'A Different World' Turns 33: How Does Its 'Racism Episode' Hold Up?
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Features , Opinion , Television

'A Different World' Turns 33: How Does Its 'Racism Episode' Hold Up?

Thirty-three years ago, A Different World aired its first episode, launching one of the most enduring shows in television history. It not only gave us an entertaining and idealized look at life at an HBCU, but it also injected realism into its storytelling. Such is the case when its episode on racism, "The Cats in the Cradle," aired in 1992.

During an intense football game between Hillman University and Virginia A&M, Hillman students Ron (Darryl M. Bell) and Dwayne (Kadeem Hardison) are attacked by two white Virginia A&M students Eddie (Dean Cain) and J.C. (Richard Murphy). Leading up to this, in the spirit of competition, Ron bet Eddie and J.C. that Hillman would win the game. In the end, Ron and Hillman came out victorious. As Eddie and J.C. make true and pay their bet, Ron makes an offhand comment about how Virginia A&M would have won if there were more Black players on the team. Eddie and J.C. begin to argue with Ron which quickly escalates into racial taunting, with Eddie and J.C. trying to belittle Ron, as they believe whiteness to be superior to all other races. The verbal sparring becomes physical when Eddie and J.C. start to spray n****r on Ron's car. A third A&M student, Rick (Jake Carpenter), jumps into the confrontation because of his friendship with J.C. and Eddie.

The meat of the episode, though, isn't the fight--it's the aftermath. Once J.C., Eddie, Rick, Dwayne and Ron are all arrested for disorderly conduct (having a fight in the stadium parking lot) and held in police custody, the local campus security guard (Ernie Sabella) asks them what happened, leading Ron and Eddie to embellish the story from their own perspectives. Eddie and J.C. portray Ron as a thuggish stereotype in their story, while Ron's version of events wasn't too much further from the truth. The episode ends with J.C. Eddie, Rick, Dwayne and Ron having to do several weekends of community service, but not without all of the men finding that someone finished spray-painting Ron's car. It would seem that all of the men involved come out of the ordeal having learned a lesson about how fraught American society still is regarding race.

Based on how this series of events plays out, the show would have the audience believe that everyone had a hand to play in what happened and they were all equally and justly punished for it. Of course, J.C. and Eddie are wrong for their overt racism, spraying “N****r” on Ron’s car and saying other racist comments, like Eddie’s comment about Whitley (Jasmine Guy): "Now that is a Black girl worth doing."

But the show's scenes, which pit Ron and Dwayne's point of view against J.C. and Eddie's, would have the audience conclude that Ron and Dwayne are also wrong for assuming that Blackness is equal to prowess, athletic or otherwise. Rick, in this scenario, is portrayed as a man caught in the middle. While he claims he grew up without harboring any personal racial prejudices, he shares that he was raised by a racist father and he has spent his life successfully striving not to be like him--until this incident.

The key flaw in the episode is that it could be seen as equating Ron's statements with the white students' overt racism and equally punishing Ron and Dwayne for the fight with the white supremacists who came on their campus, made racist remarks and defaced their property with the original racist slur. If an episode like "The Cat's in the Cradle" were to air today, it would likely meet with a great deal of backlash for these dangerous false equivalences. One key example of how dangerous it is to play "both sides" of the argument of racism is when the current President of the United States, equated white supremacist protestors with the actual violent white supremacists who murdered protestor Heather Heyer. This both-sidesism leads to a fatal lack of accountability of those who are causing the harm. Ron's saying a football team needed more Black players (an internalized white supremacist belief) is not the same as two white men spray-painting the n****r on a Black man's car.

And then, there's Rick. Rick was supposed to serve as a foil to J.C. and Eddie's racism; he's not racist, he just got caught up with his racist friends. Rick acts as a proverbial olive branch to Ron and Dwayne. But why is he friends with guys with racist beliefs? Did he know about their beliefs? Who knows. The character can certainly be critiqued as a "good white character" type, a character that doesn't alienate the Black show's white viewers. But for 1992, perhaps the writers believed Rick provided audience members a different side to the state of race relations.

But it's not just the modern lens that could see the harm in this "everybody's a little bit racist!" conclusion. This episode aired just a year after the LAPD's racist beating of Rodney King, Jr. In the '90s, just as now, "Can we all just get along?" is an insufficient analysis for racial healing in a white supremacist world.

The episode tries to assert that both sides need to listen to each other to learn by pitting Dwayne and Ron's feelings towards whiteness against J.C. and Eddie's feelings towards Blackness. This is where the episode fails, because it assumes Dwayne and Ron's animus towards the police and whiteness in general, which is based from the historical wounds of American racism, is on the same grounds as J.C. and Eddie's prejudice against African-Americans. The two modes of thought can't be seen as equal because white Americans have never been historically oppressed and systemically terrorized by African-Americans.

There's also the inclusion of the security guard, the episode's other attempt at positing the idea that both sides need to learn from each other for racism to end. Immediately, a viewer might be presumptuous and associate the character as being a racist police officer from the south, not too dissimilar from Rod Steiger's Gillespie from In the Heat of the Night. Even Ron and Dwayne believe the security guard has to be a racist because of his accent and his position in society. But instead, the security guard tells them he marched with Martin Luther King, Jr. during the civil rights era as evidence that he's not a racist.

The inclusion of the security guard might have been applauded in 1992. But today, there are other questions that would have to be raised if this episode were remade today. Today's audience would be quick to say today, does marching with Dr. King mean anything if we still have politicians like Bernie Sanders who claim they were "at the March on Washington with Dr. King," yet still appear disconnected from the racial issues and white apathy that Dr. King preached about? What prejudices or biases could the security officer hold that would impact the people he comes into contact with?

Can people in 2019 still learn something from "The Cat's in the Cradle"? Overall, I think so. But the lessons are the ones that aren't actually taught within the episode itself. Today's audiences have the platforms of social media to push back on harmful narratives like Dwayne's and Ron's justified distrust and anger being wrongly compared to the actual racism that they've faced. What we can take away from the episode, hopefully, is how not to talk about race relations. You don't examine racial issues by examining the actions of the oppressed as equal to the actions of the oppressor.

If this episode were redone today, I hope that the question of why Dwayne and Ron felt so angry were actually centered and discussed, rather than making space for their oppressors to receive sympathy. The "why" part of the equation is very important, and it involves systems that J.C., Eddie and Rick don't have to understand for their own survival. They have never been subjugated due to their race, and their ancestors were never enslaved. These are the facts the episode dances around, and if they were included in the original episode, it would have taken the episode from being a "both sides" argument to becoming a real discussion about racial inequality in America.

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Photo credit: NBC/YouTube (Screencap)

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