An Analysis of Black Like Me, Including a Comparison of Black Like Me with A Lesson Before Dying

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1 An Analysis of Black Like Me, Including a Comparison of Black Like Me with A Lesson Before Dying by Eva Müller and Rudolph F. Rau Introduction to Black Like Me John Howard Griffin was on born June 16, 1920 in Dallas, Texas, and died September 9, 1980 in Fort Worth, Texas. He was a writer, journalist, livestock breeder, humanitarian, and social critic. When he was fifteen, he relocated to France to finish his education there. Later, he studied at the University of Poitiers and the Conservatory of Fontainbleau. 1 All his life, Griffin was very conscious of racism and segregation. His close friend, Robert Bonazzi sees the reason for this concern in the fact that Dallas was, at the time of Griffin s birth [ ] strictly segregationist and racist in the intractable mold of the Deep South. 2 Griffin saw himself surrounded by discrimination against African Americans, and while his family was not necessarily racist, he was still taught the whole mythology of race. 3 But, as Griffin admitted, people like him always thought it s not like that here, 4 that in their town, everybody was treated as equals. He later saw the worst form of racism in France during World War II when he worked for the French Resistance, trying to save Jews from the Nazis. 5 After these experiences, he was extremely sensitive when it came to topics of racism and was shocked to realize that even though America might not persecute and kill African Americans (though this occurred as well), it still treated them condescendingly and more often than not, with brutality. Yes, he might have been aware that there were indeed differences in the treatment of whites and African Americans when he was younger, but realizing how close the similarities between Nazi and American racism were, must have been shock for him. This realization initiated Griffin s journey into shame, as he called it, his passing 6 experiment which he describes in Black Like Me. Black Like Me reveals how John Howard Griffin darkened his skin with the help of Oxsoralen, according to Bonazzi a drug to treat vitiligo, 7 in order to look like an African American. Set against the background of the Civil Rights Movement, he explored the African-American quarters of New Orleans, Hattiesburg, Mobile, and Biloxi, and lived among black people for several weeks, with the intention of learning more about their culture and way of life. Above all, he needed to see 1 cf. Bonazzi 1997, pp. 8ff. 2 ibid, p. 4 3 ibid, p. 4 4 Griffin 1969, p cf. McDonnell, p. 6 6 passing: (here): being able to pass for one race or another 7 Bonazzi 1997, p. 37

2 2 whether they suffered from racism and how it affected their everyday life. He was dismayed to see that segregation and racism were omnipresent. When his passing experiment was over, he first published his findings in serial form in the magazine, Sepia, which had sponsored his trip, and then in his book Black Like Me. The effect of Black Like Me was overwhelming. Apart from the reactions in his hometown Mansfield, they were mostly positive; the book was praised as [ ] a basic text for the study of this great contemporary social problem [the African Americans situation] [ ] 8 and became a widely-read bestseller. Many white Americans could no longer close their eyes to the apparent injustices facing African Americans. Only a few African Americans believed that a white person could never adequately comprehend the African Americans situation of African Americans. This belief on the part of African Americans will be discussed later on. Passing and Investigative Journalism The Reasons for Griffin s Experiment Griffin s experiment was prompted by an investigation into the causes of the high suicide rate of African Americans in the South. He sent out countless questionnaires to white as well as African- American scholars. Most questionnaires which had been sent to whites came back full of explanations based on stereotyping and prejudice, all of which Griffin considered absurd. He was not very successful in gaining information from African Americans either. According to Kate Baldwin, Griffin was unsettled by the apparent mistrust of him displayed by the people he interviewed. Many questionnaires were returned to Griffin with nothing filled out, as he indicates in A Time to Be Human. He did mention, however, that a few returned with comments on the investigation Griffin planned to conduct. Across two or three of those blank questionnaires, Black people had written that the only way I could ever hope to understand anything about the plight of Black people would be to wake up one morning in a Black man s skin. 9 It was further explained that the reason for the whites inability to understand Black culture and/or problems was that white reporters think white and were therefore too blind to understand anything about African- American life. Griffin quickly realized that he could not get at the heart of the matter as a white reporter. In Black Like Me he said, The Southern Negro will not tell the white man the truth. He long ago learned that if he speaks a truth unpleasing to the white, the white will make life miserable for him. So he was aware that no African American would give him any valuable information in the event that the real reasons for the suicide rate had anything to do with the whites, as Griffin suspected. To them, Griffin was just one of the many whites who were not to be trusted. Sadistic whites would often gain the confidence of blacks, only to be beaten up or fired from their jobs if they actually told the truth about racism. The thought invoked by the African-American scholars 8 Black Like Me, p Griffin 1977, p. 22 2

3 3 about having to be Black in order to understand the African Americans situation occupied Griffin s mind incessantly, and, according to Bonazzi, since he firmly believed that true knowledge was first a matter of personal experience, the idea of passing as an African American was born. Griffin agreed with African-American scholars that he needed to be an African- American in order to be able to know more about their lives. Thus, he decided to live among them as one of them for a certain period of time, to get at the truth. Griffin, however, had additional reasons for going undercover. At the time he decided to start his experiment, it had little to do with suicide rates any more. The mistrust he experienced while conducting the aforementioned suicide investigation made him contemplate the relationship between African Americans and whites in the United States, and questions that had plagued him for years came back, day after day, with increasing urgency. What is it like to be a Negro in the Deep South? What is a second-class citizen? What is the lot of the Negro, of any scorned society? 10 Griffin, having lived in France during World War II, had first-hand experience with racism and despised minorities. He was involved in an underground organization that tried to rescue Jews from Nazi persecution and saw the horrible outcome racism could have. Griffin grew increasingly uneasy with the thought that the African Americans situation in the States might not have been very different from that of the Jews in Germany. 11 Griffin stated: I felt my most important work would be to discover once and for all if we were really involved in racism in this land. We denied that we are. His experiment, then, was not only to learn more about African Americans, but also to investigate American racism, to draw attention to it and also to counter segregation 12 Griffin was very passionate about the topic of racism, believing that racism was some kind of disease. 13 Last but not least, Griffin had a very personal reason for the passing option: he said he did not want his children to grow up in a racist society. That is why he had to try his utmost to inform America about racial injustice, draw attention to it, and hopefully, to help American citizens overcome it. He hoped that his project could mediate new avenues of communication and mutuality across the color line. 14 Finally, he also thought that, through his experiment, he could uncover his own stereotypes and combat them. His ethical and moral views demanded that he encounter, understand and strive to transcend his own racism. 15 Cf. the later section: Passing: A Tool to Uncover and Combat Griffin s Stereotypes. Griffin s Passing in the Light of Investigative Journalism Griffin decided, then, to go undercover and live amongst African Americans not only because of his own need for information, but to publish his results and let America know about his findings, so 10 Daniel, p Mansfield, p Dreisinger, p cf. Griffin 1966/1967, p Wald 1996, p Bonazzi 2007, p. 21 3

4 4 that they would be, in a sense, be Black like he was. With this decision, the foundation for one of the first works of a new kind of journalism 16 was established, this new kind of journalism being what is today called investigative journalism. In general, investigative journalism draws attention to failures within society s system of regulation and to the ways in which those systems can be circumvented by the rich, the powerful and the corrupt. 17 In the case of Black Like Me, this failure, of course, is not only the segregation of whites and African Americans, but more so the violation of the separate but equal doctrine as stated in the Supreme Court decision of Plessy v. Furguson in The powerful, in this case the white population, were very successful in establishing the separate part, but were more than willing to neglect the equality part when it came to African Americans, thus circumventing, for example, the Civil Rights Act of , or court decisions of the 1950s 19 to desegregate schools or to enfranchise African Americans 20. Just as Griffin must have been aware that African Americans did not receive the same education or job opportunities he was offered as a white citizen, most other people in the South were aware of these inequalities. De Burgh s definition of investigative journalism as going after what someone wants to hide 21, then, needs to be expanded to going after what someone does not want to see. Most whites were aware of the dire situation of African Americans, but chose to ignore it; an easy task considering that they were not directly confronted with this situation. Griffin s passing and the subsequent publishing of his findings, however, made it more difficult for anybody to continue ignoring racism and the injustice of segregation, since Black Like Me was widely discussed throughout the nation and proved to be a sensation. Yet, no matter how noble Griffin s cause, there is a moral dilemma in his passing and in his investigation. Very often successfully investigating hidden scandals or corruption requires journalists to misrepresent themselves, deceive, lie, intrude into privacy and in extreme cases even break the law, all actions we normally presume are wrong. 22 When Griffin passes as an African American, he deceives everybody around him, he lies about who he is and obtains information that he might not have gotten had he been honest about his identity. Griffin clearly seems to have been bothered by this dishonesty: he claims in Black Like Me that he had tried to be as true as possible. I decided not to change my name or identity. I would merely change my pigmentation and allow people to draw their own conclusions. If asked who I was or what I was doing, I would answer 16 Sharpe, p. 6 However, it turned out that another journalist had also made an attempt at this sort of investigative journalism in the late 1940s. Griffin acknowledged this courageous attempt when he found out about it after he had already published Black Like Me. 17 de Burgh, p cf. Friedman, p cf. the Supreme Court decision of Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 that ruled that segregation in public education was unconstitutional 20 cf. Friedman, pp. 28 ff. 21 de Burgh, p Kieran, p

5 5 truthfully. 23 It seems not to have occurred to him that in America at that time, his pigmentation would automatically determine his whole identity, people would automatically apply all the stereotypes that whites as well as African Americans had about someone with colored skin. By not telling anyone anything and letting them assume who and what he was, he led people to see him as something he was not and was thus deceiving them. It is, however, not entirely true that he let people know about himself when asked, as shown in the scene with Mr. Guillory. He asks Griffin who he is and Griffin, not wanting to give himself away and jeopardize his experiment, sends Guillory on a veritable goose chase with hints about his true identity. 24 Yes, Mr. Guillory might have followed up on those hints and found out who Griffin really was and what he was doing. Griffin, by that time, however, was long gone and his experiment could continue even though some people had learned the truth. Griffin s passing, then, is a deception. Nevertheless, deceptive methods are justified [ ] when greater harm will be done to the public if the information [about racism] remains [permanently] concealed 25 Griffin s lie is all but insignificant considering what he could accomplish with his passing: a possibly better understanding between whites and African Americans, or at least an understanding among whites about what it is like to be an African American. In addition, Griffin had to endure another experience common to investigative journalists, as Jo- Ann Goodwin says. You have to be prepared to be very, very unpopular. 26 Accordingly, Griffin describes the hostile atmosphere in his hometown once he returned, the animosity towards his family, the death threats and his hanging in effigy, all of which led to his family s escaping to Mexico. He must have considered the outcome of his passing and his journalistic investigation more important than his own well-being, deciding that fighting racism was more important than living comfortably in his hometown. The Achievement of a Credible African-American Performance Having decided to pass over into African-American society in order to conduct his investigative studies, Griffin then thought about how to accomplish this passing successfully. He began altering his skin with a combination of ultraviolet rays and medication for vitiligo, a process which was not completely satisfactory and had to be augmented with a staining agent 27. He also shaved the hair on this head, because he thought it too straight to be African-American; he thought his hair would give 23 Black Like Me, p cf. ibid, p Anderson/Benjaminson, p cf. Spark, p cf. Black Like Me, pp. 16 ff. 5

6 6 him away. 28 It was a clear example of stereotyping; also cf. the detailed discussion in the next chapter. Furthermore, Griffin worried about how he would successfully enter African-American society. My greatest preoccupation was that moment of transition when I would pass over. Where and how would I do it? To get from the white world into the Negro world is a complex matter. 29 His insecurity seems understandable, if a little exaggerated. He could have simply walked into an African-American neighborhood and gotten a hotel room there; his passing would have been speedy and inconspicuous. He was not, however, completely sure how authentic his disguise was if he would indeed be taken for an African American 30. He hardly knew about what was done and what would be suspicious behavior. As an example: his being hesitant to greet a white man who was standing right next to him. Normally, he would have said Good evening, but having passed only minutes before and now being black, he did not know how to react anymore 31. Thus, he looked for guidance during the first phase of his passing and found it in Sterling Williams. The man was a wealth of information, pointing out the spots were a black person could find the human essentials and offering survival tips and kind warnings. 32 There were so many facts that Griffin just was not aware of. Without Williams, Griffin would have had to endure hunger and thirst, at least during the first few days and to be confronted with not being able to use the bathroom when needed, since he simply did not know where the bathrooms for African Americans were located. All in all, Williams enormously facilitated Griffin s passing. He was also one of the few who knew about the experiment and even helped Griffin to look more authentic by telling him to shave his hands and teaching him how to talk. 33 Williams thus provided resourceful guidance, a place of vital interaction, and a valuable trust beyond his [Griffin s] initial expectations. 34 It is safe to say that Sterling Williams was a crucial part of Griffin s passing act and that without his help, Griffin might have given up mere days into his passing experiment. Griffin also experienced much support from other African Americans, without whom he might have encountered severe difficulties. For example, he was clearly instructed about how to conduct himself while on the bus to Hattiesburg and was given several tips on where to go and where to stay, all of which very likely saved him some unpleasant encounters 35. He was also taken in by a poor African-American family when he found himself without a place to eat and stay the night, in spite of their evident grinding poverty and shortage of food. 36 On another occasion, in Mobile, an African-American preacher offered to 28 ibid, p ibid, p. 16 ff. 30 cf. ibid, p cf. ibid, p Bonazzi 1997, p Black Like Me, p Bonazzi 1997, p cf. Black Like Me, pp. 86 ff. 36 cf. ibid, pp. 145 ff. 6

7 7 let Griffin share his room for a few nights, thus providing him not only with a bed to sleep in, but also with valuable insights into his life and the situation of African Americans. 37 Furthermore, Griffin s passing was aided by his white contacts, whom he did not hesitate make use of when he felt he was in trouble. For example, he hid out at P.D. East s home to recover from the terror he had experienced in Hattiesburg. 38 As a last resort, he always knew that he could rely on his family to support him morally: he called them even though it made him feel uncomfortable. Griffin s passing and his account of African-American life and white racism would not have been possible without the support of so many other people. The Interior Functions of Griffin s Passing Passing: A Tool to Uncover and Combat Griffin s Stereotypes Apart from wanting to investigate African-American culture, Griffin s passing was significant on another, more personal plane as well. Being the religious man he was, and feeling that segregation was entirely wrong and despicable, Griffin wanted to prove to himself that he was better, that through living among African Americans, through understanding more about their situation, and through making the public aware of the unfairness of America s two-class society, he could show that he was not a racist. Furthermore, there is the assumption that Griffin s passing also stemmed from his concern of his salvation. Griffin s compassion for the plight of black people under Jim Crow is inseparable, in other words, from a corresponding concern for his own spiritual wellbeing. 39 Segregation and all it entailed for African Americans weighed heavily on him; he considered it his Christian duty to do everything to alleviate the pitiful situation of African Americans. He expressed this conviction when he stated that I loathe any kind of totalitarianism. [ ] And certainly totalitarianism implies the suppression of fellow human beings in one way or another [i.e. racism]. We have to work to assure every man the maximum right to function as fully and freely as possible. 40 Consequently, he would be able to live more in peace with himself, knowing that he had contributed to some kind of change. Griffin was at the same time fully aware that, although he despised racism and prejudice against African Americans, he himself was by no means free of these traits. Knowing that his, possibly involuntary, attitude was entirely inexcusable, Griffin appropriates passing as a form of introspection and personal freedom: freedom to explore the contours of his own (racial) identity. 41 He needed to live as an African American to examine himself and his own prejudices, because he knew that only if he could face them head on could he have a chance to counter them, and thus become a better person. 37 cf. ibid, pp. 130 ff. 38 cf. ibid, p. 97 ff. 39 Wald 2000, p Griffin 1966/1967, p Wald 1996, p

8 8 The awareness of his own racial bias surfaced a long time before his investigation on suicide and the subsequent decision to pass. The topic was something he had thought about ever since he was a young student in France. Griffin had been fully convinced that his family was not nearly as tainted by racial bias as others. He said, [o]ur distress over many of the cruelties blacks suffered at the hands of white people only strengthened our belief that we were not prejudiced. 42 When in France as a teenager, however, he dined at a restaurant with a French friend of his and was greatly surprised that a black person was dining right next to them. Completely astonished, he asked his friend why they were allowed into the restaurant. His friend replied, completely non-plused, Why shouldn t they be. Griffin was shocked when he realized how racist his question had been. I realized then that although intellectually, I had liberated myself from the prejudices which our Southern tradition inculcates in us, these prejudices were so ingrained in me that at the emotional level I was in no way liberated. 43 Griffin now realized that even those whites he thought to be free of bias had always had the same attitude towards African Americans. We came to look on pigmented human beings as totally and mysteriously different from us, having different needs, different aspirations, different responses to stimuli, different moral values. 44 In addition, African Americans were considered to be childlike; they were prone to steal and prone to violence; they were oversexed, stupid, lethargic, depended on whites, and, above all, happy. 45 Griffin admits that whenever he or his family came into close contact with African Americans, they focused not on what these people actually did or said, but only on those aspects which reinforced the stereotyped caricature we already [held] of black people. 46 He concluded that white society, even the good whites, as Griffin labels them 47, never really gave African Americans the chance to prove that they were as intelligent and capable as the whites. Whenever they showed signs of ability, it was overlooked. Whenever they showed signs of depravity, inaptitude, or poor education, it was noted immediately. Even good whites would comment patronizingly that African Americans could not be blamed, it was just the way they were, there was nothing to be done. The incident in France, however, made Griffin realize that racism was not only found among overtly racist whites, but among good whites as well. 48 Griffin s passing adventure, then, was also a test for himself, to find out if he had overcome these stereotypes, and if not, how to overcome them. Stereotypes Griffin was Aware of Before and During his Passing Experiment Even before passing over, Griffin already knew that he had not yet liberated himself of his inherent bias concerning the inferiority of African Americans. He admitted openly that he hated the 42 Griffin 1977, p Bonazzi 1997, p Griffin 1969, p Goldfield, p Griffin 1977, p Griffin 1969, p Griffin, 1977, p. 22 8

9 9 thought of being seen as an African American for several weeks, because, deep down, he felt himself to be superior to them. Yes, and do I not loathe the prospect of becoming a Negro and I must be clear here not because of the reprisals, not because of the alienation of my family from neighbors and friends, but precisely because there is the deeper taint within my very bones, a disease uncured and therefore a part of my very chemistry as a man. 49 He realized how deep-seated this taint, meaning his repugnance, really was upon seeing himself for the first time in a mirror after having darkened his skin. Later he commented on this scene as follows: It [the reflection] was somehow repulsive to me. I tried not to admit it. I tried to deny it. I was astounded to feel this involuntary movement of antipathy for that black man s face. 50 Wald argues that Griffin was so appalled because he identified blackness with chaos and upheaval, shadow and blemish, poverty and disgrace. 51 Griffin then realized that he was still a long way from being free of prejudices. Once again he was shocked, having thought that since that dinner in France he had made much more progress. To his credit, however, he was aware of his aversion to African Americans and his feelings of superiority before he passed; he was willing to work on this failing. There were several more prejudices of which he was not aware before starting his experiment. They quickly became apparent to him once he had passed over into African-American society. They turned out to be of a most basic, and superficial nature. He thought that he would have to shave his hair to look more African-American, he worried about his eye color, his bone structure and facial conformation. 52 He later said, I am embarrassed to admit it today, but I did not think I could pass because I did not know how to speak Negro or talk in what we think of as Negro dialect, and of course I didn t even try. 53 Again this comment shows his feeling of superiority: he thought that African-American speech was very different from his own, he being supposedly more educated in the way he expressed himself. He realized quickly, however, how wrong he was and tried to atone for this false assumption by pointing out his mistake, describing how he soon learned that there are African Americans of all eye colors, with many different bone structures and skin hues, and many different ways of talking. Of course, this realization should not have been very surprising to him, and he was ashamed that it was. It is safe to say, then, that his passing greatly enhanced his ability to confront his racism and biases and to begin to dismantle them. Nevertheless, one cannot help but feel a certain unease about Griffin s behavior. Unease because he seemed to have positioned himself above other whites, thinking himself better than they were, because of his not completely successful attempt to combat his own biases with regard to African 49 Daniel, p Griffin, 1971, p Wald 1996, p cf. Griffin 1977, p Griffin 1977, pp. 28ff. 9

10 10 Americans even though he was, to a certain extent, aware of these biases. Thus, he commented on the dermatologist who helped him dye his skin: I was astonished to see an intelligent man fall for this cliché [that the lighter the skin the more trustworthy a person] 54. He acted as if he himself would not fall into such a racist trap anymore and if he did, he would be aware of it and shamed. Through his repeated admissions that he knew about his stereotyping and his assurance that he was working to eradicate it, one is tempted to overlook the many instances that bear witness to several more hidden prejudices, prejudices which he was not aware of and which can be found throughout Black Like Me. Prejudices and Signs of Racism Griffin Was Not Aware of There are many incidents throughout the text which testify to Griffin s continued feelings of superiority over African Americans. To begin with, the whole project itself shows a feeling of superiority over African Americans, of having power over them. This feeling of superiority is shown by his implicit perception that as a white male intellectual he is entitled to the cultural knowledge of others; his assumption that he can willfully transcend the conditions of his own social formation; [ ] and his belief that he can better convey the meaning of this oppression [of African Americans] to other whites than can African Americans. 55 The way he acted created the impression that he thought he had to let the world know about African-American life and living conditions because he felt that African Americans themselves were either incapable of or not interested in doing so. It is ironic that Griffin later criticized other whites for asking him speak for African Americans when his own failure to recognize such a possibility 56 was the reason he started his whole experiment. At the beginning of Black Like Me it also becomes obvious that he had not especially concerned himself with African American life before he passed. His outrage at [ ] being turned away from hotels and restaurants, made the target of racial animosity and sexual objectification, denied banking privileges, rejected peremptorily from jobs, required to use segregated toilet facilities, and forced to sit at the back of the bus [ ] 57 makes the reader wonder what on earth Griffin expected. Perhaps he expected African Americans to be satisfied with their lot as commonly thought by whites. (Cf. Goldfield s observation about how whites view African Americans on page 8.) Once again feelings of superiority and racism can be perceived. Moreover, he regarded African Americans as human beings different from himself. This view of African Americans can be found within the very first days of his experiment when he was surprised that feelings and sensations as an African American were the same as when he was a white. Thus, he remarked, I felt it vaguely illuminating that the Negro Griffin s sweat felt exactly the same as 54 Black Like Me, p Wald 1996, pp. 155 ff. 56 ibid, p ibid, p

11 11 the white Griffin s. 58 And a little later, I was aware that the street smells, and the drugstore odors of perfume and arnica, were exactly the same to the Negro as they had been to the white. 59 Did he really expect that through having a different skin color, the world would be experienced differently? Of course, the question can be raised as to whether he was really Black just because he changed his skin color or whether he felt the same because he was intrinsically still white, the darkened skin being simply a disposable outer shell. Just his assumption, however, that African Americans supposedly experience rain or cold differently from whites is evidence of his stereotyping and racism. Furthermore, Griffin s feeling of superiority permeates through many of his observations of small details. He noted, and was very surprised by every clean bathroom he encountered. 60 It is peculiar that it should come as a surprise that African Americans live in clean surroundings as well. He also commented on the obsequiousness that was, as he said, usually found in the Southern African American. 61 Here, he naively seemed to attribute this obsequiousness to typical African American character traits, not because of conditioning by whites. What is more, Griffin seemed to dislike everything he ascribed to African American culture. He practically shudders every time his ears are assaulted by jazz or the blues. 62 This reaction might or might not be connected to his classical music background, but his categorical rejection of blues or jazz, describing its rhythm as monstrous high-strutting, which pulled at the viscera 63 seems too exaggerated to simply have offended his musical sensibility. He also commented in passing that an African American breakfast did not seem to include any butter or napkins, as if butter and napkins were the very essence of human civilization. 64 Additionally, his feelings of superiority are evident in his comments after he had passed back into white society. He writes how he suddenly had to guard against the easy, semi-obscene language that Negroes use among themselves, for coming from a white man it is insulting. 65 Did he not say how he was wrong to assume that African Americans spoke differently? Apparently, contrary to what he had said before, he had hardly overcome this particular stereotype. Lastly, there are several incidents that show that, to Griffin s mind, there were some modes of behavior that are simply not appropriate for an African American. For example, Griffin had serious inhibitions about contacting his wife Elizabeth during his passing experiment. He cannot bear the thought of a black man contacting his white wife. Thus, despite his intention to break the color barrier, Griffin finds himself a white Southerner [pursuing] that very [racist] line he presumably 58 Black Like Me, p ibid, p ibid, cf. pp. 26 and ibid, p Sharpe, p Black Like Me, p ibid, p ibid, p

12 12 set out to sever. 66 To him, it seemed outrageous that an African American would contact his white wife, be it via telephone or by means of a letter. He wanted his wife to be safe, to have nothing to do with African Americans. It is very unlikely that his hesitation stemmed from the fact that he had just been warned never to look at a white woman because that would only lead to a sharp rebuke from whites or even a violent reaction. Nobody could see Griffin when he tried to write a letter home, nobody knew that he was calling a white woman when he was in the telephone booth. No, it was simply the thought of an African American, i.e. Black Griffin, molesting a white woman, an act violating Griffin s moral values. In another incident, he felt extremely uncomfortable sitting in the front seat of a car right next to a white person, in this case his friend P.D. East. 67 He felt like his place as an African American was either in the back seat, or not in that white car at all. On the other hand, Griffin was aware how another Southern white person or a white policeman might react to a Black person sitting in the front next to a white driver: it would be considered a scandal. He also, no doubt, was afraid that P.D. East might get into trouble for that reason. Conclusion The question remains, then, whether Griffin was successful in his attempt at introspection. Did he face up to his prejudices? Yes, he did, to a certain extent. Did he improve as a person? Probably, because his intentions were sincere. Did he manage to overcome all his own prejudices? Not even being aware of most of them, he did not. Griffin s racial passing only partially fulfilled the goal of combating his own racism. He was, however, as he also liked to point out, only human; it was not to be expected that within a few short weeks he would overcome all the prejudices which society had instilled into him during his childhood, nor did Griffin claim he had become free of all prejudices. Griffin admitted that at the unconscious level, he would likely never be entirely free of the racist cultural conditioning all whites suffer. 68 Bonazzi furthermore states that the fact that he [Griffin] faced his racism, admitted it in Black Like Me, and spoke about it openly in over a thousand lectures and showed an even greater courage than the risks involved in the experiment itself. 69 One should not judge Griffin on the grounds that even after his experiment he still harbored a few prejudices, but acknowledge his attempt to combat them and the courage he demonstrated when talking about them. Passing and its Effects on Griffin s identity It is interesting to speculate to what extent Griffin s experiment to pass as a Black man affected his identity, to what extent it changed his view of racism, and to what extent he later reinterpreted his experiment. The question as to whether he was really Black, as to how much his self-perception 66 Baldwin, p Bonazzi 1997, cf. p Bonazzi in an e mail, Sept. 9, ibid 12

13 13 was altered and how his being the subject as well as the object of his experiment influenced his identity will be discussed in the following section. Completeness of Griffin s passing Black Like Me gives the reader the impression that through his passing, Griffin became fully and thoroughly a Black man. In A Time To Be Human Griffin refers to his experiment as When I was a Black man, 70 showing that he was convinced he had indeed ceased to be white for a few weeks. In Black Like Me, he sometimes explicitly labeled himself as an African American. When he was insulted by a white youngster, he contemplated, Would it have happened if I were white? 71 Similarly, when talking about his experience at the shoe-shine stand, he said, The whites, especially the tourists, had no reticence before us, and no shame since we were Negroes [own italics]. 72 Moreover, he relates how he feared that his wife would not accept him any more because of his having been an African American for a short time, especially as African Americans were considered by many whites to be at the bottom rung of society at that time. 73 Before he returned home, his anxiety increased, since his wife would be meeting a man who has been thoroughly a Negro for many weeks. 74 Griffin seemed completely convinced that he really was an African American during his experiment. Further evidence that he considered himself to have become an African-American is manifest when Griffin stated how his face lost all animation; the condition of being a Negro had fixed his expression into a mask. 75 In truth this mask had nothing to do with Griffin becoming an African American, but rather with his finding himself in the situation of an oppressed individual. He automatically attributed feelings of being depressed and not being able to show emotions to being an African American, not realizing that the same kind of transformation could have taken place in any other country in the world, for other reasons, be it religion, sexual preference, or political views. Griffin affirmed that his transformation from being white to African American took him all of five days: However, within five days, that involuntary movement of antipathy was completely dissipated, 76 referring to his initial revulsion when he saw himself in the mirror as a Black man for the first time. He was convinced that, within five days, he had completely gotten adjusted to his Black reflection and therefore accepted his African-American identity. He even stressed that he had successfully made the move from the white boy reading a book about Negroes [ ] to an old Negro man [Griffin himself] in the Alabama swamps Griffin 1977, p Black Like Me, p ibid, p cf. Daniel, p ibid, p Bonazzi 1997, p Daniel, p Black Like Me, p

14 14 This line of reasoning had certain weaknesses. According to Baz Dreisinger the belief of complete identity transformation was common among whites passing for black. The premise behind most skin-dyeing narratives is that if one looks black, one can feel and act black. 78 This is obviously not the case: You cannot judge a book only by its cover. Moreover, how did Griffin know that what he experienced and felt was really what African Americans felt? How did he know how African Americans acted in all situations? Again, the only source of information would have been what he thought he knew about them, meaning impressions and stereotypes already formed in his mind. It is possible that his feelings were unique to him and were nothing like African American feelings and experiences. This view has been taken up by several African Americans, most of whom have not accepted Griffin s passing over into African American society as a legitimate experience. Dorothy Miller is convinced that [n]o white person can know what it is really like, day in and day out, childhood on up, to be a Negro, just from taking one short journey. 79 She emphasizes the short duration of Griffin s passing and how it would be utopian to think one would be able to extract real information and to experience real African-Americaness in such a short period of time. Her standpoint of course contrasts sharply with Griffin s conviction that it took him only five days to become one of them. Malcolm X was of the same opinion as Miller. Well, if it was a frightening experience for him as nothing as a make-believe Negro for sixty days, then you think about what real Negroes in America have gone through for 400 years. 80 Griffin s claim of being a real African-American is weakened not only by the fact that it is temporary 81 but also by his taking a break from his passing, finding refuge at his friend s P.D. East home when the experiment began to overwhelm him. Griffin shed his African-American identity whenever he felt like it, another indicator that his passing was only very superficial. Furthermore, Griffin at all times knew that he was guaranteed safe return to a secure and solid whiteness. 82 Griffin, even though Black Like Me often indicates otherwise, must have been aware that being an African American was a temporary role he was playing, not his real identity. Never did it occur to him to dye his skin permanently, or to pass over into the African-American community for good. Presumably, no reader would really consider Griffin a real African American. He was a white man wearing a disguise in the form of dyed skin. Robert Bonazzi reaffirms this thesis when he points out that he never seemed to entirely lose his sense of [white] self even while in disguise. 83 In spite of residual doubts about his African-Americanness and perhaps even the validity of his findings, his experiences as a Black man can be regarded as mostly authentic. His transformation 78 Dreisinger, p Bonazzi 1997, p ibid, p cf. Baldwin, pp. 123 ff. 82 Dreisinger, pp. 62 ff. 83 Bonazzi, e mail, Sept. 9,

15 15 was skin-deep, but neither whites nor blacks looked deeper. 84 Since everybody took him for an African-American, he experienced and went through the same ordeals and situations that any other African American man would have had to endure, even though he could never plumb the depths of experience that only Black people can know. 85 He was rejected when looking for a job, was refused the use of a bathroom, had problems when wanting to drink a glass of water, or to eat in a restaurant. He was discriminated against when sitting in a park or trying to get a bus ticket. He was trailed and threatened by a white youth simply because, to this youth, he was an African American. He was a Black man to the extent that the world treated him as such and, more simply, because his skin was in fact black. 86 He was, of course, not truly an African American, even though Griffin pretended to be. Passing and Identity Confusion Not being actually black, however, does not mean that living the life and playing the role of an African American did not have any effects on Griffin s identity development. Indeed, his passing caused tremendous identity confusion, and that is only natural if we consider that he had positioned himself between Black and white. Griffin experienced a severe feeling of duality, which then proceeded to unfold in two ways: doubleness concerning the contrast white/african American, but also doubleness concerning the contrast observer/being observed. Both must have been extremely disconcerting when he considered the question of who he really was and where he belonged. Doubleness in Identity: Racial Affiliation How can an individual plunge into a new life so very different from the old one without experiencing any change in the core of his or her being? Even before Griffin completed the transition to life as an African American, he was aware of the possibility that his identity might be immensely influenced by his new life, and this knowledge was upsetting. Perhaps I feel that the physical change will drag along with it a transformation of identity, even interior identity. 87 At the beginning of his experiment, Griffin felt he was slowly taking on a new, African-American identity through beginning to see himself Black enough and ugly enough [in the eyes of whites] to be discriminated against, hated, and oppressed. 88 The most telling scene here, of course, is the mirror scene. Griffin was not at all comfortable with what he saw because he feared that his identity would change profoundly, and not for the better. Again this fear can be attributed to subconscious stereotypes and prejudices. He did not really fear a complete identity change, but rather for his identity to take on African-American traits. When he commenced with his experiment, Griffin 84 Sharpe p Bonazzi 2009, p Dreisinger, p Daniel, p Mansfield, p

16 16 quickly realized that there were in fact two selves battling within him, in terms of how Du Bois 89 might describe it: the habitual white Griffin with all his knowledge, privileges and prejudices and the African-American Griffin, with whom he tried to identify as well in an attempt to see the world from an African-American perspective. Due to his reluctance to take on African American traits, however, and his difficulties in accepting his African-American side, his white self was always present, and influenced and observed how Griffin thought and what he did. He was at first unable to accept the Other as himself, [ ] retreat[ed] to the inward safety of the white man behind the mask. 90 The white self in some ways continuously controlled the African-American self. Gayle Wald even goes as far as stating that Griffin splits in two, becoming simultaneously Dr. Frankenstein and the aberrant, half-human monster of his own mad creation. 91 At the beginning Griffin saw himself not only as one person with two identities, but rather as two separate persons: The worst was that I could feel no companionship with this new person [his black reflection in the mirror]. I did not like the way he [own italics] looked. 92 He felt white but hated his African-American self. The fact that Griffin was not able to fully relinquish or rein in his whiteness can be seen in several incidents, especially at the beginning: e.g. when he was treated disdainfully at the bus station while trying to buy a bus ticket. He wondered how the woman would feel if she knew that Griffin was, in fact, white. 93 This line of thought reveals the habitual nature of his Caucasian consciousness he is still thinking white. 94 In a similar manner this thinking white can be seen when he unwittingly got up on a bus to offer a white lady his seat. He was only acting as a white male: As a white male it was customary to offer his seat to a white female if there were no seats available on the bus. Although he knew that as an African American this action would get him into trouble, he still started to rise from his seat before he was aware of his mistake. Furthermore, Griffin still believed in the notion of white kindness at the beginning. He took it as a favor when a white man told him he had better leave a park, thinking it was segregated and that the man saved him from a lot of trouble. 95 His white self and way of thinking still had the upper hand, still dominated his African- American self, behavior, and way of thinking. However, the clear distinctions between Griffin s white and African-American identities soon began to blur, and his white, controlling self slowly relinquished its power. He realized that he is 89 cf. W. E. B. Du Bois and his classic essay collection, The Souls of Black Folks, 1903, in which he discusses the duality of the African American identity 90 Bonazzi 1997, p Wald 1996, p Black Like Me, p cf. ibid, p Bonazzi 1997, p Black Like Me, pp Griffin later found out in a discussion with other Blacks in the YMCA that segregation in parks in New Orleans was officially proscribed. 16

17 17 unable to sustain a sense of controlling distance between his self as he conceives it [i.e. white] and the disguise [African American] he has intentionally donned in order to investigate [among other things] the contours of that self. 96 A clear example of the blurring of identities is Griffin s nightmare in which he is pursued by a white mob which wants to lynch him. Here, he seemed to identify with his African-American self rather than his white self, as Bonazzi confirms: it suggests his unconscious identification with blackness. 97 Since he is dreaming, this instance of identification cannot have been deliberate, and the white self, which was always connected to deliberate, controlling, conscious processes when Griffin was awake, could not interfere. This episode shows that Griffin indeed began to feel like an African American, or at least not as completely white as before. The blurred lines between Griffin s identities can also be seen in the hate stares he received. These hate stares influenced and affected Griffin on two different levels. For the white Griffin, the expression kindles both shame [at the obvious brutality of the act] and guilt [at his own complicity with the act] 98 But Griffin was also affected from an African- American point of view, feeling hurt and also ashamed for being so openly rejected simply because of his (supposed) race. Both processes happened essentially at the same time, showing that with respect to identity he was neither all white nor all African-American. His growing confusion as to who he really was and where he really belonged can also be seen in the use of pronouns. At the beginning, Griffin s first-person narrative employs the third person to describe Griffin s Black self 99 Later, however, when he felt more and more ashamed of white behavior, Griffin s use of pronouns changed. Through pronouns ( we and them ) that affect a rhetorical distance from white identity, Griffin signals his collaboration with Black people. 100 Sometimes, then, he affiliated himself with whites, then again with African Americans. Sometimes he detached himself from both groups altogether, using a very impersonal the Negro 101 or feeling a momentary flash of blind hatred against the whites [own italitcs] who were somehow responsible for all of this. 102 The same can be seen when he rode the bus to Conyers. The subtlety of it escaped the whites on the bus, but it in no way escaped the driver or the Negroes at the back. 103 This changing use of pronouns can become confusing, as Dreisinger states: At times, readers are at a loss as to which of the two Griffins is talking, as when he laments the fact that my own people could be so hateful. Who exactly, are my people? 104 Who was Griffin? Was he white, African-American, or beyond those two categories? These open questions together with the 96 Wald 2000, p Bonazzi 1997, p Wald 1996, p Baldwin, p Wald 1996, p Black Like Me, p ibid, p ibid, p Dreisinger, p

18 18 inconsistent use of pronouns are evidence of the internal struggle that Griffin s identity must have been going through during his passing experiment. Just as his passing into African-American society posed several problems for Griffin, so did his passing out of it. Granted, his physically passing back was, compared to his physical changes before his experiment, relatively easy. He had stopped taking his medicine and simply removed the stain he used to darken his skin. No-one in white society suspected him of being an African American any more. Once again he was accepted as a first-class citizen, but the psychic readjustment would not be so easy. 105 Griffin notes how he could not take pleasure in all the privileges that were once again available to him. But though I felt it all, I felt no joy in it. I saw smiles, benign faces, courtesies a side of the white man I had not seen in weeks, but I remembered too well the other side. The miracle [of having access to white privileges again] was sour. 106 Considering what he had experienced while passing, it is unimaginable that anyone in his situation would have again been able to enjoy the life of white person without feeling guilty, taken aback, or without considering all those courtesies Griffin mentions as somehow not genuine. What is more, Griffin s passing back into white society has cut him off from the confidence and trust of most blacks. 107 The overt mistrust that African Americans approached him with must have hurt his feelings, having been one of them only hours before. But through his passing back Griffin also realized how hardened the fronts between the two races were and how little he alone could achieve towards a better understanding. When he approached a young African American, the latter was scared to talk to him, and Griffin couldn t even hold it against him, having himself experienced how most whites treat African Americans. 108 He could not help but feel a little disillusioned. Indeed Robert Bonazzi confirms that what his family wife, father and mother (the three children were too young to comprehend the situation) noticed were the psychological effects of anger toward whites, empathy with Blacks, despair and sadness [ ]. 109 Dreisinger, however, argues that due to Griffin s understanding and insight into African-American culture, Griffin never fully sheds his blackness. 110 But not only did Griffin still feel a little Black on the inside, others started to consider him as a person between the races, as well. For example, a young African-American boy came to help Griffin to clean up his house before moving and let him know that he considered Griffin to be one of us. 111 Moreover, after Black Like Me was published and many people were well acquainted with it, it was not long until Griffin was 105 Bonazzi 1997, p Black Like Me, p Mansfield, p cf. Black Like Me, p Bonazzi, e mail, Sept. 9, Dreisinger, p Black Like Me, pp. 210 ff. 18

19 19 presumed an expert on what African-American life was like; he had the perspective of an ex- Black man 112 and he was invited to many discussions about it. As can be seen, then, Griffin found it really difficult to maintain only one affiliation and therefore difficult to maintain one single identity. The question is, however, if this problem with identity was inherently bad. Could he not belong to more than one group? If we propose that racial identity consists of (at least) two ingredients how the world sees a given individual, as well as how the same individual sees himself or herself then it is possible to be simultaneously black and white. 113 When Griffin first entered African-American society, the world saw him as one of them, whereas on the inside, he still felt wholly white. When Griffin had returned to his white life, the world saw him as a white, but he himself had identified with African Americans as well. It has been stated earlier that it would be erroneous to assume that Griffin indeed became an African American during his experiment. But it would also be incorrect to say that Griffin was still the same Griffin he had been before he passed over. Perhaps he found himself outside the clear distinctions of white and African American that society had set. Perhaps he did not want to belong to only one group. Perhaps he felt racial affiliation did not matter. Perhaps he wanted to be, as one of his later publications suggest, neither white nor black but simply human. Griffin put it best when he said: And there is another simple truth: Humanity does not differ in any profound way; there are not essentially different species of human beings. 114 Thus he had found the answer to his identity dilemma that his act of passing had created. Being human embraced all aspects of his new identity, the white one as well as the African-American one, or any shifting between the two poles. Passing and Identity: Observer vs. Being Observed There was, furthermore, another doubleness within Griffin, which was confusing and which had little to do with being white or being African American. This other doubleness was concerned with the fact that within one body, within one person, Griffin was both the subject and the object of his anthropological fieldwork. 115 This unification of seeing and being seen in one person is unusual for an anthropological inquiry, since it normally entails an observer who concerns himself with the other and who assumes only an observational, but not participatory role. 116 Especially, but not only, at the beginning, it was relatively clear who observed whom within Griffin s person: the observer, occupying a panoptical position of authority, is white, while the 112 Bonazzi, e mail, Sept. 9, Dreisinger, p Griffin 2009, pp. 249 ff. 115 Wald 2000, p cf. Wald 1996, p

20 20 observed, the de-individualized spectacle, is Black. 117 This attitude becomes very clear when he claims in retrospective: I have held no brief for the Negro. I have looked diligently for all aspects of inferiority among them and I cannot find them. 118 Here, he clearly objectified African Americans, his white, observing self was clearly very dominant. Griffin was very aware of the fact that his observing, white self was fairly detached from what was happening. The observing self saw the Negro, surrounded by the sounds and smells of the ghetto, wrote Darling to a white woman [his wife]. 119 Griffin, however, was not only observing his African-American self, but also his white self having to struggle to be an African-American, because of his repugnance for African- Americaness and because of his racism. I became two men, the observing one and the one who panicked, who felt Negroid even into the depths of his entrails. 120 His white self hated to be seen as an African American, and Griffin observed and documented it. Here, his white self even controlled and savagely dominated him. He often felt unable, however, to draw a clear line between when he was observing, and when he was experiencing something. This dichotomy genuinely upset him, since he felt that his scientific aspirations thereby suffered. He was therefore very disturbed by his nightmare, not so much by its content, but rather by what it signified. The nightmare worried me. I had begun this experiment in a spirit of scientific detachment. I wanted to keep my feelings out of it, to be objective in my observations. 121 But he found this objectivity to be almost impossible to maintain. Moreover, the clear distinction between observer and being observed was, as with his identity, not easily upheld; Griffin s evidence was his own body. In the traveling field of the deep South, Griffin s sweating, hungry, tired, and aching body a body itself always on the move becomes not merely the instrument of observation but also the source of evidence. 122 He experienced first hand how it felt to be discriminated against, to be hated, to be excluded. He learned what it felt like to suffer from thirst even though there was a fountain, to not be able to use the bathroom even though there was one close by. He found out where the desperation that whites often attributed to African Americans came from. He realized why African Americans often had inferior jobs or an inferior education: it was all due to white oppression. He learned about this situation by exposing his own body to life as an African American and concurrently taking notes about what he saw. The observer and the observed are one entity and not easily separated. This recording of both the subject and the object of his observation, naturally, was fraught with several difficulties. His experience as an African American would have been much more intense if he had stopped thinking about the meaning of an experience, or what motivated people to act the 117 ibid, p Black Like Me, p ibid, p ibid, p ibid, p Wald 1996, p


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