In 1961, John Howard Griffin published “Black Like Me”, an account of his experiences as a white man pretending to be a Black man traveling through the southern US. Apparently this brought the reality of racism to many white Americans, and the book is still read in lots of American high schools. Because I’m white and too far removed from the time period, I have very little to say about whether this was appropriate or helpful, in the end. (But I’m gonna go ahead and say I fall on the side of 1961 not being too early to listen to actual Black people.)
However, I do think this approach is completely inappropriate for “exposing” any kind of inequality or poor treatment today. It’s 2013. We have the internet. Anyone (basically) can write about their experiences, and anyone (basically) can read them. We no longer need kindly white men to dress up as various oppressed groups to tell us how members of these groups are treated, and yet…
A white German man pretends to be a Somali immigrant and gets a film made of it.
A straight, white, American man pretends to be a Syrian lesbian and gets lots of attention.
A straight white man pretends to be a lesbian and gets lots of attention too.
Because I can’t beat the original title: White Woman Wears Afro, Life Changes. Or Something.
A high schooler pretends to be pregnant and gets a final project, book, and TV movie.
A white, non-Muslim woman wears a hijab to the mall for a couple of hours and gets attention.
Rich lawmakers try living off food stamps for a week to protest budget cuts. (This one has been done multiple times.)
“Projects” like these help no one. It requires a ridiculous amount of privilege to think that the actual experiences of people in oppressed groups is less worthy of being heard than are the experiences of people just pretending to be part of them. Moreover, if we only take prejudice seriously when privileged people are the targets, it implies that on some level people “deserve” their poor treatment for being gay or of color or pregnant. It’s only really terrible or worthy of note when it is accidentally directed at “innocents” or “people like us”.
It’s also interesting to note that the only two of these that were broadly criticized were the straight men pretending to be lesbians on the internet. I think the key difference between these and the others is that the internet at large was “tricked” by them. For the rest, people can convince themselves that they wouldn’t have acted badly towards these people (or been tricked into having misplaced sympathy for them).
It’s over 50 years since “Black Like Me” and we still apparently can’t trust the voices of actual people experiencing oppression.