Race and ‘The Real World’

In the show's prime, cast members like Kevin Powell boldly confronted social issues. So much has changed.

Kevin Powell argues with Julie Gentry on The Real World: New York; Powell on The Real World: New York (MTV)
Kevin Powell argues with Julie Gentry on The Real World: New York; Powell on The Real World: New York (MTV)

Powell’s commentary on race was nothing innovative (Spike Lee’s Malcolm X would be released at the end of 1992); he clearly knew the history of Dred Scott and was familiar with Cornel West and other black intellectuals. Nonetheless, seeing a real 25-year-old black man, whom I could relate to, on television — not singing or playing sports — unafraid and unapologetically confronting race, was liberating.

In Powell’s infamous argument with Alabama native Gentry, who accused him of threatening to attack her after she interrupted a phone call about a possible job, Powell stressed that she didn’t understand his reality. In the context of Gentry and Powell’s personal life, it was a random argument of “he said, she said,” but for viewers, the scene provided a rare glimpse through the lens of blackness and whiteness. As progressive as these artsy 20-somethings thought they were, no one was above his or her own inherent biases, including Powell.

The “Julie and Kevin” episode aired shortly after the Los Angeles riots. For black viewers, the spat wasn’t about a thrown candlestick but a resonating truth: Whites can remain clueless about the struggles of black or brown people and still fruitfully exist in America. But as people of color, we need to fully understand whiteness in order to function and thrive; it’s lesson No. 1 of being a minority in America.

Powell received the label of an “angry black man,” a stereotype we would see more of in reality television. But if he had raged at Heather B., the black female cast member in the loft, instead of Gentry, would America still have perceived him as angry? Are you angry only if you are challenging whites?

Until then — on the street or in television — I had never seen a black man boldly confront a white woman. If it had been 1962, Powell would have been lynched. On the other hand, I rarely saw a woman stand up, eyeball to eyeball, in a confrontation with a man. Both broke ground in their own way.

Social media’s response to Powell proves that we are not postracial. After 21 years, his comments on privilege and class still confuse the masses. How much have we evolved after two decades and a black president? Voting rights, the so-called Birther movement, stop and frisk in New York City, “Stand your ground” in Florida — we may even have regressed. Every conversation from The Real World in 1992 is still relevant in 2013, which is deeply disturbing.

This past weekend, MTV also aired previews of the new season in Portland, which begins on Wednesday. There is no one who resembles a Kevin Powell or Pedro Zamora or Julie Gentry. In 2013’s Real World, we see carefully edited savages, roaring and whoring on television with less dignity than grotesque beasts at the zoo. If the Real World: New York was a time capsule of 1992, then what does the once-groundbreaking series represent in 2013?  

Clay Cane is the host of Clay Cane Live on WWRL 1600 AM. Follow him on Twitter.