Keeping Up With the Kardashians is generally viewed, at best, as a guilty pleasure. For those who don't treat the reality series as appointment viewing, the ninth season has recently seen the various members of the Kardashian clan contend with health problems, divorce, and marriage.
While all those situations are relatable to the average viewer, most would hesitate to call the Kardashians "typical." Khloé's split from husband Lamar Odom has been carried out under the watchful glare of the paparazzi. Kim and Kanye West happily tied the knot — after their rehearsal dinner at the Palace of Versailles.
But in the midst of all the celebrity glamour, Kim and mom Kris Jenner encountered something different in a recent episode of Keeping Up With the Kardashians. As the duo attended an impossibly glitzy opera ball in Vienna, they were interrupted by a man in blackface. He approached Kim, saying, "It's me, Kanye!"
Kim doesn't seem fazed. But the incident leaves her genuinely disturbed. Back at the hotel, she changes out of her gown as Jenner regrets "allowing her to experience such nonsense." Unfortunately, it's not the end of the prejudice Kim experiences; on a flight shortly after, a woman screams at Kim and her daughter: "She's with a black guy, and that baby is black."
The episode ends with Kim writing a blog post reflecting on what she experienced. Her thoughts offer a stark contrast to the empty-headed image of Kim that prevails despite her roles as a businesswoman, designer, and a mother. It reveals how becoming a parent changed her views on discrimination:
To be honest, before I had North, I never really gave racism or discrimination a lot of thought. It is obviously a topic that Kanye is passionate about, but I guess it was easier for me to believe that it was someone else's battle. But recently, I've read and personally experienced some incidents that have sickened me and made me take notice. I realize that racism and discrimination are still alive, and just as hateful and deadly as they ever have been. [Celebuzz]
She obviously isn't the first person to experience racism firsthand. The key difference is that her public platform exposes the rest of America to the challenges mixed-race families face, too. Though the mixed-race population is growing by a much larger percentage than the single-race population, mixed-race families are difficult to find in mainstream media. Kim, Kanye West, and their daughter, North, might just be the most prominent example.
And when Kim isn't busy making appearances at opera balls or branding her multimillion-dollar phone app, she's posting photos of her family for everyone to see, normalizing mixed-race couples and families for a massive (and relatively young) audience. There are images of baby North aplenty, as well as a photo of her wedding day, which broke a record by garnering the most likes ever on Instagram.
Like most reality shows, Keeping Up With the Kardashians is hardly a triumph in nonfiction narrative. Every sound bite and glimpse of scenic California B-roll should be taken with a grain of salt, and every episode's "story" is, to some degree, concocted in the editing room. But one thing is clear: The incident happened, and it's never a bad thing when an example of racism is criticized so thoroughly before a wide audience.
Seeing the things Kim experiences offers a window into the kind of prejudice that many viewers have never experienced firsthand — and while Keeping Up With the Kardashians will no doubt move on to other things, the choice not to leave the Kardashian family's encounters with racism on the cutting-room floor is an important one. By providing even a small glimpse of the ignorance directed at Kim and her young family, the series reveals a hard truth that television generally shies away from.
THE WEEK'S AUDIOPHILE PODCASTS: LISTEN SMARTER
- Did the media get Ferguson wrong?
- What the Middle Ages can tell us about the GOP's big charity myth
- 43 TV shows to watch in 2014
- 10 things you need to know today: October 24, 2014
- 3 horrific inaccuracies in Homeland's depiction of Islamabad
- America's anti-feminist mega-corporations' toxic disregard for women must stop
- How foreign aid screwed up Liberia's ability to fight Ebola
- The U.S. is about to sell weapons to Vietnam. That's bad news for China.
- How to be the most productive person in your office — and still get home by 5:30 p.m.
- Let us now praise Billy Joel
Subscribe to the Week