There's a long tradition of white people trying to understand what it would be like to step into black people's shoes. But the journalist Grace Halsell went one step further: She attempted to step into black people's skin.
Using vitiligo treatment pills to help darken her complexion, Halsell traveled and worked in Harlem and Mississippi in 1968, passing as a black woman. She documented her experiences in her 1969 book Soul Sister, which she said she hoped would help white people to understand what it was like to be black. (She was inspired by John Howard Griffin, whose 1961 book Black Like Me took a similar approach.)
As you might imagine, Halsell's foray into blackness was controversial. But it also struck a chord. Lyndon Johnson provided a blurb for the book, and it sold more than a million copies.
We spoke to two professors—Alisha Gaines and Robin D. G. Kelley—who have spent a lot of time thinking about Halsell's experiment. Gaines is an English professor at Florida State University and author of Black for a Day: White Fantasies of Race and Empathy. Kelley is an American history professor at UCLA and author of a forthcoming biography of Halsell.
Gaines and Kelley talked to us about Grace Halsell, the ideas she came to about blackness, and why empathy alone is an incomplete tool for achieving racial justice.
These interviews have been edited and condensed for clarity.
Gene Demby: Alisha, you've said that Grace Halsell is just one example of someone doing this kind of "race as costume" experiment. Who are some of the other people who have tried things like this?
Alisha Gaines: There is definitely a genre of white, mostly liberal writers [telling these stories]. Ray Sprigle, a journalist with The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, couldn't darken his skin, but he shaved his head, wore a shabby hat and called himself a facsimile of a black man. He walked around the South and wrote a series of articles in '48. John Howard Griffin, much more famously than either Halsell or Sprigle, did this for Black Like Me, which came out in 1961. He took vitiligo corrective medication, used topical stains and shaved his head, to wear blackness temporarily for around five weeks.
Demby: You are skeptical about how useful empathy can be in the context of racial justice. What do you think empathy can accomplish, and what can it not do?
Gaines: It's a question I'm still wrestling with, so I have more questions myself than really conclusive answers. I think that when we wholeheartedly embrace empathy as a solution to racial justice, that's not enough. We often don't talk about the power dynamics that happen when you're trying to stand in someone else's shoes or, in the case of Halsell, Griffin and Sprigle, literally staying in someone else's skin. That empathetic impulse can be useful when it mobilizes an action or actual solidarity. But when it's just, "Oh, wow, I really feel deeply about that thing. I'm really trying to understand. And now I do." That's the failure to me.
Robin Kelley: Part of the problem is that empathy itself doesn't always produce a moral response. Paul Bloom wrote this book called Against Empathy, [in which he argues that] we have limited capacity for feeling the pain of others. We tend to identify not with the collective, but with individuals, which then reinforces exclusion. Part of Bloom's argument is that we're not able to literally step outside of ourselves or our subjectivity to become someone else. So what we do is we glom onto those people we identify with.
Gaines: [Grace Halsell] wants to find "authentically black people," so she goes to Mississippi. But if she can't find the exact facsimile of herself in the black women that she's meeting, then she kind of dismisses and judges them for not being the idea of a black woman that she has already constructed.
Demby: With the other people who undertook these adventures across the color line, did they make similar misjudgments or mischaracterizations of black life?
Gaines: Absolutely. John Howard Griffin was weirdly terrified that he wasn't going to return fully to whiteness. He was writing in his diaries about how he's worried that his wife will be sleeping with a black man now, with all these pathologizing ideas about black male sexuality. Ray Sprigle was only seeing what he wanted to see, and he was overly descriptive of black suffering and black pain—not black life. [He] traffics in notions that blackness is always an ineffable despair, a suffering, pain or an "oblivion."
Kelley: Halsell did these interviews, which are taped, where you can actually hear stories of black life. You could hear joyful, hilarious stories, or stories about danger and challenging state violence. In the telling of them, there's a sense of belonging and community that's evoked. But it doesn't necessarily translate in the texts. I think she was looking for something particular, and she found what she was looking for.
Demby: Has anyone who has tried to do a race-swapping experiment done it relatively respectfully and thoughtfully?
Gaines: I sound like a cynic, but I don't think so. There is a horrible reality TV show in 2006 called Black. White. There's two families, one black, one white, and they switch races with Hollywood-style prosthetics and makeup. There's a brief moment where the "born white" daughter, Rose, has a conversation with her mother [in which] she's realizing that this ain't it. She realizes in the project that this is not how we're connecting, this is not understanding. She's like, I am briefly flirting with an understanding, but there's so much I'm realizing that I just won't know. That level of self-awareness was helpful. But I don't think many [others] are pulling this off thoughtfully.
Demby: I'm curious as to what you make of the question about Grace Halsell's motives and intentions in doing this project. How much they should matter in the ultimate calculation of whether she was doing a good thing?
Gaines: It's easy to critique Soul Sister. It's not a good book. I do believe that Soul Sister is sort of the beginning of a developing awareness and consciousness around [structures and institutions.] But some of the conclusions that she makes in it are not very helpful, especially in her political moment. Black women at that time are already writing about being black women. Even though Halsell is supposedly writing this book for women like her, white women, she could have used that privilege in a different way.
There's this association of blackness with like, adventure. But then people like Halsell just take a rest from it when they feel like it. Black folks don't get that luxury or option.
Kelley: I completely agree. Soul Sister was definitely an adventure [to Halsell] and definitely driven by a certain kind of voyeurism. But I also think that she's really confused. To me, what's telling is how she defends the book on radio and television. On the one hand, she'll go from saying, "I can never know what it's like to be a black woman." But then she'll also say, "Well, when I was a black woman..."
The great journalist, Ethel Payne of Chicago Defender, interviewed Halsell on a radio show on Voice of America. Payne really presses and criticizes her. But then Halsell's comeback, I thought, was really important. She says, "I hope the book will have meaning, but I don't think I'll change any attitudes. Prejudice and discrimination have had have been with mankind all through history, and it exists in every country in the world in some form or another." And then she keeps back-pedaling to all these other things. I think that she's trying to figure it out.
For more on empathy, racial cosplay, and Grace Halsell, listen to this week's episode of the Code Switch podcast. It's a collaboration with the Radio Diaries podcast, in which we hear archival footage of Halsell herself talking about the conversations she had hoped to spark. You can subscribe to Radio Diaries here and follow them on Twitter at @RadioDiaries.