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Trading Races

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In white makeup during a focus group on race, Brian was surprised to hear a participant say he felt compelled to wash his hands after touching a black person. “I didn’t know people still felt that way,” he says. “I’ve heard of parents teaching their kids that like 20 years ago, but now! It was jaw-dropping to me.”


The most disheartening moment for Renee? When son Nick allowed white classmates to use the N-word in his presence. “I was very angry at him, and I hate to say it, but I was somewhat ashamed,” she says. “He’s telling them that the word didn’t bother him. It had me questioning myself as a parent, because we have exposed him to different things regarding his race, culture and the background of things that went on in the civil rights movement.”


Despite the appearance of a close relationship with fellow teenager Rose, “I wouldn’t say we got along,” says Nick. “Honestly, I got quite annoyed because she asked too many personal questions, like about being black.” Unlike the rest of the cast, skin color was not a hot-button issue for him. “The show was fun, but it didn’t change me because with our generation we really don’t see race,” he says. “When I was white, I got treated the same. Of course there are differences in the way we live our lives, but I don’t really look at people and their races. I look at people as people.”


The experience, says Rose, “was really intense. It was not at all fun, and my mom and Bruno were kind of expecting to have a good time learning and experiencing.” What’s worse, all that makeup wreaked havoc on her skin. “I went through a large period of time with complete acne, which was devastating, and every morning I was popping Advil because the wig gave me migraines.” And after the show wrapped? “We were all so exhausted,” says Rose. “My mom actually went on a two-week vacation by herself just to get some space.”


Criticized by the Sparkses for making what they considered inappropriate comments—for example, she referred to one visitor as a “beautiful black creature”—Carmen felt “the most difficult part was living with a family who just did not get who I was and refused to see me for who I was,” she says. “That was absolutely painful.”


“While in makeup during the six weeks of this experiment, I personally did not feel racism,” says Bruno, who angered Brian when he failed to see signs of prejudice. “Let me clarify something, I’ve never been an African-American. I put black makeup on and appeared to be, but I don’t think it truly put me in the shoes of an African-American. That doesn’t mean that I deny the existence of racism. Do I believe that Brian looks for it? I do, and I can understand why.”