The book is based upon real experiments conducted by journalists. In 1948, a journalist named Ray Sprigle traded his whiteness to live as a black man for four weeks. A little over a decade later, John Howard Griffin famously “became” black as well, traveled the Southern United States in search of a certain kind of racial understanding. His work “Black Like Me,” gained him international accredit.
Contemporary history is littered with the surprisingly complex stories of racial inequality. Alisha Gaines constructs a unique genealogy of “empathetic racial impersonation–white liberals walking in the fantasy of black skin under the alibi of cross-racial empathy. At the end of their experiments in “blackness,” Ms. Gaines argues, these debatable well-meaning white impersonators arrived at little more than false consciousness. At the end of the experiment, they can return to their world of white privileges whereas the persons they seek to understand can not.
Complicating the histories of black-to-white passing and blackface minstrelsy, Gaines uses an interdisciplinary approach rooted in literary studies, race theory, and cultural studies to reveal these sometimes maddening, and often absurd, experiments of racial impersonation. By examining this history of modern racial impersonation, Gaines shows that there was, and still is, a faulty cultural logic that places enormous faith in the idea that empathy is all that white Americans need to make a significant difference in how to racially navigate our society.
A woman, a journalist named Grace Halsell conducted the same experiment in the 1940’s. She lived as a black woman and recorded her experiences.
It was attempted again in the 1990’s and the young man didn’t last a full day.
I drew no conclusion as to whether they should have done it or not. I just marvel at the fact that many of the same issues are still a problem today, nearing eighty years later.