# TOPIE IMPITOYABLE /// Appearing Black in the City: John Howard Griffin’s Racial Experiment

john howard griffin01J.H. Griffin under the heat lamps / Photograph by Don Rutledge (1959)

Sometimes, books find you more than the opposite. This was the case for Black Like Me (1961), a book that I found in a messy fantastic little bookstore of Montreal last week. Its title (Dans la peau d’un Noir in its French translated version) caught my eye and it took me only a few hours to finish this incredible document about the racial segregation in the South of the United States in the late 1950’s. This book, written like a personal journal, recounts the peculiar experiment of its author John Howard Griffin who, for a few weeks in 1959, transformed himself from a white body to a black one to experience the segregation ‘from the inside.’ He indeed undertook a medical treatment to darken his skin and therefore appear in the public as a black man. This transformation of a body into another was necessary as the book illustrates how there cannot be any inter-racial understanding without an actual embodiment of its implications.

It is crucial to understand that Griffin’s transformation cannot be considered like a disguise. Although he might have thought of this experiment this way, he realizes on the first day as a black man:

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. (John Howard Griffin, Black Like Me, New York: New American Library, 1961. 16)

During his experiment, Griffin will realize that racism operates at various levels from the most obvious one based on hatred to more subtle versions coming sometimes from ‘well intentioned’ white people. Of course, 1950’s Southern racism is primarily of a systematic nature, through the segregation of all urban territories. Black bodies are forbidden — by law, or by norm — to use the same facilities than the white ones (bathrooms, restaurants, bus seats etc.) nor live in the same neighborhoods — such segregation mixes racial separation with social one and remains active nowadays.

I invite everybody to read the book to explore how this racism unfolds in different ways in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia; however what I would like to insist on here consists in what Griffin’s experiments reveal at a philosophical level. A city is a society of bodies that forces the latter to appear in a given way in the public. Some components of this appearance are strategical; they reveal what we, as bodies, want to affirm in terms of identity to the public: the social class we come from or that we pretend to come from, our relationship to the norm, our sexuality, and the importance that we give to the very idea of appearance — or the explicit strategy of appearing as not caring about appearance. Some other components are less deliberate and, although they can be compensated, our race and our gender for example are elements that are usually difficult to hide and they often constitute through what society composes expectations of behaviors (see a recent article I wrote about them) or essences.

When Griffins becomes black, he experiences the city and society as a black man and it is interesting to see that he is particularly sensitive to all the ‘small’ marks of racism rather than the plain violent one. The reason for that is probably partially because, as a white man, he never thought of these small words or behaviors that are fully part of a systematic oppression of a race — by race, I understand this word as a social status, not a biological one — over another. They are nevertheless the embodiment of the norm, the inertia of a segregationist system that only needs the behavioral repetition of specific social relationships between bodies to remain operative. In Black Like Me, many white people effectuates segregation while regretting its existence. The intention is however irrelevant in the effectuation of a system that ‘cares’ only about its actual operation. If racism still unfolds itself nowadays, it is precisely because the good intentions often expressed do not change the actual operativeness of social relationships between individuals that remain too often dictated by the illusory regime of behavioral expectations.

Griffin’s racial experiment should not be understood as a means to deal with his white man’s guilt, nor even as a political embrace to the black struggle — he would have remained black in this case — but rather as a way for him to experience the city under another regime of appearance than the one that he was used to as a white man. The “Drag King workshops” recounted by Beatriz Preciado in Testo Junkie (see past article) are similar experiments — although inverse in terms of change of positions in the relationships of power — as it proposes to women to appear as men for a few hours while walking in the city. Perhaps, this kind of experiments should be generalized for us all to experience different regimes of appearances and the way the social environment responses to them. We would then be able to understand the polis in a more incarnated way, as such experience would relate uniquely to the way our bodies appear in public.

All following photographs by Don Rutledge shows J.H. Griffin as a black man:

john howard griffin03 john howard griffin04 john howard griffin05


3 Comments on “# TOPIE IMPITOYABLE /// Appearing Black in the City: John Howard Griffin’s Racial Experiment

  1. Thank you for this article, reminding me of a book which had a huge impact on me when I first read it as a teenager. Some have argued that Griffin’s experiences are still those of a privileged white man taking a ‘holiday’ in another identity, an oppressed identity. But that is precisely what makes the account so valuable and so rare, to have someone who has stepped from one world into another, and back again. And it’s so powerfully written – I can still recall much of the book even forty+ years on.

    • Thank you Annabel
      I understand the ‘holiday’ argument, although back in the 1950’s deciding to accomplish such a holiday with such an implication on the body remains commendable, but the argument I was trying to make here was not necessarily judging Griffin’s experiment but rather addressing the regime of immediate appearances and the expectations they imply in a city.

  2. Pingback: Tales from my library | peakmemory