50 Years Later, What We Can Learn From 'Black Like Me'
1 year ago
We claim to be post-race but instances of racism still ruffles our feathers
When white people darken their skin and present themselves as people of color today, it’s usually because they’re seeking to appropriate some sort of cultural capital or identity. It’s a particular problem in fashion, an industry that’s seen no problem with having Dutch model Lara Stone do an entire French Vogue editorial in blackface, and posed Crystal Renn and Claudia Schiffer pretending to be Asian. Halloween regularly prompts a spate of stories about white people who think it’s amusing to paint their skin and claim an identity not their own. In 2009, an Australian pop group found to their sorrow that Harry Connick Jr. was perhaps not the best audience for an attempt to honor Michael Jackson in blackface.
It’s particularly depressing to see this kind of ignorance persist fifty years after the journalist John Howard Griffin published his account of going undercover as a black man for a very different purpose. His journey by bus through Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia, printed first in Sepia Magazine and later as the book Black Like Me was intended to help him gain a greater sympathy for the hurdles African-Americans faced. As he put it, “I realized that I, a specialist in race issues, really knew nothing of the Negro’s real problem.”
Griffin made it hard for himself to back out of his experiment: he didn’t simply use paint or dye to darken his skin. Instead, he took a great deal of an anti-Vitiligo drug and spent hours tanning, meaning he couldn’t immediately wash off his new pigmentation and return to his old status as a white man in an instant. But that didn’t mean he didn’t have a white family he could have gone home to, however odd his children might have temporarily found his appearance. And while his project may have been out of the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s jurisdiction, he still had vastly more access to the law enforcement system than the black men he impersonated and lived among.