Solange Knowles described her love for The Real Housewives of Atlanta in a recent Interview Magazine article:
… And that’s the thing that I carry with me the most, being able to go out into the world and connect with women of all kinds. I was just having a conversation with someone about The Real Housewives of Atlanta, and I was saying how I love that show and think it’s so brilliant because it’s the woman that was represented in my childhood in Houston. It makes me feel so at home.
I lived in Atlanta for my most of my childhood and early adulthood. I too feel reminded of the women who I know from home. Atlanta is home to a vibrant Black middle class despite what your elected officials might like to claim.
I watch reality shows that center on Atlanta though they all have an exaggerated element to them that intentionally overstates life for its Black residents. Reality television has diverse depictions of people of color. I think we have to ask ourselves, however, whether or not all these depictions are created equally.
What To Know About Race and Reality TV
Currently I am editing a content analysis of reality dating shows. Specifially, I wanted to know how reality television portrays people of color. I specifically looked at the way people engaged in interracial contact (i.e. a conversation between people of different races). I found at least four types of representation of people of color in the dating shows I examined:
- Invisibility of people of color
- Idealization of people of color
Invisibility of people of color refers to the complete absence of non-Whites in a cast. These shows reinforce the idea that experiences of White represent that of all people. Tokenism refers to the presence of non-Whites for symbolic purposes. Tokenizing dating shows eliminate the non-White cast member relatively early in the show.
Typecasting refers to stereotyping in a way that portrays people of color as having the same social or ethnic traits. These shows rely on negative stereotypes of Black women in particular to gain attention. Lastly, the idealization of people of color, makes an effort to present people of color and Whites as equal. In doing so, however, they privilege Whiteness by reeforcing a colorblind narrative about race and dating.
Real Housewives of Atlanta: Black (and Bougie) Womanhood
The categories I devised above refers to what I observed in reality tv dating shows. I don’t think Real Housewives falls into these categories for one specific reason: there’s very little interracial contact and yet a high visibility of people of color.
The women of Real Housewives don’t appear concerned with the White gaze since it’s simply not there. Even when Kim Zolciak Biermann had a part on the show, the narrative did not center her and her perspective. Black women feeling free to flaunt their romantic and financial escapades gives a stark contrast to what I observed in reality dating shows.
I don’t think all reality shows portray Black people negatively. I do believe certain factors contribute to whether or not they will. Next time you watch a reality tv show, ask yourself whether or not it falls into the categories above.