"Girlfriend! I saw you."
I had already started to regret my decision to tune in to Bravo's Real Housewives of D.C. Bouncy and blonde Mary's neck-swiveling, sassy finger-shaking imitation of her close friend Stacie only wanted to make me change the channel.
Stacie Scott Turner, the sole black character on a show that takes place in a city that is 55 percent African American, smiles uncomfortably as her friend continues her drunken prattle with a lecture on inequality in hair care. "I know we have different hair and different needs, but we need salons to integrate," she declares, leaning forward slightly with an unfocused stare. Stacie avoids looking at Ted, the friend Mary was just dying to introduce her to, since she "just knew they would hit it off." Ted, of course, is one of the few other black faces at Mary's birthday bash, with the third belonging to Lynda's casual flame Ebong. (Ted just happens to be Ted Gibson, superstar hairstylist.)
It is this kind of mind-set that leads to pieces like Katrina Richardson's essay, "And We're the Only Two Black Girls at the Party," an exploration of the tensions that revolve around race and expectations in predominantly white social settings. Both Ted and Stacie were taken aback by Mary's impassioned plea for salon unity, plastering frozen smiles on their faces and nodding politely until the moment safely passes and they can move on to something else. Stacie, clearly used to these kind of things, is ready to play it off. She explains into the camera: "Mary's a little tipsy; it's her birthday; let's keep drinking champagne."
This complicated dance of race and social grace plays out again and again in RHODC, with white characters generally leading with statements that could be considered racially provocative, and the black characters attempting to play verbal hot potato. This also reflects the complicated place of race in Washington, D.C.
Washington is a place, separate from D.C., where black people are not the majority. Only in Washington will someone say to your face, "I've never met someone from here," while on a crowded metro car surrounded by native sons and daughters. It is in this space, Washington, where Stacie finds herself surrounded by affluent white women who may be in her same social circle, but still facing a centuries-long rift that needs to be crossed before a true friendship can blossom.
On a more serious note, Stacie is also perplexed about the actions of Cat, the aloof British transplant known for speaking her mind. Stacie was already looking at Cat with some skepticism after a discussion about Barack Obama, Tyra Banks and George W. Bush went sour. Still, Stacie decides to invite Cat to her aunt's home for some down-home cooking, only to find herself on the receiving end of more of Cat's frosty attitude. So she calls a quick meeting of all available black folk at the party to determine whether Cat's behavior was racially motivated and if it merited further action. Their consensus: Cat's behavior was rude but not racist. But the question of racism on the show still spilled over into Bravo's cast blogs, with Stacie, Cat, and Mary all providing their two cents.
Stacie immediately attempted to clarify, noting:
Fans of the show are asking me do I think Cat's a racist. Hold on a second. To me, there is a big difference between racism (ignorance based on perceived racial superiority) and situational discomfort (ignorance based on lack of exposure, but not necessarily superiority). Words of the Week for Cat should include: expansion, acceptance, silence, appreciation and respect. I find myself in situations every day where I am either the only female or the only African-American person. This is just my reality — and no big deal.
However, race-based controversy sells (even if intelligent conversation about race does not), so both Cat and Mary ended up weighing in on the controversy. Cat was uncharacteristically tight-lipped, lightly alluding to other issues, but saying:
REALLY?????!!!!!!! Lets get this straight. … I take the mickey out of my own country too! You can never take life too seriously. … If you ever lose your sense of humor you may as well throw the towel in.
I LOVE AMERICA!!! I despise racism. I bring my girls up this way, with the beliefs I hope [are] for the future for us all — equality on every level.
Yet it is Mary who rushed to make a full-throated defense of Cat against the horrible (and currently imagined) charge of racism — without every truly considering how Cat's actions could have been perceived or why Stacie might have considered the possibility in the first place. She writes:
I feel a strong need to make my belief very clear that my dear Cat has not exhibited one racist bone in her petite little body in all the times I have ever been with her. Quite the contrary! Cat is one of the most lovely, kind, generous, encouraging and honest people I know and I believe she sees character, not color. I am extremely upset and rather disturbed that this perceived sense of racial tension on the show has taken on a life of its own. Personally speaking, I can easily say that I experienced nothing remotely close in any scene or conversation that was racially driven that would cause any tension of any sorts […]
Of course. While Cat's behavior appears to be motivated more by the culture shock between her British sensibilities and American reality, the fact that Mary was far more interested in exonerating Cat than understanding how racism operates is telling. It is these types of situations that lead to that complicated dance I refer to above. Even though Stacie herself had concluded that Cat's bad behavior was not motivated by racism, the merest perception of a racial motivation threw everyone else into a tizzy. And when the chips were down, her "girlfriend" didn't really see a need to understand Stacie's side or back her up.
Stacie's smile on the show is beginning to represent something a bit more than good will. It's the balm she uses to keep the peace.
She smiles when someone says something clueless and borderline offensive, because the graceful thing to do is to assume they didn't mean it that way.
She smiles when her friends remain silent, leaving her to deal with potentially racist situations, because no one wants to be The Angry Black Woman. (And why is it that TABW is always making an appearance on reality TV, anyway?)
She smiles while describing the effort it takes to interact as one of the only black women in her social circles, knowing that those she speaks to will have the privilege of never experiencing what she does.
She smiles because ultimately, it's best to let the small stuff slide and save her energy for the larger battles.
And if the awkward racial interactions in the first two episodes are any indication, Stacie will be smiling a lot this season.
Latoya Peterson is editor of Racialicious.
Latoya Peterson is a hip-hop feminist, anti-racist activist and deputy editor of Fusion’s Voices section, opining on pop culture, news, video games and everything that makes life worth living.