While many fans found and enjoyed the show when it hits streaming, they were frustrated that the six white leads interacted with almost no people of color, despite living in one of the most culturally diverse cities in the world. Seen through a modern lens, many found this extremely problematic.
And after a few years of reflection, and the Black Lives Matter movement in the wake of George Floyd's murder, Kauffman now counts herself among them, saying that she believes this criticism of the beloved sitcom is fair.
"I’ve learned a lot in the last 20 years," Kauffman told the Los Angeles Times in a new interview. "Admitting and accepting guilt is not easy. It’s painful looking at yourself in the mirror. I’m embarrassed that I didn’t know better 25 years ago."
"It was after what happened to George Floyd that I began to wrestle with my having bought into systemic racism in ways I was never aware of," Kauffman admitted. "That was really the moment that I began to examine the ways I had participated," she explained. "I knew then I needed to course-correct."
At the 2020 ATX TV Festival, Kauffman got emotional talking about a lack of "connection with the Black community." She said that it's something she wants, but "because of 'Friends,' I never attained that."
The topic was already being talked about when the cast came together last year for its highly-anticipated reunion special, but Kauffman didn't feel that was the place to have the conversation.
"I don’t know how the two were related," she said of the HBO Max cast reunion after all these years and this serious topic of the show's problematic issues with race.
"[I] don’t know how we could have addressed it in that context of that reunion, going into all the things we did wrong," she said. "And there were others."
And so, she came up with another way to do something. "In this case, I’m finally, literally putting my money where my mouth is," explained Kauffman.
The "money" she's referring to his a $4 million pledge to her own alma mater, Brandeis University in Boston. Specifically, the funds will establish an endowed professorship in the African and African American studies department.
The intention is to support a scholar with a concentration of study in these areas, as well as assisting "the department to recruit more expert scholars and teachers, map long-term academic and research priorities and provide new opportunities for students to engage in interdisciplinary scholarship," per the Times.
Kauffman said that while she feels she has perhaps made "some difference in the conversation," she by no means feels this "unburdens" her from the mistakes made with the show's diversity, or lack thereof.
"It didn’t unburden me, but it lifted me up," she said, but insisted it wouldn't be made right until she makes it right with properly representative casting in a future production.
"I want to make sure from now on in every production I do that I am conscious in hiring people of color and actively pursue young writers of color," she explained. "I want to know I will act differently from now on. And then I will feel unburdened."