Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Diversity Roll Call: Paradigm Shift

It's time for another Diversity Roll Call, this time hosted at Color Online.

Have you ever read a book and the character's perspective opened you to ideas, beliefs or realities that you had never considered? Tell us a about a work or an author whose body of work changed how you looked at the world, others or yourself. Have you ever read a book and had a paradigm shift because of it?

The first book that came to mind was Roots. Slavery was an abstract concept to me before I read it, as a teen. Despite controversies about Haley's genealogical methodology, he did put a face on the victims of and participants in slavery for me. But I wouldn't call that a paradigm shift, exactly. I ended up in the same place I'd started, just with a deeper understanding.

Black Like Me was another thing entirely.

In 1959, in an attempt to overcome his inability to understand the black experience, John Howard Griffin underwent a medical procedure to darken his skin pigment so that strangers perceived him as a black man. Black Like Me is the memoir describing his experiences in different parts of the U.S., when transformed into a dark-skinned man.

When I think about it now, the impact of this book disturbs me. People experienced blatant racism every day in 1959. Why would it take a white man with dark skin to convince anyone (Griffin included) of the extent to which racism existed? Does he somehow have more authority on the matter, after a brief experiment, than any black person would have after a lifetime? And if not, why was this book considered so groundbreaking?

But at the age that I read it (probably 18 or 19), the concept of race as a human construct was new to me. I had so many assumptions that I wasn't aware of, including the idea that people were inherently different from each other based on race. Not in any specific way I could have pinpointed, certainly not inferior or deserving of disdain. But the fact that the same person could have such entirely different experiences of life due to others' perceptions of them? Blew my mind.

That's when I first questioned my own conceptions of people. Sure, I was nice to everyone. I did have fairly diverse friends, for a middle class girl who spent most of her childhood in a 95% white city. But were there subtle differences in how I connected to people, based on my assumptions about their racial or ethnic background?

The answer is such an obvious yes to me, two decades later, that it's hard to convey the impact of asking the question for the first time. It's a question I hope I never stop asking myself.

Would you like to participate in Diversity Roll Call this week? I hope you'll head on over to Color Online and add your link. Got a question or topic related to diversity you'd like to see here? Suggestions are welcomed with open arms, you can send them to Susan or to me at Worducopia-at-gmail-dot-com.


  1. I have a copy of Black Like me on my shelf that is still TBR. I read my parents' copy of Roots ages ago but I remember it being pretty much over my head at the time. My post is here.

  2. You're right about Black Like Me. But I guess for 1959 it was a radical idea.

  3. I wrote about this book before. It was one of the mind blowing books for me. I read it in high school.

    Thanks for the thoughtful post, Ali. I'm linking this for LLM.

  4. My grandmother could "pass" for white but chose to constantly announce her racial status to others...she shared Roots with me, and I recall her speaking with awe about Black Like Me...perhaps for some it was the ultimate gesture of walking in someone else's shoes, but of course, it does reinscribe the ultimate value of the white male point of view...interesting analysis, Ali!