TV's Crash Course in Race

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From The Jazz Singer to White Chicks, the history of black- and whiteface in entertainment has generally not been one of high social purpose. But starting March 8, an FX reality show is betting that the same magic that made Marlon Wayans look like Paris Hilton can be used to start a dialogue about what race means. In Black. White. (Wednesdays, 10 p.m. E.T.), a provocative and valuable reality-TV experiment, two families of different races live life in each other's skin.

The idea, says R.J. Cutler (30 Days), an executive producer of the show along with rapper Ice Cube and Matt Alvarez (both of Barbershop), was to survey the color lines in a country that has largely shed overt racism. For six weeks a black family from Atlanta (Brian and Renee Sparks and their son Nick) and a white family from Santa Monica, Calif. (Carmen Wurgel, Bruno Marcotulli and daughter Rose), went out into society as members of the opposite race and spent their downtime, sans makeup, sharing a house.

The biggest hurdles were the makeup and prosthetics, which took three hours a day to apply. In a movie, says Cutler, "you have the advantage of lights, film and lenses. Here, it has to work as close as two feet away." Producers and participants say it did, but there were hitches. Brian, who gets a job as a bartender in a white neighborhood on the show, tells time, "I had to put my hands in water a lot, and there was some wash-off."

But race is more than color, and therein lies the fascination of Black. White. In learning to "pass," both families have to address awkward questions that people rarely discuss in mixed racial company. What does it mean to "talk white" or "walk black"? (Both families meet with consultants, including a dialect coach.) And can you discuss cultural differences without falling into stereotypes? In the first episode, Brian and Renee point out that a black woman would not ask as many personal questions as Carmen does. "Your nature is to be more curious," Brian tells her. (Imagine a white man observing that black people are "less curious.")

Bruno, a white schoolteacher in real life, believes that blacks could defuse racism with a more positive attitude and are too quick to "play the race card" and "come from a place of self-pity"; he's stubbornly determined to show that, if he gives off a positive vibe, he won't encounter racism. Carmen is the well-meaning daughter of parents who were active in the civil rights movement, but she has had little personal contact with blacks. She refers to one of her daughter's black friends as a "magnificent black creature," and, in a role-play led by the dialogue coach, addresses Renee, "Yo, bitch." ("Bitch," she tells TIME, was on a list of slang terms the coach had given her, and she thought it was used affectionately.)

Meanwhile, the Sparkses, especially Brian, come across to the white couple as defensive, suspicious and easily offended. In some of the black couple's incognito outings, their suspicions prove justified, as when a white man volunteers that he feels the urge to wash his hands after shaking hands with a black person. But the conflicts between the couples are more ambiguous. After the "black creature" incident, Brian and Renee wonder how Carmen would feel if someone called her a "magnificent white creature." What the Sparkses apparently don't see is that the effusive, dramatic Carmen probably wouldn't be offended. What the Wurgel-Marcotullis apparently don't see is the reason for that: whites have not had a history of racists likening them to animals.

The show's most uncomfortable scenes involve the use of the word nigger. Bruno announces that he can't wait for some racist to call him the name; it never happens, but he and Carmen hear the word dozens of times when they visit a black comedy club. Meanwhile, Nick, who says he has never been affected by racism, tells a group of white friends who know he's black that he doesn't care if they use the word, to his parents' mortification. (Nick and Rose's lack of racial baggage will strike viewers as either hopeful or naive.)

It would be nice to say that the families end up celebrating their differences and commending each other's bravery. They don't; Brian and Carmen still say they're disappointed that the other couple wasn't more open to their perspective. But it would be too bad if viewers decide the lesson of Black. White. is that it's safest not to talk about race at all. If the show teaches anything, it's that race is unignorably dyed into the American experience. And no amount of cold cream can wash it off at the end of the day.