Sunday, March 26, 2006

Black. White

I grew up in New Bedford, Massachusetts. It's a fairly economically depressed city in the Commonwealth, but it is the one of the most densely populated cities in the state with nearly 95,000 residents. According to Wikipedia:

"the racial makeup of the city is 78.86% White, 4.39% African American, 0.62% Native American, 0.65% Asian, 0.05% Pacific Islander, 9.51% from other races, and 5.92% from two or more races. 10.21% of the population were Hispanic or Latino of any race. The ethnic makeup of the city is 38.6% Portuguese, 9.1% French, 8.0% Cape Verdean, 7.9% Irish, 7.3% English, and 7.1% Puerto Rican."

Economically, 17.3% of the population lives below the poverty level. The average family income is almost $25,000 less than the median income of families in the United States (which is somewhere near $50K) . The point is, it's also poor. As a white kid, I was lucky to have been exposed to different cultures and other things non-white. But even in little New Bedford, there was a ton of racism and segregation. Looking back, I sincerely wish that our public school leaders could have been more vocal about tolerance and bringing issues such as racism, sexism, and homophobia to the forefront. Maybe they do this now, but in the late 1980's, it wasn't discussed. And I suspect that many of you who attended public school had a similar experience.

Black. White is the brainchild of Ice Cube, who needs no introduction. He recognized the need to ignite discussion amongst the races about these issues. Whites have grown embarrassingly complacent of the racial divides due to years and years of systematic racism. It permeates every aspect of our society, economically and socially, And white people, because of their "white privilege," are not only desensitized to the power of racism, but, in most of their day-to-day lives, are completely unaware of it. How can you possibly empathize with non-white struggles if you have no clue what it feels like to be anything but white? Ice Cube decided to give whites a peek at it. He decided simultaneously to bring the white experience to a black family.

Both families are made up of a father and mother figure and one teenage child. Each family is middleclass and well-educated. On the surface, the only thing that separates them is skin color. When they "trade races" (miraculously transformed by makeup artists), they begin to see - for a very short while - what it might feel like to be a different color. Of course, we all know that to truly appreciate someone else's experience, you would have to spend a lifetime in their skin. Our experiences are accumulated over years, not a few hours here or there. But the thing is, the show is getting people talking. And that's important.

Carmen, the white mom, appears to be going through the beginnings of "perception changing" now. Although, she's still viewing things through a narcissistic lens. And until she is able to stop asking why a certain attitude or belief doesn't fit into her system, she won't change radically. Bruno, her live-in boyfriend, seems to be a lost cause. He was convinced from the beginning that the playing field was even and that racism was a myth and he is constantly out to find examples to prove his point. In other words, the experience is lost on him. Rose, the teenage daughter, seems to be the most thoughtful and willing to put herself in vulnerable places. By enrolling in an African American teen poetry class in her makeup, she is exposed to an intimacy that she was not ready for. And this experience taught her a lot about honesty (she eventually tells everyone that she is white) and the importance of listening. And respect.

Renee didn't even need to be in white makeup to get a dose of blantant racsim. While in a drinking establishment where Brian, her husband, is tending bar (as a white man), she decided to inquire about the racial makeup of the patrons to one of the customers. Yowzers, I have never seen a more definitive example of "I'm not a racist, but I really am." This takes place a lot between whites (the old, "Hey, I can be honest with you about my racist views because your white and you'll totally get it, right?") and it is is commonly referred to as "white bonding." The dude ends up explaining to Renee that it's typically a white bar, but black people are welcome if (there are conditions, of course, unlike for whites) they are willing to assimulate. You know, they can't wear their baggy pants and start talking "all dumb." He said more and I think I was just too shocked to really remember much, except his last sentence, which was, "but I'm not a prejudiced person." Classic. In white makeup, Renee was also exposed to a person who revealed that their mom had taught them to wash their hands after shaking hands with a black person. The teenage son, Nick (in makeup), witnessed a white kid use the "n" word. He later reveals that he is, in fact, black.

During one scene, Carmen and Bruno attended a church service with Renee and Brian. Carmen and Bruno were made up, so they decided to "get into" all the gospel singing. It's so embarrassing to watch. They got up and started throwing their arms up and clapping and singing and "amen"-ing in ways that they thought they were supposed to. All the while, Renee and Brian were sitting down, watching them in shock.

Empy has previously pointed out that it would be interesting if the show expanded so that other races could participate. I agree. I really hope it lasts longer than a season. And I also hope that it isn't tossed into the novelty pile.


At 2:22 PM, Blogger Peter N said...

I have not seen the show, but now I can add the word "yet." Your recommendation is enough for me.
Sign this, a fan.


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