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'Black. White.' Race Reality TV Series Debuts

NOAH ADAMS, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Noah Adams.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

And I'm Madeleine Brand. Black. White. is a new reality show that debuts tonight on the cable channel FX. It's about race and identity, and what it's like to live in the skin of another person. A white family and a black family move in together, and when they go out into the world, they first head to the makeup room to switch races. They get airbrushed, and wear wigs and colored contact lenses. After five hours, the black family becomes white, and the white family becomes black.

(Soundbite of show, "Black. White.")

Unidentified Female #1: (In clip from "Black. White.") You totally look like a little black girl.

Ms. ROSE BLOOMFIELD (Participant in Black. White.): (In clip from "Black. White.") Do I look like me?

Unidentified Female #1: (In clip from "Black. White.") No.

Ms. ROSE BLOOMFIELD: (In clip from "Black. White.") No, would you recognize me on the street?

Unidentified Female #1: (In clip from "Black. White.") No.

Unidentified Female #2: (In clip from "Black. White.") No.

Unidentified Female #1: (In clip from "Black. White.") Wow. Amazing.

BRAND: That's 17-year-old Rose Bloomfield, a white high school kid living with her mom and her mom's boyfriend in Santa Monica, California.

Ms. ROSE BLOOMFIELD: I've never experienced what it's like to be treated black. I don't know what that means or entails.

BRAND: She finds out. Here she is, looking for a job in Beverly Hills.

(Soundbite of show "Black. White.")

Ms. ROSE BLOOMFIELD: (In clip from "Black. White.") Are you guys hiring?

Unidentified Female: (In clip from "Black. White.") We are hiring currently, but the manager's not here, so I can't schedule an appointment without her.

Ms. ROSE BLOOMFIELD: (In clip from "Black. White.") Do you have an application I can pick up?

Unidentified Female: (In clip from "Black. White.") No, no applications.

Ms. ROSE BLOOMFIELD: (In clip from "Black. White.") Got it.

BRAND: And the black family, too, finds out what it's like to live in another world. Brian Sparks and his family are from Atlanta.

Mr. BRIAN SPARKS (Participant, Black. White.): I had to fight the darker skinned blacks, because I was too light, and then I had to fight the whites because I was too dark, so I had racism from both sides.

BRAND: I sat down with Brian, Rose, and the creator of the show, R.J. Cutler, to talk about what it was like to make Black. White. R.J. Cutler is an esteemed documentary maker who made the War Room, about Bill Clinton's first presidential campaign. He says FX first approached him with the idea, wondering if it would be possible to carry off.

Mr. R.J. CUTLER (Creator, Black. White.): I said that I did want to do the show, that I thought it could be done, that I'd like to do it with two families, one white, one black. I wanted the families to each have a teenager. I wanted to find families that were self-defined as open-minded and openhearted on the issue of race.

BRAND: The black family moved in with the white family in Los Angeles for five weeks last summer. After experiencing what it was like to be another race, they'd return home, take the makeup off, and then the gloves came off. The two families did not get along. Brian fought with Bruno, the white dad, who said Brian and other blacks exaggerate their daily encounters with racism.

Mr. BRUNO MARCOTULLI (Participant, Black. White.): You'll see how I approach life as I walk into the store, and we'll see if somebody blows me off and how I handle it.

Mr. SPARKS: I know when I'm being (censored) because I'm black, or when somebody's having a bad day. And that's the thing that you won't grasp or you won't understand, because you want to debate everything that we sit up in here and say.

Mr. MARCOTULLI: We'll see what happens.

BRAND: Bruno says he wasn't treated any differently when he went out as a black man. Brian, though, says he learned a lot at his job as a white bartender in a white neighborhood.

Unidentified Male #1: (In clip from "Black. White.") I grew up in this neighborhood, and this is one of the last, somewhat unaffected bastions of middle-class, Caucasian America inside Los Angeles.

Mr. SPARKS: (In clip from "Black. White.") Wow. I kind of got that feeling when I came through this neighborhood.

Unidentified Male #1: (In clip from "Black. White.") And the neighborhood wants to stay that way.

Mr. SPARKS: And, you know, I got to see what they, what kind of discussions went on when no other races or no blacks were around for me. It was pretty incredible.

BRAND: Did it confirm what you had expected, or did it surprise you?

Mr. SPARKS: More surprising. I thought, you know, coming in, I felt like racism was more of a corporate type of--in a corporate-type setting. But to come in, when I came in through the project and I found out that, you know, the young gentleman that said he was taught to wash his hands after he touched the hand of a black, and the other guy, that his neighborhood was all white, and it was the last bastion of whiteness and he wanted to keep it that way, it was a little shocking to me.

BRAND: So now what do you think?

Mr. SPARKS: I feel like racism is, you know, we like to think that we've progressed so much from the '60s. We have in certain ways, but racism is still very prevalent in society.

BRAND: And Rose, you seem to have had the best learning experience, because you actually became friends with a group of black kids, and tell us about that. Tell us how you did that.

Ms. ROSE BLOOMFIELD: What was great is that the poetry group that I was a part of happened to be a group of people that were extravagant with words, and educated and passionate and outgoing and vivacious and colorful. And even thought I was white, and come from such a different lifestyle, we're still so similar in personalities that we were able to blend and mix.

BRAND: Rose's poetry group became the center of one of many conflicts in the show. One night, she brings her new friends home. Carmen, Rose's mother, is so taken with them and their poetry, that she blurts out something she thinks is a compliment. She calls one of the young women there a beautiful, black creature. Later, Brian and Renee, the black parents, tell her what she said was insulting. Carmen is shocked.

Ms. CARMEN BLOOMFIELD (Participant, Black. White.): (In clip from "Black. White.") It was not about being politically (censored) correct. And it was not about choosing (censored) words. No, I'm really upset. No I am. I don't want to have to choose my words. I want my heart to be seen and read. And that's where I need to come from. If I have to walk on eggshells again, I can't do it. I can't exist in a world like that. And I was coming from total love.

BRAND: Brian, I'm wondering what you thought about her and her attitudes, and if, indeed, it was a case of misunderstanding.

Mr. SPARKS: I wouldn't say that it was a case of misunderstanding. It may--as heartfelt as it may have been to her, you know, to me, she makes an analogy that she always calls Rose a beautiful creature, but my thing is, she never says beautiful white creature. Why did the emphasis have to be, because the lady was black, why did it have to be beautiful black creature? Everything we do has a black label on it.

BRAND: I want to bring in Rose, here. Rose, you're Carmen's daughter. And...

Ms. ROSE BLOOMFIELD: Whew.

BRAND: Whew. That's right.

Ms. ROSE BLOOMFIELD: Yeah.

BRAND: Where are you in this?

Ms. ROSE BLOOMFIELD: What I watched a lot was the things that my mom would say were so bold and so unapologetic, that they were so completely susceptible to be taken as racist or negative. And it was received by Brian and Renee as hurtful and labeling. And that was so much the crossfire in this project: how do people take one thing and get 10 different angles?

BRAND: Executive producer R.J. Cutler, says there's no 'ah-ha!' moment in the show, where both sides suddenly see the light.

Mr. CUTLER: Even in the heart of the most intense disagreements that these two families had, or members of the families had, had they been able to say, I'm just going to commit myself right now to seeing the world through your eyes, and know more about what that is--progress might have been made.

And I think that this is something that, at least, the families started to come to. Each of them. I think, people started to be able to see the world more effectively through each other's eyes.

BRAND: Brian, I'm wondering--you've returned home now to Atlanta--I'm wondering what conversations you're having with your family about this project.

Mr. SPARKS: We talk about the project often, because it's still going on for us, up to the point where, if no one likes the show, I don't care. If everyone likes the show, I don't care. But as long as--What I want from the show is everyone to talk about it. If you don't like me, tell me somebody why you don't like me. You know, debate and talk. That's the only way we're going to change things in America. So, we still have ongoing talks about the show.

BRAND: In Rose's family, her mother, Carmen, has changed. She says she now has empathy for what it's like to live as a black woman in a white society. Her boyfriend, Bruno, though, remains unconvinced that racism is widespread. I asked Rose what happened in their family since the cameras stopped rolling.

Ms. ROSE BLOOMFIELD: Mom and Bruno are debating nightly--laughing, crying, angry. I mean this, like, explodes every now and then. We're still doing interviews. We're still talking about it. We're still seeing things. So, it's like constantly brought to our attention.

You know, we're just kind of really talking a lot about what it means to grasp another person's experience, and what that serves. And there's been a lot of tension in the household since the project.

BRAND: The executive producer R.J. Cutler says he used to think color blindness was the solution to race problems. Now he thinks the opposite.

Mr. CUTLER: Without the experience of this show, I would have said, let's say race doesn't really matter. I no longer think that that's the approach. I think the more we learn about each other's experience, and particularly, the more that white people learn about the African-American experience, the healthier it will be.

BRAND: The reality show Black. White. debuts tonight on F/X. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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