Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing: the Unintended Racism of Griffin’s Empathy

In John Howard Griffin’s controversial 1962 memoir Black Like Me, white-man Griffin takes an anthropological and personal journey, posing as a black man in the deep south in an attempt to understand the black experience. Equal parts personal revelation and argumentation, Griffin tries to provide proof of pervasive racial discrimination and show that, through empathy, white people can change and begin to understand the experience of black people. The problem, however, is that Griffin himself does not change. The bad encounters he experiences at times provoke fleeting shifts in his identity and argument, but ultimately just contribute to the same misguided notion: the belief that by painting his skin black, Griffin can understand – and, therefore, speak to – a black person’s experience. He begins to use the “we” pronoun to refer to the black community almost immediately after transitioning. As a result, he simultaneously dismisses and usurps the black identity, hurting his own identity of empathy and undermining his credibility to argue for racial equality. Griffin’s purpose is well-intentioned and radical for its time. Nevertheless, his desperation to speak for black people ultimately just undercuts his argument of equal humanity and contributes to a counterproductive theme of imperialist sympathy in which the white man claims authority on the experiences of a marginalized people.

Immediately after changing his skin color, Griffin begins to use the collective “we” in reference to black people, implying that the simple dyeing of his skin allows him to speak for the black community as a whole. Within one day of becoming black-skinned, in what he himself sees as his “first intimate glimpse” into black life, Griffin declares, “We were Negroes and our concern was the white man and how to get along with him” (Griffin, 35). Not only does he use his limited experience as a black man to define the “concern” of all negroes, but alienates himself from the “white man” he was just a few days ago. Furthermore, Griffin remains surprisingly-open about his “former” whiteness, not because he wants to emphasize a disparity between his internal identity and outward appearance, but because to him the fact that he “was once white” is inconsequential (35). For Griffin, the physical blackness of his skin gives him licence to call himself “wholly a Negro, regardless of what he once may have been” and an immediate claim to the sense of “shame,” “fear,” and futility of the black experience (23).

Griffins self-declared blackness gives him false license to act as a misguided voice for the black equality movement. Griffin’s quest to empathize with the black community and argue that the white-man does not “have any God-given rights that [the black man] does not also have,” (though presumptuous), is well-intentioned (36). And, within its historical context, even brave. However, his argument does not survive the test of time, many new critics highlighting the ethical fallacies and problematic consequences that come when white men equate empathy with a fundamental understanding of a marginalized groups’ experience. As the 2016 documentary 13th says, when white people “take the lead of a conversation [about black movements]…they inevitably create more repression” (Ana DuVernay). To John Howard Griffin, though, his experience “is what it is like to be a Negro in a land where we keep the Negro down…not the white man’s experience as a Negro in the South” (11). Ultimately, though griffin is well-meaning in his goals, his inability to recognize the black experience as anything beyond black skin simply contributes to a subliminal racism that hinders the fight for equality into the future. The insights into the black experience that Griffin does gain through his journey ultimately hold little weight because they come from a white man who refuses to acknowledge that his self-inflicted experience cannot fully represent that of a true black man.

Griffin’s epilogue is characterized by a tone of hopelessness and diminishing agency, as he begins to lose a sense of empowerment. Rather than claiming that he undertook his “experiment,” his quest to understand the black experience, he says it “was undertaken,” using passive voice to describe the change he once wished to actively create. (175). This new sense of futility seems like genuine insight into the black man’s struggle, insight into the inescapability of blackness and the negative connotations it carries. However, even as Griffin finds this understanding, he continues to use the pronoun “we,” never acknowledging that, unlike those born black, his blackness is not futile: he can, and did, become white again. Failing to recognize this disparity, Griffin undermines his persona of empathy and, therefore, the credibility of his argument.

History – black history especially – is no stranger to the trope of the well-meaning white man, the man who uses a contrived sense of understanding for the black man’s struggle to advocate for his rights. And while white men with good intentions like Griffin certainly help to fight large battles against segregation and discrimination, they also remove black people from the dialogue. In doing this, they give false credibility to white politicians who verbalize their opposition to racism while also instituting subliminally-racist programs like the American prison system. Though Griffin attempts to cultivate an identity of empathy and then use this empathized-understanding to argue against discrimination and general racism, he ultimately just lends himself to a troubling historical trend in which marginalized peoples are cut out of their own conversation.

More Than Appearances: The Depth of Griffin’s Change

John Howard Griffin’s memoir Black Like Me attempts to examine the exclusively physical transformation of a man from white to black. Griffin seeks to more wholly understand racial issues in the 1950s by altering his skin color and “nothing else”. His original white identity enjoys a strong sense of self, demonstrated by consistent personal pronouns, and a distinct separation of races, demonstrated by simplifying articles. The moment Griffin looks in the mirror and sees a black man, he changes not just physically, but his own identity experiences shocking confusion. His pronoun usage becomes often depersonalized in the third person as his identity becomes similarly depersonalized as he loses his comfortable white identity. However, he eventually becomes at peace with his new black identity and his pronouns begin to once again become personal, as they relate to both his black and white self. As Griffin sets out to solely change his outward experience, he inevitably changes his identity, revealed by an increasing fluidity of pronoun usage, and ultimately invalidating his argument as he changes much more than his physical appearance.

Griffin’s original, unchanged self, employs intentional vagueness and separation from both the black race and his own race through clear pronoun usage, epitomizes his original and unchanged white identity. Griffin fails to further specify “the idea” that incited the entire project (1). By simplifying and condensing the racial problem, he turns the racial issue into something that can be easily referred to. This is because he is ignorant and detached from the “real problem” due to his thoroughly white identity (2). Still, Griffin clearly and succinctly identifies “the Negro issue”; an issue that clearly sets its own bounds as exclusively “Negro”, and therefore separate from the white Griffin. The use of articles before these large, abstract ideas demonstrates Griffins white misconceptions. By imagining “a” single problem that faces the black community, he remains ignorant to the innumerable social injustices any black person faces. Continuing this trend of discernible and clarity and ignorance, Griffin asserts his role as “a white [man] assuming a nonwhite identity” (3). The succinct and singular article of “a”, condenses Griffin’s stunning transformation into something palatable and depersonalized from his identity. The article allows him to discuss his own self without making any reference to himself. He succeeds in completely disconnecting this future self as a black man from his current, white self. A constant and almost exclusive pronominal use of “I” reveals Griffin’s strong sense of his white self and identity (5). He successfully asserts himself as separate from both the white and black race. By depersonalizing his discussion of race issues and his future experiment, Griffin successfully asserts his own identity as a white man.

After Griffin assumes his black appearance, his strong sense of white self begins to fade with ambiguous pronoun usage as his black physical appearance begins to affect his identity. Immediately after assuming his black appearance, Griffin refers to himself as “a Negro” (10). Removing all personal connection to his reflection, he mindfully separates his sense of self from his physical appearance in the mirror. He remains unable to connect himself with his reflection and refers to himself with the third person “he” (10). This distance from a personal pronoun epitomizes the disconnect in his identity that reveals itself in Griffin’s change in pronoun usage. Griffin refers to the distance between himself and “the whites” as the distance between “them and me” (37). Not only does this categorize white people into a group completely separate from Griffin, but he also uses the personal pronoun “me”. This marks the beginning of the shift in Griffin’s identity and therefore the moment when he begins to invalidate his own argument. He begins to feel at home, both in his black body and in his black identity as he develops a sense of black self while separating himself from his former race. As he becomes more unified in his physical appearance and identity through more personal pronouns regarding his black self, Griffin feels comfortable answering his own rhetorical question of ”What did we fear?” with a personal response, from the view of a black man (72). Not only does Griffin feel content enough in his black body, he feels at peace with his identity as a black man who possesses the right to include himself in that “we”, even if it remains unspecified. Griffin’s use of personal pronouns reveals his growing sense of self as a black man as he creates a new identity for himself – inevitably different from his former self.

As Griffin shifts between his physical appearance as white or black, his identity continues to change as his pronouns and language become increasingly ambiguous. He begins to identify as both “Negro and white” (130). This contrasts with his earlier diction as he no longer places an article before either race. Each race is now more personal and can no longer be simplified with the use of “a” or “the”. However, this racial ambivalence distorts Griffin’s sweeping calls to action with the anaphoric “we must” (130). The incertitude regarding the subject of “we” simultaneously broadens his message by making it appear nearly universal, while also weakening his argument as it is unclear who “we” applies to. The eventual clarity with which Griffin accepts his black skin as “my Negro identity” ultimately illustrates his extreme transformation of identity (145). Finally, he possessively claims his blackness with a personal pronoun, the final acceptance of an identity much changed from his primary white sense of self. Griffin smoothly executes a frequent switch between his “white identity” and his “Negro identity”, however his comfort regarding both sides of his identity manifests itself in his use of the possessive pronoun “my” to describe both of these identities. By claiming both identities and creating a sense of self wholly independent of his white identity, Griffin flaunts his new identity – a new man.

Griffin must change his physical appearance in order to relate to the plight of black Americans. His individual white self fails to realize what DuVernay in her movie The 13th sets out to prove: there is no difference between “their cause” and “our cause”. The fluidity of these pronouns allows for the universality of the cause of black rights. And while the use of these pronouns ultimately invalidate Griffin’s argument as he changes more than just his physical appearance, this change also allows him to relate to his black identity and his fellow black Americans. While Griffin fails to do what he set out to do as he changes in identity, he more importantly changes to realize the most important message of all: any cause should be his cause too.