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TV Review: Black.White Series Ends – Racism Still Exists

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The premise of this show is simple: Take two families, a white one from Santa Monica, California, and a black one from Atlanta, Georgia, and have them live together in a house in L.A. The white family, who at times puts on make-up to look black, are: Bruno, the father; Carmen, the mother; and Rose, the daughter. The black family, who at times puts on make-up to look white, are: Brian, the father; Renee, the mother; and Nick, the son. I have been using the series to explore issues and thoughts regarding race relations.

This show went downhill fast. I am very disappointed. When I look back at my early reviews of the show, in which I spoke of hope the series would aid in progress of race relations, I just have to sigh. The show failed the world. This show helped the world about as much as an episode of Cops.

Reflection

My confusion and naiveté stem from the billing of this show as a documentary series. The executive producer made The War Room, which was a good thought-provoking documentary.

But this series was more a reality show than a documentary. One of the early complaints I wrote about, the manipulation of footage, provided good clues that this show was more interested in controversy than in actually helping us understand other races.

Jesse Jackson may have said, “Keep hope alive!” but I was about ready to quit watching this show by episode three. The fourth episode, though, was a vast improvement. The best part of episode four involved Bruno and Nick, whose own families said they were ignorant about racism, as I wrote about in a prior Blogcritics’ review.

Unfortunately, the fifth and sixth episodes were also quite bad. By the end of the show Nick had learned why it is unacceptable to let white people use the “N” word around him.

Throughout my reviews I have speculated that Bruno was a fitting representative of white male Americans. Bruno is the type of guy who says he is tired of blacks complaining about what he terms “that whole slavery thing.” Bruno expresses frustration — sounding at times almost like jealousy — that blacks can use the “N” word but whites can’t. Carmen, though, got it. “We don’t have the right to use that word and they do,” Carmen said. My prediction for this series was this: If Bruno leaves the show having learned something valuable, then this series will have been an asset to racial tolerance.

But in order to learn, Bruno has to listen. And he repeatedly demonstrated he was more interested in talking and spouting off about his generalizations about blacks, rappers, and other things than in actually learning from the experience. Bruno, put simply, spent much of the series talking out of his ass. He might as well have stuck his head in it for all he learned.

The series can be divided into two sections: one in which the members of the two families interact with strangers and the other when the family members interact with each other. The former seemed more promising than the latter but both did not really work.

Playing With Strangers

The show kept taking decent concepts, in which the participants could learn from others, and then messing with them. For example, while in blackface, Rose was learning from the members about their experiences, the obstacles they face, and what they really think. But once she decides – or the show’s executives decided for this girl – that she should tell them she is really white, then the entire situation shifts. Once she reveals her true color, her poems and other comments invariably become attempts to bridge the racial divide; they come out sounding more like sermons and lectures than poems.

For the final episode, they each are to give a live performance of a single poem they wrote. When Rose practiced hers, though, it sucked. It sounds more, as another poet put it, like a paper on an assigned topic. Another poet tells her to just “throw it away.” She writes something new and delivers it live but it, too, is meaningless tripe about how difficult it is to be her, a white girl struggling to understand the world.

In reviews and comments I have read, some ask why it is only the white family who needs to learn. That’s a fair question. But the main lesson the black family learns repeatedly, while in white makeup, is that people may act different if they do not know their real race.

On this final episode, for example, Brian and Renee go to a bar in white face and Brian is amazed that a white woman leaves her wallet on the bar while she goes to the bathroom. Brian asks the woman about this and she says she left her purse there because she trusts people. He asks her if she would do it again knowing he noticed it and she said yes. Away from her, Brian and Renee say that would not happen if she knew they were black or if there were other blacks on the premises.

Interesting? Yes. Anecdotal? Oh, yeah. And that’s a big problem with the show – it is filled with anecdote after anecdote that, even when grouped together, don’t really prove anything.

More effective is when Nick meets – at his mom’s insistence – an ex-gang member who takes him around his old neighborhood and tells about friends who have died because of his old life. Nick seems moved. Maybe Nick is finally scared straight. Let’s just hope they don’t try to use that storyline for a spin-off.

Family Feud

It quickly became apparent that the two families were not going to get along. This was the more contrived part of the show that reminded me of the Real World recipe for a television show – put people of conflicting ideologies together and then watch the fireworks.

The most memorable of those scenes came when Carmen called Renee a bitch and then spent the next few episodes trying to say she did not mean it in an offensive way.

I did not hold out much hope that the families would learn from each other but just how dysfunctional the relationship was became apparent during the final 20 minutes. The family members said they decided – though my guess is, it was not really their idea – to write letters to each other and then read them aloud. My heart dropped because I knew what would happen – they would use the opportunity to make some final pot shots at each other. And so they did.

Bruno’s letter criticized Brian, Renee, and Nick. His sharpest barb was at Renee: “For Renee I wish a greater capacity for understanding on a deeper level, a reality free of rigidity, narrow-mindedness, and petty self-righteousness.”

Brian shot back, reading from his letter: “I really do not feel I have learned anything from anybody in the house but I have learned things about them. Like Bruno, no matter what color he is, he will only see things his way.”

Brian said Carmen is too sensitive too learn and Rose’s judgments are clouded by her emotions. Renee said the only person she learned from was Rose. Renee said she got the sense that Bruno and Carmen really did not want to get to know her.

Rose took the high road: “I do not think we will ever really be done but, hey, at least we can say we have begun a life-long journey.” She later reflected: “It was not all nice things said, but it was real.”

As if the show could not be more contrived, the next scene shows the two families meeting with a therapist. This just starts another argument as Bruno says he can’t believe Brian said he learned nothing from the experiment. The therapist asks Brian if he is willing to keep trying to get Bruno to see the light.

”As much as I would love to give up on Bruno in this project, I can’t,” Brian replies.

Overall, this show was very disappointing but there were a few times when I got excited. With this statement from Rose, for example, it sounds like they have the right idea:

Until you open your mind and your ears to other peoples’ words and experiences you can’t make a difference. If you got it in you to accept and forgive and move and learn, beautiful — you are changing the world.

If only the rest of the families had put that idea into practice during the series.

Sigh.

About Scott Butki

Scott Butki was a newspaper reporter for more than 10 years before making a career change into education... then into special education. He has been doing special education work for about five years He lives in Austin. He reads at least 50 books a year and has about 15 author interviews each year and, yes, unlike tv hosts he actually reads each one. He is an in-house media critic, a recovering Tetris addict and a proud uncle. He has written articles on practically all topics from zoos to apples and almost everything in between.
  • http://www.clatch.blogspot.com A.L. Harper

    Scott –

    I love this article! Great writing!

  • http:www.tayarlorhicks.blogspot.com Jewels

    Scott – Have you ever read the book, “Black LIke Me?” Just curious, no malice intended, just, sometimes I feature things in post I have not actually put my lips around… Anyway, I did — 6 times. GREAT read. I took to this book in my teens while growing up in a racially impacted area. Awesome premise for its time – but I really don’t think the TV show gave it (the idea) the creedence, value and due the book did to this idea of switching races, not matched by the book and author.

    Enjoyed your article.

  • Scott Butki

    A.L., hanks.
    I never read the book but from all accounts the book is good while as I’ve described the show is really bad.

  • Dan

    It could be that the reason you think the show was such a failure is because you hoped that your view of abundant white racism and black victimization would be substantiated. When it didn’t happen, you might be disappointed.

    My take on the show is that, despite disproportionate attempts to “root out” white racists, the editors weren’t able to “michael moore” the film enough to create a desired impression.

    Perhaps the calculation was that Bruno would have been a hostile observer to any shenanigans to slant a story-line. The producers could have probably shut people, like Bruno, up with some monetary enhancement, but maybe they, like you, figured the desired impression would become self-evident, and didn’t secure such a deal before hand.

    Bruno was particularly vindicated in the “jumper-cables in the parking lot” scene. This was going to be Brian’s sure-fire outing of white racists.

    At the end, I found it touching that they sort of bonded. I think it was sincere. There was a commonality among them. It got me thinking.

    The best way to get people of different races to bond– and that’s whats needed– is to place them in circumstances where they’re forced to struggle against a common adversary. In this case, it was the show. Even though points weren’t made regarding who’s more racist, the actors suffered a common stress that they had to endure to end the thing. Bruno and Brian still disagree but I’d bet thay would buy the other a drink at a bar.

    A historical common adversary would be a war. That’s not popular these days, and nobody really feels threatened by Islamic terrorists…yet.

  • Dan

    I forgot to mention, that the most commonly observed example of my ‘bonding through shared struggle’ phenomenon is in sports. White and black athletes, on the same team, harbor almost zero racial animostity.

  • http://diplomaticat.wordpress.com/ advocatus leonibus

    The show was a start though. As a person of mixed heritage, I applaud the young Rose for having a point of view that from what I have seen is difficult to come by in a world of only one culture. She is my hope for the future if the generations to come are as introspective and also outwardly intuitive and observant as she appears to be.

    Though the show opens a lot of cans of worms that it never really closes or sorts out in the end, it is a good starting place for deep conversations. The meta-message of how the black family talks excitedly of “getting to be white” while they also look forward to the white family “learning something” about the difficulties of being black.

    Bruno is a man of reason and has a good heart, and he may be at least partially right in defending his point of view. This is not that racism doesn’t exist,only that some situations AREN’T racism the way they are often perceived, and fundamentally even if they are, you can’t actually change someone else, but only how you react to it. That is how I was brought up as well, and my grandfather was the first black student to get his Doctorate degree at the University in Buffalo, NY, and my father the first black student body president at Dorsey High in Los Angeles, CA. Apparently though. my mother’s parents did not approve of her choice of beau (she is american born Chinese), but by the time I was born, the first grandchild, that must have been resolved because I never felt any static on that end at all.

    I also take issue with Renee’s reaction to poor Carmen who only called her “bitch” in the role playing exercise within the home. She did NOT call Renee a bitch by any stretch of the imagination, she was trying to play a part as she understood it. Renee never did grasp this,and that is the kind of idiocy that perpetrates the notion of racism where there is none. That was 100% not Carmen’s fault in the slightest, and even so she felt badly that Renee was so upset by it. There was a failing to learn something on behalf of the black folks .

    That being said, as a whole it was a very interesting experience. Lots of things to discuss, but the main gaping hole I see in the discussion is the subject of socio-economic standing. My father’s side of the family was from a background of education – someone in the family tree was a school principal and my grandmother raised my father to leave that “jive talkin’” for his buddies and to speak like a proper gentleman at the dinner table. He said he was taught that if he were act respectably then people would treat him so, and it turned out to be true.

    But now that the income gaps are so wide in our society and only getting wider, I feel like there was a definite discrepancy in the two families as far as the white family definitely being upper middle class, the emphasis would fall heavily on the “Upper” while the black family a bit noticeably less so. I realized though, that an UPPER upper crust black family would probably be …for effect and lack of a more descriptive way of putting it., not quite BLACK enough for the purpose of the experiment. There would be less strife and less prejudice to overcome since money would already have broken down some of those barriers for such a family in the first place. It was a sensible choice then, for the purposes of the experiment., but it also ignores the fact that many race issues are deeply tied to socio-economic issues, not the least of those being education,

    That may be too controversial for even Hollywood to touch though, since it starts raising questions about the thing we seem to value most in America, more than people and property even. Money.

    I recommend watching the shows with a pad and pencil and with a few different people from different ages and backgrounds and pay attention to how different the reactions to the show can be depending on who you are with. It may raise your blood pressure between both the show and the folks you watch with, but it is truly a fascination.

    I give it a thumbs up for the effort and for being as non-sensational as it was. And IceCube’s opening theme is also worth thinking about too…

    • http://diplomaticat.wordpress.com/ advocatus leonibus

      oops – there WERE paragraph breaks there when I wrote it… Sorry!