It’s a typical “Real Housewives” scene — a luxurious lunch in a swanky restaurant, the women glammed up and sparkling, the conversation disintegrating into chaos.
Mary Cosby tells Jen Shah, “Don’t be ghetto.” She says she considers Shah a “hoodlum.” And a distraught Shah tells the group that Cosby told her that when Cosby goes to a 7-Eleven “‘and I see Black people, I go to a different 7-Eleven.’”
After Shah’s 7-Eleven comment, Cosby says to the women, “To this day I mean it,” and asks, “What’s wrong with that?” Cosby is Black, Shah is Polynesian and the other four “Real Housewives of Salt Lake City” are white, in one of the most racially mixed casts in the franchise. And in the moment, none of the women is seen on camera tackling the racism on the table at Valter’s Osteria.
Sharrieff Shah — Shah’s husband, an assistant football coach at the University of Utah, and who is Black — later does. “Interracial issues are real,” he tells Jen Shah in a later conversation. “There are Black folks that don’t like other Black folks and say racist comments all the time.”
It’s clear that Bravo is including more of these challenging conversations in their franchises, particularly those with diverse casts. After a summer of nationwide racial justice protests, the network fired four cast members from “Vanderpump Rules” and one from “Below Deck Mediterranean” for racist comments and behavior, and aired a special called “Race in America: A Movement Not a Moment.”
And, in “Real Housewives of Atlanta,” viewers will see cellphone footage of cast member Porsha Williams being arrested at two separate protests over the death of Breonna Taylor, the 26-year-old emergency medical technician shot in her apartment by police in Louisville, Ky., in March.
‘No one gets a pass’
At the table of the Episode 5 lunch, Cosby doesn’t deny making the 7-Eleven comment. Instead, when Shah asks, “Why would you say something like that?” Cosby answers, “’Cause I, at that, to this day, I mean it,” and continues, “What’s wrong with that?” As Shah again questions her, Cosby tells her to “shut up” — and producers soon cut to Cosby’s confessional.
There, she again doesn’t deny making the comment. Instead, she explains that she equates convenience stores with violence.
She posted images from the luncheon on her Instagram account, but there and on Twitter as of Saturday afternoon, made no denial or statement about Shah’s account.
On Saturday, her publicist in Beverly Hills emailed The Salt Lake Tribune and said, “Mary denies making the comments that are alleged by Ms. Shah.”
If a white person made the 7-Eleven comment that Shah described, there’d be no debate about it being racist. Is it different — is there anything wrong with it? — if a Black person says it?
“Oh, it doesn’t change anything,” said Emma E. Houston, special assistant to the vice president for equity, diversity and inclusion at the University of Utah.
“Even though she is a Black person, individuals in the community would call that a racist statement. Those are racist tendencies. Those are racist behaviors or thought practices,” Houston said. “To say that if she sees a Black person in a certain place, she’s leaving to avoid any danger or violence ... regardless of who says it, it’s a racist statement.”
And as for describing someone as “ghetto” and “hoodlum” — “any time those types of words are being thrown out there, those are racist terms,” Houston said. “We keep saying that, ‘I’m going to give you a pass because you’re Black.’ No, no, no. No one gets a pass.”
The 7-Eleven statement is an example of “internalized oppression,” said Adrienne Andrews, Weber State University’s chief diversity officer. “And what that means is that the lens through which larger society sees people like us, we accept that as truth and we use it against ourselves.”
“While I will admit to the ‘Real Housewives’ franchise being a guilty pleasure for me, this is actually a very serious situation that sheds light on something that we don’t talk about,” Andrews said.
“We have to have this conversation in order to remind everyone that we are a common humanity, that we have value and worth,” she said. “And so I think that this is where [‘Housewives’ executive producer] Andy Cohen gets it right. We have a chance to better understand ourselves and each other because we get to have a glimpse into these people’s lives.”
‘A tendency to be passive’
Shah objects at the table to Cosby’s descriptions of her and brings up the 7-Eleven comment, but she doesn’t specifically raise the issue of racism. She says this: “If you look at the history, [the words ghetto and hoodlum] are used in a derogatory manner to make people feel less than. Don’t do that.” But that’s in her later confessional interview alone, not to Cosby at lunch.
That’s not unusual in predominantly white Utah, Houston said.
“We have a tendency to be passive in the state of Utah,” Houston said. “And the thing is that when we confront someone, then they become the victim,” claiming they were misunderstood and no offense was intended.
“As a culture, we really don’t have conversations about race very often — or very well, when we do,” Andrews said. “No one wants to be the racist, the sexist, the homophobe. And so sometimes we choose not to say or do anything. … We think that we have good intentions and our intent is never to harm people. But that’s not always the impact.”
Houston said that rather than calling people out, she calls people in.
“If I’m calling you out, I’m blasting you,” she said. “If I’m going to call you in on something that you said, I am going to provide you with correct information. I’m going to create an educational opportunity for you to understand why what you said was inappropriate.”
And “RHOSLC” took the opportunity to educate its viewers by including Sharrieff Shah’s comments to his wife, Andrews noted.
“I’m super grateful that in that teachable moment, Jen Shah had someone who could help her understand what was going on,” Andrews said. “And in that way, help anyone watching the broadcast know this is what happens. And it’s a problem. It’s not OK.”
She’s a fan of the shows herself, and not just because of the guilty pleasure aspect. “I find it very interesting that people are willing to put their lives out in this way,” Andrews said. “And I’m grateful that it provides an opportunity for conversations that do not typically arise on their own. Like this one.”
‘Be a catalyst’
More recent “Housewives” seasons in the franchise are delving deeper into issues such as divorce, depression, addiction — and racism. In the first season of “The Real Housewives of Potomac,” the first franchise to begin with an all Black or biracial cast, viewers saw several confrontations centered on race.
In one episode, Robyn Dixon and Gizelle Bryant confronted Katie Rost, a biracial woman, about calling them biracial despite them telling her repeatedly that they are Black.
“Katie has no business calling me or Robyn biracial, and she knows what we are,” Bryant told producers in an individual confessional interview. In another scene, she pointed to Rost and said, “You act like it’s a problem to be Black.”
And in the most recent season, after a raucous fight between Monique Samuels and Candiace Basset, new cast member Wendy Osefo expressed frustration with the image it presented.
“The moment you put your hands on somebody, you perpetuate the narrative that Black women continue to be angry and violent,” she said. “That’s a problem.”
“We have been able to hold ourselves above the stereotype, and in five minutes, [Samuels] took it away,” Bryant added.
The “Housewives” don’t discuss the inherent unfairness of the narrative, or the burden women carry in feeling an expectation to shape their behavior in response to it.
Atlanta “Housewife” Williams told The New York Times in August that she hopes viewers don’t feel that “us saying ‘Black lives matter’ excludes them in any type of way,” and invited white fans to join the racial justice movement.
“I think it’s really important,” Williams said, “for people to see themselves in the movement and know that you have a place. You’ve played a part, you have a place, and you can also be a catalyst for change.”