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Soul Sister: The Limits of Empathy

Image Credit: Sara Ariel Wong for NPR.

The protests that began after the killing of George Floyd have led to a broad reckoning about racism in this country. Many white people are asking themselves what it means to be anti-racist. But historically, efforts by whites to empathize with the black experience have been fraught.

In 1969, Grace Halsell, a white journalist, published a book called Soul Sister.

It was her account of living as a “black woman” in the United States. Lyndon Johnson provided a blurb for the book, and it sold over a million copies. Halsell was inspired by John Howard Griffin’s Black Like Me, which came out in 1961. That was inspired by an even earlier book in the 1940’s.

It’s hard to imagine any of these projects happening now. It seems like a kind of journalistic blackface. But Halsell’s book raises a lot of questions that are still relevant today – about race, and the limits of empathy.

This episode is a collaboration with NPR’s Code Switch. Join the conversation on twitter @radiodiaries and @nprcodeswitch. This story was produced by Sarah Kate Kramer with help from Joe Richman and Nellie Gilles. It was edited by Deborah George and Ben Shapiro.

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