What Happens When White Man Disguises Himself as a Black Man for a Month?

Black Like Me – a novel by John Howard Griffin. An excellent read for Black History Month. Social Identity and Symbolic Interactionism theories discussed in relation to Griffin’s experiences.




Looks of disapproval, hate speech… flagrant forms of racism – John Howard Griffin, a White journalist from Texas, experienced it all when he darkened the color of his skin.

Black Like Me is a novel based on a true story. At the height of Mack Parker lynch investigation in 1950’s, Griffin embarked on a sociological endeavor in Mississippi by disguising himself as a Black man. He wanted to know first-hand if he would be treated differently based on the color of his skin. This book narrates how the Whites and Blacks acted towards him, and why.

SPOILER ALERT ]

Overview

For a month, Griffin ventured a life of a Black man in the Deep South. He darkened his skin with the use of medication and make-up. As he looked at himself in the mirror for the first time, he saw a different man… both physically and psychologically. The mere darkening of his skin redefined his identity. He felt like his white identity had been erased. On his first encounter with a Black man, he instantly felt a strong, positive connection with this fellow. He received sympathy and brotherhood from the Black community. He started saying “we” when he referred to Blacks, and “they” when he spoke of White people. The concerns of the Blacks became his own concerns.

In the eyes of a White person, the Black Griffin was perceived as feeble-minded, inferior, or someone who lacked morale. He experienced numerous and explicit forms of discrimination. The racist attitude didn’t come to him as a surprise, but he didn’t expect it to affect him to the core of his being. On one occasion, it sickened him dreadfully to a point where he didn’t even want to be seen by anybody.

What theoretical underpinnings could help us understand these turn of events?

Our social environment has such a strong influence in the way we feel, think and behave. It appears that people don’t continue to act the way they do when they are placed in a different setting. Things changed for Griffin; he was unable to get what he wanted and needed when he lived as a Black man. He thought that he could single-handedly function as an autonomous individual. Based on his experiences, he was not able to escape the power of social influence.

Social Identity Theory

When Griffin transformed himself into a Black person, he began internalizing the identities of the Black social group. Social Identity Theorywhich was developed by Henri Tajfel (1919-1982), explains that every social group has a social identity. An identity is a set of specific traits and characteristics that distinguishes one individual from another individual. A social identity on the other hand is a set of normative identities belonging to a social group; it distinguishes a member of a social group from another member of a social group. For example, in the Black social group, the most salient social identity is the color of the skin.

Aside from the physical characteristics, a social identity includes attitudes and behaviors. These attributes are learned especially when they are prescribed by the society (a concept further discussed in Symbolic Interactionism). For example, back in those days, Black people typically held menial jobs. They had the tendency to adopt to this norm since it was rooted in their history (the slavery), and it was also prescribed by the dominant group (the Whites). Of course, the social climate has changed since then, this is no longer the norm in our present day.

A social group may also bear a stereotype, which is a set of false beliefs that are intended to generalize a social group. Negative stereotypes can pose a serious problem because people may live up to a given expectation. For example, feeble-mindedness was a Black stereotype perpetrated in the past, hence, some Black people ended up acting as such.

Symbolic Interactionism

Symbolic Interactionism suggests that people communicate using symbols that constitute shared meanings. For example, a “V” hand gesture (using the index and the middle finger) is a non-verbal symbol for peace. Symbols don’t happen or appear overnight, they are constructed through continuous discourse and interaction among the individuals in a society. One important aspect of Symbolic Interactionism is that symbols are open to influence, and a significant degree of manipulation comes from the dominant group. This explains why Griffin felt and behaved differently as soon as his transformation was complete. He acted inferior and passive in the presence of White people, not because he wanted to, but because this was the prescribed behavior by the Whites (the dominant group).

Griffin’s trip to New Orleans was a perfect scenario that illustrates this theory. Griffin sat on the back of the bus because this was designated spot for Black people. He was deprived of washroom privileges. Only the White people were allowed to get off the bus to refresh themselves, while the group of Black people suffered with their full bladder at the back of the bus. Griffin wished to challenge the bus driver on an argument as to why he and the rest of the Black people could not go for a washroom break. He was unable to insist on his argument (a prescribed behavior for the Blacks), and he allowed the driver to verbally harass him. This behavior can also be attributed to the disapproval looks he received from the Black people on the bus (nonverbal symbol for objecting Griffin’s assertive behavior). They were accustomed not to behave assertively, consequently, Griffin felt the pressure to act as such.


Final Notes

Griffin was viciously discriminated throughout his whole experience as a Black person. “Would this happen if I were White?” he asked himself. Truly, the answer was no. Griffin was able to confirm that the life of a Black man was substandard compared to the Whites. When he was Black, he had less opportunities in terms of employment, he was denied access to some establishments, and he lived an impoverished life. As the pigmentation of his skin slowly wore off, so did the Black identity. He regained his life as a White person with all its privileges.

Nothing was changed but the color of Griffin’s skin. When someone asked for his name and his other personal information, he answered them truthfully. He carried his ID with him, which bears his real name, address, weight, height, hair color, race, sex, and height. He simply wanted to know the impact of skin color on a person.  Griffin’s experience implicates that superficial characteristics such as the skin color can have a tremendous effect on a person’s psyche.

Despite all accounts of discrimination in this novel, it is encouraging to know there was a White person who was sympathetic to the Blacks during that time of upheaval, and who was willing to risk his life to gain understanding about racism. What better way to understand racism than to change the color of one’s skin? Surely, Griffin’s sociological endeavor was a success.

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References: Griffin, John Howard. Black Like Me. New American Library, NY. 2003.

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