Thanks to the machinations of crafty producers and executives eager to make their productions as dramatic as possible, we know that much of reality television isn’t all that real. However, some dynamics can’t be faked, and on Bravo’s popular series The Real Housewives of Potomac, the troubling recurrence of colorist behavior from some of its cast members is anything but scripted. RHOP has a colorism problem, and in last night’s reunion episode, it was finally brought to light.
Seven years ago, most of us wouldn’t have been able to even point out the city of Potomac on a map, but since the premiere of the reality series, we’ve come to love the small Maryland city and its many unique housewives personalities. In the seven seasons of RHOP, the show has given us a lot of gems, enough for some people — not me personally, but some of y’all — to claim that the east coast-based crew’s shenanigans are enough to rival that of the icon Nene Leakes & Co. down in Atlanta.
As much as we’ve laughed till we cried and memed our favorite moments over the years, RHOP has also given viewers pause in a not-so-pleasant way. There’s something amiss about this particular group of Housewives, specifically in the way that some of the women are being treated (subconsciously or not) based on the color of their skin. Catfights and skirmishes are par for the course when it comes to reality TV, and within the Bravo Cinematic Universe, they are almost required; from Vanderpump Rules to The Real Housewives of Salt Lake City to Summer House, the girlies are fighting in almost every episode. RHOP is no exception.
Yet, in this show, not everyone is given a pass for starting (or finishing) a fight. While the lighter-skinned Housewives are allowed to raise their voices, make threats, or even get physical, the women who are a little more melanated aren’t allowed to do the same without being branded as “aggressive” or “antagonistic.” We’ve seen it throughout the show’s run on Bravo. OG Robyn Dixon repeatedly gets rowdy, crowds her castmate’s physical space to intimidate them, and even threatens to bring them physical harm — with no backlash. Former Housewife Monique Samuels starts fighting after being repeatedly antagonized — she’s ostracized and called a thug. Newbie Mia Thornton throws a drink and a purse unprovoked at Wendy Osefo during an argument — no consequences — but when Wendy yells at her in response, she’s made out to be the aggressor.
On a show where decorum and gentility are supposedly everything, the rules somehow only apply to certain people. Why is that?
It’s simple: colorism.
The darker your skin is, the more pressure you feel to present yourself in the best way at all times. To be the best dressed person in the room, to be the kindest, most amenable person in the room, to be the smartest or most well-spoken person in the room — just so you can avoid being stereotyped by your own.
On part two of the reunion, Andy Cohen made sure to address the rampant colorism playing out on this season, no doubt fueled by the ongoing online discourse from the show’s fandom. As a white man, this wasn’t exactly his conversation to moderate, so he stayed quiet and allowed the Housewives to discuss it amongst themselves. Sadly, it would have been better to take it a step further and invite a Black woman to take his place for this portion of the reunion (à la Nicki Minaj’s guest hosting stint for the season 6 reunion) because of either limited time or limited understanding of the topic at hand, what came next just didn’t give what it was supposed to give. Candiace Dillard-Bassett tried her best to point out how unfair it is that she and Wendy are constantly vilified for their actions while her lighter-skinned counterparts get away with doing the same or worse, but to no one’s surprise, the message didn’t hit home with Robyn and Gizelle Bryant, who were frustratingly committed to not understanding their privilege in life and on the show. Their defense boiled down to this: How could they as Black women be colorist against other Black women?
The textbook definition of colorism describes it as the “prejudice or discrimination against individuals with a dark skin tone, typically among people of the same ethnic or racial group.” Still, when people think of any kind of prejudice or discrimination, especially as it pertains to Black people, they tend to identify it as an interracial, external issue, something that is done to Black people by people outside of our community. (Think segregation, police brutality, HR violations at work, or Hollywood’s refusal to cast dark-skinned Black women in substantial roles.) The reality is that bias also occurs intraracially. Prejudice exists among skinfolk, and colorism is one major way we see it manifest. It plays out in many different fashions that are more obvious; the brown paper bag test of the early 1900s implemented to keep darker-skinned Black people out of elite clubs, or even more recently, certain male celebrities openly banning dark-skinned Black women from entering their VIP sections at the club or publicly discussing their “preferences,” which just so happen not to include anyone darker than Fenty 320.
But more commonly, colorism shows up in the double standards that appear in the way we are treated and in the ways that we have to act in order to not be treated poorly. The idea of “twice as good for half as much” doesn’t just apply to being Black in white spaces; even within the Black community, the prerequisites for getting basic respect as dark-skinned Black people are stringent. The darker your skin is, the more pressure you feel to present yourself in the best way at all times. To be the best dressed person in the room, to be the kindest, most amenable person in the room, to be the smartest or most well-spoken person in the room — just so you can avoid being stereotyped by your own. We’ve seen this time and time again in RHOP. Wendy eventually took it upon herself to make peace with an unrepentant Mia not for her own peace of mind, but because she knew that she would be criticized for holding a grudge. And even two whole seasons after her departure from the show, apology and all, Monique is still being regarded by her former co-workers as the prime example of what a Black woman shouldn’t be.
The way that colorism operates is often so insidious that, like all of the other -isms and biases, it very quietly becomes normalized to the point that people who benefit from being light-skinned often don’t even realize how they’re perpetuating it on a daily basis. Like straight folks denying homophobia or transphobia, like men downplaying sexism, like white people being willfully ignorant about anti-Blackness, many continue to act as though darker-skinned people have no valid complaints, but that’s just not the case. Colorism isn’t a hypothetical. It exists, full stop. And it’s not the place of those with privilege to define it for those that are being oppressed by it or to gaslight us into thinking that it’s not real.
Unfortunately, the resistance to the discourse and total lack of accountability shown during the RHOP reunion hints that this likely won’t be a turning point for these Housewives — there’s no doubt that we will see this unacceptable behavior in this group again.