Black Like Me

by

John Howard Griffin

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Black Like Me: November 6, 1959 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Griffin follows his regiment for four days and visits the dermatologist for blood tests. Thankfully, the dermatologist determines that his body isn’t being harmed by the medication. Nevertheless, he tries to “warn” Griffin, though not about the medical particulars. Rather, he tells him about “the dangers of this project.” The dermatologist insists that he believes “in the brotherhood of man,” yet expresses  “can never forget” having to tend to African Americans years before as an intern. “Three or four would be sitting in a bar at a friend’s house,” he says. “They were apparently friends one minute and then something would come up and one would get slashed up with a knife.”
Once again, Griffin is forced to listen to yet another white person outlining the many reasons why it’s dangerous for him to pose as a black man. Unlike Levitan and Jackson’s comments, though, the dermatologist’s remarks have a certain racist undertone, even if he doesn’t notice it himself. Whereas Levitan and Jackson wanted to warn Griffin about the fact that he might become the target of bigots once people find out what he’s done, the doctor thinks he must warn him about the dangers of black people, making vast generalizations about African American violence that ultimately reveal his own prejudices.
Themes
Appearance, Identity, and Bigotry Theme Icon
Implicit Bias and Systemic Racism Theme Icon
Fear and Violence Theme Icon
Continuing his warning, the dermatologist says, “We’re willing enough to go all the way for [black people], but we’ve got this problem—how can you render the duties of justice to men when you’re afraid they’ll be so unaware of justice they may destroy you?—especially since their attitude toward their own race is a destructive one.” In response, Griffin tells him that many black people he has spoken to are “aware of this dilemma” and are “making strong efforts to unify the race, or to condemn among themselves any tactic or any violence or injustice that would reflect against the race as a whole.” Unfortunately, though, the doctor seems “unconvinced” by this.
In this moment, the dermatologist takes a patronizing tone, posing as if he wants to help African Americans when, in reality, he clearly believes that they’re inferior to white people. Thinking that black people don’t have the capacity to recognize “justice,” he sees African Americans as “destructive.” However, it’s quite obvious that he doesn’t see himself as a racist, despite these prejudiced viewpoints. Rather, he thinks of himself as someone “willing to go all the way” for black people. Unfortunately, though, this only enables him to clear his conscience so that he can go on advancing racist stereotypes without owning up to his own implicit biases.
Themes
Unity, Division, and Communication Theme Icon
Implicit Bias and Systemic Racism Theme Icon
Fear and Violence Theme Icon
Related Quotes
In addition to his warning, the dermatologist also tells Griffin things he has heard from black people, like that lighter skin makes an African American “more trustworthy.” “I was astonished to see an intelligent man fall for this cliché,” Griffin writes, “and equally astonished that Negroes would advance it, for in effect it placed the dark Negro in an inferior position and fed the racist idea of judging a man by his color.”
Unsurprisingly, the dermatologist subscribes to the racist notion of colorism, which upholds that there are fundamental differences between light-skinned and dark-skinned African Americans. Griffin, of course, knows that this is ridiculous, but he’s disappointed to see that an “intelligent man” would accept such nonsense. This, it seems, demonstrates the extent to which these racist ideas have made their way into society, somehow convincing not only “intelligent” white people, but some black people, too.
Themes
Appearance, Identity, and Bigotry Theme Icon
Unity, Division, and Communication Theme Icon
Implicit Bias and Systemic Racism Theme Icon
Related Quotes
When Griffin isn’t spending his time under the sun lamp or in the dermatologist’s office, he walks around New Orleans, often stopping at a shoeshine stand run by an old black man who lost his leg in World War I. His name is Sterling Williams, and he is extremely kind. Griffin tells Sterling that he’s writing about “civil rights,” though he doesn’t divulge that he’ll be doing so while disguised as a black man. “I decided he might be the contact for my entry into the Negro community,” Griffin writes.
Griffin knows that white people will instantly write him off as soon as he darkens his skin. However, he’s also aware that the mere color of his skin won’t necessarily gain him “entry” into the African American community, since only racists invest themselves in skin color alone. As such, he decides he needs a “contact” to help him enter into black society.
Themes
Appearance, Identity, and Bigotry Theme Icon
Unity, Division, and Communication Theme Icon
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