Study Guide

Black Like Me Race

By John Howard Griffin


"Do you suppose they'll treat me as John Howard Griffin, regardless of my color—or will they treat me as some nameless N****, even though I am still the same man?" I asked. "You're not serious," one of them said. "They're not going to ask you any questions. As soon as they see you, you'll be a N**** and that's all they'll ever want to know about you." (3.2)

Someone had to say it. This scene alone is one of the most informative scenes about who Griffin was before he began the experiment. Basically it seems like he thought that black people were treated badly because they did something to be treated that way, and that racism wasn't as bad as they said it was. He's in for a rude awakening.

I wanted to discover what sort of work an educated N****, nicely dressed, could find. I met no rebuffs, only gentleness when they informed me they could not use my services as typist, bookkeeper, etc. (9.1)

Remember kids, racism and prejudice isn't only violent lynching and angry people. It's also smiling people who politely refuse to hire you, even though you're qualified for the job.

"You take a young white boy. He can go through school and college with a real incentive. He knows he can make good money in any profession when he gets out. But can a N****—in the South? No, I've seen many make brilliant grades in college. And yet when they come home in the summers to earn a little money, they can't get jobs according to their education or capabilities. No, they have to do the most menial work. And even when they graduate it's a long hard pull. Most take postal jobs, or preaching or teaching jobs. This is the cream. What about the others, Mr. Griffin?" (9.20)

The explanation that many racists gave for the poverty of black people was that they were unskilled and uneducated. But, as this black man that Griffin talks to explains, even the most skilled and educated black people are not able to find jobs that match their level of education.

First, the discrimination against him. Second, and almost more grievous, his discrimination against himself; his contempt for the blackness that he associates with his suffering; his willingness to sabotage his fellow N****es because they are part of the blackness he has found so painful. (9.35)

It's probably hard to believe that being black isn't a bad thing when everything that you read, every movie you see, and a large chunk of the people that you meet, all say that blackness is evil.

My first vague, favorable impression that it was not as bad as I had thought it would be came from courtesies of the whites toward the N**** in New Orleans. But this was superficial. All the courtesies in the world do not cover up the one vital and massive discourtesy—that the N**** is treated not even as a second-class citizen, but as a tenth-class one. His day-to-day living is a reminder of his inferior status. (10.1)

Why do you think that Griffin says that black people are treated as tenth class citizens, and not even second-class ones? That's a pretty big downgrade. What things in a black person's day-to-day living constantly remind them that they are inferior?

Nothing can describe the withering horror of this. You feel lost, sick at heart before such unmasked hatred, not so much because it threatens you as because it shows humans in such an inhuman light. You see a kind of insanity, something so obscene the very obscenity of it (rather than its threat) terrifies you. It was so new I could not take my eyes from the man's face. I felt like saying: "What in God's name are you doing to yourself?" (10.57)

This is really interesting. Griffin says that the hate stare is not threatening, but he hates it because the person is being obscene. Do you think that this is the way a black person would interpret this stare?

An army officer hurried to get at the rear of the white line. I stepped back to let him get in front. He refused and went to the end of the colored portion of the line. Every N**** craned his head to look at the phenomenon. I have learned that men in uniform, particularly officers, rarely descend to show discrimination, perhaps because of the integration of the armed forces. (10.67)

It's pretty cool that this Army officer decides to wait in line for the bus instead of skipping all the black people. Why do you think that is?

Scenes from books and movies came back—the laces, the shaded white-columned veranda with mint juleps served by an elegantly uniformed "darky," the honor, the magnolia fragrance, the cotton fields where "darkies, happy and contented," labored in the day and then gathered at the manse to serenade their beloved white folks with spirituals in the evening after supper… Until the time when they could escape to freedom. (10.263)

Ah, here's another mode of racism. Instead of dehumanizing black people, this mode pretends that slavery and subjugation are actually the best way for black people to live. That makes the racists feel better because then they are doing a good thing, and the black people are happy. Everybody wins! Except this is a big fat lie, and everyone loses.

"No use trying down here," he said. "We're gradually getting you people weeded out from the better jobs at this plant. We're taking it slow, but we're doing it. Pretty soon we'll have it so the only jobs you can get here are the ones no white man would have." [...] "We're going to do our damndest to drive every one of you out of the state." (14.9)

This scene amazed us because this man straight up explains his whole racist plan to Griffin. That takes some cojones… and some freaking evilness. Besides this guy, everyone else seems to pretend that they aren't being racist when they are. So, at least he's honest? No, we're not even going to give him points for that.

"I'll tell you how it is here. We'll do business with you people. We'll sure as hell screw your women. Other than that, you're just completely off the record as far as we're concerned. And the quicker you people get that through your heads, the better off you'll be." (15.16)

There are a ton of things going on here, but let's just look at a couple of words. "We'll sure as hell screw your women." Notice that he says screw. That's not even a neutral word, like sex. Screw implies something vulgar. It also ignores the idea of love. So for this guy, black women are simply there like sex toys to be used. Classy.

The white racist is bewildered and angered by such an attitude, because the dignity of the N****'s course of action emphasizes the indignity of his own. It is a challenge to him to needle the N**** into acts of a baser nature, into open physical conflict. He will walk up and blow cigarette smoke in the N****'s face, hoping the N**** will strike out at him. Then he could repress the N**** violently and claim it was only self-defense. (16.2)

Oh, this just sucks. Because white Southerners knew that getting attacked by a black man would basically ensure that the black man went to jail (or worse), they tried to provoke the black men into violence by being degrading dirtbags. Ugh. People are horrible.

"We must return to them their lawful rights, assure equality of justice—and then everybody leave everybody else to hell alone. Paternalistic—we show our prejudice in our paternalism—we downgrade their dignity." (20.50)

Paternalism is when someone stops someone else from doing something because they think they know better. When a mom stops a baby from sticking their finger into a socket, no one has a problem that. But when someone stops a fully grown adult from doing things that other adults can do, that's paternalism and it implies that person is too stupid to make choices for themselves.