Strange Story of Integration, which explores the various ways that Jim Crow and desegregation have affected race relations in the United States. He relies on his own upbringing and those of various people he interviews, including some friends.

Colby credits his enthusiasm about Obama’s primary campaign and nomination as the catalyst for his epiphany about how few blacks he’s encountered in life:

Somewhere in all my excitement over America’s first black presidential nominee, I came to a not-small realization: I didn’t actually know any black people. I mean, I’ve met them, have been acquainted with a few in passing, here and there. I know of black people, you could say. But none of my friends were black. I’d never had a black teacher, college professor, or workplace mentor. I’d never even been inside a black person’s house.

I knew it wasn’t just me. I started randomly polling friends and associates — most of them enlightened, open-minded, well-traveled, left-leaning white folks like me — asking them how many black friends they had. The answers were pretty pathetic.

In addition to its examination of historical racism, Colby’s book reprises some of the observations about self-segregation that were raised in Beverly Daniel Tatum’s Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?. Just as that work insists that frank and open discussions of race are the most effective catalysts for growth and change, it would seem that Colby’s work — itself a frank and open discussion — prizes the same principle.

Examining friendship from a racial perspective isn’t just a black-white-other thing. While Colby tracks his dearth of interracial friendships, writer Jamie Nesbitt Golden ponders her own short-lived experience with a dearth of intra-racial friendships in a piece for xojane called, “My Mother Set Me Up on a Black Friend Date.” In it, Golden traces her mother’s concern over her lack of black friends to the elder’s psychic wounds from a racially segregated upbringing:

In retrospect, I understand my mother’s concern. She bore the scars of Jim Crow, and grew up in an era where the number of white people she could trust were few and far between. An only child, she relied on — cherished, even — the bonds she made with other black women….

Golden says that the time in her life when black friends were difficult to come by had to do with her own difficulty codeswitching, an art many minorities master early in life:

For inner-city brown kids, codeswitching is a survival skill. It allows one to navigate both the treacherous terrain of graffiti-strewn boulevards and AP classes.

Some say it’s a byproduct of the DuBois “double consciousness” thing, the ability to communicate both with our own and The White World™ in a relatable, non-threatening manner. It was also something I was completely clueless about.

It’s great to read new voices joining this discussion and seeking to examine the ways in which our attitudes toward race have evolved through the generations.

Can you identify either with Colby’s homogeneous friendship experiences or Golden’s challenges with codeswitching? Have you ever stopped to ruminate on the racial makeup of your own group of friends (and the various reasons why that group is diverse or homogeneous)?

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  • MissAnthropist

    I’ve been a master of codeswitching since my early teens. It’s called being versatile, and It’s been invaluable in opening up doors and forming relationships with people outside of my immediate “comfort zone”. It has nothing to do with “appeasing” anyone, or being “fake”. It has everything to do with being relatable and making yourself easy to talk to with strangers…no matter what their race. I’m half black/half Italian, raised EXCLUSIVELY by my Black mother’s family… my stepfather and half-siblings are Mexican, I now live in Japan. I have a slightly different accent, cadence, syntax and grammar for each and every one of the different groups of people I happen to interact with. I sound different at work than I do out in town. Different when I’m with my mother’s family than I do when I’m with my siblings’ fathers’ family…etc. It comes naturally now and I do it without even noticing. I am THANKFUL for the ability and ease with which I do it. It makes ME more complex and versatile. People who don’t realize that it’s a valuable skill are fooling themselves.