Entertainment

‘RHONY’ Fans Are Now Annoyed by the Same Racism Discourse They Asked For

Eboni K. Williams has been leading necessary change on the Bravo series, and it's important viewing for understanding the struggle Black women face educating the unwilling.
Alex Zaragoza
Brooklyn, US
July 13, 2021, 11:00am
Eboni K. Williams during a heated discussion on RHONY
Credit: Bravo

In the nine episodes of RHONY season 13 that have aired so far, conversations on race have been front and center. That’s in large part due to the addition of a new cast member, Eboni K. Williams, a family law and civil litigation lawyer and broadcaster who hosts the podcast Holding Court. A former host on Fox News Specialists, she is the first Black woman to be cast on the show. And after a long history of very white rich ladies doing things like peeing in corn mazes and sniping about someone’s “Herman Munster shoes,” she's taking her castmates to task when it comes to important topics. It’s not going over well. 

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From the start, it's been clear that Williams wanted to approach the RHONY platform not just as a vehicle for sharing her life, but also for airing the issues that matter to her as a Black woman—a necessary step following the events of last year and in response to Bravo long falling short when it comes to race. It’s made this season occasionally hard to stomach as Williams attempts to lead her co-stars Ramona Singer and Luann de Lesseps to a greater degree of awareness about the Black experience. In the process of explaining topics like white fragility, microaggressions, and white supremacy, she’s been on the receiving end of those very aggressions, culminating in a blow-out this week that led Singer to yell, “Am I supposed to apologize for being white?” Oof. Brutal.

Williams’ entry into the chaotic world of Housewives was welcome news following discussions from fans and critics (including myself) about the extreme lack of diversity and entrenched racism across Bravo’s flagship series (and others). Those conversations—along with attempts to cast women from non-white backgrounds in their historically white-as-hell franchises, including Crystal Kung Minkoff on Real Housewives of Beverly Hills and Tiffany Moon on Real Housewives of Dallas—have been bubbling for years, but the reckoning that came after the murder of George Floyd created a bigger groundswell. People were loud in their demands for greater inclusion and open discussions on race and racism on reality TV shows like Real Housewives and The Bachelor, calling for greater care from producers and respective networks when it comes to handling these matters. We wanted our favorite tequila-soda-lime-swigging loose cannons to learn something: to be transparent about their privilege and their politics, to open up their predominantly white circle to some color, to be better. But now, many viewers (and even critics) seem to be annoyed with that. 

On a recent episode, Williams invited the ladies and new friend Bershan Shaw (who is also Black) to dinner in Harlem. As an educational exercise, Williams assigned each of them a historical Black figure from the iconic Manhattan neighborhood that resembled them in some way (Cabaret singer de Lesseps was given Josephine Baker, for example), and then gives them a brief bio about that individual. In his recap of the episode, Vulture writer and Housewives expert Brian Moylan called it “one of the most boring episodes of Real Housewives of New York City in modern memory” and referred  to Williams as a “schoolmarm.” While he acknowledged that what Williams is attempting to do with this platform is “very important,” he argued that this moment was too didactic and no fun to watch, and that not enough of her debut season has focused on other aspects of her life and personality. (Moylan has written for VICE.)

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This has been a recurring critique across social media, and feels especially telling given the public's simultaneous embrace of RHOBH’s Kathy Hilton on RHOBH, whose out-of-touch zaniness aligns more with the vision of Housewives that made it a cultural phenomenon. Other WOC cast members who have joined predominantly white Housewives franchises have also struggled with discussions around race: Dr. Tiffany Moon found herself in endless arguments and facing several microaggressions both on-and-off screen at the hands of her co-stars on RHOD; RHOBH’s Crystal Kung Minkoff was tasked with explaining the offensiveness of colorblindness to Sutton Stracke and has been called cold, smug, and a mean girl online.

Williams responded to Moylan’s recap in a Medium post, writing, “Contrary to popular belief, I am in no way introducing race for the first time on The Real Housewives of New York. In fact, The Real Housewives of New York has always prominently featured race all seasons, every episode. That race happened to be white. And so my insistence to move the central focus away from whiteness and to have the audacity to center Blackness, feels boring or uncomfortable and even unwatchable for some?” Moylan wrote this week that he intends to address Williams’ response in his Housewives newsletter.

It’s clear Williams has no intention of letting up, and she has the public support of some of her co-stars. Real Housewives of New York star Leah McSweeney posted a glammed-out selfie on Instagram with the caption: “ps. I see all you bravo fan accounts that were bashing bravo for not having a diverse NYC cast but now mad that race is being discussed. Hard conversations are being had and none of us are doing it perfectly. That includes ALL of us. But we are doing it.”

It’s hard not to twist with frustration for Williams as she has these conversations with her co-stars; enlightening them is clearly testing every ounce of her patience, composure, and will—especially as the women complain, call her "angry," or say she doesn’t appear to have suffered in her life. It’s doubly hard when her two biggest allies on the show, McSweeney and Morgan, are hardly much help when the conflict begins to boil.

During an Election night party at Williams' home, Sonja Morgan starts loudly slurring some legitimately on-point thoughts about performative allyship (see: Ramona posting photos with Black women on Instagram to dispel any talk that she’s racist), but no one can take her seriously because her delivery is messy and aided by alcohol. In last week's episode, McSweeney also tries to engage, but quickly loses her cool and lashes out at Singer, calling her a “moron” and “what is wrong with this world.” This puts Williams in a worse position than where she started. She'll take a step forward with Singer or de Lesseps, only to go back to ground zero the next time the topic of race comes up and someone blows their lid. 

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McSweeney has been an important confidant for Williams, and is clearly trying to relieve her of the burden of educating the women, but it’s clear that Williams can’t let go of that burden. It’s part of her character and her life’s work. It’s her purpose. But also, this is what she was hired to do! This show and the ignorance of these women have made it her burden.

Breaking through to Ramona Singer, who literally leaves the room at the mere mention of anything even vaguely political, is a seemingly impossible feat. But Williams has chosen to take on the task, and it's clear this platform means something to her besides an opportunity to launch a wine brand or pop career. Why is she being punished for using her time on the show to change some perspectives, something that viewers specifically asked for? And if fans are unhappy after getting the very thing they wanted, then what combination of diversity, discussion of race, and classic Housewives hijinks will they deem acceptable? What will make people happy? 

The women of RHONY are a notoriously tough group. They're not prone to taking criticism graciously, even if it’s valid. And sure, we could argue that Williams could have made the Harlem dinner a little more "fun,"—perhaps a little less “preachy, teachy” as Singer called it, sneaking in the lessons through a walking tour or some other activity. We could argue that she could have pushed less hard at certain moments—or that she made the mistake of trying to engage in a high level-discussion on critical race theory with the wrong crowd. But nitpicking her choices within the unforgiving context of Housewives is not just unfair; it’s wrong, and just another way to keep a Black woman from challenging the status quo. Yes, we like our Housewives light and ridiculous, but we also want the Real. This is real.

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What makes this season hard to watch aren’t Williams’ efforts to educate her fellow cast members, but their reactions to them.

The criticism feels even more preposterous when you consider the ways that other cast members have chosen to fill their time on air, such as Singer forcing us to sit through a cringe Learning Annex course on “How to Have It All” a few seasons back, de Lesseps' endless soliloquies about nobility and manners, and countless other instances of these white ladies hogging the air with inane shit. They, correctly, assume that their castmates and viewers will indulge their projects, passions, and beliefs, whether they’re dumb or meaningful, because, well, they are stars of a TV show and also self-absorbed reality stars. To not give Williams the same energy is a double standard, and it's one rooted in upholding white supremacy. 

The funny thing is, her work is making an impact. Singer had a sit down with Williams in last week’s episode following the Harlem dinner, and as messy as it got at some points, she let her new friend know that she googled “microaggressions” so she could better understand the concept. Granted, Singer also reiterated over the course of the conversation (and others) that she's not interested in being educated, and she is the most notoriously elitist cast member across the Housewives franchises. Still, for Singer, it felt like a major step even if it is the bare minimum. Williams did that. But who we need to be zeroing in on is Singer, not Williams.

And it simply isn't true that we don't get to see other facets of her personality. Watching the show this season, I couldn't help feeling moved by the care she’s putting into helping Morgan gain confidence and find love, her experiences as a single Black woman, and her pain as she processes the impending death of her ailing grandmother. It's just that those parts aren’t getting the same amount of air time, or causing as much drama, as the arguments around racism. There are also moments where we see her trying to let loose, twerking (or “tweaking” as Morgan calls it) in a pleather catsuit and going boxing with Morgan and McSweeney. As she said on the most recent episode, she’s just trying to make sure she’s doing that with women who don’t actively uphold white supremacy. What’s not to understand? Who wants to wine down with people who are active participants in their oppression?

Perhaps we’re heading into a period of wokeness fatigue; acknowledging and combatting realities of violence and discrimination against Black and brown people, as history has forced us to do time and time again, takes work. That work most often falls to those most impacted. It’s exhausting, and unfair. Seeing that play out for Williams can feel triggering for those of us who have dealt with this our whole lives, but it arguably is necessary viewing for those who don’t realize just how hard it is for Black women to have these conversations with unwilling listeners. After a year of COVID-19 and protests and endless hard conversations, it’s understandable to want a break, to want some classic Housewives shade and escapades. However, the messiness and ridiculous antics that make these shows a treat is tarnished when cast members have documented histories of racist actions. Are we really asking for that to come at the cost of progress within spaces where we specifically demanded progress? Make it make sense! You push against a wall in the hopes to move it a centimeter every day, because that’s what change requires, even on our reality shows.