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What the Real Housewives of Potomac can teach us about race in America
Let’s get real—interracial, intercultural, and interreligious relationships are on the rise in America.
To the surprise of many, including myself, I watched every episode of the Real Housewives of the Potomac this season. I have never been one to watch the other iterations of Bravo’s reality television franchise, but this season appeared to offer something that none of the previous editions could: An in-depth conversation about black identity issues that exist within the black community.
Between all the needless drama that engulfed this show sat a moderately enlightening discussion about black identity and what it means to be black in an increasingly diverse and interracial America.
RHOP’s intent is to present the lives of six affluent black women who live in a predominantly affluent, white environment outside of Washington, D.C. Of the six women, four of them identify as black, and two identify as biracial. The premise of the entire show is indirectly an examination of black identity, which unfortunately must come second to the pointless and uneventful drama that is the lifeblood of these shows.
Of the six, Robyn, Gizelle, Katie and Ashley were the ones who spent the most amount of time focusing on black identity. While Karen and Charrisse could not have cared less about this conversation, their silence also spoke volumes.
The tension that arises between these four women is representative of the changing racial dynamics of America.
Karen and Charrisse are the two oldest cast members and their main concern is etiquette and decorum. They wanted to ensure that the cast remained presentable as they co-existed in the predominantly white and wealthy D.C. suburb they all call home. They know that they are black Americans living in a white world, so concerns about identifying as black are somewhat meaningless. For them, it’s about class. But for the younger generation, this essential distinction is not nearly as clear cut.
A little background: Robyn and Gizelle both identify as black women, and they are also older than Katie and Ashley, who identify as biracial. Both Katie and Ashley have a black and a white parent. This dynamic does not necessarily need to be controversial, but the fact that Robyn and Gizelle are both light-skinned African-American women creates an added complexity to the drama.
Robyn dyes her hair blonde and could easily pass for white, and Gizelle’s complexion could encourage someone to infer that she has European DNA in her family tree. And as a result of this, Katie and Ashley perceive them to be either biracial, potentially biracial, or even in denial of their biracial heritage.
“You don’t end up looking like this if you’re straight out of Africa,” Katie tells them.
Robyn and Gizelle are also confused and annoyed with the fact that both Katie, who converted to Judaism, and Ashley appear to prefer dating white instead of black men. To Robyn and Gizelle, Ashley’s and Katie’s identifying as biracial and pursuing white partners appears to be an attempt to leave behind their black identity.
Being black in America has never implied that a black person did not have white ancestors.
For Gizelle, whose father Curtis Graves worked alongside Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., during the civil rights movement, the appearance of running away from your blackness constantly gets under her skin. During the season finale she yells at Katie: “You acted like it was a problem to be black!” during the girls’ so-called Come to Jesus Brunch.
The tension that arose between these four women during this week’s season finale is representative of the changing racial dynamics of America, and most notably the recent ability of a black American to proudly and officially claim their white or European ancestry.
Being black in America has never implied that a black person did not have white ancestors. For example, 60 or 70 years ago when describing a biracial person as a mulatto was acceptable, a mulatto has always been considered black. Mulattos have been bought and sold as slaves throughout America’s slave-owning past.
America’s first black president, Barack Obama, has a white mother. In my family tree, there are numerous members who were 1/2, 1/4, and even 1/8 black, yet they were always classified as black.
Being black in America has always been determined by whether a person had any discernible African traits. Complexion, hair color and curl, shape of the nose and others were always attributes that were used to determine whether someone was black or not. There has also been a long history of black Americans whose African traits were not discernible and they were able to forgo their black identity. In doing so, they also had to hide or sever their connection to the black community including family members and friends, so that they could have access to the wealth and opportunity that whiteness provided.
Robyn and Gizelle are clearly more in line with this perspective on black identity. Robyn and Gizelle do not seem to care about the existence of Katie’s or Ashley’s white ancestors. Katie and Ashley look black, and therefore they are black. No one would assume Katie was biracial unless she told you, and Ashley’s hair and mixed complexion displays her African roots.
Today, as America has become increasingly diverse and interracial, intercultural, and interreligious relationships are on the rise, the inadequacies of the oppressive and unjust black and white racial divisions that America created out of the blue and codified by law are becoming glaringly apparent. As a society, America has a racial foundation that is grounded in stripping away the culture and identity of those people who were part of the African diaspora, and forcing them to live within the confines of the black identity that white America has forced upon them. As America grows more equitable and black Americans have more agency and influence in society, the onus will fall on the black community to address and define the injustices of the past, and an equitable and accurate communal identity going forward.
Today, as America has become increasingly diverse and interracial, intercultural, and interreligious relationships are on the rise.
This season of RHOP inadvertently began this discussion, and hopefully the conversation will continue in future episodes. The women of the show decided to end the season by toasting to their happiness and success, and avoiding the conflict and drama that comes from these heated discussions about black identity. Inevitably more drama will arise in the juicy reunion episode, but as a society we desperately need to have difficult and uncomfortable conversations about the American foundations that created and divided black and white identities.
Far too often we prefer to ignore or deflect the racial injustices of the past, which we inevitably must confront in the present, in favor of an uplifting narrative that will temporarily make the problem disappear. No matter how hard the women of RHOP attempted to ignore these vital discussions on race, they always resurfaced.
If there was anything to be learned from the inaugural season of Real Housewives of Potomac, it should be that race is not an issue that can be ignored in America, and that it is more constructive to confront the issue and ask difficult questions despite the drama and discomfort that will inevitably ensue.
Barrett Holmes Pitner is a Washington, D.C.-based journalist and columnist who focuses mostly on race, culture, and politics, but also loves to dabble in sports, entertainment and business. His work has appeared in The Daily Beast, Huffington Post, National Journal, the Institute for War & Peace Reporting and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @BarrettPitner or visit his website barrettholmespitner.com.
Photo via Shinya Suzuki/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)
Barrett Holmes Pitner is a politics and race-and-culture journalist, and an adjunct professor in the department of Environmental Studies at SUNY-ESF. He is based in Washington, DC. Follow him on Twitter @barrettpitner