“Question: Is it inappropriate for a white man to tackle the mess that is BET in a public forum?”
I sent that text to ten of my friends at 5:06 p.m. By 5:10, my phone had been inundated with responses:
“Ummmmmmmmmmm… just to be safe – no.”
“It’s tricky, my friend. I think you should decide based on this simple question to yourself: What are your motives for trashing them?”
“BET is about Black entertainment. Not just a Black audience.”
“I don’t think so as long as you argue both sides.”
“Sounds kinda tricky, although BET is undoubtedly a big hot mess.”
“Depends on your angle – if you are defining how Black America should present itself, I’d step back.”
“I don’t think so. If they don’t like it, who cares?”
“Yes. I don’t think you should do it or, if you do, wait until your third or fourth column.”
“Go for it. But be careful. This could backfire.”
These answers represented a pretty mixed bag, which in turn, made me think about the question I posed – and the reason I felt I should ask it in the first place. Is it appropriate for me to question BET publicly? Should I do it behind closed doors, only in front of my friends? Or, even at all? Is it appropriate for me to have an opinion in the first place? Should I, as a white man, have opinions concerning Black entities in general?
Well, realistically, my parents taught me to think for myself, which in turn means I have opinions - on everything. Why wouldn’t I have an opinion on the way BET represents itself? I am a viewer after all. And not one of those first-timers who tuned in to the BET Awards after Michael Jackson’s death. No, I have been around since the days of Cita and Tigger, back when AJ and Free were the face of the network. I even sat through that dreadful BlackBuster Cinema movie-of-the-week where Mary J. Blige played Q-Tip’s mom. So, yes, I have been a viewer for a while. And, yes, I recognize that something is awry with the programming decisions they are making.
Bob Johnson has repeatedly said that when he began BET years ago, his goal was purely financial. He saw a niche market and exploited it, as corporate America always does. Despite that, when a corporation gains a certain level of recognition, they also raise the public’s expectations for a higher degree of social responsibility. Without attacking too harshly, I get the whole corporate thing and do not want to hold BET to a different standard than I would hold General Mills. However, within each corporation, we judge them based on what they deliver. General Mills is judged when their products are considered “unhealthy.” BET is judged when they show too many reality shows that portray negative stereotypes. It’s as simple as that.
Unlike its counterparts in basic cable, BET isn’t creating any new non-reality shows. I recognize that a proven formula works and if it’s garnering revenue, why change it, but concurrently when your competition is creating programming like TNT’s The Closer or AMC’s Mad Men, which are successes both ratings-wise and critically, why not jump into the fray and give them competition? A well-received dramedy would certainly create ad revenue. Give Black actors, and while we’re on it, Black writers, directors, producers, and crew members a job. How about an ensemble show that includes actors Tracee Ellis Ross, Lorenz Tate, Nia Long and Derek Luke? There, BET, I just gave you an idea. I can have the treatment on somebody’s desk in the morning if you are interested.
Who am I to be making these assessments? I’m a white guy who was born and raised in rural Tennessee, where Black people were few and far between. I was educated at a university that had only five Black students in my graduating class (to be fair, the school only had roughly 1,300 students, but still…). On paper, I should know nothing about being Black in America. That being said, I also was the sixth friend to those five Black kids at Sewanee. I entered college with no social skills and all that I have I really learned through interactions within the Black community. Couple that with the fact that I have a higher melanin content than most white people, and get asked at least once a week, “What are you?” I have not only an appreciation for Black culture but also a pretty firm understanding of it. As much as an “outsider” can.
Go ahead and laugh; it’s fair. No white man really can understand what it is to be Black in America. However, if 98.6% of your friends are Black, you do start to experience some of the same things they do. Even if you aren’t the victim of profiling, you see how it affects your friend. Often, you are considered “guilty by association,” if you will. I am actually so comfortable in a “Black” setting that I feel out of place when I am in a room full of white people who aren’t my family. Quite honestly, the same way I will never know exactly what it is like to be Black; Black people will never know exactly what it is like to be me.
So if any white man in the whole world should feel comfortable asking this question, it should be me. Still, I felt like I needed to run it past my friends. And the irony is that this is the same year that a Black man took over the presidency; this is the same week that CNN airs a special about what it is like to be Black In America; this is the also the same week that BET begins the run of the travesty that is “Tiny and Toya.”
I look across the landscape and see reviewers of various ethnicities judge movies, restaurants, clubs – a whole array of things. These reviewers are not purposely choosing not to review Black-themed movies or Black-owned restaurant, clubs, etc. because of any political implications or scandal it might cause. Still I felt I needed to ask if I could argue against the quality of content BET is distributing. Still, I encountered a lot of concern.
There are several petitions being circulated around the Internet to get people to encourage BET to [I’m paraphrasing here] “stop airing degrading shows.” I looked at these petitions, but honestly, there were not a lot of signatures. As in, less than 500 on all of the ones I looked at combined. This made me question my stance until I mentioned BET in a room full of Black professionals, where I knew a few people, but most of them were people I was meeting for the first time. Words like “degrading,” “coonery,” and “embarrassing” were thrown out. To be fair, so was “funny,” although it was twice preceded by “I’m embarrassed, but it is…” When I asked these professionals my now-infamous question, the same people who were lambasting the network still showed concern with me – of all people – making such a statement.
So, in the end, am I right for calling out BET’s decision to air poor programming? I think so. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have said anything. But, I would also call out ANYONE who did a poor job. Am I saying that they should alter their programming so that they become the new PBS? Not in the least. In fact, I say continue doing what makes money and generates good ratings. Though, with that, consider creating some original programming that encompasses the full Diaspora of Black American culture. Give us a representation of everyone. Give us Sunny Anderson from the Food Network, The Number One Ladies’ Detective Agency from HBO, a Black Suze Orman (I’m sure there’s someone out there).
Will the world end because I asked this question? No. Will people be offended? Maybe, but quite honestly if they are they need to take a second and figure out why they are mad. Is it because I am calling a company that represents Black America on the carpet or is it because they aren’t?