More than 50 years ago, journalist John Howard Griffin, a white man from Texas, decided that he wanted to know firsthand what being black in the segregated South was like. For six weeks, Griffin rode the Greyhound bus from Louisiana to Georgia with a medically induced tan, posing as a black man. His book report on the ordeal — Black Like Me — is pretty much what one would expect: Racism really sucks.
Taking a page from Griffin's diary half a century later, teenager Gaby Rodriguez revealed her own secret social experiment at a school assembly last week. For six months the 17-year-old had been posing as pregnant. As part of Rodriguez's senior project, which she called "Stereotypes, Rumors and Statistics," the straight-A student wore increasingly baggier clothes and fashioned a makeshift baby bump with wire mesh and quilt batting.
Just one of Rodriguez's seven siblings knew the truth. Her boyfriend's parents thought they were going to be grandparents. Other than that, only her mother, boyfriend, best friend and high school principal were part of the tiny circle of people in on the plot. Rodriguez's purpose: learning firsthand (but without the lasting consequence) what it's like to be a pregnant teenager.
"A lot of rumors were just that I was irresponsible. No college … it was bound to happen. I knew she would get pregnant. Doesn't she know she just ruined her life," said Rodriguez in an article posted on Good Morning America's website.
When Rodriguez finally pulled off her fake belly, students were "speechless." And I'm sure more than a bit relieved. In front of a packed gym of classmates, Rodriguez revealed how alienated she'd felt over the past six months and how ashamed others had made her feel. Throughout her pretend pregnancy, Rodriguez wrote down all the things people whispered about her in the hallway — that she was irresponsible, that she'd destroyed her life, that now she'd never go to college. At the assembly, she passed out note cards with the whispered insults written on them.
According to Rodriguez, she's planning to present her findings to leaders in her community in hopes of helping other young girls fight stereotypes. Toppenish, Wash., where Rodriguez is from, is by all accounts small. The city has fewer than 9,000 residents, 75 percent of whom are Hispanic or Latino. The median income is less than $30,000, and the median age is 25. Nearly 52 percent of Latina teenagers will get pregnant at least once before their 20th birthday, according to the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy.
When viewers aren't watching the cast of MTV's Jersey Shore trash the Garden State's good name, they can turn to the network's newest reality gold, Teen Mom and 16 & Pregnant. And since drunken hot-tubbing could very likely result in a plus sign on a pregnancy test, maybe MTV is simply trying to maintain its demographic instead of making tabloid cover girls out of expectant sophomores. Either way, judging from the ratings, when it comes to pregnancy, teens are paying attention to the gore (dirty diapers) and the glitz (instant fame), Rodriguez included.
But much like the skinny girl who puts on a fat suit for a few hours, the college-bound Rodriguez could unhook her burden at the end of the day when no one was watching. Same with John Howard Griffin's black skin. Like Rodriguez, who by all accounts didn't appear to be in any danger of getting pregnant, despite the dismal stats of those in her cohort, Griffin wasn't a raging racist who needed to be sent to the South to get on board with the whole civil rights thing. Both social scientists already knew the answer to their hypothesis.
Is it hard to be a black man in Jim Crow's neighborhood? Um, duh. Is it hard to be pregnant with pimples? Absolutely. Those are givens. But what separates Griffin and Rodriguez from the pack of talk-show hosts sweating in fat suits for sweeps week is sincerity.
Before 1986's Soul Man, a white man from Texas decided to put himself in harm's way (sometimes Griffin hitchhiked) in order to pay more than lip service to the issue of the times. For her part, Rodriguez sacrificed a heaping portion of a time that most Americans mythologize as the best of their lives — the storied senior year.
"I made my senior year better by doing this," Rodriguez told The Today Show, "because I get to, you know, say I made an impact in some of the students' lives here."
But perhaps watching Rodriguez earn her well-deserved 15 minutes for doing something daring, as opposed to something stupid, will have other teens rethinking their own reality.