VH1 Charm School

It was clear from the moment Ricki Lake was introduced as the host of this season’s Charm School on VH1 that there was going to be ‘90s talk-show-type drama on the set. Lake, who always managed to bridge the high-low divide on her syndicated gabfest, is the perfect headmistress for a racially mixed cast of mostly black women from the show Real Chance of Love and white chicks from Rock of Love Bus.

Charm School is designed to reform bad-girl behavior through charitable acts, such as donating clothes, feeding the homeless and cleaning up the Los Angeles River. It also promises to be an interesting social experiment of the nature of relationships between black and white women.

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This is an experiment that some of us have been having our whole lives. Women’s relationships are fraught in general, but race and ethnicity always throws some extra craziness into the mix. This season of Charm School is giving me flashbacks of my life in multicultural Miami. In both life and in art, it seems that we don’t know how to talk to each other.

By episode two of this season, the racial divides were already apparent. The white women constantly refer to the black women as “loud and obnoxious” and said they were “threatened and intimidated” by the sisters. One white cast member said she felt like she had been “dropped off in the ghetto."

Ouch.

For their part, the black women commented about how all the white women in the “blondtourage” wanted to do was “drink tequila and take showers together.” Doing their best Mean Girls impression, the white women locked one nemesis in the bathroom and shoved hot dogs under the door, mocking her for being fat because she is not a size 4 like them.

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Double Ouch. For me, this scene brought back painful memories. My crew was made up of girls who were Jewish, Dominican and Filipino. My best friend’s mother is Costa Rican and Jamaican, and her dad came to the states from Italy in his 20s.

It wasn’t until we were about to enter junior high that our racial identity seemed to matter. I keenly remember the Horodowich twins telling me my neighborhood was “turning bad” because we were no longer the only non-white family on the street. Mind you, they lived all of three blocks away. My neighborhood was their neighborhood. When it came time to pick which junior highs we were going to, the twins expressed reservations about going to Horace Mann, a magnet school, because there were “so many black people” there—this I learned when Mr. Hess posted their written exchange in his display case, as he did whenever he caught kids passing notes.

By the time we made our way to high school, it was your parking lot of choice that defined you. There was the gym parking lot, which most of the black athletes picked. There also was the “oye” parking lot for Latinos and the senior parking lot, where the shrinking white student population gathered. I alternated between the three.

I was often the sole black girl, or occasionally one of a few, in gifted, honors and advanced placement classes growing up. My white friends used to say, “you’re not really black, you’re like Oprah,” i.e. someone they could relate to. I know they meant it as a compliment, but it was unwanted.

Lately I have been reconnected with people from all parts of my past—which included stints in Georgia, California and Texas—on Facebook. Looking at my friends’ networks, I am amazed to see how homogenous the people they call “friends” are. That’s largely because they never left Florida, Georgia, California or Texas.

It likely mirrors the segregated lives of the women on Charm School—women with the nicknames “So Hood,” “Bubbles” and “Risky.”

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Even though Americans voted for a black president and have adopted the same slang—white chicks on the show call each other a “hot mess” with the same frequency as the black women—we still live in separate spheres. We don’t know how to talk to each other, much less begin to comprehend what’s being said.

Although the Charm School cast tried to talk around their racial differences, Lake went into talk-show mode and made them confront the issue head on.

“We need to talk it through . . . to get a better understanding of each other,” she said. By episode three the girls are on the couch and in the hot seat discussing their feelings, with Lake putting their emotions into words for them.

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“Thou Shalt Play Nice With Others”—Charm School commandment No. 3—was put into practice right there, before the challenge. It won’t be until we quit the loud talk and stop blaming our bad behavior on the alcohol that black and white women will really learn to get along or at least figure out how to communicate.

Kristen Mack is a reporter for the Washington Post.

READ Monique Fields' piece on the trouble with Disney's black princess.