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Bravo 'Real Housewives' in Dallas and Salt Lake City highlight need for a racial reckoning

Bravo has a history of inclusion on the airwaves. But its reaction to this particular political and cultural moment remains haphazard.
The Real Housewives of Dallas - Season 5
Kary Brittingham, Stephanie Hollman, D'Andra Simmons, Brandi Redmond, Kameron Westcott and Tiffany Moon from the "The Real Housewives of Dallas" Season 5 on Bravo.Tommy Garcia/Virginia Sherwood/Jonathan Zizzo / Bravo

Once again, racism and the “Real Housewives” are sharing headlines. The latest scandal involves “Real Housewives of Dallas” cast member and pink dog food huckster Kameron Westcott, who unfavorably compared her Chinese cast member to Thai sex workers during an episode of “Watch What Happens Live.”

This is not the first time that prejudice has appeared on “Dallas,” and unfortunately, it’s unlikely to be the last.

This is not the first time that prejudice has appeared on “Dallas,” and unfortunately, it’s unlikely to be the last. As the series progresses, racist moments have started to feel like a main driver of the drama. Meanwhile racist behavior is already becoming a main plot point on “Real Housewives of Salt Lake City.”

Even before the killing of George Floyd sparked a national reckoning on racism and the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement, Bravo’s flagship "Real Housewives" franchise was criticized for being far too segregated. (Bravo is owned by NBCUniversal, which also owns NBC News.) “Real Housewives of Atlanta,” typically the highest-rated of the shows, has always had a predominantly Black cast, but many of the oldest franchises went years with zero Black housewives.

That started to change in 2020. In October, “Real Housewives of New York” cast Eboni K. Williams, the series’ first Black cast member. In November, “Real Housewives of Salt Lake City” premiered with both a Black cast member and the franchise’s first Pacific Islander. “Real Housewives of Dallas” and “Real Housewives of Beverly Hills”added Tiffany Moon and Crystal Kung Minkoff, respectively, the first Asian American housewives for both shows.

But as so often happens, this diversity push couldn’t cover-up lingering institutional concerns. It turns out casting alone can’t fix this problem.

In June, Housewives spinoff “Vanderpump Rules” canned original cast members Stassi Schroeder and Kristen Doute after Faith Stowers, a former castmate and the only Black person on the show, alleged racist (and frankly stupid) behavior against the two. At the same time, the show parted ways with two new cast members, Max Boyens and Brett Caprioni, after their old racist tweets surfaced.

But Lisa Vanderpump, the former “Real Housewife” and “Vanderpump Rules” star and producer, now says she maybe regrets the way Schroeder and Doute were fired. “It wasn’t right what they did at all, but do I think they’re racist? 1,000 percent not,” she said on “The Skinny Confidential’s Him & Her” podcast. “Do I think it was a racist action? Not at all. I just think it was awful timing, and stupid and ignorant.”

This is the same Lisa Vanderpump, who in the “Vanderpump Rules” season eight reunion said she also didn’t believe Boyens and Caprioni were racists, even as she condemned their past comments.

Even Andy Cohen, Bravo’s mascot-in-chief, is now hinting that he’s having second thoughts about the firings, telling The New York Times that they were “decisions for that moment.” “It’s more interesting to sit in the moment with people that you have a rooting interest in and watch them find their way,” he continued, “than it is just turning out the lights and forgetting it existed.”

But not everyone finds their way. And Bravo, with its massive reality TV empire, is increasingly being forced to deal with scandals that suggest, at the very least, producers need to do a better job picking its stars.

On the current season of “Southern Charm,” Kathryn Dennis is embroiled in a scandal after attacking a Black radio host on Instagram and using a monkey emoji. Dennis did publicly apologize to the host, but has maintained on the show she’s not a racist. She’s even started dating a Black man, which unfortunately feels far more like damage control than it does romance.

People who excel at the reality television arts and sciences are not necessarily really known for their ability to learn or grow.

Seeing people learn and grow from their experiences would likely be great reality TV. But people who excel at the reality television arts and sciences are not necessarily really known for their ability to learn or grow. Indeed, the entire premise of “Real Housewives” and other like-minded series is that provocation will get you a lot farther than empathy. Why apologize and compromise when you can self-righteously play the victim for 20 episodes and a three-part reunion?

Instead of growing, Dennis — who was defending someone organizing a Trump parade when she used the emoji — is doubling down on her bad behavior. And her white castmates are covering for her. This forced Leva Bonaparte, the show’s one full-time cast member of color, to explain to Dennis, the rest of the cast and the audience why such actions are hateful.

Over on “Real Housewives of Dallas,” Brandi Redmond was criticized for a video she made mocking Asians, but still managed to keep her job. (On the other hand, her castmate LeeAnne Locken left the show after making racially tinged remarks about Mexican castmate Kary Brittingham. She claims she quit, but it’s my contention that hardly any Housewife leaves willingly.) Redmond was forced to confront her racism when Chinese American doctor Tiffany Moon was cast on the show and Redmond had to explain herself to an actual Asian cast member. At least Redmond, unlike Dennis, seems to have learned her lesson.

But again, Bravo takes one step froward and two steps back. While appearing on “Watch What Happens Live” earlier in January, “Dallas” cast member Kameron Westcott was asked about her first impressions of Moon. “I originally thought she was gonna be my BFF,” she said. “Then I didn’t realize how bossy she is. I thought the girls in Thailand were bossy when I was watching that ping-pong show, but I’m telling you she’s bossier.” This was a reference to the cast’s trip to an infamous Thai sex show during the group holiday last year. When she made the comparison, Andy Cohen’s mouth had fallen so open he looked like a python about to swallow a small pig.

Meanwhile, over on “Real Housewives Atlanta,” Porsha Williams (who once said she thought the Underground Railroad was an actual train) was arrested protesting the murder of Breonna Taylor. Things on Bravo really run the gamut.

Activists know that the real work of progress must continue, even when the cameras turn off. But that doesn’t seem to be happening at Bravo. Instead, showrunners and hosts are picking and choosing whom to punish and how for their bad behavior — only to sometimes regret meting out those punishments in the first place. After all, this is the network where “Real Housewives of New York” star Luann de Lesseps dressed as Diana Ross for Halloween in what some would consider blackface on a 2018 episode of the show and faced no consequences or even a stern talking to.

Bravo has a history of inclusion on the airwaves. It rose to popularity on the back of “Queer Eye,” a show that gave gay men in particular a positive platform when such representation was hard to find. The network has also made hits out of “Shahs of Sunset,” “Married to Medicine,” and “Real Housewives of Potomac,” all of which feature diverse casts.

But its reaction to this particular political and cultural moment remains haphazard. Clearly something has to be done, but just what and how much are unclear. In August, the network aired a special with some of its Black “Bravolebrities” talking about the personal toll racism has taken on their lives in an effort to educate fans. It seems like some of the executives at the company — and certainly the stars who helped it rise to prominence — could do with a little bit of education of their own.