On Sunday night, a dozen Bravo stars from The Real Housewives, Married to Medicine, and Top Chef franchises gathered for a kind of programming different from what the network’s reality-TV obsessed fans are used to: a roundtable discussion on race and equality titled Race in America: A Movement Not a Moment.
Outside of last year’s first-ever BravoCon convention, the historic gathering at the 2019 New York City Pride March, and Andy Cohen’s baby shower, it ranks among the largest assemblies yet of Bravo talent, taking place two and a half months after the police killing of George Floyd sparked a revolutionary nationwide Black Lives Matter movement and thrust institutions and networks like Bravo into the spotlight over their own handling of race and diversity.
Counting Real Housewives of Atlanta star Kandi Burruss as an executive producer and hosted by E!’s Nina Parker, the panel discussion found stars revealing their thoughts on the Black Lives Matter movement, their own experiences with racism, and their responses to All Lives Matter folk and the “Karens” of the world.
The roundtable echoed the format and goals of specials like Oprah Winfrey’s OWN Spotlight: Where Do We Go From Here? and Bravo’s own special episodes of Watch What Happens Live from June, both of which tried to spotlight the history and scope of the issues facing Black people in America, while also advancing the question of what comes next.
But there is something undeniably different when the conversation is being had by Real Housewives.
These aren’t academics or politicians, but TV personalities whose popularity stems from their willingness to bare themselves, warts and all, for the entertainment—and, hopefully, empathy—of viewers.
As that can often present itself as drunken debauchery, gossip, and screaming matches, there’s something sobering and, as such, powerful about these stars articulating their own experiences on these issues. In doing so, they may reach audiences and minds in ways that the other specials couldn’t.
Many fans turn to these shows and stars for fun and distraction, and therefore don’t want to see them in this context. That these times demand that those fans watch and learn from these stars in this capacity is even more reason why it’s necessary for Bravo to air specials like this and for its stars take part in them.
To wit, Real Housewives of Orange County star Braunwyn Windham-Burke, who is white, revealed that she lost 30,000 followers on her social media accounts after transitioning from being “a passive Housewife, because I didn’t want to rock the boat,” to becoming vocal about Black Lives Matter and racism. (She also, as it were, lost three of her closest friends, angry that her allyship didn’t have a “nicer,” more comfortable tone.)
Garcelle Beauvais (Real Housewives of Beverly Hills), Gizelle Bryant (Real Housewives of Potomac), Leah McSweeney (Real Housewives of New York City), Dr. Britten Cole (Married to Medicine LA), and Dr. Simone Whitmore (Married to Medicine Atlanta) were among the panelists, speaking not just about incidents in their own lives, but their frustrations about the ways people talk about it today. “If you’re ‘colorblind,’ that means you don’t even see me,” Dr. Cole said.
But conspicuously missing from the conversation was talk about their experiences as Black talent on Bravo, a network whose past issues with race and diversity have been brought into sharper focus in recent months. There was no talk of the action the network has already taken, firing cast members of shows including Vanderpump Rules and Below Deck: Mediterranean, or about the actions fans and cast members have pressured the network to take.
At the end of May, Bravo released a statement in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, saying, "We owe it to our Black staff, talent, production partners & viewers to demand change and accountability. To be silent is to be complicit.”
The act of airing Sunday night’s Movement Not a Moment special certainly is a major, impactful step in ensuring the conversation doesn’t die and that Bravo fans remain confronted with these issues. Still, it would have been valuable to hear from Black talent about the ways in which they observed that pledge for action enacted with respect to their shows in the last two months.
That said, what the stars did discuss was eye-opening and insightful.
They talked about the systemic ways in which they’ve been discriminated against because of their skin color, how they wear their hair, and even their names.
“If you name your children three syllables, then a white person’s not going to be able to pronounce it and then when they see their name on a resume they’re not going to give you a call back,” Bryant said, before making the point: “And a black man wearing a hoodie and a white man wearing a hoodie are two separate things.”
Toya Bush-Harris of Married to Medicine Atlanta told a story about the time a white man in a pick-up truck drove head-on into a car she was driving with her two young children in tow. When the police arrived, they immediately bypassed her and went to check if the man was OK. He had to tell them that they should probably be checking on the woman with two young children in the car that he hit.
Beauvais recalled times that people assumed she was the nanny to her kids, because they’re half-Black. She also talked about shopping in a New York City high-end store and the disdain with which the salesclerk showed her a bracelet, assuming she couldn’t afford it. “I had a back and forth of do I buy it just to show her, or do I even really like it?”
Burruss echoed the sentiment, talking about being offensively directed to sales racks at stores when she asks for help and being conflicted on whether to spend big to prove a point. “Sometimes I just want to show her that I can because I can. But at the same time you don’t want to give that person your business.”
Bryant talked about how her twin daughters went to school one day during sixth grade to find the N-word written in black Sharpie on their desks. “For them to come home and tell me that, I want to burn down the school. I don’t even know how to address that. Because here we are, we think we’ve made so much progress and we haven’t….I’m setting my kids up for failure if I don’t teach them they won’t be treated the same, because they won’t be treated the same.”
A fascinating and particularly educational section of the special comes when the Married to Medicine stars talk about racial disparity in healthcare, which includes everything from how patients are treated and dismissed by white doctors, how Black doctors are treated by colleagues, and even how medicine is taught in medical schools. Look up a skin rash in medical books, and every photo will be of white skin, they said.
If Bravolebrities earn their keep by being unfiltered, then their thoughts on those who respond to the Black Lives Matter chants by saying “All Lives Matter” delivers.
“It’s almost insulting because Blacks are at such a disadvantage at almost every aspect. It’s insulting to have someone tell me All Lives Matter. Of course All Lives Matter. We are all God’s children. But until we deal with the inequities that Black people have been dealt with since the arrival to this country, nothing’s going to be fair,” said Dr. Whitmore.
After Windham-Burke posited that there are white people who don’t understand the nuances in delineating between Black and All Lives Matter and need to be educated, Dr. Cole called it out as an excuse for those people.
It’s “just giving them a pass,” she said. “They know what it means. They know it doesn't mean Only Black Lives Matter because we would have said Only Black Lives Matter. Clearly they know it.” For them, All Lives Matter is a retaliatory statement, not a humanitarian one. “To the privileged, equality feels like oppression.”
Then the topic of “Karens” came up. The conversation was stripped of the snark that’s turned the behavior of white people who think they can police what people of color can do or say in public into a meme. The cast members had all experienced Karen-isms in their lives, and, because of how society treats Black people, been denied the right to react in a normal, humane way.
“Black people are not allowed to have natural reactions,” Dr. Cole said. And Dr. Eugene Harris of Married to Medicine Atlanta made the crucial point: “Remember, Emmett Till died because of a Karen.”
When it comes to how Bravo has handled and spoken about race in recent months, there has been criticism despite the praise for featuring these conversations on Watch What Happens Live and supporting stars who are using their platforms to speak openly about the movement. Some wonder whether it is unfair of the network to put the onus on its Black talent to speak up about change.
We asked Bryant about that specifically when we interviewed her ahead of the recent season five premiere of The Real Housewives of Potomac.
“I don't mind the burden, because it's not a burden,” she said. “I'm just happy that people are listening. So, the conversation is going to happen regardless, whether I had it with my pillow, whether I had it with my children, or whether I had it with the senior vice president of Bravo. We're going to have these conversations. I'm just happy now that they're listening.”