A vein of utopianism runs through Benjamin Markovits’ You Don’t Have to Live Like This, as Greg Marnier struggles with his own sense of belonging. Greg Marnier, or Marny, a thirty-something college-educated white American male, daunted by the burden of his stagnated life, decides to up-sticks to the “black city” (Markovits 63) of Detroit. While Marny is numb with apathy, traversing life like a “computer game” (24), it is his Yale pal Robert James who fervently speaks of his “Groupon model for gentrification” (17). It is apparent Robert has been reading his Thomas More, as he convinces Marny of the potential in the empty but “beautiful big houses” (17) that stand empty on the streets of Detroit. With sovereign authority, he has already considered how to organise the division of labour, the “plowing [of] land in to farms”, among his “mass of people” (17).
Robert’s utopian endeavors, however, provide a self-serving colonial undertone to the narrative. He reminds us of the early settlers of the America’s; that they were “shipped over by private companies” in a “business venture”, and that he believes his project in Detroit belongs “to the same tradition” (53). Robert is correct. In 1606, James I of England granted charters to establish two joint-stock companies to pay for the establishment of permanent settlements in North America (Lombard and Middleton 152-53). Early settlers were recruited with the promise of a utopian vision of society where they would be free from religious persecution. It is this colonial tradition that influences Robert’s every action concerning his new settlement. From his early conceptions, to his “big political fund-raiser” (162) in which he plays on the “story of the Pilgrim’s feast” (168) to emulate a sense of fraternity, Robert James is the poster boy for white male entitlement.
Blind to his privilege as a white man, and ignorant of his inherent racism, Marny also suffers from “entitlement disorder” (Hall 577). Entitlement disorder, as Ronald Hall posits, occurs when “perspectives of White male[s] are distorted by power and [a] sense of entitlement”. It is a “need to dominate in whatever venture” (Hall 562). Marny, despite his station, and even after attending the prestigious universities of Yale and Oxford, has not been afforded the luxuries he was promised. He has itchy feet and a desire to find meaning, as he wonders whether there is a “better test” of who he is than “middle-class American life” (Markovits 4). It is not an altruistic personality that brings Marny to the “hip and cheap” (27) Detroit, but rather because he has lost his “momentum” (12).
Teju Cole, contemporary author of Open City (2011), succinctly summarised the definition of ‘The White Savior Industrial Complex’ in a seven Tweet Twitter thread in 2012. He states, “The banality of evil transmutes into the banality of sentimentality. The world is nothing but a problem to be solved by enthusiasm.” (@tejucole). These are not new ideas. Cole describes the age-old question of the white man’s place in the world. How does the white man navigate the world in its post-coloniality, while still upholding their dominion? If Markovits’ novel is anything to go by, the answer is to commit further missionary acts. Each year, under the guise of well-meaning intentions, thousands of privileged youths will pay to be involved in volunteering missions to rid the poor of their poverty. These short-lived trips barely scratch the surface of the people’s customs, or their country’s cultures or problems, ultimately serving the volunteer as a CV booster. In few cases, people like Louise Linton will regurgitate Heart of Darkness rhetoric, of Africa as a place of the white person’s ‘living nightmare’ (Linton, 2016) . Marny, too, was one of these “middle-class teenagers stripping walls” (47). I do believe the intentions of volunteers are almost always honest, but why then do they often leave focused on their improved sense of self? Just as Marny keeps thinking about his summer of volunteering, and “what it meant that fifteen years later [he] was fixing up one of these down-and-out places” (48) for himself, white Westerner’s development can be attributed to the struggles of people of colour.
Cole’s intentions behind his Tweets are to break down the “enforced civility” surrounding marginalised voices; to challenge the “policed language” (Cole, para 6) used when calling out racism. There is a certain amount of “White Fragility” (DiAngelo, 2011) preventing white people from confronting their innate racist tendencies. According to Robin DiAngelo, they live in an “insulated environment of […] racial comfort” in which tension builds so much so that a “minimum amount of racial stress becomes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves” (DiAngelo, 54). Marny exhibits these behaviours when antagonised by Beatrice on his generalisations of black Americans. He becomes hot under the collar, raising his voice to Beatrice to say, “Maybe I don’t like being told that I’m a racist” (52). Despite his obvious flaws, there may be hope for Marny yet, as he recognises the shame in the poverty tourism to be found at Robert’s fund-raiser function. He notices “photographs on the walls, a lot of disaster kitsch, Detroit landscapes, burned out houses and teddy bears in the snow”, and feels depressed by the financially advantageous nature of those behind the camera. Marny, by the end of You Don’t Have to Live Like This, appears to have found a place in his new cross-cultural community, but how far has he really been assimilated?
Teju Cole, (21 March, 2012). ‘The White-Savior Industrial Complex’, The Atlantic https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2012/03/the-white-savior-industrial-complex/254843/
Robin DiAngelo, (2011). White Fragility, International Journal of Critical Pedagogy Vol 3, pp 54-70
Ronald E. Hall, 2004. Entitlement Disorder: The Colonial Traditions of Power as White Male Resistance to Affirmative Action, Journal of Black Studies, Vol. 3 No. 4, pp.562-579
Louise Linton, ‘How my dream gap year in Africa turned into a nightmare’, The Telegraph, (1 July, 2016), https://web.archive.org/web/20160701064204/http://www.telegraph.co.uk/women/life/how-my-dream-gap-year-in-africa-turned-into-a-nightmare/
Anne Lombard and Richard Middleton, 2011. Colonial America: A History to 1763 (4th ed.)
Benjamin Markovits, 2015. You Don’t Have to Live Like This (London: Faber & Faber)