It's gonna take a whole lot more than any "groundbreaking," "edgy," "daring," "bold," "reality" TV show to make the slightest dent in America's racial divide. My guess is that whatever progress remains to be made in this area and there is plenty will require that we as a nation deal with a lot more reality and a lot less TV.
Television doesn't hold the keys to the promised land.
By now you've probably already heard the buzz about Black. White. The reality show aired its first episode Wednesday, March 8, on F/X. The show, which is actually a six-episode experiment/miniseries/drama/whatever the hell you want to call it kind of thing, is supposedly designed to open all our eyes to the painful existence and persistence of racism in American society.
Yeah. OK. Like none of us have heard anything about this stuff until the F/X network "dared" to enlighten us, "boldly" going where no reality show has ever gone before.
So here we have two families, one white, one black, who have signed on to a project requiring them to switch races for a period of time just to get a glimpse of how those "other" folks live. A blue-eyed blond girl gets a makeover and presto! Instant sista girl. A young black guy gets a makeover so convincing he looks like he could have been an extra on Friends. The heads of household are likewise transformed, at least on the surface, and right away they are all out on assignment being steered into racially charged situations where they will supposedly get the chance to step outside their skin. Black is white and white is black.
Oh, yeah, and they all are living together under one roof in L.A. It is there at Race Relations Central where they gather to share experiences and train each other how to become convincing members of the opposite race. One of the more hilarious episodes comes when the white dad actually, Mom's boyfriend demonstrates what he believes to be the difference between how white men walk and how black men walk, which is with more of a laid-back roll-bounce kinda strut.
"That's actually not bad," the black father tells him.
Yeah, right. OK.
There are some other interesting moments, to be sure, some of them previewed in advance publicity hype. There is the scene where the white daughter/undercover sista girl attends a black poetry slam and tries out her calm-spirited verse on a roomful of poets whose rhymes lean much more toward the slash-and-burn variety. It's hard-hitting stuff, as black poetry can sometimes be, and the young white girl is simply blown away to the point where she later tells everyone at the dinner table that evening that she simply does not ever want to go back there again. She comes across as a decent, levelheaded and open-minded kid who actually has a lot more sense than Mom or Mom's partner, but the ferocity of black poetry is apparently too much. That is, until she goes back again and suddenly all is well. Soon she's dancing and rhyming and making black friends and all that cool black stuff. Gee! Being black can be fun!
One other scene that I just have to note is when the black father, as a white man, goes into a shoe store and suddenly gets great service, the likes of which he says he has never received during all his years of being black. The white salesperson actually shoehorned his foot into a new shoe to try it on! What service! Because of course we all know that had this poor, unsuspecting white salesman known that this was really a black foot that he was touching, he would have recoiled in horror. "I touched a black man's foot! Quick, somebody bring me the Lysol!"
It's an amusing episode, but, like the rest of the show, that's pretty much all it is. Amusing. Sure, I've had white salespeople brush me off, and there were definitely times when I knew race was involved. But there have also definitely been times when I've bought new shoes and a white salesperson was right there to help. Believe it or not, I've even had a white person shoehorn my foot into a new shoe to try it out. No, really! These things have happened to me!
Believe me, I'm not in any way denying the persistence of racism in American society, nor am I trying to play it down. Racism is the screaming relative in the basement that America still tries to say isn't there. Just ignore the noise and act normal.
But the problem with this show, aside from how staged it obviously is, is that it is taking itself seriously as a window through which whites and blacks can take a safari to the "other side." Truth is, no one with a functioning brain can believe they are actually witnessing any true revelations about racism. White people watching the show already know what some white folks say about blacks when blacks aren't in the room. As for the racial hurdles encountered by the white folks painted up as blacks, I seriously doubt many of the whites who deny racism exists will suddenly be moved to torch their preconceived notions and accept these few televised incidents as proof positive. For that matter, I suspect those whites who cling to that notion probably didn't bother to tune in to the show.
As for black viewers, what's there to learn here? We already know the score on racism, and we already know most white folks don't believe it's as bad as we already know it is. There are more than enough polls and surveys on that one. And as for those blacks who believe that even the best white folks are still clueless, this show if the remaining five episodes are anything like the first won't challenge your assumptions. Check the part where the white mother breaks down in tears after she is called on the carpet by the black mother for thinking it was OK to call a black woman "bitch" as a term of endearment. "I didn't know!" she says sobbing, as the black mother just shakes her head at the airheaded Barbie doll.
"She can't be that stupid," the black mother says.
I agree. It's amusing, somewhat entertaining, and it plays into every dumb blonde stereotype, but that's about all it is. To be honest, this whole thing would have worked better as a comedy. Seriously. I'm willing to bet that a hard-edged comedy of the HBO variety dealing with exactly the same premise as this supposedly "enlightening" reality TV show would drive the point home. Or just a straight drama.
Some might disagree, but I honestly believe fiction can sometimes cut to the heart of an issue and shed far more light than something like this ever will. The movie Crash, for example, which won this year's Oscar for best picture, stretched beyond simply black and white to deal with the complexities of both race and class. Crash acknowledged the that it is no longer simply about black and white anymore, and hasn't been in quite some time, which is what made it far more honest and thought-provoking.
And as far as a nonfiction approach goes, I doubt anything will ever match the groundbreaking 1964 book by John Howard Griffin, Black Like Me, where Griffin, a white man who also darkened his skin to go racially undercover, documented his experiences as a black man in the South. Anyone who has read the book knows it can hardly be considered entertainment. Although Griffin always knew he could escape the pain of blackness and go home, his observations and discoveries were nevertheless remarkable and daring for that time period.
So if you're bored, don't have a life, and desperately need a chuckle, then this is the show for you. But if you're looking for actual instruction on race relations? White this one out.Keith A. Owens is a Detroit writer, editor and musician. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org