In 1959, white author John Howard Griffin colored his skin and lived as a black man in the segregated south. His book Black Like Me, published in 1961, recounted the trials and indignities that black Americans faced every day. The book raised the consciousness of white Americans and contributed to the new moral climate that made the civil-rights movement successful.
Now, 45 years later, we have a reality TV version. Black.White (FX, 10:00 p.m. ET, Wednesdays) has make-up artists make a white family look black and a black family look white. We then watch them living in each other's skins.
But where Black Like Me battled racial stereotypes, Black.White indulges in them. "I'm going to be white today," says the black teenager, "so I'm going to do something only white kids do." Namely, go to etiquette school! As if this were a common activity for white kids, and as if black kids know nothing of good manners. Meanwhile, the white teenager dons blackface and learns to dance and jive at a rap poetry slam. The adults passing as white go golfing. Then they don blackness to hang out at the mall to try to scare shoppers.
The only stereotype violated so far is that the black family is grounded in marriage and parenthood, while the white family has the live-in man not married to the mother.
The show (rated TV-MA for extremely bad language) does feature an ongoing conflict of perception. The white man doesn't believe there is any racism, so even when he is made up to be black, he doesn't experience any. The black man believes racism is everywhere, so after putting on facepaint he still finds it in abundance. The one needs empathy and the other needs perspective. Both would benefit from reading Black Like Me.