“I’m Not Racist…My Child Is Not White!” and Other Lessons from Charm School

by Latoya Peterson

Oh, readers.

Once again, my love of trashy TV has come back around to bite me in the ass.

Somehow, someway, I was skimming channels while folding laundry and accidentally got addicted to Rock of Love Bus, the third installment in Bret Michael’s increasingly hopeless dating life and some of the most ridiculous shenanigans I’ve ever seen aired. (Well, outside of Flavor of Love). Everything was over-the-top, including Bret’s fabulous hair extensions.

Here’s a fairly typical scene from Rock of Love Bus, involving all the necessary ingredients for a brawl – women with short tempers, alcohol, too much free time, and some argument that was too stupid to even attempt to summarize:

So it should go without saying that much of this cast ended up on VH1′s reform show, Charm School. Since Ashley was on it, I intended to watch the show. Just…later. When laundry piled up again. But lo and behold, that was not in the cards. By episode three, there was already mad race drama.

On Charm School, the aim of the show is to teach these wayward young people manners…or something. In reality, CS is more like a boarding school with the inmates/social terrorists running the asylum. Generally, the winner is the woman who can survive the Lord of the Flies style conditions without completely revealing her true colors.

It is worth mentioning that normally, Charm School runs show by show. So the first run was Flavor of Love Girls: Charm School, which was hosted by Mo’Nique. The second run was Rock of Love: Charm School, refereed by Sharon Osbourne.

This time, the predominantly black cast of Real Chance of Love (a show hovering close to the D-list being the spin-off of a spin-off) was matched with the predominantly white cast of Rock of Love Bus.

Ricki Lake was not ready.

The tensions started off quick with both teams sharing their distrust of each other:

After a few more altercations (including one where girls from the Rock of Love Bus locked Brittany Star in the bathroom and stuffed hot dogs under the door) the elimination ceremony takes place. The house was basically divided by show, and when one of the Real Chance of Love girls, Kiki, is sent home, all hell breaks loose and two other girls end up leaving the show out of frustration.

In the aftermath of this, Ricki Lake decides to ask a very pointed question: Did the contestants in the house think that Ashley was spared and Kiki was sent home because Ashley was white? Beybeybey and the other Real Chance of Love Girls answered in the affirmative. And here’s where things started to get interesting.

Racial issues come up every now and again on these shows. On Rock of Love Bus, Brittaney Star got upset at Natasha winning a challenge, and pissily informed her that she only won the pass because she was black, insinuating that Bret Michaels was granting some kind of drunken affirmative action. Natasha banged back getting in Brittaney’s face about making idiotic comments like that – keep in mind, there’s generally only one black girl who makes the cut on RoL…and she is quickly eliminated. Brittaney then claims she couldn’t be racist because she has a black grandfather! (Later on, the VH1 blog finds out that she actually does have a black grandfather. He was in a band called the Ink Spots. No, you can’t make that shit up.)

Brittaney Star has race issues anyway:

<a href="http://www.vh1.com/shows/charm_school/season_3/series.jhtml" target="_blank">Fighting About Racism</a>

For someone who claims to be “colorblind” she sure brings up race a lot…

But, getting back to the topic at hand, this episode fascinated me for three reasons:

1. Use of the term ghetto

“It’s like I got dropped off in the ghetto, for no fucking reason.” Farrah is freaking out and using the word ghetto left and right. She leaves, but the Real Chance at Love Girls are still angry and bring it up in Ricki’s assembly. BeyBeyBey asks why she has to be termed ghetto, just because she’s black and she’s passionate about what she says. She also notes that she could have easily called Ashley and Farrah ghetto because of their professions (stripping) and the way they act, but notes she didn’t. The use of the term is not addressed further.

In a post-show interview with VH1′s blog, Farrah makes the claim that the term ghetto is not racialized.


Let’s talk about your classification of some of the girls as “ghetto,” since some people read that as racist.

First of all, I want to apologize to anyone who took offense to that word. Obviously, their definition and my definition are different. My definition is loud, obnoxious and inconsiderate. It has nothing to do with color. Ghetto is not a color. I know white people that are ghetto, I know black people that are ghetto. It’s not a race thing for me. The people I referred to as “ghetto bitches” on the show weren’t just the black girls. It was Brittaney Starr and K.O, also. Plus, I’ve been ghetto more than a few times. I’m that way when I’m wasted a whole lot.

What did you think of Bay Bay Bay calling Ashley and strippers ghetto?

I think that was uncalled for. She was so upset over the use of that word and then she turned around and used it. The whole time, we were called “white stripper whores.” [...] Look, me and Ashley get called a lot of names because of our provocative dressing, but we don’t get offended because we choose to dress that way. People shouldn’t get offended when they’re called “ghetto” because they’re choosing to act that way.

I think some of the confusion arose because a lot of people, especially white people, swap in the word “ghetto” when what they really want to say is “black.”

I understand that, I understand why people think it’s a racial thing. But that’s definitely not how I intended it. And then it’s like, why say, “Kiss my black ass?” Why call us “white girls?” Why call Ashley and me whores and sluts just based on how we’re dressed? It works both ways.

Is ghetto really just a state of mind or a way of acting? Postbourgie disagrees, noting that calling someone ghetto is used to reinforce stereotypes and power structures while distancing the speaker from the black underclass. Interestingly enough, the word ghetto didn’t pop up on Rock of Love Bus too often, but “bitch” and “trashy” did. Take from that what you will.


2. Ashley’s “I Can’t Be Racist” Comment

Ah, an old favorite. After the Real Chance at Love girls finish speaking, Ashley walks up to the chair and proceeds to inform everyone that she could not possibly be racist. Her rationale? Her child is not white. The clip isn’t no longer available, but Ashley starts explaining that because her son is “not white” (though she later amends it to say that he’s obviously half white) she’s obviously not a racist.

Ashley’s live-in boyfriend/baby daddy can be seen here:

Mixed Media Watch used to make a sport out of tracking these claims. The all-time hall of fame post is “I can’t be racist, I have interracial sex!” where Carmen writes:

One of the big myths out there is the idea that interracial relationships are inherently good for ending racism. We’ve all heard the utopian notions that “we should keep mixing and soon we’ll all be mixed and there will be no more racism!”

The problem with this idea is that it assumes interracial couples and mixed race people themselves cannot be racist. And of course, we all know that’s not true. Check out former Nebraska Senator John DeCamp’s description of his Vietnamese wife as a “war trophy” for just one example.

As I wrote in a post last year, just because you sleep with/live with/marry/date someone of another race doesn’t make you automatically not racist. After all, slave masters had no problem maintaining their racist beliefs against blacks while raping their slaves and fathering mixed children with them. Neither did Strom Thurmond. And all you have to do is read Susan Crain Bakos’s article to see that sex doesn’t cancel out racism. If anything, sex and intimacy have always been intricately intertwined with oppression.


3. Ricki Lake’s handling of the situation

Another thing that stood out to me was how Ricki Lake approached the issue. While other outlets lauded her for supposedly tackling racism head on, I’m not sure that’s what happened. While race took the forefront in the discussion, the conflict was really about the different cultural norms for each show. On RoLB, violence was discouraged, but it was not necessarily going to get you sent home. As we saw above, Marcia choked out Ashley and stayed on for a few more episodes. Brittanya swung on people. And there were a lot more projectiles going around. They just like to be violent. And the RCoL contestants we used to swarm tactics, which the RoLB girls also didn’t understand.

Ricki interpreted the divide as racial, which could be argued, but then went straight into defensive mode: “I want you to know that the decision didn’t happen that way.” Yes, she allowed the contestants to say their piece…but there really wasn’t a dialogue about race. And why should there have been? That wasn’t the goal. The goal was to squelch the issue so that the show would move on. This wasn’t a conversation about race – it was an old school HR trick. Sometimes, when people have a discussion about race, it’s really about exonerating the accused, not moving things forward. Carmen nails it in one of her articles about the differences between conversations:

In the last few days, I’ve written critically on Twitter (you can follow me @newdemographic) about a couple of items: a Washington Post op-ed on diversity and a new documentary on multiracial identity.

Among the many responses I received to each tweet, there were a handful that said something along the lines of, “Even if it’s not a good article/film, at least it’s creating dialogue!”

Well, sometimes “creating dialogue” is just not good enough.

You might be surprised to hear me say that, since my whole mission is to facilitate relaxed, authentic, and productive conversations about race.

But I’ve seen too many instances of people tolerating, or even justifying, ignorant behavior because of its ability to “create dialogue.”

You know what? I could do without the dialogue if it means not being subjected to the ignorance in the first place.

Why? Because not all dialogue is created equal.

To apply this idea to Charm School, no, Ricki Lake did not bring up the race issue to have a dialogue. She wanted to directly get on with running the show, without more women leaving. That’s not laudable – that’s common sense.

In sum, the race issue really wasn’t that big a deal. Despite So Hood dramatically titling herself “the modern Martin Luther King” while she walked off the set, the girls moved on to fighting about other things in the next episode. But, hey, that’s the way of the reality TV world. If Marcia can choke Ashley on one show and then be BFFs on the next, somehow, I think they’ll work around the race thing just fine.