Race in “The Real World”
Public humiliation of whites
by David Gancarz
Since 1991, MTV has been running a program called “The Real World.” It is considered the forerunner of “reality-based” television. (This should more accurately be called “situational stress” TV, since strangers are thrown together in a difficult environment to see who “survives” best).
Mike: back row, center.
Malik: back row, right.
Coral: front row, left.
In “The Real World,” seven volunteers from different backgrounds, races, ethnicities, erotic orientations, etc. live together for approximately five months in a luxury house or apartment while their interactions are taped. Depending on the mix of personalities and individuals, the scenes edited into each weekly episode can range from bland to titillating to explosive.
“The Real World” is now in its tenth season, and has returned to the city of its inception, Manhattan. The cast includes two black women, one black man, two white men, one white women, and one mixed-race Filipino-Irish woman. (I once wrote to the production company, Bunim/Murry Productions, to ask why they always choose stereotyped personalities such as the surfer dude, the angry black male, ad the scatterbrained blonde. I also said I thought an all-black cast would be very interesting to watch. I got a terse reply, saying they did not cast “types” but chose people to match the demographics of the MTV audience. They also said they thought an all-black cast would have limited appeal).
Since the producers tailor the cast for racial mixing, race inevitably erupts as an issue. Usually, it takes a good four or five episodes before people feel comfortable enough to talk about it, but in the latest installment, conflict begins in the very first episode.
Each season, MTV picks one wide-eyed, naïve young white man or woman who knows nothing about the etiquette — or, more properly, the minefield — of race. Last season, the victim was a young Mormon girl, Julie, who had to be told that, as a white person, she was never ever to use the word “nigger” or “nigga” at any time for any reason. Two black cast members explained that even if she heard black people use the word, if she used it she would be seen as an “oppressor” and would deserve whatever happened next. (Of course, Julie only awkwardly repeated the word “nigga” as used by someone else, but the two blacks thought it important to teach her this humiliating lesson, presumably for her own survival).
In this 10th season, the yokel is Mike from Parma, Ohio, a Cleveland suburb. Mike frequently describes his hometown as “white” or “really white.” In the casting preview in which Mike was interviewed, he said he had little contact with black people and that based on having met the select few chosen for the program he really wanted to get to know more. He said this was important, and would help him later in life. This innocent was not prepared for what he encountered.
In the first installment, Mike is seen going to breakfast with Coral (a black woman) and Malik (a black man). Coral and Malik start talking in general terms about how blacks in the past were denied access to education, and that it is important for them get into the best schools. Mike jumps in, agreeing that blacks have been denied good educations. With hopeless naïveté, he goes on to say he knows blacks in Cleveland don’t get quality education, because his uncle told him he won’t hire blacks. He had hired them in the past, but found them “slow,” and their educational background made them “slower.”
The race bomb explodes, and no one is safe from the shrapnel. Coral tries to remain calm but reverts to ebonics. “That ain’t got nothing to do with their education. Your uncle don’t like black people. Your uncle’s a racist.”
Mike protests and tries to explain, but the damage is done. Coral demands that she have the last word, and that the conversation end immediately. “Do you understand me?” she asks aggressively. Mike sheepishly withdraws.
Though he agrees that blacks do not get good educations the fact that a white man would even notice differences in results is enough to brand Mike as this season’s racist. Coral and Malik leave Mike behind. Malik, to his credit, tries to calm Coral by saying he thought it was refreshing someone could be that ignorant and therefore honest.
Coral will have none of it. Later in the program, she is on the phone saying things like “Once someone gets on my bad side, it’s very difficult to cross back over,” “I can’t see Mike and me having a ‘relationship’ where I’m not remembering ‘past errors,’” and that Mike is “going down.” She starts mocking Mike’s white mannerisms and speech, and makes fun of his hair.
The entire cast is put on notice that since Mike is a “racist,” he needs serious reeducation and that there will be no redemption unless he sincerely acknowledges his sins. The three black cast members naturally side together, though only Coral is directly confrontational. The white members all give Mike lessons in the fine art of racial survival. They take him on walks or to dinner, and explain to him that when he talks about race, he must think about what the other person may believe before saying a word. Basically, the whites explain that in order to maintain the appearance of good race relations, white people must censor everything they say to conform to what blacks may think. There must be general agreement on the thoughts we must profess in order to preserve a façade of racial harmony. The lesson seems to be that when a person of color is present or speaking, keep your mouth shut, nod in agreement, and keep your opinions to yourself.
Mike is left with his head spinning. He doesn’t understand how speaking honestly can get you into such serious trouble, but this, of course, is one of the great racial contradictions. Blacks say they want honest dialogue but that is not what they mean at all. What they really want is for whites to admit they are racists who oppress people of color. Anything resembling honesty is “racism.” Blacks don’t want an honest dialogue on race; they want a confession.
After much introspection and advice from others, Mike grovels. Coral forgives him but also makes it clear Mike is to watch every word he says. “Feel bad, be embarrassed,” she tells him.
The tragedy is that it is Mike’s intrinsic honesty and forthrightness, which in an all-white environment might have earned him respect, that do him in. A young man full of joy and excitement learns that to preserve a precarious racial balance, he must censor what he says and temper his enthusiasm. In just his first week on the program Mike learns an important lesson: that he is never to speak honestly about race.
David Gancarz lives in Buffalo, New York. “The Real World” is broadcast on MTV Tuesdays at 10 p.m. EST.