The year was 1992, and seven diverse strangers were having their “lives taped” in the real world while living in New York. The MTV trailblazers — Becky Blasband, Andre Comeau, Heather B. Gardner, Julie Gentry, Norman Korpi, Eric Nies and Kevin Powell — didn’t know it back in the ’90s, but nearly 30 years later, their raw conversations surrounding race would still be prevalent.
During these truly historic times as America demonstrates against racial inequality, stands up to police brutality and demands justice for the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and countless victims of racism, the goal is to look back and examine why these MTV incidents featuring five white cast members and two black cast members still hold weight.
First, these interactions — mainly between Julie, Kevin and Heather — unfolded on the very show that paved the way for reality television and capturing everyday moments on tape. Real young citizens, real stories, real topics. They put themselves in uncharted territory and approached sometimes-uncomfortable subjects with vulnerability and courage. It’s challenging enough to expose yourself — try doing it with a camera in front of your face.
Second, the four women and three men probably didn’t understand it as they were living it, but shortly after — and in the years to come — they have educated viewers, and the footage could be used in classrooms even now. Personal anecdote: I watched the series for the first time in 1996 as an 11-year-old growing up in San Francisco. I had never seen a white person and a black person communicating like this on these types of topics ever before. I saw the horrifying Rodney King video and the subsequent 1992 Los Angeles riots but didn’t quite comprehend what was happening. This was different, and I was doing my best to pay attention.
Now, a retrospective on what actually occurred on Real World: New York. The important seeds were sowed early, mere moments after the roommates met: Alabama native Julie, who was only 19 at the time, was on a mission “to learn a lot” about herself while in the Big Apple (a place she had never been before). It was extremely apparent that this was her first experience co-existing with people who had different ethnic backgrounds.
“Do you sell drugs? Why do you have a beeper?” she innocently, but almost jokingly, asked as Heather B’s beeper (remember those?) beeped.
Julie was immediately on the defensive, in between her anxious laughter, and said everyone was going to be against her because she was the “only Southerner.”
“I don’t consider myself racist in any way,” she confessed privately in her first interview. “I don’t even know how it ended up like that.”
Kevin, on the other hand, was a bit concerned that he would face stereotypical questioning — for example, if he played basketball.
But rather than sweep this comment under the rug, everyone began discussing their backgrounds. While Heather went to an all-black high school, Becky asserted hers was “as white as could be with one culture.”
As the group began to share aspects of their lives pre-Real World in the early days, Kevin, Julie and Heather B went out for dinner. Julie asked Kevin straight away if he believed she was prejudiced and claimed he was “against white people.” She also added he was “very bitter,” something he denied. But as he reflected, privately, he did admit a change of heart.
“When I think about it now, I think I have a right to be very angry. And you know, I’m not apologetic about that,” he said. “I don’t know what kind of encounters that Julie’s had in the south, but she did say to me that her father doesn’t really like black people. I don’t know how much that’s shaped her opinion of black people. I don’t think it’s shaped it in a negative way because she doesn’t seem close-minded. She’s very open to myself and Heather.”
The relationship between Kevin and Julie eventually grew — like joking about their sexual experiences or lack thereof on Julie’s part and a prank where she pretended to lose her virginity (the other castmates pranked Kevin with different personas). Julie also accompanied Heather to the studio and witnessed her original raps.
But then Kevin and Julie had an unforgettable argument that did not play out on camera — and they were the only two in the loft. It began when Julie picked up the phone, which Kevin was using at the time. He was upset and from there, it “escalated,” and “f*ck yous” were exchanged (according to her). They both had differing versions of events regarding a candlestick (it was not used), and when they attempted to clear the air, he wanted do so away from everyone else by going outside.
“You come from a particular place; I come from a particular background. You come from a particular background,” he said, while she asked, “Why do you get so close?”
“Black people are emotional — that’s my explanation,” he explained, to which she responded, “White people are just — oh my God.”
“It’s not a black and white thing,” she stated, while raising her voice. “Why do you have to get so close?”
He defended that it’s his “culture,” to which she said it had “nothing” to do with his culture.
“Get off the black/white thing — I’m sick of it,” she demanded, before asking, “What are you going to do? Hit me?”
His reaction: “Why do you assume because I’m a black man, I’m gonna hit you? That’s what you assume. Racism is everywhere. What happened in Alabama?”
“Because of people like you, Kevin. Because of people like you — not people like me,” she said.
“Black people cannot be racist,” he stated. “We don’t have the power to control…”
And before he could finish his thought, she yelled, “Get out of my f*cking face. I’m so sick of this.”
They exchanged remarks about how he calls himself “a teacher,” and she’s a 19-year-old white girl from Alabama who “just doesn’t understand.”
Eventually, they realized they were not getting anywhere meaningful by yelling at each other, so they moved indoors, exchanged mutual “I’m sorry”‘s and shook hands.
“We’ve been here for two-and-a-half months, and we’ve been the best of friends,” Kevin reflected in an interview. “We can agree to disagree on the nature of the argument, what happened during the course of the argument. We can at least try and live and respect each other for the duration of our stay in the loft.”
“I really like Kevin — I could never deny that,” Julie stressed. “I respect him a lot. I think he’s really intelligent and has a lot of really important things to say.”
Julie and Kevin illustrate the importance of active listening. They also remind us that now, more than ever, it’s imperative to have tough conversations with your friends about racism.
Please share your take reliving these retro MTV moments and how they impact you today. If you’re looking for ways to support the Black community, here are a few suggestions. If you want to take action, join Color of Change and text demands to 55156. If you want to learn more about being an ally, click here for some anti-racism resources.