Trading places on TV is hot these days. Wives swap homes; mothers and daughters try out each other’s lives; people flirt with fantasy careers. But Black.White takes the reality subgenre to a whole new level, shining a beacon on American’s most excruciating blind spot. Developed and produced by documentarian turned reality show creator R.J. Cutler and rap star Ice Cube, it puts the white Wurgel family in blackface and whitens the black Sparks family so they can venture over to the other side of the color line.
Both families are articulate, but that doesn’t help them avoid racial miscommunications. Lily-white Carmen Wurgel was raised by parents involved in the civil rights movement, but she still utters clueless things that offend Renee Sparks. Carmen’s pigheaded husband, Bruno, doesn’t believe in racism at all, insisting that black people just need to take responsibility for their own behavior. Meanwhile, the Sparkses show little curiosity about the world of the Wurgels. They want to use their newly Caucasian skin as a cover to see just how racist white people can be when black folk aren’t around—and they succeed beyond all expectation. Whereas for the Wurgels, their dark disguise offers entrée into “a secret society,” an exotic world where they can wear dashikis, dance in church, and toss around the word “nigger” without repercussions. Or so they think.
The show’s star (at least in the early episodes I previewed) is the Wurgel’s sensitive teenage daughter, Rose, the only participant who questions the generalizations tossed around by the two families. Rose enrolls in an all-black inner-city poetry slam class where she is forced to perform before her “peers”—an excruciating experience for her and for us. The group critiques her for using big words and holding back, but no one guesses Rose is anything other than a sheltered black girl from a ritzy neighborhood. That’s because she bravely throws herself into the project, unlike the Sparkses’ son, Nick, a thug wannabe who shuns the whole project. In fact, he seems to agree with Bruno that there’s no such thing as racism, which drives dad Brian batty. Brian remarks at one point that he hopes Rose might “rub off” on his son. Considering that they’re all airbrushed with skin-deep paint, his wish just might come true.