Where are teens learning about race and racism today? On reality TV, of course! Teenagers aren't listening to Ivory Tower (how funny that the tower is ivory) academics on CNN or TV-friendly talking heads like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton. The new forum for the unfiltered discussion of race has become reality TV.
It started years ago with "The Real World," where racial tension seemed to be a prerequisite for casting. And in the past year we saw "Survivor" attempt to divide its teams according to race and Ice Cube attempt to have black and white families swap identities in "Black. White." There is the unnerving minstrel quality to "Flavor of Love," and we even see mixed race couples on "Wife Swap." In many ways it's the "unscripted" nature of a lot of reality TV and its casting of real diverse Americans from different socioeconomic backgrounds that gives us a sharper sense of race in America than scripted dramas with multicultural ensembles. I also happened to catch a pretty shocking discussion of interracial couples on The Tyra Banks show awhile back, which is very popular with teens.
The latest reality TV racial extravaganza is "The White Rapper Show," which is debuting Monday on VH1. The show is being produced by the "ego trip" collective, which started as a magazine co-founded by Sacha Jenkins and Elliot Wilson (who are not white). The Associated Press describes the set up:
"Ten white amateurs are picked to live in an apartment in New York's South Bronx (the birthplace of hip-hop), where they must prove their rhyming skills and gain respect. The winner gets $100,000...The host is Michael 'MC Serch' Berrin, known for the early '90s hit 'The Gas Face' with the group 3rd Bass, who schools the 20-something contestants on the history of hip-hop and the art of the rhyme."
If you're thinking of Vanilla Ice and KFed and cringing already, Wilson attempts to reassure readers: "The power of the show is that when you hear the title, you already have images of what it's going to be, whether good or bad," says Wilson. "Most of them are thinking, `Oh, it's going to be some dumb nonsense.' But it's not that -- it's smart."
The executive producer is Ken Mok, who was behind shows like "America's Next Top Model" and "Making the Band." Part of me feels like it could be funny in a painful way, and speaks to the reality of how much rap music has been absorbed and appropriated by suburban youth. It also seems like the contestants are willingly becoming the butt of the joke or the receptacle of some racial anger and mockery. The producers argue,
"We don't have disdain for our cast," he says. "We're trying to show that there is some complexity to them."
We all know that most reality TV is far from complex, at least on the surface. It's over-simplified, raw ratings-grabbing conflict aired without a discussion guide -- and kids and teens love it. At the same time, I think it offers an opportunity for parents and adults working with youth to use these types of programs as a jumping off point to talk about race and racism. I'm a believer in using pop culture as a teaching tool. I think racism for this generation tends to be more unconscious than conscious, but a dose of reality could help bring these issues to the surface.