Before Season 1 of Real Housewives of Potomac premiered on Bravo in 2016, the women in the cast “made it clear that drink throwing and table flipping isn’t a part of this season’s plot lines,” according to a Washington Post article that ran at the time.
“We use our words to fight,” Karen Huger told the Post. “We don’t fight physically and that actually helps us move on with the next day. Life is too short to stay angry.” Gizelle Bryant agreed with this, saying, “If we’re able to deal with it, and a table doesn’t get flipped, that’s fantastic. People can know that we’re Black and we can have discussions. We can deal with it, and nobody got their hair ripped out.”
This belief—and the now-failed effort to manifest it over five seasons—might be what Karen is referring to in last night’s episode when she says, “We never thought, as Black women, we would be right here, but we are.”
Because this season on RHOP, words very much stopped being enough and somebody actually got their hair ripped out. After Monique Samuels and Candiace Dillard came to blows during a group trip to a winery in the episode that aired last week, several members of the cast are taking the stance that Monique’s behavior is unacceptable—not because it’s, you know, wrong to punch someone in the head, but because it validates negative stereotypes about Black women, and is bad for the image of all Black women.
This is flat-out respectability politics—an attempt to consciously avoid stereotypical negative behaviors associated with a marginalized group in an effort to receive better treatment and achieve social change. Respectability politics places the blame for the denial of civil rights and basic human dignity on the people being oppressed instead of the oppressor, which is where it belongs. It makes individuals responsible for the perception of the entire group, and sets us up so that anything bad that happens to us as a result of racism can be twisted to be viewed as our own fault.
Seeing this invoked on RHOP is disappointing, especially in a political moment when more and more people seem to be waking up to the fact that systemic racism has ongoing, devastating effects on all Black people in the U.S.—including those who “behave properly.” The reaction is even more frustrating when it’s coming from people who have a well-established history of acting out on the series. (I’m not complaining—messy behavior makes for good reality TV!—but let’s be real here.)
Also conspicuously missing from the conversation last night was much about Candiace’s well-being; the cast members who are angriest about Monique’s behavior don’t appear to really give a damn about Candiace, which is… actually not surprising. Last night’s sit-down was never about Candiace, just like it was never about Black women as a whole. It’s about the fact that Wendy Osefo and Gizelle (and Robyn, to a lesser degree) feel that Monique’s behavior makes them look bad—like the kind of Black women they’ve tried to distance themselves from over the years.
The big fight goes down like this: the women are at a winery, celebrating an award Gizelle recently won. Candiace is in full-on Christian Girl Autumn drag, complete with a floppy black hat. Monique looks like a Black Betty Draper, though her tasteful olive green vest and black turtleneck later look more like tactical gear as the shaky camera follows her taking a shortcut through the dark woods as she looks for Candiace.
After Ashley Darby asks Candiace and Monique how things are between the two of them—they’ve been on shaky ground in recent episodes—things get awkward, and then tense. Candiace begins antagonizing Monique while holding a glass of wine and waving around a serrated knife (which Wendy—rightly!—gently tries to take from her a few times). Candiace begins taunting Monique; “You gon’ drag me?” she says over and over again. Monique finally replies, “Do you want me to?” and begins flipping Candiace’s hair; after a few flips, Candiace pulls at Monique’s vest. Someone—Gizelle or Robyn Dixon—pushes Monique’s shoulder in what seems to be an attempt to get her to back up/stop, which Monique thinks is Candiace pushing her. Monique grabs Candiace’s hair in one hand and starts hitting her on the top of her head with her other hand. Producers rush in.
A drink splashes in Monique’s face; at some point, Candiace’s wine glass breaks, so she is left swinging the jagged stem around as she struggles to get up. Someone manages to grab one of Monique’s arms, but she still has Candiace’s hair in her hand in a tight grip, made possible by the barre classes we’ve seen her taking over the years. It takes several people a long while to pull her off of Candiace; no matter how many people shout, “Monique, let her go!”… she doesn’t.
The moment Candiace—a pageant winner with a trust fund, who has been called a “princess” and a “little girl” on the show—is freed from Monique’s grip and at a safe distance, she yells, “Get that hood rat ass bitch out of here!” Then: “THE HOOD. RAT. CAME. OUT.” Monique is ushered into a stairwell by a producer; seconds later, Candiace screams, “You’re a GHETTO ASS HOOD ASS BITCH! You don’t know how to fucking act!” The producer blocks the door so Monique can’t go back into the barn; instead, she starts walking calmly down the stairs while Candiace calls her “ghetto” again on a split screen. Once outside, Monique breaks into a jog and approaches the barn’s entrance. Two producers realize what is happening and intercept Monique, struggling to hold her back. Finally, they tell her that Candiace is gone and she stalks back into the barn.
Karen and Wendy attempt to calm Monique down in the barn moments later, but the thing is, she is calm—not a single hair is out of place and she hasn’t even broken a sweat. When she matter-of-factly says, “I’ll kill her” moments later, she is both totally serious and also obviously not serious. (Robyn actually laughs about it.)
Candiace isn’t really physically hurt in any of this; when her husband asks her if she’s OK immediately following the fight, she replies, “I’m fine, I’m just embarrassed,” which I think is probably true. Moments later, she says through tears, “I don’t want to look like a fucking ghetto ass hood rat.”
In the episode that followed the one with the fight, which aired last night, Gizelle and new cast member Wendy (and, to a lesser extent, Robyn) hammered this point home again and again: “The moment you put your hands on somebody, and perpetuate the narrative that Black women continue to be angry and violent, that’s a problem,” Wendy says. Robyn calls Monique “an awful role model for Black women.”
But the harshest criticism comes from Gizelle, who has disliked Monique and been inexplicably nasty to her for literally no reason since the moment Monique first appeared on the show on Season 2, and who is clearly relishing the opportunity to retcon justification for it. She shows up to the group’s post-fight sit-down with “private security” (!!!) and lays her argument out early on: “We have been able to hold ourselves above the stereotype—and in five minutes, she took it away.”
It’s not just the cast who reacted this way. Wendy Williams appeared on Watch What Happens Live right after the fight aired last Sunday, and immediately began talking about how the fight was so “beneath them.” Williams was particularly upset that the fight happened not in someone’s home, but in public—as if a home is somehow more private and thus acceptable when the whole thing is being filmed.
The next day, Williams had Candiace on her show, and opened the segment by telling Candiace that she and Monique are both “too good” for “fist-fighting and hair pulling.” Candiace agreed, adding, “I don’t want this being representative of me or, really, in 2020, of Black women at all”—as if fighting was ever representative of Black women. Later in the interview, Candiace says of Monique, “You have embarrassed Black women as a whole with your horrible behavior, and I can’t allow that.”
The term “respectability politics” was coined by Harvard history and African-American studies professor Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham in the ‘90s. In plain terms, it’s telling Black people, “pull up those baggy pants and don’t act so angry and maybe you won’t get harassed by the cops.” In the case of Black women, it’s about never being angry or loud, not having “unkempt” hair, not being openly sexually active or having kids out of wedlock. Respectability politics essentially communicates, “Don’t act that way because it’s bad for the cause.” As Carol Anderson put it in Lit Hub, “with so much focus on behavior, very little attention is paid to the important role institutional, systemic racism plays in fostering continuing inequality.”
Terms like “ghetto,” “hood rat,” and “ratchet” are another way of reinforcing “socially acceptable” behavior in Black people. These terms aren’t universally bad—slurs and pejoratives can be reclaimed, and context definitely matters. But when the person using these words is, let’s say, a wealthy Black person who is nastily attempting to create distance between herself and other Black people who she sees as less than, well, that’s a problem. It’s buying into the idea that only “good” Black people are deserving of respect or the right to be fully flawed humans, and acting as though this belief is somehow good for the cause.
While the turn to respectability this season on Potomac is disheartening, it’s not totally surprising for this particular group of ‘Wives. The first season of RHOP was not actually conceived of as a Real Housewives franchise. It was originally envisioned as a show about “Jack and Jill moms”—that is, women who were part of Jack and Jill of America, a membership organization founded in Philadelphia in 1938 for the mothers of African Americans children ages 2 to 19. According to a 1992 Chicago Tribune report, “In its heyday, Jack and Jill was a prestigious club for those then considered, almost literally, the cream of black society. Through its emphasis on mainstream social and cultural activities, Jack and Jill indirectly helped black children, many from lighter-skinned families, to fit into white America.”
Currently, the organization’s website states that “membership can be obtained via legacy status or via invitation”—that is, you can’t even apply if you don’t know someone who’s already in. One Jack and Jill mom told the New York Times that those invited to are “people whom we know professionally, socially or went to college with. It must be someone who can afford the fees and the activities—like horseback riding and skiing.”
According to a 2015 article in the Washington Post, the Jack and Jill angle for the reality show, originally called Potomac Ensemble (lol), was scrapped once the national organization got wind of it. The president of Jack and Jill mailed a letter to all members that said, in part, “As a result of these recent activities, we think that it is important to review our stated code because as mothers, we all agreed to abide by these rules as a condition of our membership.” The Post article continues:
“Chief among those edicts, according to the letter? Members are expected to act publicly in a way ‘that reflects the high moral and ethical character of Jack and Jill mothers’ by ‘exercising good manners, avoiding derogatory, demeaning and insulting remarks, and keeping confidences and maintaining confidentiality.’”
Despite the re-packaging (and removal of the references to Jack and Jill), “etiquette” is something of a vestigial organ on Season 1 of RHOP—and, along with it, a lot of snooty comments from the cast about the right way to behave, and the “right” kind of Black people. (As of July 2019, Potomac was 69 percent white and 6 percent Black. Arlington is 71 percent white and 9 percent Black. Bethesda is 81.5 percent white and 4 percent Black.)
In the very first episode, Charrisse Jackson-Jordan, annoyed that Gizelle has brought her hairdresser/close friend to a party at Charrisse’s house, says, “This is not how you act in someone’s home in Potomac. Maybe in the ghetto, but not in Potomac.” Later, she doubles down: “That’s why I don’t go to the ghetto.” Karen takes Charrisse’s side, repeatedly referring to Gizelle’s friend of several years as “the help,” and defending her comments later at the reunion.
After the group is introduced to Ashley, the first housewife with hair that reads as natural Black texture, Gizelle describes the meeting in a confessional: “When I look at Ashley, I see hair. It’s just all this hair. It’s like being accosted by a big BUSH.” (When a viewer brings up how nasty this comment was during the reunion, Gizelle refuses to apologize for it.) Later in the same episode, Gizelle criticizes Ashley for “THOT-ish behavior,” also saying, “She’s a lil’ ratchet, a lil’ rough around the edges. I’ll tell you one thing: She is not from Potomac, Maryland.”
While the hair ripping and table flipping that the original cast of Potomac feared took five years to happen, it’s not like “using words to fight,” as Karen put it in that old Post interview, is exactly landed gentry behavior—on this or any other RH franchise. Over the years on Potomac, there have been several big shouting matches and interactions that are kind of terrible, and that come very close to getting physical.
The most egregious was the “butter knife fight” in Season 4, in which Candiace invites the group over for a dinner party and then starts screaming at Ashley after Ashley—accurately!—says that the group is dining in Candiace’s mother’s home. The fact that Candiace’s mother supports her financially is a sensitive topic, and Candiace immediately takes things up several notches. She starts screaming in Ashley’s face, while waving the knife around. Candiace’s husband Chris darts in from the kitchen to pull Candiace back; as he does, she flings the knife in Ashley’s direction (though it falls to the floor without hitting her). Chris actually attempts to physically restrain Candiace three times in this episode, at one point going so far as to actually sit on top of her.
Later in that season, still unwilling to apologize or admit having done anything wrong at the butter knife dinner party, Candiace gets into an argument with Monique, yelling the now-infamous line, “What are you going to do—‘drag me,’ Monique?” In a later confessional, Candiace says haughtily, with all the Becky she can muster, “I don’t like being judged by someone who has exhibited quite hood behavior.”
A convenient elision of people’s own mistakes was present throughout the RHOP aftermath episode last night. A lot of it comes from Wendy, who has been clutching her pearls about the fight since it happened. “I just don’t think that as Black women, that’s what we’re trying to put forth,” she says to Monique. “Like, that is a narrative that society paints of us—that we’re angry, that we’re physical, that we can’t use our head. And, baby girl, what you did that night brought everything people have said about us to light.”
But one of the biggest unprovoked fights on RHOP involved Wendy, and happened just a few episodes ago. After the women go to Monique’s lake house for a girls’ trip, Wendy is upset to discover that Ashley, a first-time mom, brought her new baby along. Wendy, whose third baby is the same age as Ashley’s son, and who apparently didn’t think to ask if she could bring her daughter, starts screaming at Ashley. When the other women try to jump in to explain why she’s out of line, Wendy screams at them too. Her outburst is completely unprovoked and genuinely shocking, especially given that she’s a new cast member with very little shared history with the group. She also flatly refuses to apologize for it.
Gizelle also seems to have amnesia when she explains why she’s upset with Monique—who she refers to as “a liability”—in a confessional that aired last night. “Do me and Jamal, a pastor, have an image to protect? One hundred percent,” Gizelle says. “So hanging around someone who decides to fight women on national television, is that a good look? No.”
Ma’am… what? Not only does Gizelle have a long history of getting into loud yelling matches and being mean for no reason on the show, but her megachurch pastor ex-husband-now-boyfriend Jamal cheated on her when they were married and is rumored to have fathered a child with a woman in his congregation. On a hot mic moment in last week’s episode, Gizelle’s own father said that Jamal has “six, seven baby mamas.” And fans are already speculating that the restaurant Jamal suddenly and inexplicably “bought” for his teenage daughters this season was done for some kind of shady purpose. To say Monique is a threat to the couple’s reputation is flatly ridiculous.
Of course, hypocrisy on the part of the person calling for Black people to behave “better,” lest they embarrass all Black people and/or find themselves deserving of white people’s mistreatment, is nothing new. The most infamous example is the 2004 Bill Cosby “Pound Cake” speech, in which he ranted about Black people with “bad grammar,” who have children out of wedlock and give them “Black” names, who have reclaimed the N-word, and who get shot by police—leading comedian Hannibal Buress to quip in 2014, “Yeah, but you rape women, Bill Cosby, so turn the crazy down a couple notches.”
Just this summer Cee Lo Green criticized Nicki Minaj along with Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion for being desperate, using their sexuality to get ahead, and being bad role models. (In 2013, Green was accused of spiking a woman’s drink with MDMA before sexually assaulting her; he pleaded no contest to one felony count of furnishing a controlled substance, and completed community service.)
While breaking the fourth wall is frowned upon, I kept waiting for someone in last night’s episode to at least hint at the fact that this isn’t the first time someone on Real Housewives has gotten into a physical altercation in public and/or on camera. And it’s most often white women who are pulling hair and throwing drinks in each other’s faces. A brief sampling:
Sure, some white people might try to say that the women of Potomac alone are “ratchet” because of this fight, while overlooking the behavior of the other franchises’ casts—but that doesn’t mean those people are correct, or that we need to get ahead of it and start saying it ourselves.
What Monique did to Candiace is Not OK, but Monique is also clearly… Not OK??? The woman has been wound tighter than a drum in Season 5, but the clues have been there for a while. Over the years, viewers have watched her say she was too busy to mourn her miscarriage; talk about how physically difficult her most recent pregnancy was on her body; and say repeatedly that she is exhausted from having only two small children to care for. She’s also said that her husband, Chris, a former NFL player, would love for her to be “barefoot in the kitchen, cooking him some dinner.” When he finally agreed to stop pushing her to have more kids, it was because her third pregnancy tanked their sex life. While Monique often seems somewhat reticent to share the messy details of what’s going on with her, or to speak badly of her husband on the show, it’s been increasingly obvious that something (or multiple things) is bubbling under the surface.
Meanwhile, in the same episode as the one with the big fight, a montage of Monique talking about all the things she has to do in a single day—taking care of three kids, managing the couple’s rental properties—is edited for laughs. The joke appears to be that the producer is getting tired of listening to her talk about it.
It is, of course, not acceptable to whoop someone’s ass and then say you were simply expressing your emotions. Struggling with your mental health isn’t an excuse for hurting or bullying other people, and it’s understandable for viewers and her fellow cast members to be disgusted with Monique’s behavior. But a lot of things can be true at once, and I don’t think it’s wild to expect a woman’s community to look at what they know about her and what happened leading up to the moment she absolutely popped off and say, “Hey, are you OK?” (And yes, everyone should have also asked Candiace that question after the butter knife fight and ensuing outbursts.) To their credit, Ashley and Karen did more of this, but it was disappointing to see Gizelle, Wendy, and Robyn go so hard in a different direction and use the well-being of Black women as a whole as justification.
After the fight originally aired last week, I thought about it for days. I thought a lot about how Gizelle, Robyn, Charrisse, Candiace, and Ashley have all attended solo therapy on-screen (or talked at length about their experiences with therapy). Monique, on the other hand, has only ever been shown doing “counseling,” which she does through her church/with her pastor, and which thus far has included her husband. I thought of all the truly outrageous ways all of the women of Potomac have been and continue to be disrespected by the men in their lives. I thought of the reality that Black women are still so often expected to take care of others and praised for being strong versus viewed as soft and vulnerable.
I also thought about postpartum rage and the ways that anger is often a cover for deep sadness and/or a symptom of depression. I thought of Meghan Markle’s eyes filling with tears when a reporter asked her how she was doing, because, she said, no one ever really asked her that. I thought about how Serena Williams nearly died in childbirth and how Monique recently said that her beloved parrot T’Challa is the only one who listens to her.
And then I thought about how the reaction to Monique’s blow-up on the show was basically “How dare you not think of how your behavior might affect the Black community as a whole????” and I just felt so sad.
I wanted to believe that in the past couple of years, everyone has started to acknowledge that being the “right” kind of Black person won’t save us, and to push back on the idea that it will. We know now that there’s actually no acceptable way to protest for civil rights; no right way to go for a run; no right way to sleep at home in your bed. And, yes, the summer of 2020 drove this point home, but it wasn’t a secret last year when the show was filmed. We know damn well that Black girls and women are not pushed out of school and more likely to die in childbirth and policed as mothers because we are “ghetto” or “hood rats”—this shit keeps happening to us because of racism.
I know what it’s like to not feel like you can make any mistakes, and to be perfectly aware that any fuck-up on the part of you or other people will be used against the entire group. But we should be intellectually honest and admit the terrifying thing: that racists don’t need a reason to justify their behavior, and that we’ll never be able to do enough to appease them. Controlling your emotions, being the “perfect” wife and mother, always being “classy,” never being angry or loud or messy… these things may buy you a little time or a little relief, but they ultimately won’t guarantee that we—Candiace or Monique or me or any of us—are safe forever. The game is rigged, and it always has been. The literal least we can do is not do racists’ work for them.
Rachel Miller is the author of The Art of Showing Up: How to Be There for Yourself and Your People. Follow her on Twitter.