Eboni K. Williams Won’t Stand to Be Called Boring

The star of ‘Real Housewives of New York’ talks to VICE about representation, staying true to herself, and being called the B-word.

Aug 3 2021, 1:00pm

Eboni K. Williams loves Harlem. When we speak on the phone on a muggy New York summer morning, she’s sitting in an Airbnb she rented in the historic New York City neighborhood while she waits for a certificate of occupancy for her very first home purchase—a condo in, you guessed it, Harlem. Since moving to New York from L.A. in 2014 for a job at CBS News, Harlem was the place the host, podcaster, and newest cast member on Real Housewives of New York wanted to be; it felt like home.

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“There's nowhere else I’m living but Harlem,” she told me.

Knowing she’s walking the same streets Langston Hughes, Josephine Baker, and James Baldwin once strolled—where she can pass statues of Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman, and turn down streets named after Malcolm X and Adam Clayton Powell—drew her there. As a Black woman who built a successful career in law and media, where she’s challenged the stubbornly ignorant masses (she worked at Fox News, ‘nuff said), provides insight on major court cases on her podcast Holding Court with Eboni K. Williams, and speaks directly to her community as a host on REVOLT Black News, Williams has worked her ass off to become someone that would make her spiritual Harlem neighbors proud. “I feel uniquely positioned for this work,” she said of her advocacy. “I feel built for this work...I have done this work because it excites me... The most simple joy of my life is to spread the good news about Blackness in America.”

So naturally, now as the newest Housewife and the first Black cast member on the hugely popular Bravo series’ New York franchise, she wanted to share that meaningful neighborhood with her new friends. She was inherently aware that as a Black woman, there is more riding on her time in this position typically reserved for affluent, out-of-touch white women who, say, throw their prosthetic leg on a dinner table during an argument or perform the most crazy-eyed catwalk in the history of fashion.

“I've found myself the first in many spaces throughout my entire life,” she said. “The first in a space has to absolutely be exceptional, and there's hardly any margin for error. Because if the first shows up with much margin for error and a lacking of exceptionalism, they will likely be the last. So my responsibility is to make sure that I show up in a way that affords further opportunity going forward.”

On a fateful night that played out on our TV screens on the current season of RHONY, Williams invited her new friends out to Harlem, where most of the women have never set foot (and we all know why even if it’s not said explicitly), for a gorgeous dinner and a small lesson on the local cultural figures who shaped our world from within the neighborhood’s old Brownstones and bars. What started as a dinner in which she gave each attendee a locally-made candle and a short bio on an iconic Black figure they share traits with, led to her castmates, viewers and at least one influential Housewives critic calling her too “preachy” and boring. Williams wrote a rebuttal in a Medium post to Brian Moylan, the author of the original critique (who has previously written for VICE). He later apologized in his newsletter and shared what he learned in the process. I had my own thoughts about the larger issue, because I, too, felt that Williams was being labeled unfairly, and that the public’s response to her tacitly reinforces white supremacy in a space where people have specifically asked for racial progress.

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Boring may seem like an insignificant criticism, but it carries a whole lot of weight in this context, and Williams refuses to be labeled as such.

“I'll tell you, this boredom-gate or whatever it is, it’s a dog whistle,” said Williams. “To say that what people are really articulating with the euphemism of boredom is really a complete resistance. They're hostile. It’s a hostility to being, in their perception, force-fed exposure to the Black American experience. That's what that is.”

As she puts it, over 13 seasons of RHONY the arguably boring escapades (a party to celebrate Jill Zarin’s partnership with Kodak, where Ramona Singer trash talks the brand), random-ass eccentricities (Kelly Bensimon prefers to jog in the middle of the street in Midtown Manhattan among passing cars), and moments of imparting wisdom or education (Singer’s Learning Annex talk on “How to Have it All”) are given ample grace and airtime. Why? “I think viewers welcome those scenes and those experiences because they view them as a bit absurd,” said Williams, “And I think when you're being presented with lessons and/or exposure to the works of Baldwin or Langston Hughes or Josephine Baker, you can't dismiss it with that same level of absurdity.” 

Historically, Real Housewives of any city have stayed quiet on their political leanings. It’s bad for business to alienate a large portion of your fanbase if, for instance, you oppose gay marriage. It was only until the election of Donald Trump that politics really began to matter, for viewers and within certain casts. The murder of George Floyd and the reckoning that followed in the U.S. exacerbated that tension within the Housewives universe, and Bravo struggled to respond in a balanced and meaningful way, canning some of their stars for racist behavior and not others. Williams’ addition as a Housewives, along with Real Housewives of Dallas’ Tiffany Moon and Crystal Kung Minkoff on Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, were an attempt to rectify the lack of diversity on their flagship series, but they, too, have struggled as a person of color dealing with rampant white nonsense, and seemingly gotten little support as they navigate that world. Williams has been adamant about keeping her castmates and, by proxy a large cross-section of their viewers, accountable for racially insensitive remarks or all-out ignorance, refusing to allow Housewives to go back to its old ways. She takes that same energy to social media, often responding to comments where she’s called a hypocrite, told to tone it down, or subjected to incredibly offensive and racist trolling.

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“There’s plenty of Black people and other people of color that also rely upon their proximity to a white-dominant status quo,” she said. “This is why some of the feedback I'm getting from even my own Black community is ‘lighten up, sis,’ ‘it's too much. sis,’ ‘we want to just watch pulling wigs and cussing each other out and white people shenanigans.’ So that's been made clear to me. I simply refuse to occupy a platform of this magnitude and be complicit and damaging in my own rights.” 

A lot of what that comes down to, according to Williams, is a failure to understand even the most basic realities of the Black experience. This is evident, she explained, in a scene during a cast trip to Salem, where another conversation around race turns into Singer saying to Williams’ face that she doesn’t appear to have suffered in life. Her designer bags and affluent life don’t point to a person who has ever had it rough. “Without getting into the minutiae of it, it was so clearly indicative of one of the most basic misunderstandings of Blackness, which is that the default understanding of Blackness is a trauma story,” Williams said. “People only think of Blackness as this horrid, painful suffering experience, because they simply do not know another story. And I know another story, and I'm gonna scream it from the rooftops for as long as I have a platform.”

There would be no need for a Harlem night, according to Williams, had the women already come into it with thoughtful and nuanced knowledge of the experience of Black people in general, and specifically in a neighborhood just a few train stops away from them. Imagining, of course, that any of them would deign to take the train. (Leah McSweeney aside, who I know in my heart has thrown a few one’s in Showtime’s hat.) An open mind and willingness to listen couldn’t have hurt either.

“That would already be done and we could start from a much more well-rounded place of sisterhood,” she said. A perfect example of this in actual play is Williams’ relationship with both McSweeney, a friend of hers from off the show, and Sonja Morgan, with whom we’ve seen a truly endearing and uplifting friendship blossom. They aren’t constantly talking about race because they’re already socially conscious, listen when they need to, and don’t work overtime trying to disprove Williams’ lived and learned experience. They’re there to support, even if it doesn’t always land with their co-stars, often leading to horrible blowouts. The patience Williams exercises in extremely hostile situations on the show is a feat of composure most of us would fail at, something she chalks up to “training to be in these hostile spaces around this conversation.” But as a Black woman she isn’t afforded the luxury of lashing out even if she has every right to. Watching this season has been at times brutal, not because of her efforts but because of how horribly cringe her castmates behave in response to Williams. Viewers may not expect a lot from these ladies, who are on TV specifically because they’re out-of-touch with the realities us normie commoners contend with, but it’s impossible to continue to ignore their ignorance when it’s so damn loud.

Even with the unforgiving scrutiny that comes with being a Black woman in the public eye and one starring on a reality TV with a massive, fervently invested audience, as well as rumors that the infighting within the cast is allegedly (and questionably) tied to the conversations around race and causing problems with production, Williams refuses to back down or be anything but herself. Even it’s boring to some.

“This is not about my accountability to this audience, or the network, or my castmates,” she said. “I want to be crystal clear here. I'm accountable to two entities—my God and myself.”


Tagged:

RACISM, Bravo, reality tv, real housewives of new york, RHONY, Eboni K. Williams

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