Race and racism are issues we still don’t talk about openly. It makes people uncomfortable, so we end up ignoring or talking around it. The controversy last year over whether or not racist language should be redacted from Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn perfectly illustrated this. Rather than dealing with our complicated, racist past, some people decided to erase references to that past. But erasing will not change the fact that it happened, nor will it solve anything in the present.
On The Bold and the Beautiful, race rarely came into play until Eric's (John McCook) wife Donna (Jennifer Gareis) was reunited with the child she had given up for adoption as a teenager. It turned out her son Marcus (Texas Battle) was the product of a biracial union and he simply looked black. When he first appeared, Donna was conflicted about telling Eric and worried that it might end their marriage…only her reaction had nothing to do with race. Or so the show would have us believe.
B&B had an opportunity to really talk about race, but they retreated and instead opted for coded language. Donna gave her baby up for adoption, kept the pregnancy a secret and never even told the father, but only because she didn't want to ruin his life, not because the father was black. Eric might react badly, you see, because she had kept her history a secret, not because the secret involved a black son. It was interesting to watch the show talk around the issue. They were able to reap the drama of race conflict without ever actually dealing with race. In fact no one ever brought up the fact that Marcus was black. And Marcus himself never wondered if it was an issue. He was quickly accepted, and even calling Eric "dad" in no time!
B&B sketched a completely color-blind society—one we don't live in— and it was dishonest for the show to not have race enter the conversation at all. It was even more dishonest when they had characters act the way one would expect them to act in this situation, except it was always about something other than race. B&B wanted to have its cake and eat it too, to push the buttons on a hot topic without actually dealing with the hot topic.
And they’re doing it again in the current storyline with Dayzee (Kristolyn Lloyd) and Thomas (Adam Gregory). Dayzee is black and used to be homeless. Thomas is white and rich. Their budding relationship is approved by everyone except Thomas’ sister Steffy (Jacqueline Macinnes Woods). I actually give the show major credit for daring to write a legacy character as snobby and unlikable as Steffy, but once again, they’re dancing around the race issue. Steffy bemoans the fact that Daizee isn't beautiful, educated or sophisticated enough for her brother.
Now…what is that if not code for racism? Steffy could easily be saying that she wants her brother to date a white girl and the conflict would be the same. But the show is too timid to go there so instead, they obscure race and cloak it in class conflict. And no one else calls Steffy on it or even suggests that race might be the issue, which is even more absurd. The show wants you to get it (wink wink) without actually acknowledging race and racism.
Here’s the thing that B&B should keep in mind. Yes race is a sensitive topic, but it's one that needs to be dealt with. It’s more complicated than white person = bad, black person = good, and even a racist character or someone who harbors some bigotry can have other redeeming qualities. They're afraid that allowing a bigoted character will turn the audience against that character forever. But so what? They should be concerned only with writing real world drama and race issues are just that. Steffy is already unlikable to many viewers and if you write it in an intelligent, nuanced way, you could tell a good story about her struggling with her bigotry.
Remember, a show isn’t racist just because it has a racist character. This is the boy-cry-wolf response that some well-meaning anti-discrimination groups fall victim to. Depicting bigotry is merely depicting real life. What matters is not whether a character is racist, sexist or homophobic, but rather where the show’s sensibilities lie. If Steffy is the villain against the supercouple of Thomas and Dayzee, then the show’s sensibilities on racism would be clear and noble. Instead, the show thinks it is doing the right thing by acting as if race doesn’t exist, all of its characters are color-blind, and the issue never comes up at all.
But this isn’t noble, it’s just false. Race and racism exist and when characters talk around it, we intuit the falseness. Imagine if Huck and Jim had gone on all those capers and Jim’s status as a slave never once came up, if the only issue was their shared poverty. Would the novel have endured as an American classic? Would anyone even believe it? You can’t make it better by pretending it doesn’t exist. When it comes to race, it’s not that black and white.