Setting The Record Straight On Racism

Setting The Record Straight On Racism

by Melissa of “The Real World” New Orleans
October/November 2000

After I read the transcript from the Real World chat on mtv.com with David and Julie, I was somewhat frustrated by the nonchalance of the entire thing, and this combined with a weeks’ worth of questions and criticisms has prompted my response to the “Racism Sucks” episode.

Melissa Howard of The Real World: New Orleans
Melissa Howard of The Real World: New Orleans

First off, did anyone notice the poll question on mtv.com when the show aired? It read: “Who has the hardest time being a minority?” My jaw dropped when I read this. Does MTV think it is okay to QUANTIFY the pain that one minority has and compare it to another’s? It is impossible to put an amount on something like this. No one can imagine how unbelievably frustrating the posting of this question is. Let’s flip this. Imagine if MTV asked “which white person on the show has the least personality?” or “which white person has the hardest time making friends?” Questions like these would never arise. It even sounds ludicrous, so why is it okay to pose questions like this about minorities? Of course, I was winning in the polls by a landslide because I prompted the race discussion. I called some people, said a few choice words and the question was changed immediately.

Understand that MTV is a forum to discuss important issues with young people. But, these young people have also been saturated with Backstreet Boys, Carson Daly, SoCal Summer etc., etc., etc. I applaud both Bunim-Murray and MTV for attempting to raise awareness and make light of such a heavy topic but I wish they would stick to nude people in swimming pools and boogers in peanut butter. The bomb that is racism cannot be dismantled in only 22 minutes. Trust me, I believe that knowing is half the battle, but I am one person. One person — with feelings. So, with this, I will discuss my reaction to the show.

I acknowledge that race and it’s ugly counterpart racism are important issues. They are important issues in my life, my parents’ life, my friends’ lives, but they are not FIRST. My father does not wake up and say, “oh another dreaded day in black skin.” I do not, as much as BMP would like you to believe, fixate on my biracial status. This “biracial” storyline is just that. It’s a storyline that hasn’t been done yet. Where else do you turn when you’ve covered AIDS, homosexuality, suicide, eating disorders, low self-esteem. I mean, the show has been on for 9 years. Yes, I discussed my race, but I discussed these things in CONTEXT, in RESPONSE to questions and topics that are brought on by interviews, by questions from roommates, and yes even by myself. I suppose I will believe BMP when they say that I am “giving a voice” to biracial kids everywhere. This is wonderful. But I do not REPRESENT a whole entire group of kids. This is very much an individualized issue which varies based on environment, upbringing. While I welcome criticism and praise from blacks, whites and Asians (and I use the generic term “Asian” because I have been silently placed to speak to and for ALL of them too) the fact stands that I am only Melissa. Yes, I have accepted a social responsibility just for being on television as a minority, but I can still only speak to and about things I believe in and value.

Speaking of social responsibility, I am very aware of how blacks are portrayed on this show. Painfully aware. Can you imagine hoping you worded everything EXACTLY as you meant it so that some editor in Los Angeles would hopefully get it right? Stressor. Especially when dealing with race. Example: “… every night I go to bed oppressed. I will never rise to the standards of whiteness or malehood.” In a heated discussion where I grew tired of explaining to Julie that yes, I understand one person makes a difference, but now it is HER responsibility to take the information I have given her as a foundation and SEEK more. I cannot be the mouthpiece for an entire social movement absorbed in teaching naïve people from small towns right from wrong. It’s called parents. I am 23 years old. Call me crazy, call me selfish, but I have shit to do. I have been thrust into this role of “teacher” for years. I am tired. As a 7th grader I had to react to “why don’t black girls shave?” As a 10th grader, “don’t you hate having big watermelon lips?” As a freshman upon entry into a Black Studies course, “are you sure you belong in this class?” Present day, “does your mom eat dog?” Daily indignities like these remind me of the color of my skin. Ignorant questions like these infuriate me, but I am expected, as a minority, to “take the high road” and “let it roll off my black back.” It hurts. But I cannot change the minds of millions of ignorant people. Understand also that it is an absolute frustration that I was the one of the few teachers in that house. Thank you DANNY for your help.

I absolutely adore Julie, and I am glad I was helpful in her “discovery.” Understand though that it took mountains of effort and calm to react as sanely as I did. A part of me wanted to reach out and stab, maim and destroy for the use of the term “colored.” But I am under the pressure of NOT fulfilling the role of ANGRY BLACK PERSON. I had to divorce myself from my own emotions in order to be teacher. It’s hard to be superhuman, for the sake of cameras and a world of critism ahead. I had to wholeheartedly believe that she, just like I, am a product of an environment. I believe that in her environment she was not aware of such things as discrimination against blacks and the pain that goes with it. I mean, she had to “cross the street when a colored person was on her side of the street.” I mean, in an environment where she was made to PROACTIVELY avoid blacks, I fully believe she did not know better. This was not just a lesson for Julie though, it was a challenge for me to be able to speak on such a hot topic without anger. I too learned something that day. It also helped that I genuinely love her as a person.

On to the challenge. This is really a no-win situation. What would happen had I not responded? If I said, “wow Julie that sucks.” and let her go on in ignorance. I would be hated by many people of color for not rising to this occasion and putting my foot down. (For the record, I would NEVER not respond to questions like these from a person I cared about.) I did rise, and I handled it the best way I know how. Racism is real as fuck, and this is the Real World. But since I did answer to it, I am now too sensitive for a whole entire segment of the population. I cannot win.

Now, on to my portrayal on the show. I will not say that what you see is not me. I will say that Real World Melissa is the edited “firecracker” version of me. You will never hear me say anything intelligent. My role on the show is not be the smart one or the pretty one or the laid-back one, it is to be the comic relief and the troublemaker. No one cares that I am a graduate with a journalism degree, that I minored in Black Studies, that I made straight A’s, that I have worked every day of my life since I was 15 because my parents could not afford to give me everything that teenagers want for. No one cares that I have the work ethic of a 53 year-old Filipina housekeeper who flips mattresses, cleans toilets, takes out garbage, endures racist comments from assholes who think she doesn’t speak or understand English and HAS never missed a day of work and is dying of diabetes. Yes, I have the work ethic of my mother.

Also, I apologize to anyone I offended for talking about toothless white children and mocking an “Asian accent.” See, I too learn from the show. It’s definitely hard to be me and be PC all the time. I sincerely do apologize to anyone who is or was offended.

In short, it’s a television show. It hurts to watch.

Melissa

Melissa is a cast member of the New Orleans edition of MTV’s The Real World.


 

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