From the philanthropist to the aspiring world-conqueror many have written of the value of walking in someone else’s shoes, and with Hollywood makeup, we can come closer than ever before. This fascinating reality show, produced by Ice Cube and R.J. Cutler, debuted in 2006, and never had a second season. I can only assume this is because its ratings weren’t good; a number of critics did pan it, which is too bad. To be sure, Black. White. smacks of being polished, and it’s hard to tell how much of it is true reality caught on film, and how much is staged. It also must be noted that the experiences of six people, forced into a television schedule, don’t exactly qualify as a scientific study. But give Cube and Cutler some credit. This show, unlike many, was an honest attempt to contribute to the public consciousness with a hard look at race relations in America. As you can see by the length of this review, Black. White. succeeds at provoking thought and discussion.
We meet two families of three; a white family, the Wurgels, and a black one, the Sparkses, who have agreed to live in a house together for six weeks. They will probably spend at least three of those weeks in the makeup chair, because for many of their experiences, they will be trading races. I was genuinely skeptical at first as to whether the makeup would fool people. However, later in the series, our subjects sometimes reveal their identities to people they meet, who are genuinely surprised. It seems the makeup really did do its job. The Wurgel “family” (actually a blended family, containing two professional actors) is composed of step-father Bruno, mother Carman, and daughter Rose. The Sparks family is made up of parents Brian and Renee, who are anxious about their son Nick, who doesn’t show the level of interest in his heritage desired by his parents. One recurring theme of the series is arguments between Nick and Brian about whether racism is something to be concerned about.
A lot of our subjects’ activities in this show are self-directed; they choose what experiences they want to have as the other race, and what experiences they think the other race needs to have. One of the first things Brian does is have Bruno don his black makeup and take him out to walk through a predominantly white neighborhood as two black guys. He tells him to watch for things like people moving to the other side of the street or women grabbing their purses. He adds “you’ll see how it feels when you go someplace and you get slower service and you know it’s ‘cause your black.” Rarely have two men demonstrated more different world views. As they go walking down the street, the dialogue goes something like this:
Brian: Did you see that? Did you see that?
Brian: They wouldn’t look at us! Did you see?
Bruno: No, sorry, I didn’t notice
(A minute later) Bruno: Okay, did you see that?
Bruno: She looked at me! We had, like, three seconds of eye contact.
Brian: No, I didn’t see that.
They enter a store and begin looking at clothes on the racks. Sales people come over to help them. We hear Bruno in a voice-over say “We walked in there and I was helped right away. People were courteous … there was absolutely no difference between the way I’ve been treated as a white man and the way I was treated today as a black man.” We hear Brian in a voice-over say “Bruno thinks the sales people are coming over to help him, but really they’re coming over to size him up.” Remember, however, that this is quite different from what Brian predicted before they went out. He told Bruno “you’ll see how it feels when you go someplace and you get slower service and you know it’s ‘cause your black.” Granted you’re getting a white guy’s perspective from me, but it seems like Brian really wants to see racism on the street and finds a way to do so. If servers serve him quickly, that’s racist, if they take their time, that’s racist; if people look at him, that’s racist, if people don’t look at him, that’s racist; if people get out of his way on the street, that’s racist, if people don’t get out of his way, that’s racist. I find myself wondering if anything could ever happen to Brian that would satisfy him that he wasn’t facing discrimination.
To be fair, Bruno takes Brian on an equally stupid odyssey to a “white” bar as two white guys, at which he attempts to prove to Brian how un-racist white America is. He asks patrons questions like “do you think black people are equal to white people?” and “would you consider marrying a black woman?” getting predictable responses. Having failed to indoctrinate Bruno the way he hoped to, Brian turns his attention to Nick. Nick says that he doesn’t perceive racism. Brian gives him a series of directives like “Next time you go to the store, just … look around and you might be surprised that your black butt’s being watched.” In six episodes, we never see Brian in white make up after the second episode, except very briefly in episode six. At first, Brian was excited to become white, believing that it would induct him into the privileged class. Later, however, he appears to decide that life is easier as a bitter black man, and focus his efforts on making sure his son grows up as paranoid as he is.
Nick demonstrates the same inclination in his own way. He has to do something for the show most white kids never have to do: suffer through an etiquette class. Let’s face it, there aren’t many facets of main-stream American life that are all white anymore, so Cube and Cutler had to look to the wealthiest of American society to find things for the Sparkses to do. In between sessions, he vents to Rose that he is miserable posing in his white makeup, and that “I just wish I was black right now!” Eventually, Nick tells the class that he is actually black. You can see him relax as soon as people know. Even surrounded by white kids, he’s a lot more comfortable being himself.
Experiences like this serve to not only expose differences in how the races see things, but also differences between the genders. One night, Bruno and Carmen go to a country bar as a black couple. (Let’s face it, that is kind of like poking a hornet’s nest.) Afterward, they report very different experiences. Carmen says she definitely felt like she was viewed with increased suspicion. Bruno says “I was hanging out with the guys at the bar, I was playing pool with them as a black guy … nobody cared.” Perhaps this difference can be explained by what women and men generally want from social interaction. After Rose has spent several days as a black girl, she tells the camera “I’ve managed to pass myself off and be accepted, but I don’t feel like I’ve really connected with any of these black people on a soul level.” This is something no man would ever expect to achieve while disguising himself and pretending to be something he’s not. When a man disguises himself as another race, he’s thinking about pulling off the act so he’s not discovered. If the people he meets treat him with basic courtesy, he’s content. Women go into social settings wanting to form deep relationships (even when they’re lying to everyone about their race), and so they seem to be a lot more aware of racial tension. About two thirds of the way through the series, Carmen, having twice inadvertently offended Renee, breaks down, crying that she “can’t stand having to walk on egg shells all the time. I don’t want any more apologizing for who I am.” Despite the contempt Renee demonstrates for whites throughout the series, in private, she tells the camera about a desire to form a close bond with a white woman. After a couple of episodes, she gives up on Carmen and begins looking elsewhere, eventually forming a friendship with a woman she meets in a scrap-booking club.
Meanwhile, Carmen has given up on Renee and goes into the world looking for a “black friend that can help me connect to the black community.” She eventually meets
talk radio host Deanna. After a few visits, Deanna takes Bruno and Carman around her neighborhood as a mixed couple; Bruno is in his black makeup; Carmen looks white. She takes them through a park where a lot of black guys are hanging around beating on drums. Carmen says in a voice-over that “I definitely had a sense that I was not wanted in that neighborhood, and, gradually emerging, a sense of actual fear for my safety.”
For his part, Bruno says “I’ve felt more tension and perceived more hostility here than I have as a black man anywhere else. That was the most evident display of hate that I’ve experienced.” Deanna explains “That’s because you’re perceived as a black man coming into this black community with a white woman. You’re perceived as a sell out.”
Carmen eventually breaks down crying. Deanna asks her “do you realize this is everyday life for people like me? You can pop in and out in a day, but my skin will never change.” The show seems to be making a point here about how, even in black makeup, white people can’t understand how black people feel, because they can take off the makeup. However, it’s also worth pointing out that, while Carmen looked white, Bruno still looked black. In order to get either of them to feel real racism, Deanna had to take both of them to a black neighborhood. It brings to mind a conversation I once had with a black friend, who was anxious over the fact that his fiancé (now his wife) was white. A bunch of us were hanging out at Village Inn, and he was worried about the crap that his future kids would take from all-black kids if their skin was the wrong shade. In frustration he commented, “Chris Rock is right when he says black people are the most racist people in America. Black people do not like white people, they do not like Asian people, they do not like Native American people … they don’t even like black people that they don’t think are ‘black enough.’”
Black. White. doesn’t exactly generate a lot of optimism for race relations in America. It gets downright painful to watch sometimes, as Bruno, Carmen, Brian and Renee can’t seem to let go of petty offenses. As tempers flare and hatred percolates, one of the surprises is that Rose and Nick become fast friends, even while their parents progress in animosity. I started to wonder if racial problems wouldn’t just disappear if everyone over 20 just left the planet.
The two families actually manage to have some positive interaction in the final episode. As if to apologize for what they’ve put them through, the producers and camera crews back off, and Bruno and Brian begin to shoot hoops in the park. Renee and Carmen go for a nature walk. The tension eases palpably. Brian and Bruno both say that they have reached a mutual respect. Renee says that she has “forgiven” Carmen. Carmen comments “We don’t all have to love each other, but we can respect each other and let each other be.” Maybe that’s the most important lesson of the whole show. Unless and until the races are willing to sacrifice everything that makes them who they are – not entirely desirable – racial consciousness and, therefore, “racism” will probably never just disappear. That’s no reason cross-racial friendships can’t occur (as they often do). But they’re not going to occur through racial reconciliation conferences or lots of “Kumbaya” singing, and certainly not through disguises and shouting matches. They will occur, if at all, the same way all friendships occur: through people simply being themselves and finding things they have in common. Programs like Black. White., even when they have the best of intentions, need to back off and let this happen. It can’t be orchestrated.
In summary, I have to tip my hat to anyone who was involved with Black. White., if only because it could not have been an easy experience to get through, especially for those on camera. It took a lot of guts and patience from our six heroes, and from the makeup department, no doubt. It delivers a powerful, and mostly seemless narrative of a most intruiging (and, as far as I can tell, unprecedented) social experiment. I forced me to spend some time reflecting on things I hadn’t for a while.
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