Trina McGee opens up with 'Boy Meets World' co-star Will Friedle about his Aunt Jemima joke
When Will Friedle made what he thought was a harmless joke about his "Boy Meets World" co-star Trina McGee looking like Aunt Jemima, she took the time to explain to him the implications of comparing a Black woman to a character rooted in racist stereotypes.
The actor now credits her with changing his life for the better.
During an appearance on a Sept. 12 episode of the "Pod Meets World" podcast, which stars "Boy Meets World" alums Danielle Fishel, Rider Strong and Friedle, McGee, now 53, opened up about the incident that left her feeling "really small."
Friedle, 46, recalled the joking nature of the "Boy Meets World" cast and said he thought it would be funny to make a comment about the "big red headscarf" McGee was wearing on set.
"In my head, I attached no cultural significance to that whatsoever. I saw a person who I thought was my friend but didn't know all that well wearing a big, red hat," Friedle said. "You and I still hadn't worked together a ton, but in my head you were a part of the cast so that means I'm gonna make fun of you. So I thought 'gonna make fun of her red hat.' That's as a far as my dumb (expletive) privileged mind saw it.
"Right before I walked on for my part, I walked by and went 'love your syrup' and walked onto the set, thinking 'boom, zing, just got her for her hat.' I heard Ryder (Strong) laughing. We finished the scene and you came up to me–"
"Oh, I was pissed," McGee chimed in.
"You were like, 'that was not OK.' And I was like, 'what?' " Friedle said. "I had no idea what you were talking about. You went, 'Referring to me as Aunt Jemima.' I was like, 'I assumed that was like you calling me the Jolly Green Giant.' And you're like, 'No. No that's not the same thing at all.' You explained to me – you never use the time as an excuse, but in the mid-90s, I had no idea the cultural significance of the Aunt Jemima character."
McGee said she frequently felt she had to "bite my tongue" on set, but needed to speak up in that instance.
He continued: "I was mortified, because the last thing you want to think is you're part of the problem – like, your ignorance is part of the problem. In my head, I was going 'I made fun of her because of her hat, that's all I was trying to do. What just happened?' And I remember you very patiently explaining to me why I was an idiot, and we hugged and walked away. But I was shaken. … You walked away and I remember literally shaking."
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Afterward, Friedle said he spoke about the situation to Strong ad nauseum, "because it literally changed my life."
"That moment was the moment I was like, 'You can't just say stuff. You can't just throw things out there because you think it's funny and walk away. You could be hurting people. You could legitimately be hurting people because you think it's funny.' "
McGee, too, spoke to others about the incident afterward: "I just kept telling friends and family the story and they were like, 'No, he doesn't sound racist, he just sounds really dumb.' That was the feedback I kept getting."
She continued: "This is the thing, Will. You become part of the issue nowadays when you have to move in spaces with people of color and you don't really have to by right, but it would behoove you to learn as much about them as you can. You didn't have to back then, nor were you told to, nor would it affect your check, nothing."
It's not the first time McGee has opened up about the incident publicly. In 2020, she posted on Twitter and gave an interview to Yahoo Entertainment about the "Aunt Jemima" comment and how she had to braid her own hair the night before filming because she didn't have an on-set hair dresser.
McGee says she felt "frustrated" and that her "respect level was not appreciated" on set. Friedle has since apologized multiple times, she previously noted. Now, McGee believes the "real tragedy" of that moment is all "the years that went by that we didn't talk about it."
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"I never said in the press that I (faced) these extreme racist moments," she added on the podcast. "It was one moment when you said the syrup thing, I got mad, but I don't count that as my entire experience on the show. I'm not saying this to give you a break, because I'm kind of damned if I do and damned if I don't. I love you. That's not my entire experience on the show. It's not a racial issue. It's more of a trust, friendship, at the time of where we were and you guys kind of being snot kids."
"It flusters me to this day that I said something like that to you out of such ignorance," Friedle told her. "And I did apologize at the time and then I apologized in the letter that I wrote to you because I was like, 'Oh my God, I can't believe that this is still going on, because I thought we were so cool,' and then it's like, no of course it's still going to matter. I said something stupid."
He added: "I love you. I really do. You absolutely changed my life for the better. You made me a better person."