In the first season of The Real World, the roommates who lived in a New York City loft for the sake of an MTV reality show had multiple heated conversations about race. One of the more memorable ones involved Becky Blasband, a white singer-songwriter, and Kevin Powell, a Black poet and activist, who started to argue after Becky contended that America is truly a melting pot with equal opportunities for everyone. (Spoiler alert: It is not!)
In last week’s episode of The Real World Homecoming: New York, that back-and-forth was replayed for the seven now-middle-aged roommates who have regathered in the same New York loft for a reality-TV reunion. The clip sparked yet another difficult conversation between Becky, who now goes by Rebecca, and Kevin that spilled over into this week’s third episode. Every white person in America should watch that episode of this Paramount+ series, which is one of the best televised encapsulations of what makes discussions about bias and racism so difficult in this country. The way that Rebecca responds to what Kevin is saying — with defensiveness, deflection, and a stubborn unwillingness to listen — makes it seem like she is trying to check the box next to every item on a list called “How White People Should Not Respond When a Black Person Is Trying to Engage Honestly About Racism.” Days after Piers Morgan stormed off the set of Good Morning Britain due to his comments about Meghan Markle, and Sharon Osbourne, a Morgan defender, broke down in tears when her colleagues on The Talk gently implied she may project some racist views, Rebecca has done a Real World version of the exact same thing.
As she and Kevin discuss their disagreement from 1992, Rebecca constantly interrupts him to bring the conversation back to herself. She asks Kevin to “forget about color for a second,” and he notes that telling a Black person to forget about color is racist. Then Rebecca responds by saying, “I’m trying to take the politicizing out of it,” as if it’s possible to strip away the thorny parts — remember, you’re never supposed to discuss politics or religion — and still have a genuine dialogue about racism. Just when you think this exchange could not possibly get worse, Rebecca starts to talk about her experience as part of an Afro-Brazilian dance class that she considered “an immersion into the African diaspora.” Before explaining that she “lost her skin color” when she was there, she prefaces the statement by saying that it “might sound racist.”
“If it’s going to sound racist, then don’t say it,” Kevin advises, which truly is some of the best advice you can get as a human being. If it’s going to sound racist, don’t say the thing you’re about to say, because it probably is racist! Even better: Think about why the thing that might sound racist is something you still want to express and then just close your mouth and marinate in that for a sec. Rebecca does not do any of that. She plunges ahead, while the rest of the roommates look extremely uncomfortable. Even Eric Nies looks like he wants to leave the room, and he’s not even in the room, because he has COVID and is Zooming in from a hotel where he’s stuck in quarantine.
At one point, Rebecca says she feels like she’s being attacked by Kevin, which is more or less the same thing she said 30 years ago. Eventually, Norman Korpi, her closest friend in the group, tells her to shut up and just listen to what Kevin is saying. Norman also suggests that she’s going to look really bad when the show eventually airs, which: bingo, sir. After the group disperses, Rebecca tearfully tells another roommate, Julie Gentry, that she feels hurt; Julie waves off the cameras, and both of them eventually remove their mics so Rebecca can express herself freely. Soon after — and this will be discussed in more detail momentarily — Rebecca decides to leave the loft without discussing her departure with any of the other roommates.
Obviously, all of this makes for great drama. It’s also worth noting that when you’re talking about reality television, it’s never 100 percent clear how much of it was edited to make certain people look better or worse. Still, there are some striking things about this conversation, particularly the degree to which the tables have flipped in the group dynamic. If you go back and watch the first season of The Real World — which you can do, also on Paramount+ — Kevin was always the odd man out in discussions like these. He would make arguments about systemic racism and get pushback from everyone in the loft. Now, literally everyone else in the group seems to have reflected more deeply about such issues and sees where he’s coming from, except for Rebecca. Even Julie, the youngest of the group, who was cast as the naïve country girl from Alabama back in the 1990s, is more progressive and comfortable discussing these matters. Kevin, while disagreeing with and challenging Rebecca, never once loses his cool the way he did when he was younger, making Rebecca’s responses seem even more disproportionate.
The real problem in this conversation — and it’s so easy to see observing it from the outside — is that Kevin and Rebecca each want different things from it. Kevin wants Rebecca to listen and finally hear where he is coming from with regard to race and privilege, and Rebecca just wants to prove that she isn’t racist. Everything she says is an exhibit in a jury trial that she alone is prosecuting on behalf of her client, Woke Rebecca. If you’re a white person, you have probably done some form of the same thing at some point in your life. I know that I have. It’s hard to admit that you’ve done that or continue to do it, but you can’t be a better person until you own up to that behavior and start to correct it.
That’s the problem: Rebecca won’t own up to it. Instead, she decides to leave the loft and, in solo on-camera interviews, says she is doing so because she feels “attacked and used to make a political statement.” She also says she has “grown out of” the reality genre and that the conversation they had in 1992 “hadn’t evolved” because people “want to fight.”
“Those elitist things, I believe, everybody has a right to earn,” she tells the camera at one point, a response to Kevin’s assertion that she needs to check her privilege. “Life is not fair. Life is not meant to be fair. That’s the facts.”
First of all: Yikes. Second of all: This kind of deflection is very familiar-looking, and it’s why it’s so hard for Americans to have real conversations about racism. As soon as a white person, especially one who considers themselves liberal, is called out for saying or doing something racist, they often shut down and start blaming everyone but themselves. Productive conversation can’t happen this way. The Real World Homecoming may just be a reality show, but it has done a service by capturing how the dynamics in these situations can so easily break down and why it’s so important for white people to not center themselves in such exchanges.
It’s quite possible that Rebecca will be brought back into the fold later this season, if not in person then maybe remotely. But the frustrating thing is that she really didn’t need to leave. She could have tried to talk to her roommates and work things out. Or, as soon as she and Kevin started dissecting what they said back in 1992, she could have done the absolute easiest thing in the world, and something any white person can do if they’re willing to try: She could have just shut her mouth and really listened to what her Black friend was trying to tell her.
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