A view from Dave Trott: You only think you know
A view from Dave Trott

You only think you know

In 1959, John Griffin was a journalist in New Orleans.

After the war, the world was changing and people were treated as equals, everywhere.

At least, everywhere except the southern states of America.

Many southerners still felt that black people could never be considered equal with whites.

As a journalist, this fascinated Griffin.

When they complained, he’d say: "I know how you feel."

They’d shake their head and say: "I don’t think so."

And Griffin thought: they’re right – I can’t know how they feel, because I’m not black.

Then he thought: if I become black I’ll know what it feels like, instead of just observing it.

So that’s what he did – his experiences became a book called Black Like Me.

First, he got a doctor to advise him on the pills to take to darken his skin, he sat for ages under a sunlamp, he stained his skin, he shaved his head, he wore dark glasses, and when he looked in the mirror he didn’t recognise himself.

Neither did anyone else in New Orleans – he’d become a black man.

Then he travelled to the worst places for racism in the south: Mississippi and Alabama.

He said: "Previously, I assumed negroes led essentially the same kind of life whites know, with certain inconveniences caused by discrimination and prejudice."

But his experience shifted immediately: "Everything is different. Everything changes. As soon as I go into areas where I had contact with white people, I realised that I was no longer regarded as a human individual, I am not speaking here only of myself. This is the mind-twisting experience of every black person I know."

"Civilised whites" didn’t want "blacks" mixing with them.

When he bought an ice-cream, there was a sign in the shop clearly indicating "Rest Room".

He asked the man he’d just bought the ice-cream from if there was a rest room.

The man said: "You go on up that road to the bridge, cut down the road to the left, follow that road to a gas station, there’s one there."

Griffin asked how far it was; the man said about 14 blocks.

Griffin asked if there wasn’t one closer he could use; the man said he didn’t know of any.

Later, he bought a Greyhound bus ticket and turned to sit in the large, empty waiting room.

The woman who sold him the ticket glowered at him, she flicked her head to the left.

Griffin walked outside and found a tiny, cramped waiting room full of black people.

On the bus, a white woman would not sit in the empty seat next to him.

He was made to get up and sit next to another black person so she could sit down.

He said, as a white person he’d got used to being able to walk anywhere without thinking.

As a black person, he had to plan every trip, to make sure there was somewhere he could eat, or drink, or use the restroom.

Griffin said, by "being black", he learned what a white man could never learn by observing: "Blackness is not a colour but a lived experience."

What Griffin did is a great lesson for us.

Our audience is always people who aren’t like us.

We think we know what other people want simply by observing them.

Then we interpret them from our point of view.

But to really know what’s going on with them, we must connect at a deeper level.

What Bill Bernbach calls: "Simple, timeless, human truths."

Or as Griffin said, when writing his book: "If I could take on the skin of a black man, live whatever might happen and then share that experience with others, perhaps at the level of shared human experience, we might come to some understanding that was not possible at the level of pure reason."

Dave Trott is the author of Creative Blindness and How to Cure It, Creative Mischief, Predatory Thinking and One Plus One Equals Three

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