Good Luck Finding The Reality in Black Reality TV

The only thing missing from black family reality television is the reality.

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In 2007, BET’s Keisha Cole: The Way It Is, featuring the R&B artist brought “keepin’ it real” to reality TV. The Way It Is followed Cole’s family, which includes her biological mother Frankie, who had just been released from prison after a three-year stint for drug possession and her sister Neffe and her children, after they moved from Oakland to Atlanta, where the singer was better able to provide for them. The finale, in which the star was to learn the identity of her biological father through DNA testing, earned BET its highest rating for original programming.

And let’s not forget Being Bobby Brown, the pioneering black reality show on Bravo that started it all.

“There’s always the danger that these exaggerated images have an impact on the way black families are seen,” says media critic and author Donald Bogle, who admits that he doesn’t follow many reality shows. “Flavor of Love and I Love New York harkens back to some age-old images. But much like those images of black people before, they were ‘crafted’ by writers,” says Bogle, who wrote Primetime Blues: African Americans on Network Television. “Most reality shows are scripted. So what you see in reality shows is what the writers and producers want you to see. The danger,” he adds, “is when there is a lack of diversity of black images.”

As reality TV goes, Deion & Pilar is pretty mild. The series seems more sitcom than reality TV. One episode deals with Deion’s midlife crisis. Another has Deion teaching his younger children about the birds and the bees. And a couple of shows revolve around him being an overprotective father when his oldest daughter, Deiondra, starts dating. His wife Pilar, a glamorous stay-at-home mom, manages to find time to start a modeling agency, spice up their sex life, all while complaining about her husband’s refusal to do housework. As if we really believe she spends her time cleaning up behind him.

What’s missing from this latest crop of reality shows is the reality, the connection with real life. One of the few black family reality series that went beyond entertainment was Black.White, the controversial series produced by Ice Cube that aired on FX in 2006. For those who missed it, the six-episode reality series involved two families—one black, one white—who swapped racial identities using elaborate makeup. Each family lived as another race for several weeks, revealing a candor that was far more interesting and compelling than the current crop of scripted, celebrity reality series.

Unfortunately, Black.White was one of the few times a reality series involved a “real” black family, even if they were pretending to be white.

Evette Porter is an editor at Harlequin.