John Howard Griffin: Black Like me

 John Howard Griffin smiles widely.

Deception, or covert research, is a longstanding technique in qualitative research. Disciplines such as anthropology, sociology, and psychology have employed deceptive methods, often for purposes of access.

When researchers obscure their identity to gain access, they often seek a first-hand experience, such as those of discrimination. In the United States, during and following the civil rights movement, fake identities were used to make visible societal discrimination based on class, gender, or sexual orientation. For example, John Howard Griffin’s autobiographical account Black Like Me details how, in 1959, Griffin, a white journalist, decided to undergo medical treatment and cosmetic procedures to temporarily change his skin colour. For six weeks he travelled through racially segregated American states as a ‘fake black man’.

Griffin, who was deeply suspicious of dismissive narratives about African-Americans’ experiences, used faking to ‘study up’ and to reveal evidence confirming his suspicions about the detrimental effects of racism. Hence, the politics of the method were explicit; his deception revealed the experiences of the misrepresented in ways that white audiences hadn’t previously considered.

In this case study we present for the first time a previously unseen image of Griffin 'undercover' taken by the photographer Don Rutledge. 

A person mid-bounce on a trampoline, others stand looking up at him.

Image from The Don Rutledge Collection held at Southern Baptist Historical Library and Archives, Nashville, Tennessee.