The Real World Homecoming is animated by many ghosts: the ghost of 1990s New York City; of old technology, the vanished, curling landline cord, the little black phone book, the video cameras the size of midrange dogs; of youth, both the cast members’ and the audience’s; of what reality TV might have been. But there’s one ghost that rattles around the loft more loudly than all the rest: the ghost of how we used to speak to one another about race.
Thirty years ago, when the original seven strangers agreed to have their lives taped, they didn’t know what they were getting into. How could they? Before Julie, Heather, Becky, Kevin, Norm, Andre, and Eric got together, reality TV as we know it didn’t exist. They birthed it. But birthing a monster is a fraught accomplishment. Reality TV absolutely changed the world—but has it really done so for the better? Compared with so much of the reality TV that has come since, The Real World was low-key and high-minded. The participants were grounded, goofy, ambitious for more than reality TV stardom, and socially engaged. They argued passionately about heady issues—and none more so than race. It’s these arguments in particular that the reunion special has latched on to, to distance the show from the genre it created, but that only selectively followed its example.
That The Real World can re-air these conversations as a credit to itself and not a mortification is thanks solely to Kevin Powell. In 1992, Powell was already an activist and a writer with a deep, historical understanding of racism in America, a topic his white roommates had barely thought about. He was afire with knowledge, through the looking glass, talking about race in contemporary ways, while his roommates were arguing only from their narrow, blinkered, unconsidered, immediate personal experiences. Despite their ignorance, Powell never stopped engaging in what must have been exhausting fights about the country’s structural racism, police brutality, and endemic discrimination, even though his roommates would have preferred he give it a rest. The most indelible fight was between Powell and Julie, the 19-year-old Alabamian, who beneath their SoHo loft’s exterior scaffolding screamed, “Get off the black-white thing!”
In the original series, these fights were used to give Powell the original “angry black man” edit. But in the reunion, he’s become the central character, the person whose commendation of the original series is what burnishes it. In the first episode of Homecoming, he described that fight with Julie as “the most famous argument in American TV history on race and racism,” part of Powell’s more general line about the show: that in paying attention to race, showing young people of different races debating it, and presenting Kevin’s point of view, the show was pioneering. Remedial as his roommates were in 1992, they weren’t anomalous: Colorblindness was the national aspiration. To “get off the whole black-white thing”—to not notice race—was what people were supposed to do. Insofar as The Real World was noticing it, it was doing something different, something valuable, something important.
Those conversations were fundamental to the original season, but they were by no means its only focus. The show included a lot of more standard reality TV fare, like drunken hijinks and a fixation on Julie and Eric’s maybe-romance, a fabulation of the editing room. But the arguments set the show apart from what came after, and so the reunion re-created one of them. Toward the end of its second episode, The Real World Homecoming sparked a new fight by showing footage of an old one, not between Kevin and Julie, but between Kevin and Becky. In 1992, Becky was a singer-songwriter with a diffident air. She always struck me, even at the time, as hard to pin down, a little aloof, confident, yet hurt when not included, always ready to pull back. The fight in question began with her remarking, “Isn’t America a great country?” and expecting no dissent. Kevin disagreed, and the conversation ripped along from there. It touched on white women’s privilege in particular, and ended with Powell calling Becky racist and observing that “the scales have been tipped in certain people’s favor for a very long time,” followed by Becky’s colorblind-esque stipulation that “you don’t know until you’ve walked in someone else’s shoes who has the favor and who doesn’t.”
Modern-day Becky, now Rebecca, has since asserted that this was a gotcha moment from the producers. It’s certainly true they didn’t air Kevin’s fight with Julie at such length. But immediately after watching the footage, Kevin contextualizes the fight so as to give Rebecca an out for all that Becky didn’t then understand. It was difficult for him when these fights aired, he explains. People were not used to seeing a Black man speak to white women in this way. White people gave him grief about it, some Black people too, and his mother was terrified for his safety. He generously restates Becky’s position, to suggest she was upset about all types of oppression, and apologizes for calling her the B-word. He deftly excuses her from having to stand by anything she said as a clueless twentysomething, a generosity he is implicitly extending to his other white roommates, almost all of whom took a similar line at one point or another. In doing so, he is crediting her and the rest of them with being, however unwittingly, an important part of a landmark TV moment. Look at us, he seems to be saying, we were talking about real, deep, important things, and that’s the major takeaway.
But present-day Becky still wants to win an argument she already lost. She’s bristling that Kevin could have ever have called her racist, overly connected to her 20-year-old self, whom she sets about justifying in excruciating fashion. Her larger point is that there’s intentionally racist and inadvertently racist, and we should distinguish between these things, but she barely makes it while interrupting Kevin over and over again and failing to pick up on each and every one of her roommates’ mounting cringe. It all culminates in her claiming she couldn’t possibly be racist because she has taken an African dance class and “I lost my skin color when I was there.” (Julie makes this face.) “You don’t say things like ‘I took an African dance class’ or ‘I have a Black friend’ to a person of color in 2021,” Kevin comments to the camera.
Becky immediately understands that this is all bad for her, but not that she’s done something wrong. She knows this won’t play, but she can’t see beyond it being a setup, a “bad edit.” (On Instagram after the episode aired, she called it “a kind of brainwashing.”) Unlike the real world, The Real World is a space in which coming back from being racist, or at least myopically locked into your own experience, should be relatively simple: All you have to do is stay. You try to do better in a small group of people who genuinely want that for you. In remaining, Becky would have had to bear a punishment—shame—that’s also a service, a helpful example. But she won’t do it. She decides to leave. She self-cancels and pretends she’s taking the high road.
Just as it did 30 years ago, The Real World delivers a heated racial debate that seems to reflect what’s going on, right now—a reiteration with modifications. White people can no longer talk about race however they’d like and get credit just for participating. (In Becky’s case, it’s clear that just having the conversation hasn’t taught her anything anyway.) We have to do more: more work, more reading, more thinking—or, at the very least, more listening. That’s what The Real World Homecoming is itself trying to do—but without calling attention to how profoundly it was once aligned with its white cast members. The first time around, Kevin was not positioned as righteous, but embittered and obsessive. That, 30 years later, he’s not angry about being reduced to an angry stereotype, that he thinks the show was important and did good work, is what allows it to skirt around its own past posture. Kevin, as he says, has been “woke for a long time,” but The Real World hasn’t quite been, even if with Homecoming it would have you think otherwise.