The Real Housewives of Atlanta and Asian Stereotypes

How many of you watch The Real Housewives of Atlanta?

I'll fess up and admit I watch the show, even though, as has been said many times before, there isn't much real or housewiferly in any of the cast members. It's just pure TV trainwreck, an opportunity for us average folks to say to ourselves, "See, money doesn't buy happiness. It really could be worse."

Anyway, Thursday night's episode found cast member Lisa Wu Hartwell heading home to the Los Angeles area. She's originally from Inglewood and was going home for her grandma's 92nd birthday, and also to possibly visit her brother's grave.

Lisa decided to take fellow cast member NeNe Leakes with her. NeNe's first comment about the trip is, "I know Lisa's family is Asian and black so it'll be interesting to see her family."

That should've been my cue right there to change the channel. I really dislike the idea of interracial families being placed under some sort of freak show microscope.

When the duo gets to Los Angeles, Lisa says, "NeNe are you ready for this culture shock? You're gonna meet my Asian people."

NeNe replies, "I'm excited! I have a pair of chopsticks in my purse, gurl."

And I banged my head on the table in agony.

Does NeNe not spend any time with any Asian people EVER? I mean, really? A chopsticks comment? All I know is if one of my friends was about to go meet some black relatives of mine and made a joke about having a bucket of chitlins ready -- or if they joked about potatoes before meeting my Irish people -- we'd have to talk about it.

Of course, the comments just got worse. When NeNe goes to meet Lisa's parents, she's in total shock. She says, "Lisa told me that her mom was black and her dad was Asian. I was just not expecting... hmph." And then we get a shot of her looking at Lisa's mom and dad and saying, "Oh my GAWD!"

She tells us in her confessional commentary that she totally expected them to look different then they did. Like what? Did she think the dad wouldn't speak English and he'd be dressed up in a Mao suit?

It turns out that Lisa's mom is from the West Indies so NeNe busts out ANOTHER stereotype by saying, "I know about those island women. They're very spicy."

Lisa agrees that her mom is spicy... and I wanted to go bang my head yet again. Why do people think it's OK to keep repeating the stereotype that island women are "spicy"? Women from the Caribbean are no more "spicy" than any other women. Lisa goes on to say that NeNe acts like her mom -- but wait, NeNe isn't from an island so how can she be "spicy", too?

It was very touching when Lisa's father talked about how when the family lived in a mostly black neighborhood, his wife was accepted but he got strange looks because he's Asian. I would've loved to know how the two of them met and how they've managed to stay in love and balance the additional pressures cultural differences and racism can have on such a marriage.

Lisa also shared a bit about how she was pretty much an outcast growing up. She had racial issues with blacks, whites and Asians -- but of course, that isn't explored in depth. The show quickly gets back to NeNe saying Lisa's a "gangster boo" because she's from Inglewood.

On the day of the 92nd birthday party for Lisa's Chinese grandmother, NeNe was in rare form, making comments like "I know that Lisa's Asian and black. I just wasn't expecting to see so many Asian people."

Lisa's confessional commentary is, "What did you expect? I'm half Asian!" I wondered the same thing. What did NeNe expect? Was she being coached by the producers to act so prejudiced and ignorant?

Lisa asked her what she thinks about her family and NeNe replies, "Oh gosh, Lisa. You know... cuz I always think that you're so black."

I guess this means that because Lisa is married to a black man and associates with black people, she somehow passes a black test and is therefore black enough.

We get an inkling of NeNe's definition of what makes someone Asian when NeNe asks, "Lisa can you speak their language?"

Lisa isn't fluent but instead of saying so and leaving it at that, she pretends to say random stuff to another relative in the bits of Cantonese she does know. It sounded like the way people who don't know the language mock it. You know, that racist, Rosie O'Donnell ching chong crap. So am I supposed to believe mocking an Asian language is OK if you yourself are part Asian?

I guess since Lisa doesn't know the language fluently, that makes her black enough for NeNe who comments, "This doesn't change my perception at all. Lisa is black. Her hair is just straight."

It turns out that Lisa has a blog on the Bravo site and she says of her family, "NeNe is not alone in being amazed at how Asian they really are. That is exactly why I stand by "I am black and Chinese" when asked my nationality."

That's great that she recognizes her heritage with such pride, but I am bothered by the way Lisa just laughed off NeNe's prejudices and stereotypical attitudes about Asians. Such behavior may be "NeNe just being NeNe", as Lisa said on the show, but am I to interpret that as meaning that NeNe says stereotypical stuff all the time in her everyday life?

Maybe so because in a scene with white cast member Kim, NeNe tells Kim she's going to dress her up as a black girl for an alter ego photo shoot. She tells Kim she's going to paint her black because Kim's a black girl trapped in a white woman's body. -- Great, so we're going to have NeNe-sanctioned black face on TV? And is Kim a black girl because she's a label and status conscious woman who sleeps with a married man who gives her money? Because she wears a wig and tacky clothing? Please explain, NeNe, because I'm confused.

This is not the first time I've had concerns about the way race is played in the Real Housewives franchise. The series as a whole (NY, NJ, OC and ATL) always seems to have a subtle racial miasma going on.

This season I can't help but feel that the editing is setting things up so Kim comes off as the poor white lady that all the evil black women are being mean to for no reason.

If anything good can be said of this episode, I suppose it's that it begs the question of how do we each in our real lives decide to handle racist, prejudiced and stereotypical comments that our acquaintances, friends and relatives make? I don't think the answer is to laugh them off as Lisa does, but it can be awkward and uncomfortable to have a possibly difficult conversation about such things. However, due to editing, we'll never know if Lisa told NeNe, "Hey, chill with the Asian stereotypes," or not.

It's too bad because that conversation would've been some REAL reality TV.


The Real Housewives series is the LAST place to find any discourse of anything let alone race. The producers got rid of the only normal behaving actual wife so they could have this ghetto fest. Yes I used the word ghetto intentionally. I watched a few episodes of this season after hearing about it but I had to turn this crap off. I can get all the updates on Twitter without subjecting myself to it directly. I mean this is the image of black women that's being broadcast. Broke, greedy, ignorant, fighting, dating a man with six kids and 4 baby mommas...I mean they couldn't make this up. And these women allow themselves to be used to drag ALL of us down to the gutter for money and to grin in front of a camera. THIS is what we've come to.
Most people who want to meet my Irish family know not to talk about potatoes. They bring a bottle of whiskey instead! ;) <--this is a joke.

I love the way you bring these cultural issues to our attention. It's so easy to fall into these stereotypes.

I think you should write a book about this.
Well now, see, this is why I don't watch "reality" shows. It does sound as if there is a not very subtle racist undercurrent operating here. I'm assuming that NeNe is black, but regardless, these people all sound like idiots exploiting themselves to be on TV.

Of course, I have a prejudice against reality shows, I admit it.
Liz Dwyer said…
All of the shows are train-wrecks to the nth degree and some some gutter behavior-- although to be sure, you'd NEVER catch Countess Luanne with someone with 4 baby mommas, even though the Count had his affair this past year. I wouldn't expect education about stuff from the show but the pretty blatant prejudice/stereotyping was a bit much, even for this show.

Oh gosh, yes the drinking jokes with the Irish are always seen as fair game.

So you think a book? I'm such a frustrated writer these days. :(

Ah, reality shows. I love some of them, like Project Runway. Others I just tolerate. Yes, NeNe is black and I agree, it IS self-exploitation for sure.
I admit, I watch the whole series, too. For pretty much the reason you describe - it makes me feel better/self-righteous about my boring and semi-broke existence. :) But the race thing on the show - ridiculous. I live in Orange County and I'm always wondering when they will include a Latina housewife because those ladies do not represent most of our county.
nick said…
Wow, that series must hold the record for the biggest number of idiotic stereotypes in one TV programme. I can only imagine they're doing it deliberately to attract a certain type of prejudiced viewer.

As for Irish drinking jokes, I'm sorry to say they're all too accurate. Drinking in Ireland is competitive and consumption just goes up and up, along with liver disease. You may have heard of the NI teenager who's in intensive care in London and needs a liver transplant because of his excessive drinking.
Mocha said…
The phrase, "NeNe just being NeNe" is a poor excuse for her to behave so ignorantly. For her to be so blatantly stupid.

So, this show isn't real or housewiferly (great word!) or even racially balanced with some semblance of intellect in my opinion. It's why I won't watch it. Haven't they all just played into the STEREOTYPES of the kind of housewives they are based on their location?
BlackLiterature said…
All I can say is that having lived most of my life in CA (SF &LA) my view on race is very different than folks in other parts of the country. I'm not surprised at all. I'm not trying to say that folks are just blantant racists , but I think growing up with people of many different racial backgrounds gives you a different level of sensitivity. What I or my Chinese/Latina/Indian/ girls in CA would find offensive goes over in Charlotte with no problem. Some of it is shocking. The fact that it is often unintentional bothers me even more than if it were deliberate.

Then again, maybe that was my world in CA and there are just as many insensitive, ignorant comments... but I've missed them.
Lotus Flower said…
Lisa says, "NeNe are you ready for this culture shock? You're gonna meet my Asian people."

NeNe replies, "I'm excited! I have a pair of chopsticks in my purse, gurl."

This is why I hate most reality shows...

Nene seems like one of those folks who'll point at someone and yell out "Look! I have a *insert race her* friend!"

Better then African/AIDS jokes, I guess...
the last noel said…
You just reconfirmed why I don't have a television set.
jstele said…
Somehow, I wasn't offended when Nene made the chopsticks remark or saying "Oh, my GAWD!" upon seeing Lisa's parents. I expect her to act that way. Now, if one of the other ladies had done that, I would have been more offended. But it's Nene. She really doesn't know any better. I think the "Oh, my GAWD!" comment may not necessarily have to do with race, although it is offensive whether race is involved or not. She did say in the commentary that Lisa's parents did not look the way she expected them to and that surprised her. But yeah, it's still rude.

As far as Lisa goes, I actually think she was being genuine when trying to speak Chinese. Her "real" Chinese just came off as mocking because she probably doesn't know the language well.

What bothered me about Nene was when she said that Lisa was black, just with straight hair. It wasn't the comment I found offensive, but the fact that Nene looked insecure when she said it, like she was scared to acknowledge Lisa's Asian side because she had difficulty accepting that.

I've never heard of the spicy stereotype for Caribbean women. I know that the islands are known for being more laid back, but that is the only stereotype that I know.

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