Black for a Day: White Fantasies of Race and Empathy

Black for a Day: White Fantasies of Race and Empathy

Black for a Day: White Fantasies of Race and Empathy

Black for a Day: White Fantasies of Race and Empathy


In 1948, journalist Ray Sprigle traded his whiteness to live as a black man for four weeks. A little over a decade later, John Howard Griffin famously "became" black as well, traveling the American South in search of a certain kind of racial understanding. Contemporary history is littered with the surprisingly complex stories of white people passing as black, and here Alisha Gaines constructs a unique genealogy of "empathetic racial impersonation--white liberals walking in the fantasy of black skin under the alibi of cross-racial empathy. At the end of their experiments in "blackness," Gaines argues, these debatably well-meaning white impersonators arrived at little more than false consciousness.

Complicating the histories of black-to-white passing and blackface minstrelsy, Gaines uses an interdisciplinary approach rooted in literary studies, race theory, and cultural studies to reveal these sometimes maddening, and often absurd, experiments of racial impersonation. By examining this history of modern racial impersonation, Gaines shows that there was, and still is, a faulty cultural logic that places enormous faith in the idea that empathy is all that white Americans need to make a significant difference in how to racially navigate our society.


“Am I black yets?” I didn’t answer. I wasn’t finished smearing the paint on Joe’s face. Onstage, the rest of the cast stalled. Their ad-libs were well rehearsed. We had learned that turning someone black takes time. “Alisha, hurry up!” the stage manager frantically whispered, “and don’t forget his ears this time!”

We only had a few moments to change Joe from white Senator Billboard Rawkins to his black, cursed alter ego during my high school’s 1996 revival of the musical Finian’s Rainbow. Our director chose three of us to engineer Joe’s blackness. One of us darkened Joe’s right hand, another his left, and I was in charge of his face. We had practiced the timing of this pivotal scene for weeks; I understood the grave magnitude of this responsibility. Joe’s new black face had to be even, and most important, I couldn’t forget his ears again.

The black paint covered my hands, mixing with the anxious sweat on my palms. I gave Joe one more pass with the cosmetic sponge to assure even coverage. the paint stained across the roots of his blond hair, but I knew no one would be able to see that from the audience. “I’m done!” I whispered. Right on cue, Joe reentered the stage. I listened for what I knew would come next: the shocked and delighted laughter of the audience.

I was a ninth-grader at a private, Christian school in northeast Ohio, and one of only a few black students among the 700-plus kids milling in its hallways. Attending that too white junior high and high school was an educational gift on one hand and a burdensome tokenism on the other. As both my parents worked multiple jobs so I could avoid the struggling Cleveland public schools they attended, I desperately tried to fit in among the white kids whose parents easily afforded the tuition.

All I wanted was to be in the spring musical, and my parents encouraged me. I worked backstage in the fall play to prove my commitment to the drama department after being told that working backstage would be the catalyst to getting onstage. I was cast in Finian’s Rainbow in the very brief role of “Gospeleer #2,” so I again volunteered to work behind the curtain. Instead of painting sets as I had the semester before, this time I painted Joe.

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