MTV’s influential series still lays the burden of race at the feet of its Black cast members.
Unlike the average reality TV show that lets viewers escape into the exceptionally vain, trivial lives of everyday people, MTV’s The Real World — the mother of the genre — has always forced the opposite: for audiences to reckon with society’s most difficult realities, particularly those around race.
The original Real World premiered in 1992 with a singular premise: seven strangers from disparate backgrounds would live together under one roof and have their lives taped. The formula was simple yet brilliant: hard truths wrapped in tense, culture-shifting interactions between uber-religious, anti-social twenty-somethings. For more than two decades, viewers gobbled it up like after-school pizza rolls. Then in 2021, Viacom revamped the show under its streaming platform Paramount+, leading with the reunion of the New York and Los Angeles casts, respectively. The Real World: Homecoming is now in its third season.
The reboot is as addictive and polarizing as its predecessor while offering its casts redemption for past sins, except the way the world digests and speaks about race in this era has dramatically changed; it’s an active part of the public conscience. What remains the same is the expectation of The Real World’s Black cast members to not only endure the realities of race in their personal lives and on the show, but to then explain those complexities to their white roommates.
In April, Homecoming welcomed back the New Orleans cast from 2000 to revisit their Y2K experiences: Melissa Beck (the bubbly confidante), Julie Stoffer (the ex-Mormon), Kelley Wolf (the All-American), Matt Smith (the devout Catholic), Danny Roberts (the gay icon), Jamie Murray (the guy next door), and Tokyo (the rapper formerly known as David Broom). While filming the original season, Melissa (who’s Black and Filipina) and Julie (who’s white) became friends despite their opposing views but grew apart over the years. On Homecoming, Melissa cites Julie’s career sabotage as the reason they hadn’t spoken in decades. Both enter their new digs, unsure if they can rekindle their friendship. But before they can unpack their emotional baggage, Julie unravels. Melissa again finds herself at the center of heated race conversations as Julie’s obliviousness about race becomes more exhausting each week.
In an early episode, Tokyo’s attempt at bringing a drunk Julie home safely from a night of dancing at a drag club transforms into a complete misreading of the situation when Julie accuses him of being too physically aggressive with her. Melissa and Tokyo later attempt to tell Julie she’s reinforcing an old narrative about Black men preying on white women. (They also address her use of the word “colored” and her ignorance of racial inequality.) But Julie breaks into tears and explains her discomfort whenever the conversation turns to race. Melissa bites back at one point, “It shouldn’t be comfortable. We’re talking about racism.”
The Real World’s Black cast members are still expected to not only endure the realities of race in their personal lives and on the show, but to then explain those complexities to their white roommates.
What MTV has gotten right since The Real World’s inception is the show as a microcosm of young America. Rewatch any seasons from any year, and you’ll get an authentic picture of the country’s cultural profile at the time. That is, in part, the beauty of this new iteration: We’re seeing the cast have their belated awakenings right alongside society. They’re still strangers because they’re viewing their old lives through a contemporary lens — one that’s inevitably colored by a global pandemic and protests that shook the world in 2020. But there’s a significant opportunity for them to connect more deeply now that these conversations have actually stopped being polite.
Nationwide unrest exposed broken systems in a country that largely believed it was squarely in a post-racial era. The dark underbelly of this country and what it does to its Black and brown communities has since been on full display. White people are compelled to confront their privilege and help dismantle the institutions it upholds, and those same discussions have naturally migrated within the walls of the MTV’s well-styled cribs.
Melissa’s numerous attempts to shed light on race issues during her original season put her in an awkward position familiar to any Black person forced to be the spokesperson for conversations around race. At one point, she reiterates that her outspokenness as the “house educator on all things race” was perceived as annoying by the public in 2000. “That was a lot of emotional labor for me,” Melissa notes, adding that at the time, she didn’t have a rapport with Tokyo to lean on him for support.
This time around, Melissa and Tokyo choose to enlighten their roommates together. Still, Julie has offered only rote acknowledgments of her own bias, while Melissa apologizes for not allowing Julie enough space to grow socially, in essence, providing a soft place for understanding when she hasn’t been afforded the same luxury.
A similar dynamic played out last year on The Real World Homecoming: Los Angeles, the original season of which aired in 1993 as L.A. was still reeling from the Rodney King riots. In one scene, Tami tries to explain why white people can’t use the N-word to her castmates. A discussion about police brutality escalates as Glen Naessens defends his use of the word, and retired cop Irene Berrera-Kearns uses the slur while trying to side with Tami, who’s visibly flustered. “I’m annoyed,” Tami says in her confessional. “It is not my job to educate you on how to understand equality, how to respect another human being. That is not my job.”
The entire scene is absurd, yet it’s unsurprising to see white people still unlearning the basics of race relations. Much of the L.A. season is eclipsed by David Edwards’ inability to hold himself accountable for ripping a blanket off Tami Roman back in 1993, and his belief that Tami is toxic for taking offense to the N-word — “Black Lives Matter has to start first with our own kind,” he later shares. “Because the Black male is killing the Black male faster than police are taking us out.” At the least, most of the roommates walk away from the season having (seemingly) built more substantial connections with each other through more nuanced conversations.
Homecoming satisfies the franchise’s primary purpose — to get real — but the show also reflects just how much hasn’t changed in the real world as it unfairly lays the burden of realness at the feet of its Black cast members. A difference in understanding racial dynamics isn’t grounds for permanent punishment. Black folks just don’t want to course-correct every white person they come across. Tokyo said it best: As much as Black people want to close the racial divide, “we don’t have the energy to then also teach along the way.”