I had meant for this to be a post about the 20th anniversary of the release of “Exile in Guyville” and the effect that album had on my life. I meant to write a post about music videos that stopped me in my tracks when I happened across them on MTV during my adolescence (“Silent All These Years” by Tori Amos, “Hit” by the Sugarcubes, and “Closer” by Nine Inch Nails, for the record). Maybe I’ll still write that post someday. But on this day, I would like to write about something else I saw on MTV during my adolescence that was far more mindblowing, although I didn’t realize it until years later.
Like most kids my age, I watched a lot of MTV. And so like my most kids my age, I ended up watching a lot of The Real World. It’s a little hard to remember now, since the show long ago descended into a swamp of debauchery, showcasing the absolute worst America’s youth has to offer, but that first season is actually a relatively understated little documentary: 13 episodes about young people pursuing careers in the entertainment industry in a still-vaguely-gritty New York. It’s available in its entirety on Hulu+, and watching it without all the blaring pop music that branded it as an MTV product (“Julie’s in church, but she’s a rebel! Play ‘Personal Jesus’! Now they’re about to fight! Play the ominous tinkly piano bridge from ‘Right Now’ by Van Halen!”) but had to be removed for licensing reasons, you’ll find the overall vibe is very chill. There are a couple episodes that are spectacularly mundane. Andre and Heather are trying to record mediocre albums, Norman turns out to be gay and gets a boyfriend and nobody particularly cares, they’re all sad that Jerry Brown loses the Democratic primary so they paint a big Jerry Brown mural on the loft wall that also includes Sesame Street characters for some reason… The producers tried to spice things up by shipping the girls off to Jamaica to “meet guys”, but Julie just gets her ear talked off by a Canadian masonry salesman and Becky hooks up with one of the show’s directors, getting him and his glorious salt-and-pepper mullet fired. Outside of a totally nonexistent romance the producers tried to cobble together from footage of Julie peeing on the toilet while Eric was in the shower, there was really only one source of drama or narrative thrust.
And that was Kevin.
Kevin Powell has gone on to a decent career as an author, public speaker, and activist. He’s also had a less decent career as a politician, failing multiple times to unseat Ed Towns as New York’s congressional representative from the 10th district by making rookie mistakes like telling a bunch of Satmar Jews he would “bring home the bacon” to Williamsburg and also, you know, not paying his taxes. But in 1992, Kevin was a cowrie-shell-necklace-wearing spoken word poet (Nuyorican Poet’s Cafe, y’all! I read about that in the Sassy magazine piece on spoken word! Man, I thought that must have been the coolest place on earth) from Jersey City who was the oldest and most outspoken member of the cast.
Midway through the season, Kevin was made the butt of an extended practical joke meant to highlight how little time he spent in the loft. The show essentially made it appear like Kevin spent the majority of that loft time arguing racial politics with his castmates. The most memorable argument is the one he had with Julie, the 19-year-old ingenue from Alabama, who claimed he had physically threatened her. He emphatically denied basically every aspect of her story, and the production staff apparently inexplicably (and conveniently) had no footage of the blowup in question. I tend to believe Julie here, given that her account was filled with consistent explicit details (he allegedly called her a fucking bitch, threatened to break all her fingers, and threw a metal candlestick), while his rebuttal was basically, “Nope.” So it’s a classic he-said she-said. Kevin’s stance was that everyone made assumptions about his character and potential for violence simply because he’s black. The fact that he says this while physically towering over Julie, thrusting himself into her personal space and shouting two inches from her face tends to undercut his case here a little. But a lot of what he’s saying is clearly true on a systemic level, even if his personal behavior in this particular situation was hardly exemplary.
Kevin was clearly a very angry young man. But on a certain level, he had a right to be. Earlier in the season, he had another fight, this time with a tipsy Becky, who started blathering something about how we live in a great country that’s a melting pot full of opportunity, which made Kevin snort. Becky tried to defend her statement, Kevin made a crack about the land being stolen from Native Americans, Becky said he had a chip on his shoulder, they bicker, Kevin calls her a racist and Becky of course gets indignant, because as we all know being called a racist is obviously way worse than being affected on a daily basis by systemic institutional racism.
And then Kevin says something really important.
K: Race plus power equals racism, look it up.
B: What power do I have, Kevin?
Watching this when I was 12 years old, I thought Kevin’s statement was ludicrous.
Watching it now, 20 years later, I realize that MTV had enrolled me in Critical Race Studies 101 and I didn’t even know it.
Race plus power equals racism. A lot of the arguments about this boil down to semantics. People of color can certainly hold their own prejudices, or be bigoted. But racism, as a word, holds a specific meaning. It means that we live in a country that was literally built on the backs of black slaves. It means that our society functions in a million ways, big and small, even today, that make it almost impossible for black people to succeed. A society where a seventeen-year-old black boy in a hoodie who happens to be walking in a former Sundown Town is seen as a threat just for his very existence. A society where there is apparently nothing criminal about stalking that seventeen-year-old to the point where he finally turns and confronts you and then when he hits you shooting him point blank in the heart. A society where everyone wants to talk about the kid’s record of school suspensions and weed-smoking as though that’s relevant when he was by all accounts walking back from buying Skittles and Snapple, but not about the shooter’s record of both sexual and domestic assault (not to mention punching a cop!) because that has nothing to do with anything and his parents say he’s a nice guy and not a racist so that’s good enough to trust his word on anything he says about the night in question. A country where the shooter’s lawyer has the audacity to assert in a post-verdict press conference that if the shooter was black the whole thing never would have gone to trial. A country where black males are disproportionately imprisoned, disproportionately sentenced, and disproportionately disenfranchised upon release. Sure, everyone would have been ok with a black vigilante shooting a white kid in Sanford, Florida. Totally would have been fine. Knock knock.
Something else the shooter’s lawyer said was equally jaw-dropping:
“There are people who are vicious in their hatred for George Zimmerman. I don’t know which is the one who’s going to walk down the street at the same time George does. They know what he looks like; he doesn’t know what they look like.”
Welcome to Kevin Powell’s life. Welcome to Trayvon Martin’s life.
I could link here to many different first person essays by black men who feel like what happened to Trayvon could happen to them, essays by black women terrified that what happened to Trayvon could happen to their sons. But while Becky and I, as middle-class white women, still face systemic obstacles based on our gender, we can never fully understand what it is like to fear for our lives simply because of the color of our skin. That is a privilege that we have and are able to take for granted.
As an adolescent, I thought Kevin was an angry aggressive dick with a chip on his shoulder, like Becky and Julie did. And you know, my opinion of him hasn’t changed all that much, except now I feel like the chip on his shoulder is valid and his anger is earned. In the last 20 years, LeVar Burton has moved from teaching kids literacy to advising young men on how not to get shot by cops for driving while black. What George Zimmerman did was apparently totally legal, and all the cable pundits talk about the potential for black riots in the aftermath of that verdict. That’s Becky’s melting pot? That’s Becky’s country of unlimited opportunity?
The Real World is basically just a filmed orgy now. But 20 years ago, it was planting tiny seeds for young people to have a deeper understanding of complicated social issues. In the first few years of the show, before I was even able to drive, I saw intense discussions about race, and about homosexuality, and about abortion. We saw a young man living with and then all too quickly dying of AIDS. And we saw Kevin Powell, who was intelligent, and angry, and passionate, and flawed.
“Race plus power equals racism, look it up.”
I wish more people, myself included, had followed his suggestion. Because if what happened between George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin, and what happened within the justice system following the shooting, wasn’t about power or race, then I would like someone to tell me what it was about. Was it about being in the wrong place at the wrong time? Was it a tragedy of errors? Was it about how those fucking punks always get away with everything? Tell me. But more important, tell Kevin Powell. Tell the parents of Trayvon Martin, of Oscar Grant, of Kimani Grey, of Kendrec McDade, of Sean Bell. Of Amadou Diallo. Of Emmett Till.