There is a lengthy custom of white individuals making an attempt to grasp what it might be wish to step into black individuals’s sneakers. However the journalist Grace Halsell went one step additional: She tried to step into black individuals’s pores and skin.
Utilizing vitiligo remedy capsules to assist darken her complexion, Halsell traveled and labored in Harlem and Mississippi in 1968, passing as a black lady. She documented her experiences in her 1969 e book Soul Sister, which she mentioned she hoped would assist white individuals to grasp what it was wish to be black. (She was impressed by John Howard Griffin, whose 1961 e book Black Like Me took an identical method.)
As you may think, Halsell’s foray into blackness was controversial. But it surely additionally struck a chord. Lyndon Johnson offered a blurb for the e book, and it offered greater than one million copies.
We spoke to 2 professors—Alisha Gaines and Robin D. G. Kelley—who’ve spent loads of time desirous about Halsell’s experiment. Gaines is an English professor at Duke College and writer of Black for a Day: White Fantasies of Race and Empathy. Kelley is an American historical past professor at UCLA and writer of a forthcoming biography of Halsell.
Gaines and Kelley talked to us about Grace Halsell, the concepts she got here to about blackness, and why empathy alone is an incomplete device for attaining racial justice.
These interviews have been edited and condensed for readability.
Gene Demby: Alisha, you have mentioned that Grace Halsell is only one instance of somebody doing this sort of “race as costume” experiment. Who’re a number of the different individuals who have tried issues like this?
Alisha Gaines: There’s positively a style of white, principally liberal writers [telling these stories]. Ray Sprigle, a journalist with The Pittsburgh Submit-Gazette, could not darken his pores and skin, however he shaved his head, wore a shabby hat and known as himself a facsimile of a black man. He walked across the South and wrote a collection of articles in ’48. John Howard Griffin, way more famously than both Halsell or Sprigle, did this for Black Like Me, which got here out in 1961. He took vitiligo corrective medicine, used topical stains and shaved his head, to put on blackness quickly for round 5 weeks.
Demby: You might be skeptical about how helpful empathy will be within the context of racial justice. What do you suppose empathy can accomplish, and what can it not do?
Gaines: It is a query I am nonetheless wrestling with, so I’ve extra questions myself than actually conclusive solutions. I believe that once we wholeheartedly embrace empathy as an answer to racial justice, that is not sufficient. We regularly do not discuss concerning the energy dynamics that occur once you’re making an attempt to face in another person’s sneakers or, within the case of Halsell, Griffin and Sprigle, actually staying in another person’s pores and skin. That empathetic impulse will be helpful when it mobilizes an motion or precise solidarity. However when it is simply, “Oh, wow, I actually really feel deeply about that factor. I am actually making an attempt to grasp. And now I do.” That is the failure to me.
Robin Kelley: A part of the issue is that empathy itself does not all the time produce an ethical response. Paul Bloom wrote this e book known as In opposition to Empathy, [in which he argues that] now we have restricted capability for feeling the ache of others. We are inclined to establish not with the collective, however with people, which then reinforces exclusion. A part of Bloom’s argument is that we’re not in a position to actually step exterior of ourselves or our subjectivity to turn into another person. So what we do is we glom onto these individuals we establish with.
Gaines: [Grace Halsell] needs to seek out “authentically black individuals,” so she goes to Mississippi. But when she will be able to’t discover the precise facsimile of herself within the black girls that she’s assembly, then she type of dismisses and judges them for not being the concept of a black lady that she has already constructed.
Demby: With the opposite individuals who undertook these adventures throughout the colour line, did they make comparable misjudgments or mischaracterizations of black life?
Gaines: Completely. John Howard Griffin was weirdly terrified that he wasn’t going to return totally to whiteness. He was writing in his diaries about how he is apprehensive that his spouse might be sleeping with a black man now, with all these pathologizing concepts about black male sexuality. Ray Sprigle was solely seeing what he wished to see, and he was overly descriptive of black struggling and black ache—not black life. [He] traffics in notions that blackness is all the time an ineffable despair, a struggling, ache or an “oblivion.”
Kelley: Halsell did these interviews, that are taped, the place you’ll be able to truly hear tales of black life. You may hear joyful, hilarious tales, or tales about hazard and difficult state violence. Within the telling of them, there is a sense of belonging and group that is evoked. But it surely does not essentially translate within the texts. I believe she was in search of one thing explicit, and he or she discovered what she was in search of.
Demby: Has anybody who has tried to do a race-swapping experiment carried out it comparatively respectfully and thoughtfully?
Gaines: I sound like a cynic, however I do not suppose so. There’s a horrible actuality TV present in 2006 known as Black. White. There’s two households, one black, one white, and so they swap races with Hollywood-style prosthetics and make-up. There is a temporary second the place the “born white” daughter, Rose, has a dialog together with her mom [in which] she’s realizing that this ain’t it. She realizes within the undertaking that this isn’t how we’re connecting, this isn’t understanding. She’s like, I’m briefly flirting with an understanding, however there’s a lot I am realizing that I simply will not know. That degree of self-awareness was useful. However I do not suppose many [others] are pulling this off thoughtfully.
Demby: I am curious as to what you make of the query about Grace Halsell’s motives and intentions in doing this undertaking. How a lot they need to matter within the final calculation of whether or not she was doing a superb factor?
Gaines: It is easy to critique Soul Sister. It is not a superb e book. I do imagine that Soul Sister is form of the start of a creating consciousness and consciousness round [structures and institutions.] However a number of the conclusions that she makes in it should not very useful, particularly in her political second. Black girls at the moment are already writing about being black girls. Though Halsell is supposedly penning this e book for ladies like her, white girls, she might have used that privilege otherwise.
There’s this affiliation of blackness with like, journey. However then individuals like Halsell simply take a relaxation from it once they really feel prefer it. Black people do not get that luxurious or possibility.
Kelley: I fully agree. Soul Sister was positively an journey [to Halsell] and positively pushed by a sure type of voyeurism. However I additionally suppose that she’s actually confused. To me, what’s telling is how she defends the e book on radio and tv. On the one hand, she’ll go from saying, “I can by no means know what it is wish to be a black lady.” However then she’ll additionally say, “Properly, once I was a black lady…”
The nice journalist, Ethel Payne of Chicago Defender, interviewed Halsell on a radio present on Voice of America. Payne actually presses and criticizes her. However then Halsell’s comeback, I assumed, was actually vital. She says, “I hope the e book can have which means, however I do not suppose I am going to change any attitudes. Prejudice and discrimination have had have been with mankind all by way of historical past, and it exists in each nation on the earth in some kind or one other.” After which she retains back-pedaling to all these different issues. I believe that she’s making an attempt to determine it out.
For extra on empathy, racial cosplay, and Grace Halsell, hearken to this week’s episode of the Code Change podcast. It is a collaboration with the Radio Diaries podcast, wherein we hear archival footage of Halsell herself speaking concerning the conversations she had hoped to spark. You may subscribe to Radio Diaries right here and observe them on Twitter at @RadioDiaries.