Feature Presentation

Megan Angelo

“What does someone from the ghetto look like?”

The question came from Robin, a roommate on the current season of MTV’s The Real World. The episode clearly showed why Robin, a 23-year-old white girl with a Southern drawl and childhood, must have been an easy choice for a spot on the show. Sheltered and obviously unschooled in political correctness, Robin probably looked like a guarantee of controversy to The Real World casters.

Controversy, in fact, is what The Real World relies on to keep its ratings up. Unlike its increasingly absurd reality television peers, The Real World debuted in a time when the spontaneous actions and candid reactions of everyday people were prime time firsts. In short, The Real World began reality TV, and it didn’t need dramatic competitions, formulated romances or elaborate scams. Captivated by the interactions between the roommates who simply “live together, work together and have their lives taped,” viewers tuned in every week.

After 13 seasons, they’re still watching, thanks to cast after cast of people with diverse perspectives and loud mouths.

Over the years, the heated conversations set off by differences in personality and background have covered every contrast: between gay and straight, black and white, male and female and rich and poor. The explosive results of these talks have always pushed social boundaries.

Robin’s outburst, it seems, may have pushed them too far. Her innocent musings about “someone from the ghetto” may have been immature, but they seemed to amuse the sole black roommate, Jacquese. Several drinks and hours after the conversation, however, Robin became enraged at a stranger at a bar and called him “the n-word.” This time, Jacquese wasn’t laughing.

Had he been present, Villanova’s keynote speaker for Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Ellis Cose, wouldn’t have been laughing, either-even if the word hadn’t been meant as an insult. In his address, Cose spoke critically of people who today “proudly call themselves niggers.” Surely, dogged repetitions of the slur-especially in rap songs and movies-have deadened the weight of the word for some people. But to many, many others, it remains a word symbolic of pain and struggle past.

Robin’s use of the word is symbolic of pain and struggle present, the kind that society has more masked than erased. Racism is no longer officially acceptable in public, but remnants of it are everywhere. It seems that no matter how hard some people try to eradicate prejudice, others refuse to give it up. Our media, politicians, educators and businesspeople are usually careful about being fair, and so one thing is clear: racism is being kept alive inside American homes.

It’s unfair to suggest that Robin learned the n-word from her parents or other relatives when we don’t know anything about her upbringing. But our homes extend past the walls of our households, into the homes of our friends and the places in our communities. In a place where she felt comfortable and at a time when she was impressionable, Robin learned from someone that the n-word is still okay.

Robin spat that lesson out into the open at the club. On camera, the word sounded shocking and egregiously anachronistic. But in the split-second silence between Robin’s costly faux pas and Jacquese’s reaction, every viewer in America had time to silently ask questions.

Some may have asked why the word is a modern term of endearment for some black people but is still a forbidden phrase for whites. Others may have wondered how Robin could have possibly let the word leave her mouth. Still more probably reflected on whether Robin’s eruption, illuminated by the cameras, was any worse than the thoughts inside many Americans’ heads.

The future of our country dictates that our generation will live immersed in differences. But the history of our country has set us up to feel uneasy when confronted with diversity. Even those among us who harbor no hatred for those of other races are still mentally programmed to recognize and categorize people with different looks and habits than us.

The best-case scenario for the years ahead depicts the last of racism fading as we move farther and father away from our detestable past. But with the civil rights movement nearly half a century behind us, racism is still a problem. No one can deny that remedying it is a sluggish process.

It seems our country has been completely modernized in every aspect except its mindset. This is because we can only advance in unison. Expediting real racial equality in America will require the efforts of citizens on every side of the problem. Surely, it couldn’t hurt for the Robins and the rappers among us to try to drop the n-word from their thoughts and their speech. Until universal respect comes naturally to us, it’s never a good time to stop being polite and start getting real.