The race question, or card, as it happens to be played, is really an exercise in self-abuse, no matter what side of the fence you happen to be on. But there’s entertainment value in self-abuse, which is why, one supposes, reality television is so popular. There’s nothing really interesting about those characters whose appearance on the show was based simply on how easily they could be understood. As an audience, we’re interested in the car crash. FX, in its brand new series “Black. White.,” promises a train wreck.
The plot is easy enough. Thanks to modern make-up and advances in so-called open-mindedness, a black family (the Sparks) and a white family (the Wurgels) agree ludicrously to live together and teach one another what it is like to be a different color. Each family switches over for short periods of time in order to have what amounts to a ready-made racial experience. The producers edit it just enough to make it a spectacle of improbability, incoherence, and, yep, race-baiting.
For example, the white father, Bruno Wurgel in full black make-up, appears at a car dealership wearing a jogging suit. Bruno is warned by his counterpart, Brian Sparks, that he would probably be ignored by the salesman altogether. When Bruno isn’t mistreated, Brian scoffs that Bruno isn’t open to the little things he would notice “if he knew to look for them.” Bruno shrugs, and suggests that if he is simply nice and well mannered people won’t treat him any differently — and accuses Brian of simply looking for discrimination.
The Sparks family seems to think, and perhaps correctly, that the show is primarily intended to teach white people a lesson. Brian seems less concerned with learning about how his views may be wrong than he is in finding out how correct he is. As Brian talks to Bruno about being black, he repeats that Bruno simply isn’t open to the subtle racism he faces everywhere. Bruno persistently applies trial and error to seek out the root of why people approach him as they do. Brian suggests that a family moves out of their path on a sidewalk out of racist intentions. Bruno, exasperated, points out that the family couldn’t have gotten past them without moving.
EVEN IF BRIAN HAS BEEN edited poorly by the show’s producers, his mentality that white people are simply not able to detect their hidden racism is familiar ground. Campus orientation programs around the country have been suggesting that students ought to admit their own racism, even if they themselves don’t know they’re racist. In this world, Bruno’s positive thinking, his belief that treating people nicely will generate the same in kind, is fallacious and ignorant, no matter how often he proves it.
“Black. White.” is reminiscent of a diversity seminar developed by facilitator Jane Elliott, named Blue Eyed. There, Elliott arbitrarily degrades a group of blue-eyed seminar attendees because of the color of their skin. “This,” Elliott intones when through with the abuse, “is what you have been doing to them.” Elliott charges $5,000 per seminar (plus travel expenses), and this past year gave one at the University of Wisconsin at Eau Claire. Videos can be obtained at her website for about $300.
In an interview with the L.A. Times, show producers R.J. Cutler and Ice Cube danced around the label “documentary,” with Cube preferring the term “reality experiment,” and Cutler admitting he’s no social scientist. FX Network president John Landgraf claims any comparison with reality television is inappropriate because that genre “feels at liberty to play it fast and loose with characters and the realities of what really happened.” Cutler digresses: “We never said we were telling a comprehensive story.”
Any claim to comprehension is out of the question. The show is only good for showcasing the worst that white guilt has to offer. Bruno’s wife, Carmen, comes off as an out of touch mother who proudly proclaims her parents’ work in civil rights as an emblem of her liberal understanding, and thus exhibiting a complete lack thereof. Carmen’s bright college-age daughter, Rose, appears to be the only one interested in capitalizing on the opportunity to experience what she may never again experience, even as she recognizes its artificiality. Yet even here, Rose seems more excited as a tourist might be, eager to immerse herself in a culture not her own. To summarize, the white family is pushed toward the classic stereotypical white family — a Hawaiian shirt-wearing conservative father with an oversimplified outlook, an attractive mother yearning to project her coolness, and a hip teenager waiting for her parents to get with the program.
What’s worse is the treatment of the black family. Brian’s comments are restricted to his criticisms of Bruno’s outlook or repeating his grievances with white America, noting that he doesn’t have to learn how to behave white, because as a matter of survival, he has already done so. When Bruno uses the “n” word, Brian later confides to the camera that he feels Bruno, like other white people, all secretly want to be able to use the word without any consequence. Brian’s wife Rene is seldom given an opportunity to express anything other than outrage or frustration. When R.J. Cutler resolved that it would be impossible to include everything, he decided to discard all the parts that made these people human. The blacks are emotionally reactive and angry. The whites are ignorant and closed-minded.
WHY SHOULD IT BE SURPRISING, then, that the only two clear, unmitigated voices are those of both children? Nick Sparks, a senior high school student, is aloof, typically frowning. Rose wonders aloud why, despite putting on white make-up, Nick still refuses to behave white. “Because I can’t act white. I don’t want to.” “Then why are you doing this?” “Because I wanna pass.”
The ambiguity between passing a class and passing for another race is precious, even if it seems pretty clear Nick means the former. Rose desperately wants to be accepted as black so she can better understand blacks, going so far as to join a black poetry group. Nick couldn’t care less, because like his father, he already knows how to act white. In the end his resentment and Rose’s obsessive complaisance wax irredeemable — and like the rest of the show, one only wonders why on earth one would watch it, let alone be on it.
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