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Does the person making offensive remarks bear responsibility if the other person takes offense even if that is not the intent?

TV Review: Black.White – 3/22/06

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.

I am using the series to explore issues and thoughts regarding race relations..

The March 22 show begins with the two families — the white and the black families — discussing a speech by Carmen, the white mother, shown near the end of last week’s show.

As I wrote:

The poets share some of their material and it was wonderful. There are some talented writers among the bunch. Then Carmen ruins the moment. She starts by thanking them for sharing their poetry and telling them they are amazing artists. She says it in a way that suggests the poets were hoping for her approval and should now be pleased that the white woman has said they are good folks.

Carmen then babbles a bit before making a comment where it sounds like she is objectifying the members, referring to a “powerful black male physique.” She also mentions that she has not determined yet whether one young man is gay or straight, as if it is any of her business, let alone appropriate to say in front of the group. When she is done, the poets split. Can you blame them?

Renee later sums up her reaction to Carmen’s speech at the poetry incident: “I was so embarrassed and angry at the same time. There she goes again.” And Renee is right.

Carmen also uses the phrase “beautiful black creature” and its the word creature that irks the black family.

As the episode is starting Carmen is totally unapologetic about her actions.

Indeed, when her daughter, Rose, the one member of the white family that appears to get the problems at hand, broaches the subject, her mom snaps at her.

“Rose, it seems you are trying to make nice and I don’t like that. It was not about being (bleep) politically correct,” Carmen said. “Don’t correct me right now.”

Carmen says her comments were coming “from total love. If you misinterpreted it, that’s on you.”

She later says she is having trouble liking the other family.

This is how it has been during the first and second episodes with Carmen and Bruno, the white mother and father. The two are acting like it is okay for them to use the N-word or Carmen to call the black mother, “bitch,” because it was not meant to be offensive.

As if that matters.

It’s a classic problem that I have seen in virtual communities, at Blogcritics, and in “real” conversation. Does the person making offensive remarks bear responsibility if the person takes offense, even if that is not the intent? Put another way, does intent matter if the person is offended?

That seems to be what is happening over and over, with this white family and with many white people in America: they make statements and take actions which are offensive to minority groups but then act like they bear no responsibility because that was not the intent.

Racial profiling? Hey, some say that is not meant to be offensive — it is meant to improve security and fight crime. Yet doesn’t it look racist by its very nature? And yet I bet police officers pulling over black drivers or Arab airplane passengers will be quick to say their actions have nothing to do with race and are not meant to be offensive.

Nick, the black teenager, has had the least screen time so far. That all changed with the events shown in this episode.

Rose and Nick go out shopping and he buys a $150 watch.

Rose — and later Nick’s parents — says he seems to be living out a stereotype about blacks: that they spend money without really thinking about the consequences.

Nick’s parents lay into him, first mad that he bought a watch when he already owns one, then getting really mad when he tells them the cost.

“I have been so focused on getting Bruno and Carmen to understand what racism is all about when I should have been getting Nick to understand what it is all about,” the father, Brian, said.

“You need to think about you future and leave all this bling bling crap alone. When you’re ready for the watch, you will get the watch. You are not ready for things like that yet. Your focus should be on GED and college,” Brian told Nick.

Meanwhile, something good happens that gave me hope — for the first time in three weeks — that maybe this white family is going to get a clue.

In makeup, as a black couple, Carmen and Bruno go to a country-and-western themed bar.

They are the only ones there who are not white and they notice — and the camera shows — the white people staring at them.

“I was aware I am not wanted or regarded well in this community and it did not feel good,” Carmen said.

She starts to feel, she said, what it must be like to be in a place where someone is not wanted. Bruno does not see it. He did not see racism taking place. Carmen says Bruno is sometimes blind to that.

They have a conversation which is probably healthy, one that more white people should have. Carmen reminds Bruno of a time when he was slighted because he was white. Did that not make him mad?

Of course, he said, but how long should he carry that around?

“I moved on,” he said.

Carmen makes a futile attempt at getting him to see the light: if this kind of slight occurs all the time, would it not be hard to move on every time?

Bruno is having none of it, but Carmen has nailed it. It is easy for white people to say that black people should move past slights, prejudice, slavery, etc., but it is important to think about how often they are happening.

If you are black and you see someone cross the street to avoid talking to you, or lock their doors when they see you, you notice those things. To a white person that may not be a big deal. To the white person the intent may not have been to offend.

And yet if the black person is offended does not the white person bear some culpability? Food for thought, perhaps, from this white writer.

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 working in mental health for the last ten 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.

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