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The Sparks family switches race in FX's reality series "Black.White."
© FX
'Black.White.' Point/Counterpoint
An e-mail debate over the lessons learned from the FX experiment

By Raoul Mowatt & Kati Johnston
Special to MSN Entertainment

FX's new reality show "Black.White." takes two families from different cities and has them experience life as members of a different race. As the series comes to a close this week, it seemed natural to have critics of two different races share their thoughts about what light it shines on the subject of race in America.

Raoul Mowatt lives in Chicago and is an African-American writer. Kati Johnston, a resident of Washington state, is a white writer. Their following e-mail dialogue was inspired by the series:

Raoul: Hey Kati! I'm glad we're going to be corresponding about "Black.White." because I think there are lots of interesting aspects to discuss, both about the documentary itself and about the interplay between race, society and television.

The thing that bugged me most about the series before it began was that most of the makeovers didn't seem to work. In the ads and publicity photos, the Sparks family didn't look white like European-Americans; they looked white like the Joker. I think if I saw someone walking down the street looking like them, I'd be wondering what was up.

I can't believe that anyone would believe the Sparks family was really
Caucasian. The Wurgel family is at least somewhat credible looks-wise, but the only one who doesn't look odd is Rose, the Wurgel daughter.

Kati: I am totally with you -- those early promotional photos looked so bizarre. I couldn't imagine anyone taking those people seriously. I agree that Rose, the white daughter, seemed to look the most realistic, and also agree that the entire black family, to varying degrees, looked very weird in the photos. I could only imagine how they might look in person.

The one thing I thought might help them is the fact that in so many big
cities, strangers rarely tend to look closely at people or even make much eye contact.

Raoul: I had another question going in: Are the families going to be portrayed as two-dimensional or is it going to be the angry black woman, uptight white man, hip black teen, etc? So much of reality TV casting sticks to stereotypes. It seems like just about every black woman on reality TV is an Omarosa waiting to happen.

Even the title is sort of odd. It's 2006. Race in America is beyond black and white. It seems odd to talk in just those dimensions, especially with the show being set in L.A., with its large Asian and Latino populations. Maybe they should have set it in some city composed primarily of white and black people if they just wanted to narrow it down to those two groups.

Kati: I thought L.A. was exactly the right city for this to happen in. I totally agree with you that race in America simply is not a case of just "Black. White." though don't you think that was probably just to expedite things? If they had wanted this to have real depth and nuance, they would need non-Hispanics who could speak Spanish, non-Vietnamese who could speak Vietnamese, etc. So I suspect this is one reason the producers decided to limit the show to just a black family and a white family.
 
As for setting it in L.A. -- I believe racism occurs in every American city and village, but for a huge cosmopolitan city, Los Angeles (where I've lived, along with New York and other places) is laid out geographically so that white people, especially, can live their lives without living side by side with African-Americans. One of the early teases to the show was a shot of Carmen, which made me cringe (as a lot of her comments have), where she baldly admitted something like, "I just haven't spent that much time around black people."

Honestly, it's appalling and yet it can be so true there. Whereas in New York, no matter what kind of job you have or where you live, you are always living, working, commuting with, having casual conversations with people of all races.

So L.A. was the right setting for "Black.White." -- it's why the Rodney King verdict and aftermath didn't surprise me; why the O.J. verdict came down the way it did; and to some degree why "Crash" may have beat out "Brokeback Mountain" for the Best Picture Academy Award -- it's L.A.'s horrible guilty secret, and yet it continues to fester.

Raoul: You know, I didn't really think too much about the setting until you brought it up. But you're right. It would have been a totally different series if they had tried to film it in Atlanta, where the Sparks family is from, or Boston or any place else.  Maybe because it's L.A. people would not necessarily see that the nice white couple was somewhat off, or the black girl wasn't really black.

Raoul: So Kati, by now you must have seen the first couple episodes. What stands out for you?  Also, what are your thoughts on the show's ratings? It scored the highest premiere for a cable unscripted series ever with four million viewers, and then dropped all the way down to 1.45 million.  I was really stunned that the premiere did so well, but not so much at the decline. So little happened during the first episode that I can't blame people for tuning out.

Kati: I'm thinking people tuned in at first to see if the six of them looked as peculiar as the trailer and press photos suggested ... but I agree, very little happened in that first episode. That's been one of the maddening things for me  -- since they didn't have each family really live as the other race for, say, a year -- and how interesting would that be? -- they only had the opportunities of whatever daily experiences they could have.
 
I do think the show's been worth sticking with, despite the maddening things. My opinion of Bruno (the white dad) has done a 180. I started out admiring how grounded he seemed and thinking Carmen was a walking open-wound armchair liberal. But toward the end of the series, I now feel that Bruno, if not a racist, is so utterly wedded to his own viewpoint that he simply can't invite or imagine the world from someone else's viewpoint. And I think Carmen, for all her surface weirdness, seems genuinely to want to learn, and has.

Raoul: Ah, Bruno. He's a little maddening, a little crazy, a little understandable, a little clueless, and a little right. I don't like to use the word "racist" to describe people who aren't sieg-heiling, sheet-wearing, cross-burning fanatics, but willfully ignorant of race? That's Bruno. It drives me nuts how he's just like, "La la la, racism doesn't really exist if you don't go looking for it. La la la, personal responsibility is everything."

He seemed to just love the chance to use the N-word and not have to hold himself back, didn't he? And yet, he just seemed to tune things out, like when he and Carmen went to the country bar as black people. It seemed clear that everyone was staring daggers at them, but he's like, "Nope, no racism here."

But what really got to me was when he and Carmen took a stroll through a black park while he was black and she was white. Did you catch how threatened he was? Nobody even said word one to them or made a threatening move. Where was the Bruno that was talking about how he would meet people who used the N-word to describe him with a smile and go on his merry way? It's not so easy to shake off racism when it actually happens, is it, Bruno?
 
One of the troubles with watching a show like this is the problem of extrapolating from the people we encounter. I know intellectually that Bruno's only one guy who can speak only for Bruno, but emotionally I watch and I'm like, "Geez, how many other guys are like Bruno, deep down?" Or for that matter, how many other guys are like that bar patron who was talking about how blacks don't like schooling and all that garbage? And what would guys like that say if Renee had been in her white makeup?

Katie: Oh. My. God! Can you believe that crazy long-haired racist in the Calabasas bar who blithely says to Renee, the sole black person in the bar, that black people "don't want to succeed" as she listens politely? I would have belted him. But the kicker is, he had to give his permission to use his face in the show! What a knucklehead. I'd love to know what's become of him after this show aired.

I'm also curious about your response to the different family members' reaction to the N-word.

Raoul: I thought it was really interesting that Nick said he dished out some whupass to a kid at school who called him it, but then sanctioned the use of the word by his etiquette buddies. Talk about your irony. It was very real to me when Renee tried to verbally slap some sense in Nick's head and called him "negro," but it made me cringe a little, because I bet many white Americans didn't know that term might be used in that context.

Kati: I was mortified by those etiquette class kids too -- they were treating Nick like an alien, and even Rose was appalled at their superficiality. Again, I found myself wondering about the effect of the cameras, though. But I suspect when they watch themselves, they'll cringe, too.

Raoul: I like that Carmen is sensitive to its use and tries to err on the side of caution. But I would rather have someone use the N-word (as long as it's not about me) than to hear someone unctuously refer to an African-American as "a beautiful, black creature" (or "marvelous" or whatever the adjective was). I can't see how a woman in her 40s couldn't see how condescending it sounded in context, even though she meant it to be flattering. Same deal with the infamous incident in which Carmen was practicing her African-American slang and jokingly says, "Yo, bitch" to Renee. How can a woman not realize how insulting a term that is, and how it probably isn't a good idea to use it to address someone you're not on a friendly basis with?

Kati: Yes, Carmen was horribly cringeworthy -- the "beautiful black creature" comment will follow her to her grave. It's astounding to me that someone her age could get to [that] point in life and not realize how clueless and offensive she is. Though I've liked seeing her progression over the course of the show more than Bruno's, that's for sure.
 
Bruno's problem seems to be that only his viewpoint matters. "The N-word wouldn't bother me, so I don't see why it bothers anyone else." "I didn't think those ladies were reacting to me being black, so they also weren't reacting to you being black ..."

That professor/musician -- his name escapes me, but he handled Bruno with grace and just as I thought he might really bite at the bait Bruno was giving him, he did a 180 that I found amazingly effective. Remember? He said something  like, "Man, I feel sorry for your wife. Because if this is how you are, it can't be easy to be married to you." He is clearly a guy whose own viewpoint is the only one that matters.

Raoul: I thought the musician was a good guy. But I found myself wishing that they picked someone else because it still fits within a stereotype that blacks can be successful at entertainment. There must have been some black business leader, preacher, political official or professor who they could have located who would have done an even better job of putting Bruno in his place.

Kati: One thing I really loved: Rose going to the poetry slam for the first time as black Rose, but reading that first poem of hers, a totally typical white-girl moony poem full of adjectives ... I was dying. Yes, we white girls have all written horrifying poetry like that, and I could relate. How did you experience that class of hers? I liked that she really did try to pick up on the vibe and go with it.

Raoul: I kind of wish someone would adopt Rose and get her away from her parents. She seems twice as mature as them put together, even when she's putting together really weak poetry. I really didn't envy her trying to step into a form of poetry that she had little experience with and having what seems to be relatively little to draw on for drama. But her rapid acceptance by the group left me with a little hope. I love her approach to the experiment. Her dad keeps talking about how open-minded he is and proving he's anything but. She, by contrast, is constantly listening and learning. I don't know if I would always take the same lessons from what she's hearing that she does. Like when one of the students from her poetry slam class is talking to her about the legacy of slavery, I hear, "I wanna hook up sooo bad!"

Kati: I agree -- Rose is the one trying hardest to get something out of this, listening and really being willing to put herself out there. I had the same reaction you did to that slavery poetry thing and yet I was howling inside, too -- she's still a teenage girl and even Rose can make that leap to "hooking up" with the slenderest of threads.

Raoul: It is interesting to think about how the guest stars, for lack of a better word, might feel after seeing the show. The guy who talked with pride about how he has a cop buddy who uses racial profiling and how black people don't belong in Glendale. Or the kids from the etiquette class. Or the people from the country bar. Will they complain that they're the victims of bad editing? Or that they just had an off moment? Will they just be stoked to be on TV?
 
Kati: Several people I work with have been watching this, too -- two black women, one Latino man and one other white woman. It's actually been great fodder for discussion.

We all wish it could have been more than the surface experiences -- I think it's why watching the show sometimes seems tedious, despite the riveting nature of what they're trying. But how much cooler to do it for a year: Bruno, Carmen and their "beautiful black creature" Rose move to South Central, get jobs, try to get a mortgage, etc; Brian, Renee and Nick move north of Montana in Santa Monica. They could still get together to compare notes, but I want to see people living the lives.

Raoul: That reminds me of the Chris Rock joke where he talks to a mostly white audience and says, "None of you all would trade places with me, and I'm rich!" I don't think that they would get many takers to try to pretend to be members of another race 24/7. That's too much work. But if they manage to find a couple of interesting families who are that gung-ho, then bring on "Black.White. II."
 
One of the most interesting things about the project is that the women all got qualms about the deception that was involved and ultimately unmasked themselves because they couldn't take it any more. The women, it seemed, cared more about making a connection with people of the other race. Bruno wanted to assert his moral and intellectual superiority at every turn, Brian wants to show Bruno the existence of racism but has seemingly not tried to reach out to white people as a faux-white guy, and Nick seems completely indifferent to the experiment and life in general. Why do you think things divided like that along gender lines? And what does it say that the people accepted Rose, Carmen and Renee as their real selves? (Or did they? I got the feeling that Debra was a little taken aback but realized the cameras were rolling and so played along.) If I had fallen for these made-up people, I think I'd be a little bit salty at the deception.

Kati: That's a cool perception, Raoul, and I thought the same thing (especially after seeing them on "Tyra") -- I could really relate to the women wanting to just give up the charade -- not to mention the skin-destroying makeup -- because the whole point, from their point of view, was about people and making connections.
 
And in the end, that's what disappointed me most about Bruno. Nowhere did I see him ever try to be empathetic, to try to meet anyone halfway, including Brian who was so patient with him. Like the musician guy said, it's like the guy you really don't want to be in a relationship with -- on any level -- because the relationship is about him being right.
 
My heart goes out to Brian for having to deal with the Neanderthal Bruno at every turn -- and while I did get the sense that he and Renee are trying to be good parents -- but it's hard to know what he took away from this other than: 1) guys like Bruno are out there and a big part of the barriers to racial understanding; and 2) that white guys get shoes tied on their feet and not handed to them at the store.
 
What's your sense of Renee? I wish she'd been more of a presence in the show. She's had some key scenes, like talking to that redneck in the bar, and trying to show Nick some tough love so he'll start making smarter choices (teenagers!), but she's the one person I would love to have more screen time from and more from her in general.

Raoul: Renee's probably my second favorite "character" after Rose. I think she's willing to change and step outside her frame of reference, unlike the boys. And unlike Carmen, I think she's got a clue about the world around her. I suspect she toned herself down because she was very conscious of fulfilling the black woman stereotype -- which she even mentioned in the fifth episode. You know, the lot of neck rolling, "No, you di'nt!" sort of thing. The way she described her stereotypes of white girls -- consumed with sex and acting all wild -- is pretty much the same stereotype I bet a lot of white girls have about black girls.
 
I think part of why we saw so little of her is that the activities she participated in as a white woman were, frankly, bad ideas. A Bible study group and knitting aren't particularly white activities, or at least I don't think of them that way. Scrapbooking probably is, but I was wondering: How the heck can she scrapbook anything and remain undercover? All the pictures she has of her and her family are of black people!

Kati: I was wondering about that scrapbooking thing, too! That may be why Renee finally wanted to give up -- it was a long acting job, really, and the part wasn't very interesting. A lot of those situations were flawed and so skimming-the-surface.
 
Raoul: This brings me to the area of what activities the cast did, how those activities should have been done differently, and what areas they didn't do but should have. (Of course, some of these might take place in the finale, but I doubt it.) Thoughts? I have a few.
 
When Brian tried to show Bruno the presence of racism by pretending to need a jump, that was dumb. Hello, McFly! It's broad daylight! If you're white in Simi Valley, you don't have to be scared of two well-spoken black guys at noon. If you're going to do that experiment, do it at night when there's actually a threat factor.
 
With all his big talk about how he'd stand up to someone who called him the N-word, I would have loved for Bruno to meet up with a white supremacist, either in his black makeup or out. I think it would probably scare him how much overlap there was in their views.

Kati: I too wish they'd somehow found a way for black Bruno to interact with real white racists. Bruno's a tall guy, a little imposingly built, so I found myself thinking sometimes people probably didn't hassle or look at him askance and just kept going because of those factors. But if he'd really had to confront serious racism from whites and stay in black character ... maybe that would have been what could have cracked his incredible arrogance.
 
Raoul: I would have loved to see them talking more about their experiences with each other. I would have liked to see what Bruno had to say about the notion that police racially profile or Brian's reaction to Rose's interest in her poetry-slam classmate.

Kati: There's hope, really for all of them, with the possible exception of Bruno, who is so oblivious he doesn't see the enormous missed opportunity.
 
You know what, I'd love to have them all over for dinner, and not talk about "the experiment" -- just have them over for dinner and just get to know them better; we, finally, now at the end feel we know them a little and, honestly, despite the show's flaws, I'm sorry they're going to be gone so quickly.

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