Real World actress addresses race and reality television

Nearly every young person who has seen MTV’s The Real World has at least toyed with the idea of pulling out the video camera and auditioning for a part on the show.

Melissa Howard, alumnus of “The Real World: New Orleans” edition, gave a candid, humor- laced lecture on Friday evening about just how real the show actually is. Her talk was the culminating event of Students of Mixed Heritage (SoMH) week. The lecture covered all things Real World, but was anchored around Howard’s opinions about the portrayal of her race on the show.Melissa was the first multi-racial cast member on The Real World. Originally fromTampa, Florida, she is half-Filipino and half-black. Loyal viewers of that season may remember when she threw a chair at the only other racial minority cast member, fell in love with a frat boy and felt obligated to educate her Mormon roommate about black culture, especially when it came to explaining why it was unacceptable for a white person to use the “n” word.

“I own all that, I did those things, I said those things. I’m sorry, Momma,” she said. But she made it clear that she also felt pigeonholed into a “character” that she never had an intention of creating. She has come to terms with the fact that her image was created for entertainment purposes.

“I was brought in to be the spitfire firecracker. I’ve been stuck with the label ‘tragic mulatto’ or ‘angry black girl’ ever since. I became the dramatic attention whore. They say they don’t stereotype people, but they do,” Howard said.

She was particularly concerned with the fact that although she was the first biracial cast member on The Real World, the show failed to articulate aspects of her biracial background. The Filipino side of her cultural background was largely ignored, as the producers sought to emphasize a more stereotypical “angry black woman” character.

“I don’t think they will ever be able to accurately portray a biracial person on The Real World” she said. “MTV sees their demographic only in black and white. . . it doesn’t feel they have the demographic to give an accurate portrayal.”

In being identified solely as a black cast member, despite her half-Filipino heritage, Howard found herself defending her race in the same kinds of battles that previous minority cast members had fought.

“Generally, MTV puts six random white folks and a black person in a house,” Howard said. “My question is, where do they find these white people who have never seen a black person before? Has no one heard of Michael Jordan? Are they all in a cave somewhere? Where’s the cave? What’s the address? I want to help you!”

Howard feels that minority cast members are incorrectly portrayed whenever race issues are addressed on the show.

“We’re labeled as dramatic, while the white person becomes angelic. They are ‘learning’ and are so enlightened,” she said. “At the end of it all, they see that black people are cool and gay people are cool too. But they never explored why I would be offended about the ‘n’ word or [about] people who don’t have a clue as to why what they’re talking about was offensive.”

However, Howard was quick to point out that she was not entirely jaded by her “Real World” experience and resulting fame.

“I don’t want anyone to think I was disillusioned by my experience, but it was a real experience,” she said.

“The show is a great thing, but it comes with emotional costs that most people are just not equipped to deal with. I was fresh out of college, was pounding the pavement without a job, and this whole new world opened up for me,” added Howard

Howard’s fans can catch her on her new show on the Oxygen network, Women Behaving Badly. (“Think Candid Camera hits Sex and the City.)

Offering one final word on how people should interpret her biracial personality, Howard said: “If I wake up Oprah, and go to bed Connie Chung, you just have to deal with it.”