The classic text about racism in America
In 1959, journalist John Howard Griffin took the extraordinary step of changing his skin colour in order to pass as a Black man. Under the guidance of a dermatologist, Griffin took oral doses of a drug to darken his skin pigmentation, went under a tanning lamp and applied make-up. His first step to test if he passed among African-Americans was to go out in public and catch a bus. No one could tell he was actually white. African-Americans accepted him as one of their own.
The reason for Griffin changing his skin colour was not to test the reactions of African-Americans, but of white people. Passing as a Black man he spent six weeks travelling the deep south, reporting for Sepia magazine (who also funded the experiment) and later turning the magazine articles he wrote into the book, Black Like Me.
We often think we understand what racism is, how it impacts people and why it's wrong. However, it's an entirely different thing to literally walk in the shoes of a coloured person. It opens up a whole world of subtle and not so subtle politics, soul destroying rules on behaviour and barely contained, seething rage. Early in the book, Griffin highlights a simple problem in the segregated south. If you're a coloured person out in public and you need to use the bathroom, that can be a major problem. You can be made to walk miles because there are no toilets available to you. Planning a trip can be fraught for this simple reason – there will be nowhere to go to the toilet. On one bus trip that Griffin describes, the driver refuses to stop the bus at a segregated restroom, meaning none of the coloured commuters could relieve themselves.
Another thing Griffin describes is the “hate stare”, being stared at by white people who utterly loathe the colour of your skin, and you because you inhabit it. Many a time Griffin would meet white people he thought were decent and civilised, but it didn't take long for the veneer to come off and racist attitudes to prevail. White people essentially think life as a person of colour is not so bad and can't see what all the fuss is about. They are blind to the structural disadvantage caused by white society. Black and white live side by side in America, yet there are major misunderstandings about each other's experience.
Griffin was shaken to the core by his experiences as a Black man. Shaken by his own latent racism that he didn't realise he harbored, and profoundly disturbed by the depth of hatred in white America. He dreaded publishing his experiences for fear of the backlash. He and his family received death threats and moved to Mexico for a year. He later worked in the Civil Rights movement and many of his friends and associates were assassinated by white supremacists.
Black Like Me is powerful and shocking. It provides deep, unique insights into racism in America and should be essential reading.
Black Like Me, by John Howard Griffin. Serpent's Tail. $22.99
North Melbourne Books