Black for a Day

White Fantasies of Race and Empathy

By Alisha Gaines

230 pp., 6.125 x 9.25, 12 halftones, notes, bibl., index

  • Paperback ISBN: 978-1-4696-3283-4
    Published: May 2017
  • E-book EPUB ISBN: 978-1-4696-3284-1
    Published: March 2017
  • E-book PDF ISBN: 979-8-8908-4844-4
    Published: March 2017
  • Hardcover ISBN: 978-1-4696-3282-7
    Published: May 2017

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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.

About the Author

Alisha Gaines is assistant professor of English at Florida State University.
For more information about Alisha Gaines, visit the Author Page.


“Chronicles white impersonations of blackness in the US, revealing the ways experiments in racial empathy obscure the structural character of racism and instead frame personal experiences of otherness and individual awakening as racial progress. Highly recommended.”--Choice

“Gaine’s book is well written and compelling.”--The Journal of Southern History

“Gaines has an eye for the telling detail . . . . Black for a Day has a hopeful, activist spirit. By showing how and why racial empathy went wrong, Gaines suggests some ways to get it right.”--Journal of American History

“Fresh and incisive, Black for a Day delivers a smart examination of what's at stake when people attempt to cross racial lines temporarily. Alisha Gaines’s nuanced examination on the many complicated layers that inform the ‘black experience’ makes this book a timely and important read.”--Jonathan Holloway, author of Jim Crow Wisdom

“In this substantial and impressive examination of race and performance, Alisha Gaines constructs a genealogy of cross-racial empathy that raises the stakes for how we represent and receive black bodies in the twenty-first century.”--Marvin McAllister, author of Whiting Up