In Black Like Me, John Howard Griffin emphasizes the profound effect that physical appearance has on the way a person moves through society. A white man, Griffin darkens his skin by taking pills that enable him to present as a black man. This, of course, is a fraught premise, especially with today’s understanding of the problematic implications of blackface and the offensive stereotypes white people advance by disguising themselves as African Americans. But Griffin’s intentions in Black Like Me aren’t to imitate, ridicule, or appropriate black culture, but rather to show his fellow white Americans that their bigotry is rooted in something superficial: physical appearance. Indeed, Griffin hopes to debunk the racist notion that there is a fundamental difference between whites and blacks. To do this, he changes his skin color without changing anything else about himself, retaining his real name, his professional credentials, and everything about his identity. When he experiences discrimination, then, it’s clear it has nothing to do with the person he is and everything to do with the way he looks. In this way, Black Like Me invites racists to consider the fact that their superficial beliefs about appearance are arbitrary, hateful, and misinformed. And though this may seem like an obvious point, it was an unfortunately necessary one to make in the 1950s and ’60s—an idea that, sadly enough, only a white man could express without putting his life in immediate danger.
Griffin begins his study of race and identity with a rather straightforward question: “If a white man became a Negro in the Deep South, what adjustments would he have to make? What is it like to experience discrimination based on skin color, something over which one has no control?” (Note that “Negro” was a generally accepted term at the time.) By using the word “adjustments” in this question, Griffin highlights the fact that whites and blacks have completely different experiences in America simply because of their “skin color.” Although no one has “control” over the shade of his or her pigment, this tiny aesthetic detail determines the ways in which a person experiences life itself—an idea Griffin seems to understand before conducting his experiment, given that he’s already thinking about how his life will change as a result of his newly darkened skin. Of course, this frustrating reality is already overwhelmingly clear to African Americans, who experience lesser treatment on a daily basis on account of the way they look. However, Griffin wants to show whites—and specifically racists—how ridiculous it is to persecute an entire group of people based on something as insignificant as skin pigmentation. “How else except by becoming a Negro could a white man hope to learn the truth?” Griffin asks, going on to say that “the Southern Negro will not tell the white man the truth” because “he long ago learned that if he speaks a truth unpleasing to the white, the white will make life more miserable for him.” Because of this, Griffin tries to show his fellow white Americans the absurdity of their own bigotry by attacking the idea that there is a fundamental difference between whites and blacks.
Although Griffin’s primary argument is that there exists no significant difference between white people and black people, he finds himself plunged into an identity crisis when he first assumes the appearance of a black man. Looking at himself in the mirror, he is unpleasantly shocked by how out of touch he feels with himself. “I had tampered with the mystery of existence and I had lost the sense of my own being,” he writes, feeling “devastated” at this sudden loss of self. In this moment, Griffin acknowledges that even superficial appearances have profound effects on a person’s internal emotional landscapes, as his entire identity seemingly shifts as a result of this aesthetic transformation. This is an important moment in Black Like Me because it complicates the rather two-dimensional notion that race is nothing more than appearance. Indeed, skin color is arbitrary, but it still profoundly affects how a person interfaces not only with the outside world, but with his or her own identity, too.
Despite the complex influence that physical appearance has on identity, Griffin wants to spotlight how trivial it is to treat people differently based on skin color. This is because he understands that segregated society fails to recognize anything other than a person’s coloration (that is, of course, unless that person is white). Staring at himself in the mirror and feeling the loss of his identity, Griffin notes, “I knew now that there is no such thing as a disguised white man, when the black won’t rub off. The black man is wholly a Negro, regardless of what he once may have been. I was a newly created Negro who must go out that door and live in a world unfamiliar to me.” When Griffin says that a black man is “wholly a Negro” despite “what he once may have been,” he shows readers that African Americans are denied complex identities by segregated society, flattened into a stereotype that ignores the subtleties of human identity. And because Griffin himself now presents as a black man, he will be stripped of everything that makes him who he is. Indeed, he has no choice but to experience an “unfamiliar” world, since no one will stop to consider him beyond noting his blackness. Appearance, then, is the only thing that determines how a black person is treated in the segregated South.
By writing this account, Griffin invites racists to interrogate what, exactly, differentiates them from the people they oppress. Of course, Griffin does this from a place of privilege, since he can lighten his skin at any moment and transition back into life as a white person. However, the author understands that, at the time of this experiment, racists are unwilling to listen to black people when they talk about injustice and prejudice. In this way, Black Like Me is an important document because it showcases a white man’s attempt to force racists to grapple with the relationship between appearance and identity, ultimately leaving them no choice but to admit that they use trivial aesthetic notions as an excuse to propagate false and hateful ideas about African American identity.
Appearance, Identity, and Bigotry ThemeTracker
Appearance, Identity, and Bigotry Quotes in Black Like Me
How else except by becoming a Negro could a white man hope to learn the truth? Though we lived side by side throughout the South, communication between the two races had simply ceased to exist. Neither really knew what went on with those of the other race. The Southern Negro will not tell the white man the truth. He long ago learned that if he speaks a truth unpleasing to the white, the white will make life miserable for him.
“You don’t know what you’d be getting into, John,” she said. She felt that when my book was published, I would be the butt of resentment from all the hate groups, that they would stop at nothing to discredit me, and that many decent whites would be afraid to show me courtesies when others might be watching. And, too, there are the deeper currents among even well-intentioned Southerners, currents that make the idea of a white man’s assuming nonwhite identity a somewhat repulsive step down. And other currents that say, “Don’t stir up anything. Let’s try to keep things peaceful.”
“Do you suppose they’ll treat me as John Howard Griffin, regardless of my color—or will they treat me as some nameless Negro, even though I am still the same man?” I asked.
“You’re not serious,” one of them said. “They’re not going to ask you any questions. As soon as they see you, you’ll be a Negro and that’s all they’ll ever want to know about you.”
I believe in the brotherhood of man. […] I respect the race. But I can never forget when I was an intern and had to go down on South Rampart Street to patch them up. Three or four would be sitting in a bar or at a friend’s house. They were apparently friends one minute and then something would come up and one would get slashed up with a knife. We’re willing enough to go all the way for them, 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.
He also told me things that Negroes had told him—that the lighter the skin the more trustworthy the Negro. I was astonished to see an intelligent man fall for this cliché, 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.
All traces of the John Griffin I had been were wiped from existence. Even the senses underwent a change so profound it filled me with distress. I looked into the mirror and saw reflected nothing of the white John Griffin’s past. No, the reflections led back to Africa, back to the shanty and the ghetto, back to the fruitless struggles against the mark of blackness. Suddenly, almost with no mental preparation, no advance hint, it became clear and permeated my whole being.
My inclination was to fight against it. I had gone too far. I knew now that there is no such thing as a disguised white man, when the black won’t rub off. The black man is wholly a Negro, regardless of what he once may have been. I was a newly created Negro who must go out that door and live in a world unfamiliar to me.
I had tampered with the mystery of existence and I had lost the sense of my own being. This is what devastated me. The Griffin that was had become invisible.
I learned a strange thing—that in a jumble of unintelligible talk, the word “nigger” leaps out with electric clarity. You always hear it and always it stings. And always it casts the person using it into a category of brute ignorance. I thought with some amusement that if these two women only knew what they were revealing about themselves to every Negro on that bus, they would have been outraged.
An odd thing happened. Within a short time he lapsed into familiarity, forgetting I was once white. He began to use the “we” form and to discuss “our situation.” The illusion of my “Negro-ness” took over so completely that I fell into the same pattern of talking and thinking. It was my first intimate glimpse. We were Negroes and our concern was the white man and how to get along with him; how to hold our own and raise our selves in his esteem without for one moment letting him think he had any God-given rights that we did not also have.
You place the white man in the ghetto, deprive him of educational advantages, arrange it so he has to struggle hard to fulfill his instinct for self-respect, give him little physical privacy and less leisure, and he would after a time assume the same characteristics you attach to the Negro. These characteristics don’t spring from whiteness or blackness, but from a man’s conditioning.
The nightmare worried me. I had begun this experiment in a spirit of scientific detachment. I wanted to keep my feelings out of it, to be objective in my observations. But it was becoming such a profound personal experience, it haunted even my dreams.
I talked with some—casual conversations here and there. They said they knew the Negroes, they had had long talks with the Negroes. They did not know that the Negro long ago learned he must tell them what they want to hear, not what is. I heard the old things: the Negro is this or that or the other. You have to go slow. You can’t expect the South to sit back and let the damned communist North dictate to it, especially when no outsider can really “understand.” I listened and kept my tongue from giving answer. This was the time to listen, not to talk, but it was difficult. I looked into their eyes and saw sincerity and wanted to say: “Don’t you know you are prattling the racist poison?”
I was the same man, whether white or black. Yet when I was white, I received the brotherly-love smiles and the privileges from whites and the hate stares or obsequiousness from the Negroes. And when I was a Negro, the whites judged me fit for the junk heap, while the Negroes treated me with great warmth.
The news became known. I had spent weeks at work, studying, correlating statistics, going through reports, none of which actually help to reveal the truth of what it is like to be discriminated against. They cancel truth almost more than they reveal it. I decided to throw them away and simply publish what happened to me.
We had a long conversation during which he brought out the obvious fact that whites teach their children to call them “niggers.” He said this happened to him all the time and that he would not even go into white neighborhoods because it sickened him to be called that. He said revealing things:
“Your children don’t hate us, do they?”
“God, no,” I said. “Children have to be taught that kind of filth. We’d never permit ours to learn it.”
The most distressing repercussion of this lack of communication has been the rise in racism among Negroes, justified to some extent, but a grave symptom nevertheless. It only widens the gap that men of good will are trying desperately to bridge with understanding and compassion. It only strengthens the white racist’s cause. The Negro who turns now, in the moment of near-realization of his liberties, and bares his fangs at a man’s whiteness, makes the same tragic error the white racist has made.