Maybe you started to lose faith in reality television when Joe Millionaire’s Evan and Zora called it quits. You might have jumped ship as soon as Ruben Studdard beat Clay Aiken in the second season of American Idol. Perhaps you hung in there until Stephen chose Kristin over LC on Laguna Beach. Or maybe you never left at all. If you’re still a sucker for competitive redecorating, plastic surgery, and hidden cameras, then you won’t want to miss the latest gimmick in reality television: trading races.
In FX’s Black. White., two families alter their appearances and speech patterns to observe racism in America as never before. Throughout the series, the six participants — white Bruno, Carmen, and Rose and black Brian, Renee, and Nick — share a house in Tarzana, Califormia. During the day, they don their costumes and at night they regroup to discuss their experiences. For example, 41-year-old Brian noted that he was treated differently as a white man at a local country club. For the first time in his life, a shoe salesman physically placed a shoe on his foot instead of just leaving it in the box.
Black. White. is similar to a 1959 experiment conducted by John Howard Griffin, who darkened his skin to explore Southern discrimination firsthand. Griffin wrote Black Like Me — a widely read book in the ’60s — about his experiences, such as receiving watchful stares from a white bus clerk and being prohibited from leaving a bus at a rest stop while white passengers were allowed off.
But did Black Like Me really need a small screen revival? It isn’t 1959 anymore, and the racism of today often takes on a much more subtle form. Bruno — 47 years old and white — expected to hear racial slurs as he walked down the street dressed as a black man. In an article for the Detroit Free Press, television critic Mike Duffy noted that when Bruno did not suffer such overt racism, he ignored the more discrete forms of intolerance and assumed that he was not suffering from any racism at all.
In fact, most of the drama on Black. White. comes from its six central characters rather than race. Washington Post reporter Chip Crews wrote, “Certainly there are tensions, but those seem to belong to another reality show altogether — you could put any two unacquainted families in the same house and, regardless of color, there probably would be a touch of strife.” Unsurprising for reality TV, Brian and Bruno appear cast specifically to get on each other’s nerves. If the creators of Black. White. were expecting to document the same racism that Griffin saw in 1959, they didn’t find it. Perhaps compensating via scripted internal conflict is a strong indicator that in America, racism is not as palpable as it once was.
Black. White. might be out of step with the real world, but if the Academy Awards are any indicator, it’s right in line with the rest of the entertainment industry. When Crash won this year’s best picture award, it showed that the Academy voters still go for portrayals of overt racism in America, however dated they may be. As it turns out, Crash and Black. White. have a lot in common. Crash, like Black. White., is disproportionately focused on explicit racism. In an article on the film, MSNBC’s Erik Lundegaard wrote, “What is the big problem with race in the Los Angeles of Crash? That everyone enunciates every racial thought they have.” Lundegaard points to unrealistic scenes from the film, such as when Sandra Bullock’s character makes derogatory comments to her husband about their Latino locksmith while he can hear her.
Instead of celebrating a movie that depicts mostly obsolete forms of racism, it might have been better for the Academy to give attention to a more timely civil rights issue: that of homosexuality. Films concerning race and ethnicity have been honored in the past, such as Schindler’s List, In the Heat of the Night, and West Side Story. However, homosexuals have not been fairly represented in the media quite yet. “For years, we’ve been presented as prancing, mincing stereotypes, pathological killers, or suicidal depressives,” wrote Michael Jensen of AfterElton.com. At the Oscars, Phillip Seymour Hoffman was honored as best actor for portraying Truman Capote, whose effeminate personality is a perfect fit for the stereotype of the gay man that Hollywood loves to promote. Brokeback Mountain was different in that it told the story of two gay men who were also extremely masculine. With rare exception, the title of best picture has traditionally been given to the film with the most critical acclaim, box office revenue, and pre-Oscar awards. This year that film was Brokeback Mountain.
So why did Crash win? In the entertainment industry, Crash and Black. White. occupy the same niche: They appear groundbreaking, but are actually safe. Crash creates a world in which racism is overt, and thus easy to identify and eliminate. Instead of exploring the deeper issues alienating blacks and whites from each other, Black. White. focuses on the inevitable drama that ensues when two families have to live under one roof.
In the end, you have to remember that both the Academy Awards and Black. White. are Hollywood endeavors — above all else, drama is at a premium. Even if the best picture upset was anything but progressive, it has probably inspired more conversation than even a victory by Brokeback would have achieved. And Black. White., despite its flaws, has certainly gotten a lot of attention for its unique premise. Before truth, these productions want to show us conflict in the most dramaticized way possible. Whether you’re watching FX or the Academy Awards, if you want an accurate portrayal of racism in America, you might want to turn off the TV.