How 'The Real Housewives' Are Getting Real About Race (Exclusive)
By John Boone
Bravo / Artwork by Nick Mantle
"I'm all about starting conversations," says actress and Real Housewife Garcelle Beauvais. "I think that the more conversations we have, the more people will get it. And it's OK if they're uncomfortable, because that's how we grow."
Such is the premiere of the Bravo special Race in America: A Movement Not a Moment, a 90-minute roundtable conversation about race and equality executive produced by Lauren Grace Media's Leslie D. Farrell and Dorothy Toran, who had worked as a network executive and Real Housewives of New Jersey EP, respectively, before launching their own media company.
With A Movement Not a Moment out now, its EPs and panelists spoke with ET about taking the conversation to Bravo and how franchises like The Real Housewives can reckon with issues of race and racism in reality TV moving forward.
Authority Through Authenticity
"Because it's reality shows, some people might think, 'Well, what authority do they have to talk about this?'" Farrell admits. Even as reality TV moves becomes less and less of a guilty pleasure, there are still many people who think of it for the drama. Especially with the Housewives, there is a certain perception among the uninitiated that it is all screaming women and table flipping.
Why, then, center them in a serious conversation about such an important topic? "I questioned that myself when we first started thinking about this project," Farrell continues. Ultimately, she decided, "When you are a Black person in America, it doesn't matter."
"There is a perception in this country, no matter what you might actually do, how you might dress, how you might speak, some people -- not all, that's hopefully one of the big messages here is, It's not every white person is a horrible person -- but if you are a Black person, often times a white person doesn't see you as a person, they see a Black person and they whatever their feelings, bigotry, biases or misunderstandings may be on you," she says.
"Even though these are Bravolebrities and they may act out and they have all these crazy lifestyles, when it comes down to it, when they leave the house they're just another Black person," Farrell concludes, noting that they chose personalities who had been vocal about racial equality in the past and made sure to include voices across lines of gender, sexuality, region and race.
Finding True White Allies
For white people, the current conversation has been a time for internal reflection, for learning and -- above all else -- listening. But as, Toran explains, "Racism is not a Black problem. Racism is an American problem." So it was important for the special to include white allies in The Real Housewives of Orange County's Windham-Burke and New York City's McSweeney.
"As a white person, sometimes you get worried about talking about race. You're afraid you're going to say the wrong thing [and] it'll be held against you," McSweeney explains to ET's Brice Sander. "And obviously, I have never had to deal with racism personally, because I'm white."
The special sees McSweeney and Windham-Burke speak their truths on using their platform for advocacy (Windham-Burke says she lost a number of close friends and 30K followers when she began protesting with Black Lives Matter) and reflect on their white privilege. "It's terrible that not dealing with racism is a privilege, but that's what it is," McSweeney puts it to ET.
"Everybody, every race, every ethnicity, would be better off if we could fix racism," she states. "We can't change everyone's thoughts, but in terms of the systemic racism and in terms of the criminal system and in terms of education -- all of that -- that we can change."
That change may come about, at least in McSweeney's case, from schooling another Housewife on why saying "All Lives Matter" is counterproductive to the cause. In the special, she is asked, "'Have you called out your cast member? Have you said something to her?'" Toran remembers. "And Leah said, 'Oh, I'm waiting for the reunion.' Everybody laughed, but that is the beauty of allyship. Leah is not going to let that go down on her reunion without her saying something."
The Housewives Double Standard
The Real Housewives have obviously never positioned themselves as the moral compass for society, and more often than not fans like to see their 'Wives behaving badly. But how badly Black 'Wives are able to behave without concern over how they are being portrayed to the world is ultimately tied to the implicit bias and racial assumptions of viewers.
"The whole precipice of reality television is about conflict. You watch because you want to see people that have all this luxury and excess having crazy fights and outrageous arguments. And that's the foundation, as we know, of [Real Housewives]," Toran states.
"So when you then add an ensemble cast of Black women," she continues, "unfortunately what you also have to reckon with is the racial stereotypes that have really pursued Black women for so long." For her part, Beauvais points out, "I think the other Housewives that are of color, I feel like people expect them to be pulling the hair and throwing kicks and stuff like that."
"When white women do it, they just seem crazy and they're just duking it out," Toran says of the dichotomy. "When Black women are in those same situations, they're angry and they're mad and all those things. That's the difference between the perception of Black Housewives and white Housewives and Black reality talent and white reality talent at large."
That mentality -- that white people can act in ways that Black people cannot without being in turn rebuked for acting threatening, aggressive or any number of other claims, at best -- may manifest itself on reality TV, but, as Farrell explains, "It's on television and it's real life. And that sets that double standard for Black people at every level of society."
Continuing the Conversation
Only so much can be said in 90 minutes, so while A Movement Not a Moment is an important start, this conversation must continue both offscreen -- in viewers' homes -- and on Bravo. As The Real Housewives of Potomac returns to air and Real Housewives of Atlanta begins filming, both with all-Black casts, the 'Wives intend to do just that.
"It's a reality show, which means you have to keep it real, and we have to talk about what's really happening around us," Burruss says of RHOA. "A lot of us are involved in what's going on in the world and trying to bring [about] equality... The conversation of how we get there is definitely going to be a conversation that is going to be had. I mean, Porsha just got arrested last week for protesting!"
Bryant, meanwhile, says RHOP will continue showcasing "real" conversations between the women about what it means to be Black in the U.S. "Now is the time for it more than ever. So, because we are educated, we're Black, we're smart, we're sassy, we're funny doesn't mean that we can't have those real, deep-rooted conversations, which will help our viewers."
Beauvais is in a particularly interesting position as the first and only Black woman in a cast of otherwise all-white Real Housewives of Beverly Hills. Though her historic arrival into the franchise did not spark many conversations about race on her debut season, should she return for a sophomore season, she's hoping to have them.
"I wish somebody had asked me about my experience being a Black woman in Hollywood or a Black mom. I wish we had had those conversations," she admits, underlining that, "When you have a platform like that, you need to be responsible. It doesn't have to be heavy and all that, but I think it's important to also show what's really happening in life."
"First you need a seat at the table before you can start to eat there," Toran says of Beauvais' position and its potential to spark conversations her RHOBH castmates might have on camera otherwise. "I think naturally the race conversations will come up as appropriate, because it's a part of her life. That's how you bring things into the everyday programming of these shows, is you have people who have a consciousness and they're not afraid to talk about race issues and then it doesn't become a race special. It becomes a part of a storyline in the conversation in a scene, and that's what ultimately you want."