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Review: 'Black.White.' Furthers Cliches of Black America


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Michele Norris. The reality series on the FX television network BLACK.WHITE. is about two families that trade places to learn how the other lives. The second episode airs tonight. Commentator John McWhorter says the show gives in to decades old stereotypes about blacks.


The suspicious store clerk giving you the eye, the white woman clutching her purse to her chest, the car door that locks as you walk by. There are no more signs on the water fountains, but black lives are still defined by a daily litany of racism, or so I'm told. The movie CRASH drew some attention to this version of the black experience last summer, but in the series BLACK.WHITE., which is on again tonight, we get the opposite perspective: the voice of a black American who perceives black life without these racist slights.

Mind you, it's really the voice of a white man with black make-up. In the series, a white family and a black family, through make-up, experience life as the other color. The black couple come ready to show the white couple, and all of us, this daily litany. The problem comes when Bruno, the white father, claims not to experience racism when he's made up as black.

The black father, Brian, can't have this, so he goes out with Bruno and tries to teach him to pick up on the snubs. When a group of women move off of a narrow sidewalk to let them by, Brian explains that they're avoiding black men. To those of us watching, it's pretty clear that the women are simply negotiating a limited space. Like Brian, I'm a 40-year-old black male. I'd be lying if I said I didn't encounter the occasional slight, but a daily litany? I've spent my life being told that this was my experience and so I do watch for it and sometimes I find it. Maybe once a year, if that.

Brian, in white make-up, buys shoes and says that it's the first time a shoe salesman ever actually touched his feet instead of handing him the shoes. Well, I couldn't count how many times white shoe salesman have touched my thoroughly black feet. Bruno tells Brian he's seeing what he wants to see and that's just it. Does he want to see it? Could it be that a legacy of slavery and Jim Crow is that for some of us, asserting ourselves as eternal victims becomes a substitute for a positive identity?

Bruno, for the record, is not the subtlest thinker on race, but for myself and for many of the middle class black people I know well, racism is a little bit of something every once in a great while. Yes, too many black people are poor and no, we won't tell them to just deal with it themselves. But, if we luckier ones choose to fashion our perceptions of reality as if it were still 1950, we're giving in to an easy kind of defeatism and no group in human history has ever rescued themselves or anyone else with despair.

NORRIS: Commentator John McWhorter is the author of WINNING THE RACE: BEYOND THE CRISIS IN BLACK AMERICA. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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