Paul Hopper
Paul Hopper [link]
09 March 2006 @ 11:24:00
Black. White.
I watched the season premiere of Black.White yesterday on FX. It has a very short "season"... I think it only has half a dozen episodes or so. The basic premise, for those of you who haven't heard of it, is this:

One white family and one black family swap races to see how life is on the other side of the racial divide. Makeup artists transform them into the other race and they get to experience the world from a whole new perspective. Well, not a whole new perspective, as the first episode shows, but I'll get into that in the next paragraph. The two families share a house and get to discuss issues of race around the dinner table at the end of the day... which can be quite interesting. :)

The white family has a husband, wife, and daughter. Of the three, the daughter, Rose, 17, seems to be the most grounded. Actually, I think she may be the most grounded out of both families. The talked a bit when they first got together about how to be white vs. how to be black and she interjected at one point and said something about how they seemed to be talking so much about stereotypes. I wish I had the actual quote, because I think what she said was rather poignant, especially for a 17 year-old white girl who, if you listen to the black husband and wife, you'd expect to be least sensitive towards race and stereotypes. Quite the opposite. She appears to be the most aware of the delicate nature of race issues and the most open-minded. The white mother, Carmen, has good intentions, but seems to make a lot of mistakes. For her part, I think it's more social ignorance and a lack of exposure than anything else. The white father, Bruno, on the other hand, annoys the hell out of me. He is arrogant and ignorant and unsympathetic, which is a very bad combination. He seems to like using the "n" word and I think he thinks it's okay to use it excessively because he's not calling anyone the "n" word or, at one point while he was in makeup, was playing the part in a room full of black people talking about race issues who were unaware that he was really white and none of whom ever used the word themselves. He posits that black people more often than not perceive racism where there is none and, while I think there is some truth to that, he goes way overboard with that to the point where it often seems as though he's denying that racism exists in our society at all.

The black family has a husband, wife, and son. The son comes off as apathetic about the whole project. He's almost as bad as Bruno in acting like race doesn't matter. Rose asked him at one point what he wanted to get out of the experience and he said he was just there to enjoy himself and have fun with it all. The previews for the next episode show an irate mother upset that he said nothing when, in the company of a group of white kids and while in makeup himself, someone used the "n" word. I'm not sure what the context or circumstances were because that wasn't included in the preview (of course), so I'll have to watch the next episode for that. The mother, Renee, has all the attitude of the stereotypical black woman. She has to work in the white world so she knows all about being white and doesn't need anyone to give her any tips, though she has plenty for the white family. One of those suggestions was to not ask a lot of questions because it just makes you seem nosey. Her husband, Brian, added that white people are always so chipper and friendly and that black people aren't like that, so the white family should temper their friendliness when in makeup. I found that whole exchange interesting because, on the one hand, it's stereotypically white to be friendly yet there's always this perceived inhospitality. And it was that exchange that prompted Rose's remark mentioned earlier.


Bruno and Brian went out on the streets and into stores, with Bruno disguised as a black guy. Together, they strolled down the street. A white family was headed towards them and they moved to one side of the sidewalk. Where Brian saw white people pulling in closer to avoid physical or eye contact with the black guys, Bruno saw people moving out of the way so they could pass just as he'd moved to the side a little to give them more room. At a department store, white store clerks came over to Bruno to see if he needed any help with anything. He commented to Brian that they treated him just the same as always and that it may be because he doesn't react the same way as black people (because he doesn't read racism into everything) and not because of the color of his skin that they, in kind, react to him the same as always. Brian insists that they were actually trying to size him up. So far, it doesn't seem to me that Bruno has experienced any racism first-hand and I think he's given some validity to his theory on perceived racism, though I don't think that should be treated as a complete picture and I hope he does get to experience some of what I know exists in an unambiguous way.

"You see what you want to see," Bruno said to Brian, dismissing Brian's experiences with prejudice. "And you don't see what you don't want to see," Brian replied, obviously frustrated.

Brian got a job very easily as a white bartender in an all-white part of town. While bartending, one of the customers at the bar got to talking about the neighborhood and how it's one of the last sections of town that's still all white. The barfly went on about how good that is, that people there want to keep it all white, there isn't much crime, and it's a good place to raise your family. Is there any doubt he wouldn't be having that same conversation with Brian had he not had a white complexion painted on?

In the end, Brian and Bruno are both right. And they're both wrong. Racism does exist. And people do often perceive racism where there is none. And that misperception feeds into an attitude and body language that puts off the other person, causing them to change their behavior in a way that reinforces the initial misperception. Brian constantly seeks out any shred of evidence of racism. Bruno looks for anything that can validate his own theory. What'll be interesting to see is if "white Brian" permanently changes any of his behavior such that, while out of makeup, he finds he can relate better to white people and that they relate better to him. That won't take care of people like the guy in the bar, but I believe something like that could go a long way toward getting over racism if more people could have that experience. On the flipside, I'm sure Bruno will eventually experience some unambiguous, though not overt, racism while in makeup and I'm anxious to see how that shapes his worldview as he'll be forced to realize that racism can and often does take a very subtle approach that can make it difficult to recognize. Perhaps he will learn to be more sympathetic and understanding of the side of racial issues.
 
 
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