Just finished watching the first three episodes of the American television program Black. White.. It is very likely the most difficult television program I have ever watched. Five minutes didn’t go by in which I wasn’t clenched up and tight-jawed, and so wound up that I kept fidgeting in my chair and getting up to visit the kitchen or the bathroom or just to look out of the window.
The program is about two families, one black, one white, who, through make up and coaching, switch places as blacks and whites and experience what it is like to live life in the opposite shoe. Watching the different family members go through their individual awakenings and gradual comprehension of what it is like to be black or white really has you sitting at the edge of your seat, especially because some of the transformations get quite intensely emotional. I found myself agreeing with and cursing at both sides, coming as I do from a family of both blacks and whites and Asians, and having experienced all sides of what these people are going through.
More than that, though, the program had me looking intently at myself and my own daily experiences and prejudices that I carry around. The other day one of my readers wrote that they didn’t see any difference between the experience of whites and non-whites, that much of the hostility that goes on is just in people’s heads. I did not want to reply because it is such a common belief among whites that trying to argue about it usually results in denials and resentment, even heated fights. But if you happen to be non-white, the way that other people, even other non-whites, see you and react to you comes out in a million nuances that will just not appear when you are white. There are big differences in how whites and non-whites experience these little and big things in every day life. As the members of the white family in the TV program soon realize, when you live in the white world in general you don’t have to be on guard; you can blithely speak your mind or interact with people around you without worrying that others will not accept you on looks alone. Things like where you walk on the sidewalk or which words you use or how you might inadvertently touch a stranger can make or break your chances to get into restaurants or be served at a store.
But what I really admired about the people in the program and the program itself is how they try to be honest about how blacks themselves hold preconceptions about whites and how those preconceptions can affect everything about how they understand whites. There is one scene where the white woman, Colleen, visits a black neighborhood as a white with her husband dressed up as a black and the hostility that they encounter and the realization that the simple fact of her skin color being different totally closes their world to her and conjures up hatred among those blacks with stronger feelings and closed minds. It is quite sobering to watch her struggle with the anguish of dawning comprehension as her face literally alters from one of someone simply having fun to one of grave recognition of reality. Her husband Bruno refuses to budge, still clinging to his safe, unchallenged, middle class white views of a world existing in relative utopia. Their 17 year old daughter, however, embraces the chances she has and makes courageous efforts to both immerse herself in black culture and be completely honest with them. Of all the people, she seems the most able to gain something from the change. In some ways the white family resembles my mother’s German side of the family, but Germans tend to carry a quieter, more self-effacing outlook on life than the almost oblivious, unassailable self-assurance that the white American family seemed to take for granted, so there were differences.
At the same time you watch the black family and I guess whether you are white or black or something else you will run through a gamut of agreements and objections to their observations and experiences. They resemble my father’s side of the family (Filipino/ South Carolina blacks who have lived mostly in New York’s Brooklyn, the Bronx, and across the river in New Jersey), with the same openly expressed strong opinions and colorful language and awareness of less privileges in life. I found myself almost ready to shout at the the members of the family when they walked into a white place and without anything happening immediately raising their hackles. You could almost feel them fishing for hostility. Since the show has only just begun there hasn’t been much development in how the black family learns to see the white world, but it would be very interesting to see whether they can learn to appreciate the reality of being white. Things are not always what they seem.
Probably the most powerful message I might get out of watching the show is in changing the way I angle my view of situations. So much of politically correct conversation these days acts upon established stereotypes of what entails such no-no’s as racism and sexism. If you go to a movie or watch a television show or read a popular book, you can almost predict to a letter what the women and men and blacks and whites are going to do or say before anything happens. Whites always “don’t get it” and always subject blacks to indignities and losses of chances. Men always miss what women are asking for and trample women’s “empowerment”. The women in the movies have to be strong and morally incorruptible. The blacks in the movies always have to be indignant and full of rage against injustice. There is rarely room for real human beings who make mistakes, learn, hurt others, fail, or question their own identification with their predetermined roles.
Recently, Chris Clark of Creek Running North, wrote a piece about feminism. He ran through a list of reasons why a man cannot count himself a member of the coalition for women’s issues, simply because he is a man. I unreservedly agree with Chris’ assertion that men simply cannot know the details of living as a woman, in the same way that a non-white cannot possibly know what it is to live as a non-white. However, what rankled me about the post, and the consequent comments, was not its defence of women and the need to work to improve women’s situations in the world, but with its assumption that all men are somehow innately misogynistic and that women are somehow morally and socially superior to men, basically lumping all men together in the same way that men are accused of having done to women. That kind of thinking has become almost universal in the States now, so much so that it is extremely difficult for any man to publicly voice his opinion without automatically being voted down as ignorant and opportunistic. In the comments, as in so many such posts on feminism, no one dared contradict Chris, especially not men. The present climate in these debates is that rape and mistreatment of women is a trait all men carry and that men should take it on faith that whatever comes out of their mouths has no worth in the conversation. Either the men acquiesce to the pronouncements made by women, or they should shut up. Forget the fact that there are plenty of men like me, and for that matter, Chris Clark, who have always respected women, often the “nice” men whom many of the women ridiculed in high school and at social gatherings, for not being “cool” or “sexy” or “bad” or “confident” enough. Chris’ post stereotypes all men as the macho jocks that I so hated in high school. Indeed, much of the whole debate takes on the high school flavour of cliques and hierarchies. There doesn’t seem to be any room for diversity among men as there is always assumed among women.
One thing that I find so important about the “Black. White.” show is its attempt to get blacks and whites to experience what it means to live in another’s shoes and then to get the participants to talk about it and to not set the individuals into molds as to how they should react as things unfold. This, more than anything, I think is the crucial point to learning how to live with and deal with social issues such as racism and sexism; all the people involved need to somehow get a view of what it means to live as the other does before they open their mouths and paint imagined pictures of the truth of others. You cannot solve such problems by sitting with your own kind and beating the bush; eventually you have to come out and face those things which you fear to face, namely your own ignorance and unwillingness to give another the benefit of the doubt.
My one question though, in terms of authenticity… how exactly do the participants get genuine reactions with the camera crew hanging around in the background all the time? How much of what is going on is pure entertainment, and how much unadulterated truth?