Explaining prejudice with Merton's typology and the film Black Like Me.

Author:Booker, Teresa A.
Position:Critical essay

Carl Lerner's 1964 film, Black Like Me, tells a true story based on the autobiography of John 'Howard Griffin, a Caucasian man who chemically changed his skin from white to black in order to experience life as a black man. The film traces his "experiment" across the South as he interacts with both blacks and whites. This movie can be used to explain privilege, differences between prejudice and discrimination, and how societies behave as they do. According to Merton's typology, people are either prejudiced or unprejudiced, and they either do or do not discriminate. This reality results in four types of predictable behavior. An individual who is neither prejudiced nor discriminates is an all-weather liberal. One who is not prejudiced but will discriminate if socially pressured to do so is a reluctant liberal. A person who is prejudiced but, nevertheless, does not discriminate (i.e., if it costs him anything or if he is socially pressured not to do so) is a timid bigot. An all-weather bigot is prejudiced and discriminates.

Examples of all of these types of individuals are illustrated in the film, but only a few will be mentioned here. For example, the protagonist, John, is obviously an all-weather liberal since he has voluntarily manipulated his body and given up his white privilege in order to become a second-class citizen, merely to recount a newsworthy perspective. So, too, however, are the majority of blacks who interact with him, in addition to a white man who picks up a hitchhiking John and offers him a donut. In contrast, the white grocery store manager--who refuses to even consider offering John any job other than that of stocker--is a reluctant liberal. Despite John's suggestion that black customers would be happy with the manager's decision were John hired as a cashier, the manager kowtows to potential white backlash and refuses to even symbolically accept John's application. Alternatively, the gas station manager who employs John is a timid bigot when he shrewdly but indirectly accuses John of stealing money from the register. The elderly black waitress is, too, when she recounts her conversation with a white woman in which she states that the black race "gave birth" to the white race, not the other way around. Examples of all-weather bigots include the two strangers who chase John through deserted streets; the female window clerk at the bus depot who doesn't want to break a ten-dollar bill, claiming not to have change; and the...

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