How A White Woman Named Grace Halsell 'Became Black' In 'Soul Sister' : Code Switch In matters of race and justice, empathy is often held up as a goal unto itself. But what comes after understanding? In this episode, we're teaming up with Radio Diaries to look at the career of a white writer who put herself in someone else's skin — by disguising herself as a black woman — to find out what she learned, and what she couldn't.
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The Limits Of Empathy

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The Limits Of Empathy

The Limits Of Empathy

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SHEREEN MARISOL MERAJI, HOST:

You're listening to CODE SWITCH from NPR. I'm Shereen Marisol Meraji.

GENE DEMBY, HOST:

And I am Gene Demby. And Shereen, I just want you to think all the way back to, like, the early-to-mid aughts, like '05, '06.

MERAJI: Feels like yesterday.

DEMBY: It really does. You were probably wearing, like, some velour sweatsuit, right?

MERAJI: Yes, I was, actually.

DEMBY: Tell me about this velour sweatsuit, by the way.

MERAJI: (Laughter). First of all, I was the queen of velour tracksuits.

DEMBY: (Laughter). Yes.

MERAJI: Never Juicy, never Juicy.

DEMBY: I did not know this about you.

MERAJI: Why? Because my butt speaks for itself, Gene.

DEMBY: No comment.

(LAUGHTER)

MERAJI: But truly.

DEMBY: (Laughter). Well, while you were doing that and the rest of us were wearing, like, throwback jerseys, Tyra Banks - she was wearing a fat suit.

MERAJI: She did. And I looked up one of her quotes about this experience. And she said, quote, "it was one of the most heartbreaking days of my life. I started walking down the street, and within 10 seconds, a trio of people looked at me, snickered, looked me right in the eye and started pointing and laughing in my face. And I had no idea it was that blatant," unquote.

She was really leaning into that thing your parents or maybe your teacher or someone in some leadership position told you when you were a kid to convey to you the importance of empathy. Imagine how you would feel if you were in their position.

DEMBY: You know, walk a mile in someone else's shoes...

MERAJI: Yup.

DEMBY: ...Because we take as a given that empathy is this virtue and, like, a goal unto itself.

MERAJI: Going back to Tyra for a second, why are we listening to a thin supermodel talk about being fat when there are actual fat people who talk about what it means to be fat...

DEMBY: Welp.

MERAJI: ...And live in the world as a fat person.

DEMBY: Welp.

MERAJI: I do not get that.

DEMBY: Nope.

MERAJI: People are, though, constantly talking about empathy being the path to understanding as a way to, quote, "raise awareness." And many, many people, Gene, have tried a version of what Tyra did.

DEMBY: Right. Like, there's the wheelchair experiment, where able-bodied people spend a day in a wheelchair, trying to navigate the streets of a city.

MERAJI: There are cismen who want to experience the agony of giving birth.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: As part of a stunt, these men were hooked up to a machine with electrodes stuck to their abdomen, all to simulate labor pains.

DEMBY: There are undercover CEOs, wherein billionaires and rich capitalists try to understand what being a regular employee is like.

MERAJI: I love those, by the way. I love watching those.

DEMBY: No.

MERAJI: I can't help it. I just - I'm like, oh, my gosh.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "UNDERCOVER BOSS")

MARK KELLER: When the big boss at Popeyes Chicken goes undercover...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Welcome to the Popeyes family.

LYNNE ZAPPONE: Thank you.

KELLER: ...It's an eye-opening experience.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Flour, batter, flour.

ZAPPONE: Flour, batter, flour.

MERAJI: These all belong to the broader genre of empathy cosplay.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DEMBY: On this week's episode, we teamed up with Radio Diaries to look at the life of one woman, who is a bestselling author who made her entire career doing this very thing, Shereen - going undercover in order to understand. She was a white woman who pretended to be black.

MERAJI: Oh, like Rachel Dolezal (laughter).

DEMBY: Don't say her name. Don't say her name. It's bad luck, just like Candyman or Beetlejuice or something. She was a white woman who pretended to be black, and then later pretended to be Native, and then later pretended to be Latinx.

MERAJI: A world tour of the POC experience. Dare I say, Rachel Dolezal's got nothing on this woman.

DEMBY: She was doing this in order to show the world the lived experience of racism in the United States. And what she found and didn't find might tell us a lot about the usefulness of empathy and, also, about empathy's limits. First up, let's listen to this woman's story. Her name is Grace Halsell. And her story is brought to us by Radio Diaries.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW, "HOTLINE")

WESLEY SOUTH: How do you do, ladies and gentlemen? My name is Wesley South, and this is the Hotline. Tonight, we have a guest. Grace Halsell is a white woman who turned herself black and went to live and work in Mississippi. First question - I'd like to know just what made you go through this experience?

GRACE HALSELL: Well, first, I don't think any white person can really ever imagine what it is to be black in this country. I certainly didn't know.

ALISHA GAINES: A white woman changes her whole body brown for six months. My name is Alisha Gaines. I'm the author of "Black For A Day: White Fantasies Of Race And Empathy."

ROBIN KELLEY: My name is Robin Kelley, and I'm writing the biography of Grace Halsell. I've gotten a lot of flak, actually, for writing this book. It's like, why would a black man write a book about this white woman who tries to pretend to be black?

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW, "HOTLINE")

SOUTH: How did you change your color from white to black?

HALSELL: Well, I did it with a medication - pills that one can take.

GAINES: She is prescribed vitiligo corrective treatment that basically allowed her skin to absorb more sunlight.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW, "HOTLINE")

HALSELL: I could see a very drastic change just day by day. And on the ninth day, I actually saw a black woman, and she was me.

GAINES: She also got custom colored contacts made to change her eyes to make them look darker. And she put on a shabby dress and tied a kerchief over her hair. And off she went on her adventure.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: "Soul Sister" by Grace Halsell. (Reading) I will no longer carry my identity card that has always provided me with special status - white American, member of the club. I will be going to a black country, beseeching, let me come in. Accept me as one of you, a black among blacks.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAR DOOR CLOSING)

CARVER RANDLE: This is the address - 291 Roosevelt St. - where Grace Halsell lived when she was here in Indianola. My name is Carver A. Randle. I knew ahead of time why she was here. I was president of the NAACP in Sunflower County, Miss. Best I recall, she was about 5'7". Her skin was real rough and deep brown. You know, I thought it was strange in '68, posing as a black woman. It was dangerous. And if the white community found out who she was and what she was about, she could've been killed very easily. And if somebody's engaged in something that they know is dangerous, to me, that's either a fool or a brave person. In my opinion, she was a little of both.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HALSELL: One, two, three. This is Tuesday, November the 19.

KELLEY: When Grace was doing the research for "Soul Sister," she used a cassette recorder, and she would record her thoughts.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HALSELL: I was just struck very forcefully riding on the bus yesterday. White people never seem to see the negro. That's like being tuned out completely.

KELLEY: And she would record interviews with the people she meets.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

HALSELL: Tell me a little bit about what you were saying.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: They treat you - well, you're black. And you're just going to have to be back here. This is your place here.

HALSELL: I'd like for you to tell me just how you got started in the movement.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Well, I can hardly remember a time that I really wasn't involved.

JOYCE MOULTON: White people always come along and kick you around. I wish that the Negro people are not going to take any more from nobody.

HALSELL: Everyone, tell her name.

MOULTON: Joyce Moulton (ph), 16.

My name is Joyce Moulton.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MOULTON: Captain be trying to make me say, yes, sir, or, no, sir, to him.

Grace interviewed me in 1968. Guess what? I thought she was black. I didn't know Grace was white until I read the book. Wow. Hello, Grace (laughter).

KELLEY: In addition to interviewing and hanging out with people, she participates in a number of demonstrations. She comes up with this idea of trying to integrate a white church.

RANDLE: And she wanted to take some young black people with her. They went in the church, and they stopped the whole service.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Reading) It seems illogical and ridiculous that one can be arrested for going to church. But I know that in Indianola, it is possible.

KELLEY: Grace also gets a job as a domestic worker, basically cleaning white women's homes.

RANDLE: She'd make all the white folks' beds, wash all the dishes and dirty clothes.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Reading) Long before I have one job completed, there are new orders. Now sweep off the front porch, the side porch, the back porch and mop the back porch.

KELLEY: She ends up working for a family called the Wheelers. And it's a key moment.

MOULTON: She was working. And the white lady had went somewhere, and the husband was at home. He called her upstairs. And when she got up there, he tried to rape her.

GAINES: So she kind of wiggles an arm free and is able to pull the family portrait down onto Mr. Wheeler's head. And that gives her enough time to escape. Ultimately, she went back to whiteness after this incident. The project is over. She goes back home to Washington, D.C., and begins writing "Soul Sister."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #1: WGRT, the now sound of super soul in Chicago.

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #2: Welcome to Rap Session with your host, Daddy-O Daylie.

DADDY-O DAYLIE: Our guest today is Ms. Grace Halsell. And Grace is a...

KELLEY: When the book came out, it was a runaway bestseller. White liberals and a surprising number of black people praised the book. But it was also very controversial.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DAYLIE: 372-0766 is the number to call if you'd like to speak to our guest. And you're on the air. Hello.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: Ms. Halsell, when you went to Mississippi and changed the color of your skin, was this for a personal gain or - why did you do this?

HALSELL: I did it to learn what it's like. I know black people don't have anything to learn from this book because you know what being black is like.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: Yes, I do.

HALSELL: But I'm hoping that white people can relate to me and identify with me and live through my experiences.

GAINES: Remember; "Soul Sister" comes out in 1969. We are now firmly in a Black Power moment. And by 1970, we've got Toni Morrison's "The Bluest Eye." We've got Toni Cade Bambara's "The Black Woman." Black women are writing about themselves, and so Halsell's timing was just off.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW, "HOTLINE")

SOUTH: This is the Hotline. Hello?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: Ms. Halsell, I have some serious misgivings about your book. I cannot really believe that any white person would not know how Negroes are treated when it's the white people who are doing the treating - doing the mistreating. May I have your comment on that, please?

HALSELL: Believe me. My intentions are good. Believe me. I didn't do it to make...

DOROTHY GILLIAM: My name is Dorothy Gilliam, and I was the first African American female reporter at The Washington Post. In 1969, I was asked to review "Soul Sister." I wrote these words - I am instantly repulsed by the audacity of Ms. Halsell, after a few months of a half-masquerade, to call herself soul sister. Her motivations were probably quite positive, trying to stir up empathy. But I think she was just so imbued with her whiteness that she didn't understand anything.

GAINES: As a black person reading "Soul Sister," it's deeply uncomfortable because she traffics in so many stereotypes. She also assumes that black womanhood is nothing but a story about suffering.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW, "HOTLINE")

SOUTH: Let's continue, Grace. May I call you Grace?

HALSELL: Yes, please.

SOUTH: The mentality of the man who attempted to rape you - tell me a little about that.

HALSELL: Well, the thing that was so - really horrifying to me as a black woman was the way white men looked at me.

KELLEY: Now, the problem is, as I dig through the archival record through her own papers, it became clear to me that the story of a white man nearly raping her probably never happened. She was a copious note-taker. She took notes on everything. And there's no notes, just nothing about this encounter. It doesn't pop up until she's writing the book. I think that this was a story invented after she had done her research and collected her data. You know, she'd heard stories about this. So in the book, how can she convey it unless it happens to her? That's my theory.

GAINES: I don't think we'll ever really know if that did or didn't happen. I will say this - I have always thought that the attempted rape scene was very convenient. But at the end of the day, women are often accused of making up these types of stories even when we don't.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW, "HOTLINE")

SOUTH: And I say we have to discontinue this. We're about a minute over despite some of our listeners - and they have a right to express their opinion.

HALSELL: Well, sure - very good points.

SOUTH: I say good luck to you on "Soul Sister."

HALSELL: Thank you.

SOUTH: Ladies and gentlemen, tomorrow night, we will be discussing...

KELLEY: After "Soul Sister," Grace continued to return to the book as a model.

GAINES: She publishes "Bessie Yellowhair." In that book, she has turned herself into a Navajo woman.

KELLEY: She then writes "The Illegals" as a Mexican, undocumented worker.

GAINES: She found her calling, I guess.

KELLEY: She published 11 books. They're all about what it means to live in other people's shoes and other people's lives. And that's part of what she thought about as empathy. I think what she did, for all the faults, was a courageous thing.

GAINES: Courageous? I would call her adventurous. Grace Halsell deeply believed that if we all understood each other, then racism will be over. But that's not how this works. The problem with empathy is that it's seductive enough that people think it's enough.

KELLEY: I think I may be the only scholar on the planet who's somewhat sympathetic to Grace Halsell. Grace made a choice to run toward the minefield of race rather than run away.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Reading) Nothing in my experience has prepared me for going to the South as a black woman. And why do I say I couldn't do it again? - because now I know what it cost me psychologically to bear for one minute in time what every black American bears all his life - discrimination, segregation, injustice.

RANDLE: I need to go back and read that book again. I like Grace, but I don't think Grace had a notion of what it was like to live as a black person - no way (laughter), no way. I've been black all my life. You know, there's a lot I don't know about me.

MERAJI: Ooh. There is a lot to pull apart there.

DEMBY: Indeed, which is why I wanted to talk to Alisha and Robin about Grace Halsell. And my conversation with them is after the break.

MERAJI: Looking forward to it - stay with us.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DEMBY: Gene.

MERAJI: Shereen.

DEMBY: CODE SWITCH. So as we heard before the break, Alisha Gaines and Robin Kelley were trying to make sense of these exploits that Grace Halsell undertook and her sojourns into blackness. And as you heard, Alisha wrote a book called "Black For A Day: White Fantasies Of Race And Empathy." And that book looks at a bunch of different white people who have forayed into blackness.

MERAJI: A bunch of different white people who have forayed into blackness - I just needed to repeat that.

DEMBY: A bunch.

(LAUGHTER)

DEMBY: More than one. And Alisha, who is a professor at Florida State - she writes about the period of Halsell's life that's depicted in "Soul Sister" specifically. But Robin, who is a professor at UCLA, his forthcoming book looks at the wider sweep of Grace Halsell's life. So I got a chance to pick their brains about what Grace Halsell's escapades sought to accomplish when it came to racial justice and whether they thought she accomplished them. Here's Alisha.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GAINES: It's a good question. It's a question I'm still wrestling with. I think that when we sort of wholeheartedly embrace empathy as a solution to racial justice, that's not enough, and often, we don't talk about sort of the power dynamics that happen when you're trying to stand in someone else's shoes or, in the case of Halsell, literally standing in someone else's skin. I think that the empathetic impulse can be useful when it mobilizes an action or mobilizes actual solidarity. But when it's just sort of, 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.

KELLEY: I don't think "Soul Sister" produced much empathy on the part of the audience she was trying to reach, which was white readers. And the unfortunate thing about the way the story is told is you don't actually get deep into the way that black people as a collective, you know, dealt with each other, dealt with the movement, dealt with the modes of oppression. So she comes out of it with a wrongheaded understanding of what's the problem.

Part of the problem is, you know, empathy itself doesn't always produce a moral response, you know. And this is - Paul Bloom wrote this book called "Against Empathy." He makes many claims, but most important might be that we have limited capacity for feeling the pain of others. What we do is we tend to identify not with the collective, not with movements, but with individuals. And we then identify with those individuals, which then reinforce exclusion. It could be enforced racism. It could be enforced sexism, ethnocentrism. And in the case of Grace Halsell - or maybe all these kinds of racial experiments - part of Bloom's argument is that we're not able to sort of literally step outside of ourselves and our subjectivity to become someone else. What we do is we lob on to those people we identify with.

One of the brilliant things that Alisha talks about in her book, for example, is the way that Grace Halsell pathologized sexuality and gender, specifically because there are these queer characters who come up in her story, and she comes to this really bizarre conclusion that the lesbians with whom she's living in this guesthouse and the trans man who's working in the restaurant are somehow denied the right to be real men and real women because of racism; that is, her attempt to identify with the other still depends on identifying with herself in the other - that is, a cisgender heterosexual white woman as a black woman.

GAINES: Robin brings up, out of a very weird book, one of the weirder moments, which is she kind of looks around this guesthouse and realizes, oh, my God, these are lesbians.

KELLEY: (Laughter).

GAINES: And in so doing, she basically, like, says that they're not real men and women because of racism and then kind of dismisses queer black folks as not being authentically black. She does this move again when she is working in a Harlem hospital and the other secretaries are too, you know, kind of class-aspirational and they're too much like white people, and she wants to find authentically black people, so she goes to Mississippi. But there's constant - like, as Robin was saying, if she can't find the exact facsimile or copy of herself in the black women that she's meeting or encountering, then she kind of dismisses them.

KELLEY: By the way, I should mention that her time in Mississippi amounted to little less than three weeks.

DEMBY: So she was in and out.

KELLEY: She was in and out. And she only really worked as a domestic for two days altogether. Her time in Harlem came out to - I think I calculated about four weeks. She spent as much time in the Virgin Islands darkening herself as she spent in Harlem.

DEMBY: Wow.

KELLEY: So it's not like she spent a year or six months, you know.

DEMBY: Wasn't, like, a deep dive. She was just a tourist.

KELLEY: Basically, yes, a tourist. And again, the Mississippi experience was sharply different from the New York experience. Though, in New York, she tells a story about showing up with $20 in her pocket in a shabby dress and trying to live like a black woman. Well, soon as she got there, she deposited $200 in her bank account at Freedom National Bank.

GAINES: (Laughter).

DEMBY: Two hundred dollars in 1969 money.

KELLEY: Oh, yeah, in 1968 (laughter). And then a couple of times, you know, she would leave her apartment or boarding house or guesthouse and go to the Upper East Side and - because she was having an affair with Peter Lisagor, the very famous Washington Post journalist. And so she'd spend a night with him. And this one letter she wrote, where she talks about how she's in this luxury hotel with Peter Lisagor, and she looks in the mirror and she sees herself dark and she just hated herself.

DEMBY: Wow.

KELLEY: You know, that's not in the book.

(LAUGHTER)

KELLEY: But how she was so ugly, and would he found her attractive? So she was able to escape and find some respite among the sort of suffering she talked about in Harlem.

DEMBY: It reminds me of one of those jokes you always hear folks say. Like, you couldn't survive a month in my skin.

(LAUGHTER)

DEMBY: She literally had to, like, take a self-care break and just opt out.

KELLEY: Absolutely.

GAINES: Wow.

DEMBY: Alisha, has anyone who has tried to do this done this, like, relatively respectfully and thoughtfully?

GAINES: (Laughter) I mean, I know I sound like a cynic, but I don't think so. There is a horrible, like, reality TV show in 2006, which I talk about in the book, called "Black. White." And it's two families - one black, one white. And they, like, switch races - like, Hollywood-style prosthetics and makeup. And there's a brief moment where the born-white (laughter) daughter Rose...

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BLACK. WHITE.")

ROSE BLOOMFIELD: I've never experienced what it's like to be treated black.

GAINES: ...Has this conversation with her mother. And she's just realizing that this ain't it, this...

(LAUGHTER)

GAINES: ...The fact that she's, you know, black and that she's got this newly textured hair, and she's learning slam poetry. She realizes in the project, this is not how we're connecting. Like, 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. And it's, like, the closest someone who's done this that I've talked about gets to making that declaration very clear.

I mean, this only happens after a few days of this. She later outs herself to her slam poetry class and tells them, like, look. I'm a white girl. I can't do this. And so that kind of level of self-awareness was helpful. But I don't think many of them are pulling this off thoughtfully. I mean, you can think about where I end the book with Rachel Dolezal. I mean, she's still out here in these streets.

DEMBY: I was hopeful we were going to get through this whole thing without invoking the name.

GAINES: Of course we can't.

(LAUGHTER)

GAINES: Of course we can't. She's still hanging on after the critiques, after her own sons are kind of begging her to stop. And to me, it's just the ultimate evidence of white privilege - is just to, in the face of critique, keep doing it.

DEMBY: It seemed like a central point of disagreement between the two of you - is whether or how much Grace Halsell's motives mattered in the end. But it doesn't actually sound like y'all are that far apart on this.

KELLEY: So in some ways, I actually don't think her motives matter if we isolate her story to "Soul Sister." To me, "Soul Sister" was unintentional, but it became a way to think about colonialism. And the analogy of colonialism became the window or the framework for her to understand the reservation, the barrio, the border and later, the occupied territories in the West Bank. That's, to me, where the motivation matters.

But when you actually get to her within that bubble of "Soul Sister," her motivation was complicated. Some of it was for money because she was struggling. Some of it was for fame. Some of it was - you know, she starts out saying, like, I'm trying to write this for white people. But then when she talks to her publicist Ofield Dukes, who's black - she has a whole black team of publicists - she's like, I want the black people to love this book (laughter). And she feels bad when people in Chicago come out and protest after the Ebony article comes out excerpting the book. And she's like, well, what's wrong? What did I do, you know? And so I think she was confused even about her own motivation. And it didn't become clear until - really, toward the end of her life.

DEMBY: How did it become clear at the end of her life? I don't want to spoil your book but...

KELLEY: Oh, no. It's nothing to spoil. I wish you could help me finish it.

(LAUGHTER)

KELLEY: You know, toward the end, I think on the one hand, she recognized the limits of trying to walk in someone's shoes, the limits of empathy - that, really, there can be no radical empathy. But at the same time, she began to pull back with the lens away from herself, away from the individual and began to think more about structure and think more about economy.

And so one of the things she did late in her life was she went to Bosnia. And she interviewed all these women who were raped. You know, it's very, very difficult work. And I think that her experience with "Soul Sister" and the mistakes she made helped her become a better journalist, a better listener and to sort of become less self-referential.

DEMBY: Alisha, you sort of look more narrowly at the experiment itself. So I'm curious as to what you make of this question about her motives.

GAINES: I mean, I definitely don't think that Robin and I are as oppositional as maybe the piece suggested. I do narrow down on "Soul Sister." And so it's easy to critique "Soul Sister." It's not a good book. It's a weird thing. I mean - and I agree with Robin that if you look at the longer trajectory of her life and definitely her later work, she is talking about systems and structures and institutions in a way that I'm very critical of the fact that she doesn't in "Soul Sister." So I do believe that "Soul Sister" is sort of the beginning of a developing awareness and consciousness around these things. But that's not my book (laughter) so...

(LAUGHTER)

GAINES: I get to talk about "Soul Sister," which is just - it's ridiculous - I mean, just like "Black Like Me" is ridiculous. And some of the conclusions that she makes in it - you're like, OK. That's - I mean, that's not very helpful, especially at this political moment. Black women are already writing about being black women, even though she is supposedly writing this book for women like her - that she could be using that privilege in a different way.

I do think that her motive in the case of "Soul Sister" matters. And I do think it's complicated. I mean, she talks about wanting a personal experience. She talks about wanting to sort of open herself up to, you know, what she's going to find out about herself. So I think that's part of it, too - but then that she can just take a rest from it when she feels like it in the Upper East Side in a nice hotel. Black folks don't get that luxury or option.

MERAJI: Yes. That is a very good point, Alisha.

DEMBY: It is a good point, although, I mean, if we do reparations, let's get on this - these hotel rooms on the Upper East Side, you know what I mean? Put that in the package.

MERAJI: (Laughter).

DEMBY: So there was one other part of this "Radio Diaries" piece that I wanted to get into with Robin and Alisha. Shereen, you remember - at the top, they were talking about the end of "Soul Sister," where Grace Halsell describes this white guy who tried to sexually assault her.

MERAJI: Yes. And there was some tension over whether or not that story was true.

DEMBY: Right. Robin wondered whether that incident happened exactly the way that Halsell described them in the book or if it happened at all, which is a pretty heavy assertion, obviously. So I asked him to expound on what he meant.

KELLEY: There's a little of a question on my part, at least, about when and how and if that particular incident happened or if she was trying to convey the story of someone else to create that narrative arc where the final sort of coup de grace is that escape from a rapist who's white.

DEMBY: And so you think that that was, like, a writerly embellishment.

KELLEY: Well, you know, I want to be real careful here because, you know, this is not about whether I believe Grace or not believe her 'cause there's evidence in the book I'm writing where she's been sexually assaulted before this. And I think that it's quite possible this could have happened - no question.

But there are some other pieces of the story, like the fact that it happened in Clarksdale, and she was only in Clarksdale for one day. And that's the same day she was meeting with Aaron Henry. It happened with the one person who has a pseudo name but no actual name. She has no notes on the event. But what she does have a lot of notes on is her interview with Nanny Tubbs (ph), who basically talks about the violence that domestic workers face every day.

So now, it could've happened. It probably didn't happen in Clarksdale, like she says. But it's quite possible that if it didn't happen to her - 'cause she only worked two days as a domestic - if it didn't actually happen to her, she had enough evidence to be able to get that story in there because it is the truth.

DEMBY: Right.

KELLEY: There's a truth to that, that kind of violence. It's not like it's fictional. It's really true. But it really makes a perfect narrative arc as a kind of liberal anti-racist to be able to say, you know what? My fears were unfounded. I found in Harlem a community of loving people, people who cared about each other and about me.

GAINES: I don't think we'll ever really know know. But if you take the text and kind of think about it as a narrative arc, it makes sense how she would put that in there if she's trying to name something that's happening to the black domestic workers that she's talking to but didn't necessarily happen to her then or in the way that she describes. There's a way in which it neatly kind of - almost too neatly for me, actually, when I was reading it - kind of wrap things up and then makes the exit back to whiteness - kind of makes it feel inevitable in a way.

KELLEY: My worry is that to pose the question may open the door for questioning everything she writes. But to me, the irony is that sometimes the fiction is the most authentic. What didn't happen may be even more authentic than what did happen in terms of her trying to project another life, not her own.

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DEMBY: Alisha Gaines is the author of "Black For A Day: White Fantasies Of Race And Empathy." And she's the Timothy Gannon associate professor of English at Florida State University. Robin D.G. Kelley is a professor of history and African American studies at UCLA.

Thank you both so much.

KELLEY: Thank you.

GAINES: Oh, you're welcome. Thank you.

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DEMBY: All right, y'all. That's our show. And just a quick note - Carver Randle, the former head of the Sunflower County, Miss., NAACP who you heard from in the "Radio Diaries" piece - he passed away after he was interviewed for this story.

MERAJI: Rest in peace, Mr. Randle.

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MERAJI: This episode was a collaboration between "Radio Diaries" and CODE SWITCH. The "Radio Diaries" documentary was produced by Sarah Kate Kramer, with help from Joe Richman and Nellie Gilles. It was edited by Deborah George and Ben Shapiro. The CODE SWITCH part was produced by Jess Kung and Leah Donnella. It was edited by Leah.

DEMBY: Please follow us on Twitter. We're @NPRCodeSwitch. You can follow Shereen @RadioMirage and me @GD215. You can follow "Radio Diaries" @RadioDiaries. Please get at us. Our email is codeswitch@npr.org. Subscribe to CODE SWITCH on NPR One or wherever you get your podcasts.

MERAJI: Please do.

DEMBY: For more stories from "Radio Diaries," subscribe to their podcast.

MERAJI: And a shoutout to the rest of the CODE SWITCH team - Kumari Devarajan, Karen Grigsby Bates, LA Johnson, Natalie Escobar, Steve Drummond. Our interns are Diane Lugo and Isabella Rosario.

DEMBY: I'm Gene Demby.

MERAJI: And I'm Shereen Marisol Meraji.

DEMBY: Be easy, y'all.

MERAJI: Peace.

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