Wednesday, March 15, 2006

I Was Born A Poor Black Child

I have to admit I may be more sensitive to racial issues than your average honky. Strike that - I'm sure I'm more sensitive. I was raised in the seventies by extremely liberal parents, including a father who, as a neophyte minister in his first church, had Martin Luther King Jr. in to speak. I was one of only a very few white children in a largely black neighbourhood and city. But, most of all, I was partially raised in a half-black family by my black activist stepfather. This was a man who started educational programs to help disadvantaged black children, gave presentations on race issues and wore a dashiki nearly every day of his life - albeit dashikis that were sewn for him by my white mother. He made sure to teach me, his "mixed-race" children and anyone else he could about the difficulties and prejudices inherent in living with brown skin in the United States, and the insidious pressures of mainstream society on whites to accept and enforce our privileges. It was not an easy childhood, in many ways, and these were not easy lessons (my stepfather was never an easy man). But I am grateful for having had my eyes opened, at least somewhat, in a way most caucasians never have. It has not made me me comfortable about or an expert on race, but until we are all equal, who can be comfortable, and how much can anyone know?

So, it was with this perspective that I watched the premiere of Black. White. I can't remember where I first saw a commercial for this new show, but I do remember feeling both intrigued and nervous. The concept of a reality show wherein a white family is made up to look black and a black family is made up to look white is chock full of potential socio-political potholes. It could be easily be played cheaply for shock value and laughs, but it might just be fascinating.

NO I was just waiting for it to become cheesy or offensive. But it didn't. In fact, in it's premiere episode, Black. White. got just about everything right. They didn't choose stereotypical families to participate, but real, thoughtful people. They made them up convincingly enough that outsiders they interacted with seemed genuinely fooled (although I'm not sure how - they definitely look "off" somehow on camera, perhaps akin to burn victims who need to cover their wounds with prostheses and cosmetics). And most of all, they put them in situations where they could really learn, from discussion groups on race to country clubs, slam poetry classes to the kicker, living together in the same house. The cameras didn't shy away from uncomfortable moments, such as the black father, while in his white undercover role, being told by a white stranger that his neighbourhood was one of the last all-white middle-class bastions in L.A., and thus a safe place to raise his kids. But while the producers made the show thought-provoking, they didn't resort to too many cheap stunts like competitions or incendiary exercises or messages. So far, things has been kept as relatively "real" as they can in a show based on disguise.

Personally, my most pervasive emotion while watching this episode was a slightly nauseated embarrassment on behalf of all caucasians. While both families cast were clearly carefully picked as people who are fairly liberal and eager to participate, warts began to be exposed early on. Carmen, the white mother, displays an overly earnest idealization of black people that comes out most creepily in a seeming sexual fetishization of her husband when she first sees him in blackface. Meanwhile, Bruno, the white father, pig-headedly insists that black people too often assume racism where it doesn't exist and can't wait to be called racial epithets so he can "diffuse" them by not caring. (Even as a person who was deeply affected by what is ridiculously called called "reverse racism" as a child, I see that claiming black folks are too suspicious bespeaks a serious case of willful blindness.) Fortunately, Rose, the white daughter, seems to have a better head on her shoulders in terms of genuinely wanting to learn from the experience and respect all who are involved.

NO I am curious to see, however, if the black family finds their preconceptions changed whatsoever from the exercise. They know many white people are prejudiced, and what it is to have to "act white" to get along in life. This puts the parents, Brian and Renee, in the all-too-common role of educators and defenders of their own perspective that blacks often find themselves forced into in the presence of "progressive" whites. It's not lynching-variety racism, but it is is another burden, one that most minorities carry when faced with the juggernaut of the "average" American culture (read: privileged, male, heterosexual, Christian, caucasian). Meanwhile, the teenaged son, Nick, claims that, amongst his generation, racism is dead, which may point to evolving youth culture but, sadly, naiveté, as well. As a gay person, I am thrilled that more queer youths feel they can come out in high school, but that doesn't make me believe they won't face discrimination along the line. Unfortunately, I'd wager that his is the viewpoint most likely to be changed with experience.

So far, the jury is still out, but based on the premiere, Black. White. shows promise. Looking over the show site and myspace profile, I found that the producers, R.J. Culter (whose 30 Days with Morgan Spurlock is a logical precursor), Ice Cube and Matt Alvarez, put serious thought into how to create a show that was both meaningful and watchable. Something more than a reality show, but less than the documentary the creators want to be, it raises more questions than it answers, but still may not ask enough. I'll continue to watch, and judging from the reactions on their sites and some reviews, a wider audience will, too.

1 comment:

Axinar said...

Yes, isn't it wonderful coming to think of yourself as ethnically ambiguous.

I'm really not sure what to think of this show.

I think the premise is utterly psychotic, but it will be interesting to see how it plays out ...