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Scott D. Pierce: Can the racism on ‘Real Housewives of SLC’ teach us not to be racist?

Here’s what you should do when a friend, family or co-worker says something racist.

(Natalie Cass/Bravo) Top row: Heather Gay, Meredith Marks, Lisa Barlow and Jen Shah. Bottom row: Mary Cosby, Whitney Rose and Jennie Nguyen on "The Real Housewives of Salt Lake City.

As Season 2 of “The Real Housewives of Salt Lake City” careens toward a conclusion, Jen Shah has been arrested and charged with fraud and money laundering, and Mary Cosby has been accused of leading a church that is actually a “cult” that has scammed its members.

Almost unbelievably, those storylines have often taken a back seat to allegations of racism and homophobia. Maybe it’s just wishful thinking, but hopefully some viewers are learning what NOT to do by watching the terrible, biased behavior exhibited on “RHOSLC.”

“I think that’s [executive producer] Andy Cohen’s gift to us,” said Adrienne Andrews, Weber State University’s vice president for equity, diversity and inclusion and chief diversity officer — who’s also a fan of the show.

“In no other ‘Real Housewives’ series have we seen this level of [cast] diversity — nor have we seen this upfront, in-your-face, direct, problematic, racist, homophobic, sexist behavior to the extent that we’ve seen it here in Salt Lake,” she said. “I think that the conversations that happen because of this show are different.”

Three of the cast members accused of homophobia or racism — Jen, Mary and Jennie Nguyen — are people of color. Jennie has been fired, and it appears that Mary has either quit the show or been fired.

There have been apologies. Mary has refused to apologize. And Jennie, who was leading the charge to expose Mary’s racist behavior, has been fired despite apologizing for racist online posts she made before she joined the cast.

(Photo courtesy of Bravo) Mary Cosby is not a happy woman in the latest episode of "The Real Housewives of Salt Lake City."

Mary Cosby

Mary has been accused of racism in both seasons of “RHOSLC.” She’s made and withdrawn some apologies, and doubled down on some of her racist actions and language.

“Everybody can be racist,” said Andrews, who, like Cosby, is Black. “We have to be constantly checking our unconscious bias.”

• In Season 1, Mary called Jen Shah “ghetto” and a “hoodlum.” According to Jen — whose husband is Black — Mary had previously said that when she goes to a 7-Eleven “‘and I see Black people, I go to a different 7-Eleven.’”

Mary denied saying that after the episode aired. But in the episode, she said, “To this day I mean it,” and asked, “What’s wrong with that?”

• In Season 2, Mary referred to Jen (who is of Polynesian and Asian descent) as a “thug” and compared her to “those Mexican people that make all those drugs.” In a later episode, Mary adamantly denied making the comments, which were captured on film. After the episode aired, she posted an apology on social media — “I used poor judgment in my choice of words” — but later removed the post.

• Also in Season 2, Mary referred to Jennie’s “yellow” skin tone and her “slanted eyes.” When Jennie (who immigrated from Vietnam) tells her that’s offensive and racist, Mary smirks and says she “didn’t mean any harm,” claiming it was intended as a “compliment.” In the episode, Mary offered a mild apology, but quickly made it clear she didn’t mean it. On social media, Mary posted that she will “never” apologize to Jennie.

Mary has been a lightning rod on the show, both because of her behavior and because of the allegations about her Faith Temple Pentecostal Church.

“It’s so easy to see the conflict between what she says and what she does,” Andrews said. “Her actions do not match the basic fundamental principles of Christianity that she says she ascribes to. … It’s hard because it’s so glaringly apparent with her, whereas it is less so with others.”

There have been calls for Mary to be fired from the show. She did not show up for the Season 2 reunion episodes, as she was reportedly contractually obligated to do, and it’s believed she either quit, was fired or is about to be fired from the show.

(Charles Sykes | Bravo) Jennie Nguyen on an episode of "What What Happens Live with Andy Cohen."

Jennie Nguyen

Jennie was understandably upset when Mary referred to her “yellow” skin tone and “slanted eyes.” But, long after production on Season 2 ended, social media posts she made in 2020 surfaced. She referred to members of Black Lives Matter as “thugs” and “violent gangs.” She shared a cartoon of an older white woman saying that the stick figures on the back of her car represent “how many rioters I’ve hit.” She also shared a debunked story that falsely accused George Floyd of rape.

Nguyen apologized, writing that, “At the time, I thought I was speaking out against violence, but I have since learned how offensive and hurtful my words were.” However, days after the posts were widely circulated on social media, Bravo announced that it had fired her. (We’re still waiting to hear what, if anything, the network and the show’s producers will do about the remaining Season 2 episodes, plus the reunion episodes, which were filmed before the news of Jennie’s offensive social media posts broke.)

It was a strange twist to a storyline that has played out in Season 2, in which Jennie has been on the right side of her dispute with Mary. But, as Andrews said, “Everybody can be racist.”

(Andrew Peterson/Bravo) Jen Shah says she's innocent of the federal charges against her on "The Real Housewives of Salt Lake City."

Jen Shah

Jen, who has been charged with fraud and money laundering, has been accused of homophobia for posting online that Meredith Marks’ 21-year-old son, Brooks, is gay. Meredith has been furious about this, which was arguably unexpected, given that umpteen publications and social media posts referred to Brooks as “openly gay,” and she did not object. (She says he hasn’t spoken to her about his sexual orientation and is “figuring things out.”)

The “homophobic” tweets that Meredith shared were not, for the most part, homophobic. Most just referred to Brooks as gay. Meredith took great offense at one tweet that Jen’s account retweeted that referred to Brooks as a “twink.”

Yes, it carries a certain connotation of gay man who is vapid, but not everyone would consider that homophobic. Andrews, however, found it “completely offensive.”

“The reason that I interpreted it in a negative light, was because it felt like she was just demeaning him [as] this young gay person,” she said.

Fair point. It is the equivalent of calling a woman a “dumb blonde.” (Jen insisted she was unaware that her employees had retweeted the “twink” comment.)

(Bravo) Meredith Marks remains really, really mad at Jen Shah on "The Real Housewives of Salt Lake City."

Meredith Marks

In defending her son, Meredith repeatedly suggested that simply referring to Brooks as gay is homophobic. She failed to recognize that interpreting the word “gay” as an insult is itself homophobic.

Meredith has also come under fire for continually defending Mary and failing to call out her racism. Pressed to take a stand on Mary’s “slanted eyes” remarks, Meredith said, “It’s something I wouldn’t say. I don’t know if it would be offensive or not.”

It was astonishing to hear a 49-year-old, educated, outspoken woman claim she didn’t know if “slanted eyes” is a slur or not. Of course it is.

“What you told us is you don’t think it’s that offensive,” Andrews said, referring to Meredith. “If somebody else says it, you won’t say it to them. But you also don’t think it’s a problem.”

(Natalie Cass/Bravo) Meredith Marks, left, Lisa Barlow and Jennie Nguyen in Season 2 of "The Real Housewives of Salt Lake City."

What do you do if your friend is a racist?

Lisa Barlow has been criticized for failing to say anything when Mary denigrated Mexicans. Lisa brought it up later, but in the moment she let it pass.

What do you do if your friends, family members or co-workers say something racist?

“You have to pause,” Andrews said, “and say, ‘Excuse me, is this what you said? Is this what you meant? Because this is what I heard.’ You give them the space to actually stop and think about the words that have come out of their mouth. They’re your friends for a reason. Give them a little bit of grace.”

What you do next depends on how they react to your questions.

“If, like our friend Mary, you double down and you continue to say things that are atrocious — then you explain why that is hurtful to people,” Andrews said.

You can then try to walk your friend through why their comments are hurtful. “And then you say, ‘I don’t think that’s where your heart is — to be oppressive or demeaning or humiliating toward someone else. But that’s very much the impact that you can have,” Andrews said.

It’s not always going to work. Andrews said that, as “RHOSLC” viewer, she’s been struck by Mary’s “complete disinterest in anything or anyone that challenges where she’s coming from.” Which is part of what makes the show a watchable guilty pleasure — a “train wreck.’”

But “RHOSLC” can have some value beyond just documenting the women’s bad behavior, which is a common thread in every “Real Housewives” series.

“You can laugh at this one. You can get angry at this one,” Andrews said. “But this one makes you think — have I done that? Oh my gosh, I did that. I should never do that again.’”

What “RHOSLC” hasn’t shown viewers is how they should react when they’re confronted about their own behavior. We’ve seen Mary brush it off and claim she can’t be racist because she’s Black.

“None of us wants to be called racist,” Andrews said. “And so the gut response in general is, ‘I’m not a racist.’ And then, ‘I have [ethnic] friends’ or ‘I have done this’ or whatever you can fill that gap with, right?”

She recommends taking a deep breath “and asking, ‘What did I do to make you think that I’m racist?’ Because that’s where unconscious bias sits.”

We should be less defensive and more willing to hear how what we’re saying is being interpreted, giving us “something actionable I can do,” Andrews said. “I can change my behavior to be in line with what I believe.”

And maybe — just maybe — “Real Housewives of Salt Lake City” viewers can learn those lessons and change their behavior.

“You might think, ‘Oh my goodness, I’ve never even considered that that could be offensive,’” Andrews said, “or ‘I’ve said that and never heard the way that sounds until I heard her say that on TV.’”

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