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Credit: Charles Sykes/Bravo; Gabriel Olsen; Lou Rocco/ABC
Culture

Reality TV's Racism Problem Is Impossible to Ignore

Bravo fired two 'Vanderpump Rules' stars for targeting a Black castmate. There's finally a Black 'Bachelor'. All it took was a national uprising.
16 June 2020, 10:45am

This article originally appeared on VICE US.

Reality TV has long been a den where the superficial, the narcissistic, and the fame-hungry thrive by being their most outlandish selves—rewarded for their drunken shenanigans, screaming matches, and overall bad behaviour with adoration, spin-offs, sponsorships, and endless camera time. But when these stars' behaviour goes past problematic fave to racist, what then?

Bravo announced last week that Vanderpump Rules and reality TV fave Stassi Schroeder and her co-star/ex-bestie Kristen Doute were being fired from the show after former castmate Faith Stowers spoke about the racism she experienced from her castmates. (Schroeder was also dropped by her publicist and agency and several sponsorship deals.) According to Stowers, who is Black, the two verbally attacked her regularly, and another castmate, Brittany Cartwright, went so far as to say her hair was "nappy" after she slept with the show's resident beefy, bulging-eyed, compulsive liar Jax Taylor, who was dating his now-wife Cartwright at the time. (Cartwright has denied that she made that comment.)

On an Instagram Live with influencer and former reality TV star Candace Rice on June 2, Stowers opened up about another incident that happened in 2018, where she claimed Doute and Schroeder reported her to the police for a crime she did not commit, falsely identifying her as a woman featured in a Daily Mail article about a Black woman wanted for theft. Schroeder had recalled the incident, laughing and even bragging about it on an episode the Bitch Bible podcast in 2018, and Doute tweeted out a link to the story with a caption: "hey tweeties, doesn’t this ex #pumprules thief look familiar? someone put her on mtv & gave her a platform for press. I didn’t wanna go there but I’m going there.” Both Schroeder and Doute have since issued apologies. On Thursday, Stowers told AfterBuzz that Cartwright once called her a "nappy-headed hoe," which Cartwright denied. Stowers also told Entertainment Tonight she believes Taylor should also be fired because he "probably had more terrible things to say than these two young ladies," meaning Schroeder and Doute.

Vanderpump Rules follows a group of hot, shameless dinguses who work at former Real Housewives of Beverly Hills star Lisa Vanderpump's various West Hollywood restaurants while also lying and having sex with each other. Clearly, these professional mean girls crossed a line long ago, but Bravo did nothing about it until last week, as protests across the U.S. following the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis Police prompted Black and POC professionals in journalism, television, and other creative industries to share stories about their experiences of racism on the job.

Just as VPR's Tom Sandoval asked Taylor in season 8 why it took Vanderpump's intervention for him and his soon-to-be bride to fire their homophobic pastor, many fans are asking why it took a national uprising and public media reckoning for Bravo executives and producers, including Lisa Vanderpump, to do anything to protect Stowers when Schroeder and Doute reported her to police back in 2018. Executives also waited until this week to fire VPR newcomers Brett Caprioni and Max Boyens over racist tweets written between 2011 and 2013 that resurfaced in January. In the tweets, both Caprioni and Boyens use the n-word and make disparaging remarks against Black and Asian people. Nonetheless, in part two of the VPR reunion, which aired last week, Vanderpump defended her decision to keep Caprioni and Boyens on the show. "I have never seen any inkling of anything that would make me believe that that’s the beliefs they’re holding now," she said. "And if I had, they wouldn’t be working for me.”

Boyens apologized about his Tweets on the reunion show, offering a blanket condemnation of the language he used, failing to observe that he was policing the use of the n-word among Black people (who are, LOUDLY AND FOR ALL TO HEAR, the only people allowed to say it!). He followed up the appearance with a post on Instagram: "I do NOT, I repeat FUCKING DO NOT condone racism, hate, or judgment on others because of their color," he wrote, taking the opportunity to explain that he is "fucking proud to have black in me" (his mom is half-Black, and he grew up close to his "true hard working African American" grandfather." Despite touching on the complexities of biracial identity, he has yet to publicly acknowledge that the fact that he presents as white has a lot to do with the backlash.

Still, their firing—along with that of Schroeder and Doute—reads more like a feeble attempt at crisis management than any genuine reflection on the part of the network regarding the ways in which they turned a blind eye to racism coming from inside the house. The fact that Boyens and Caprioni were given time to "clear the air" on national television is one thing. That it was done in a rushed segment sandwiched in the middle of a fight between Taylor and Sandoval made it seem like a stunt in which the network could appear to "address" the issue while prolonging the fledgling stars' presence on the show (and in effect, swiftly sweeping it under the rug). It shows the carelessness in how issues of racism are handled by Bravo. But with Stowers coming forward about her experiences, it seems like the racism at VPR and Bravo grew too big to half-assedly discuss and move past, and so the axe fell.

What makes the firings feel even more like a bad patch-up job is the fact that racism has long plagued the (s)hallowed halls of the Bravo reality universe, with little to no accountability on the part of its perpetrators. Southern Charm is an entire series dedicated to glorifying the genteel, plantation-owning, mint julep-swigging version of the South, where every cast member is a hardcore conservative with deep, inherited wealth, some with direct lineage connected to the slave trade which they would indirectly boast about, including Kathryn Dennis and Thomas Ravenel. (On the opposite end of the spectrum, the cast of Real Housewives of Potomac visited a plantation where one cast member's ancestors were once enslaved, where they discussed the abject horrors of slavery.) After Charleston-based activist and radio host Mika Gadsden, a Black woman, publicly criticized Dennis for showing support for a pro-Trump boat parade in Charleston a few weeks back, Dennis sent a barrage of DMs to Gadsden that included a monkey emoji. She tweeted out an apology and lost a brand sponsorship, but Dennis was not fired from the show. Real Housewives in New York's Luann de Lesseps also faced criticism for donning blackface for a Diana Ross Halloween costume in 2017. She, too, remains on the show—which chronicled the incident as a problematic fumble worthy of a short storyline which aired in 2018. She was even given a chance to apologize on an episode of Watch What Happens Live.

Sadly, as Tracy Egan Morrissey pointed out in the New York Times, de Lesseps' blackface incident "was the closest that 'New York City' has ever come, in its 11-year history, to featuring an African-American woman on its cast." Wild, especially considering the city's diverse racial makeup, and how many very rich, very famous Black women call it home and could absolutely go toe-to-toe with outspoken star Dorinda Medley. With the exception of the Real Housewives of Atlanta, Real Housewives of Potomac, Shahs of Sunset, and the Married to Medicine franchises, most shows in the Bravo reality canon feature an overwhelmingly if not fully white cast, including Summer House, the Below Deck franchises, Southern Charm, and most of the Real Housewives franchises.

This creates a separation between "the Black shows" and "the white shows," which feels natural in the case of a show like RHOA considering the city's population, but strangely forced when it comes to shows like Southern Charm or Summer House. In fact, it was not until this year that Real Housewives of Beverly Hills brought a Black woman, actress and former star of The Jamie Foxx Show Garcelle Beauvais, on the main cast. Thus far, Beauvais has introduced her Black circle of friends and biracial sons on the show and hilariously (and accurately) told her castmates that eating one's own placenta is "white people stuff," but as a result of her schedule, she's unable to shoot as often.

Stowers, who worked at Vanderpump's restaurant SUR which is heavily featured on the show, has publicly said when Vanderpump and Vanderpump's publicist approached her to join VPR in 2015, they framed her participation on the show as a necessary injection of diversity. "They just told me straight-up, ‘We don’t have a lot of color on this show, and you would make a good asset to that,’” she told the New York Times. She also told the Times she was treated differently than other cast members. Later, on the Instagram Live chat with Rice, she recalled that Vanderpump asked her to play into Black stereotypes on the show by giving her castmates "Nene Leakes attitude."

Considering the stars of most of Bravo's Real Housewives franchises are wealthy white women, it's not a shock that quite a few are Trump supporters who have made racist or tone-deaf remarks, on-air and off. Orange County's Kelly Dodd, who is half Mexican, was criticised for posting a photo of herself with Donald Trump Jr. at a wedding, marvelling at the "impressive guest list," later responding that she's "not at all political." Real Housewives of Dallas star LeAnne Locken referred to her castmate Katy Brittingham as "a chirpy little Mexican." (Locken is still on the show.) Her RHOD colleague Brandi Redmond also faced backlash after a video of her mocking Asian people began circulating online. She, too, didn't lose her job, though she did [checks notes] deny she is racist because she has "slept with a lot of Mexicans." Eventually, she admitted herself into a wellness centre to "reflect" on her racist behaviour, which is a next-level rich white response to being called racist.

As Bravo navigates this PR nightmare, Schroeder conveniently announced her pregnancy and Cohen began hosting conversations about racism, police brutality, and the current moment on the Watch What Happens Live After Show with RHOA star Porsha Williams, the granddaughter of Civil Rights leader Hosea Williams, and W. Kamau Bell, a comedian and host of CNN's United Shades of America. While the latter effort is admirable, it's unclear what other steps the network is taking to scrub the deeply entrenched racism that is seen on its various series. Beyond airing segments like these and cleaning house, what are they doing to ensure their stars are held accountable for racist behaviour and to hold their programming to a higher standard of representation? What will constitute a fireable offence and what won't—especially when so many of their stars are aligned with right-wing political beliefs?

Bravo is far from the only network with programming where racism goes unchecked. ABC has a serious racism and representation problem with its crown jewel The Bachelor and its many spin-offs, including The Bachelorette and Bachelor in Paradise. On the last season of The Bachelor, in which a cabal of twenty-somethings that appear to have walked straight off the Shein app competed for the affections of pilot/worst-Bachelor-ever Peter Weber, villain Victoria Fuller was discovered to have modelled for a White Lives Matter apparel line. Fuller explained that she believed to be actually modelling for We Love Marlins, is adamantly pro-endangered fish, and does not support racism. While the incident cost her the digital cover of Cosmopolitan, The Bachelor handled her with kid gloves, inviting her to address the scandal on the reunion show.

This apparent lapse in background checking is not a new problem at Bachelor headquarters. Internet sleuths are undefeated in their ability to uncover transphobic, racist, and other grossly offensive social media activity from past contestants; one of them is blogger Reality Steve, who discovered that a former Bachelorette contestant was arrested for assaulting a woman. The casting of Lee Garrett, whose abysmally racist and sexist tweets resurfaced while on the show, is another example of such an oversight—one that feels particularly upsetting considering he was a contestant on the season starring Rachel Lindsay, a lawyer from Dallas who was the franchise's first and only Black Bachelorette. Garrett incited a feud with Black contestant Kenny King by repeatedly labelling him as "aggressive," a term that has historically been weaponised to justify violence against Black people. When other contestants pointed out the racist history of the term, Garrett was defensive rather than apologetic, and continued to prod King in a way that appeared racially motivated. And yet, Garrett wasn't sent home until Lindsay excused him from the show.

Fans and critics have been calling out producers, creators, and ABC for years over the fact that there has never been a Black Bachelor in the show's 24-season run. Producers often choose the next Bachelor from the pool of former contestants from The Bachelorette, and there have been plenty of hot, worthy Black candidates to be the main rose holder (Mike Johnson! Diggy Moreland! Dear god, angel-faced Wills Reid is RIGHT THERE!). And yet, viewers are force-fed another bland white dude named Sean or Brad. Show creator Mike Fleiss once told Entertainment Weekly that the show's lack of diversity is a result of people of colour not coming forward in the audition process. In the same interview—done in 2011, before Lindsay was cast—he told the reporter that Bachelorette Ashley Hebert is "1/16th Cherokee Indian, but I cannot confirm." So, yeah.

Lindsay has been the franchise's most vocal opponent since her time on the show, taking producers, former contestants, and Bachelor Nation to task for racist actions and calling for systemic change within the show, once again showing how Black women ultimately perform the labor of demanding change. And let's not forget her appearance on last season's "Women Tell All" special, where she read out some of the horrible racist messages she and other contestants had received from Bachelor stans during an anti-harassment segment. Now, Lindsay served ABC and Bachelor producers an ultimatum: Bring on a Black Bachelor for season 25, or she is severing all ties with the program.

“When you’re putting out something that is very white-washed and doesn’t have any type of colour in it and you’re not trying to be effective and change that...It bothers me that certain things have happened that we just say, ‘Oh, hush hush,’ and ‘Let’s just move on past it,’ she told After Buzz. "We need to acknowledge it, because what you’re doing is perpetuating this type of behaviour.”

Seinne Fleming, a contestant on Arie Luyendyk Jr's season, also spoke up, telling E! News: "By not having a more diverse cast, by not having more Asians or Hispanics or Black people, you're isolating a part of the country that would be interested in the show if they felt more represented." When you consider that past dating shows that featured a predominantly Black cast, including Flavor of Love, For the Love of Ray J, and I Love New York, arguably exploited stereotypes of Black women and were widely viewed as the trashier counterparts to The Bachelor/Bachelorette, it's impossible to ignore the extremely limited box Black women on reality TV are forced into.

Two weeks ago, a Change.org petition started circulating demanding that ABC and Bachelor/Bachelorette producers address systemic racism in the franchise. Along with calling for the casting of a Black Bachelor, its demands include casting at least 35 percent more BIPOC in every season, equitably compensating and hiring more BIPOC in all parts of production, hiring a diversity consultant, instituting a zero-tolerance policy on racism directed at BIPOC contestants on-air, and performing a more thorough vetting process of all contestants. Thus far, it has more than 92,000 signatures, including many former contestants. Lindsay published a list of ways the franchise could address diversity and systemic racism on her website, including casting leads who actually want to date outside their race (Black contestants notoriously rarely crack the top five) and no longer creating problematic storylines for BIPOC contestants. After all this, it appears ABC and Bachelor producers finally listened: on Friday, 28-year-old real estate broker Matt James, a newcomer in the franchise, was announced as the franchise's first Black Bachelor. All it took was a national uprising.

“Matt has been on our radar since February, when producers first approached him to join Bachelor Nation, as part of Clare’s season. When filming couldn’t move forward as planned, we were given the benefit of time to get to know Matt and all agreed he would make a perfect Bachelor… This is just the beginning and we will continue to take action with regard to diversity issues on this franchise," ABC Entertainment president Karey Burke said in a statement. While Lindsay called the casting a "step in the right direction," she criticised the move as a performative show of progress, likening it to posting a black square on Instagram. She tweeted, "This announcement, without any further commitments regarding diversity, sweepingly brushes deeper issues under the rug."

The common-sense guidelines in the petition are reforms that can and should be enacted across reality TV as a whole. Producers and executives will need to put in the work to educate themselves on racism in all its forms, either flagrant or microaggressive, because clearly many of them are ignorant on this matter, wilfully or not. Until then, these series will continue to perpetuate harm for its BIPOC contestants and viewers. And if the outcry being heard across the country right now has made abundantly clear, that is no longer acceptable.

Alex Zaragoza is a senior staff writer at VICE. You can follow her on Twitter.