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With Maybelline Mocha and an Afro wig, white author explores 'Blackness' in a new book

The cover art of Sam Forster's book,<em> Seven Shoulders: Taxonomizing Racism in Modern America</em>.

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Slaughterhouse Media
The cover art of Sam Forster's book, Seven Shoulders: Taxonomizing Racism in Modern America.

Sam Forster expected some pushback online when he announced his latest book, Seven Shoulders: Taxonomizing Racism in Modern America.

Detailed accounts of America’s racial divide are nothing new, and particularly in the years since the murder of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police, there has been renewed interest in the topic.

But the key difference between Forster’s account and those written by others is that Forster, a white man, said he “disguised” himself as Black — donning an Afro wig and dark foundation — to get a firsthand account of modern life as a person of color.

“Certainly I was aware that people were going to express criticism of the book on those grounds, but I feel like the book that I produced was an important enough contribution to the discourse to overcome those concerns,” the 27-year-old Forster told NPR.

When the Montreal resident first announced his project in a since-deleted tweet on X (formerly Twitter), the backlash was swift and severe.

“I disguised myself as a Black man and traveled throughout the United States to document how racism persists in American society,” he wrote. “Writing Seven Shoulders was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done as a journalist.”

The tweet was quickly ratioed — with responses and quotes of the tweet outperforming likes on the message more than 15 to 1.

“U had to do blackface to understand the issues black ppl face….?,” one incredulous X user responded.

“You could have spoken with Black Americans,” another replied. “I have serious questions as to WHY and HOW you disguised yourself as a Black American to write this book!”

The “how” of the disguise is easy to answer. Hitchhiking across the United States — including the Las Vegas desert in the scorching summer — Forster wore a hoodie to cover most of his body.

Onto his irises went dark contact lenses to conceal his conspicuously blue eyes, an Afro wig covered his hair, and perhaps most jarringly, he slathered dark foundation, specifically, liquid Maybelline in the shade mocha, onto his face, hands and neck.

It’s the “why” that has left most people, even Forster himself, confused at times.

"What are you doing, Sam?"

Despite his confidence in hindsight discussing the importance of his choice to perform what he calls “journalistic blackface,” writing in the book, Forster expresses doubt at his decision-making.

“My pupils connect with themselves in the mirror’s reflection. I am applying the dark foundation to my cheeks and forehead. Even after a few days’ worth of experience, performing this transformation feels very bizarre,” he writes.

“What are you doing, Sam???” he continues. “Is this too far?”

For many who have heard of the new book, for which the idea was conceived, executed and self-published within a year, the answer is yes.

The nonfiction account currently sits near the top of new releases in Black and African American History on Amazon. But the reviews are a dismal 1.5 stars out of 5 on the e-commerce site.

“The idea that we need someone to take on a Black identity, or identity of the other, in order to understand, I think in a number of ways really just dismisses the mounds of historical evidence that we have,” said Derrick Brooms, executive director of the Black Men's Research Institute at Morehouse College.

“To say that ‘I need to write a book and ignore what Black folks have been telling us and continue to tell us,’ I don't really see what the place of that is in a healthy understanding of race and racism in the 21st century,” Brooms said.

"Journalistic blackface"

Forster said he was inspired to write the book after reading previous accounts of white people dressing up in blackface for journalistic purposes.

He specifically cites John Howard Griffin’s 1961’s Black Like Me, in which the white author recounts darkening his skin with an anti-vitiligo drug in order to understand racial strife in the Jim Crow South.

“Obviously in American society there was major civil rights legislation that was passed in the early '60s. You know, most notably there was the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which was 60 years ago from this year, which I found to be an interesting milestone or anniversary or whatever, to see sort of how things have progressed,” Forster said.

Among the many critics of Forster’s use of blackface has been the NAACP, a civil rights organization focused on the advancement of Black Americans.

Writing on X, the organization’s president, Derrick Johnson said: “Being able to pick and choose when you experience ‘blackness’ is not a reality for the millions of Black people we serve, who face racism and marginalization every day.”

“Next time try investing time in centering authentic Black voices and experiences.”

The response to the backlash

Forster did not consult with any Black people ahead of undertaking the experiment. That, he said, would have been pandering.

And he was reluctant to share what feedback he has received from any Black friends or colleagues.

Instead, responding to the public backlash, Forster said that there are many people who are pleased with his work and are likely afraid to speak openly.

When pressed as to whether there is any validity to concerns that his use of blackface could be viewed offensively — if perhaps the resounding outrage has any merit — Forster is defensive.

“I believe that a lot of that passion is misguided or not grounded in a well-understood review of what the book is actually about,” Forster said.

“I understood that it would be a controversial project, and I'm optimistic that as more people read the book and as reviews come out in the future, that the visible response will become more balanced.”

Forster describes the revelations of ongoing racism as not “terribly shocking” to anyone who has spent considerable time in the United States.

“The actual portion of the book where I'm, you know, doing this immersive journalism is really only the middle section,” Forster said.

“And I'm using it to identify how a very, very specific form of interpersonal racism could manifest in American society through the act of hitchhiking as someone who appears white, and then again as someone who appears Black.”

If going into the project not expecting to break new ground on well-documented instances of anti-Black discrimination, why do it at all?

Forster insists that it is his role as a writer to commit to storytelling.

“My job is to write books that people find interesting and compelling and stimulating,” he said. “I want to write things that force people to have conversations about culture and about our experiences, and I think I've done that, and I think I've done it in a way that's sensible, and honest, and as respectful as I could speak in.”

When asked if these same experiences could have been relayed by an actual Black person speaking to their lived experience, Forster acknowledges that people are “unsettled” by the “journalistic tactics” he employed.

But, he says, in order for some in white America who downplay the existence of racism, maybe the voice of a white man would be more compelling.

“There is a considerable portion of white America that believes Black racial grievance is exaggerated or entirely fabricated and who find the writing of white journalists or academics more compelling than the writing of Black academics,” he said. "... I don't feel the need to apologize for that.”

Copyright 2024 NPR

Alana Wise
Alana Wise is a politics reporter on the Washington desk at NPR.