Luann de Lesseps: “Why are you getting so angry?”
Eboni K. Williams: “Oh, now I’m the angry Black woman.”
All week, this dialogue replayed in my head and on the internet, and I suppose it will for a long time. "The Real Housewives of New York City" castmates and audiences are now sharing a very different kind of headline with me. Nobody can say they didn’t see this coming, of course. Being the first Black housewife of the "RHONY" series was not going to be without its challenges – but this?
Luann de Lesseps: "I'm not going there. You're an angry woman right now. I never referred to your color, nor would I."
I thought it in that moment and, sitting in my hotel room in Tulsa, Oklahoma, for the Tulsa race massacre centennial, I thought it again: I am not angry. I assure you, Luann. From the deepest place of my heart, know that I am not angry. I am human. And my reaction in that episode and the next is what I experience when you deprive me of any emotional conclusion beyond anger.
To presume me to be angry is to strip me of my humanity and to strip me of my ability to experience the full range of human emotion – including pain and frustration, all of which are uniquely different from anger.
We are not angry. We are human.
Let me say it another way: We are not angry. We are human. And when you call us angry in lieu of considering the other emotions we might be experiencing at any given moment, you rob us of our very right to humanity. You take away our very essence as human beings, which we're entitled to by birthright.
The default labeling of Black women as angry is as egregious as the misogynistic trope that labels women of all colors – including white women – as hysterical, irrational and too emotional any time they express their thoughts or feelings in a way that is not pleasing to the patriarchy. Those deeply sexist labels rip away the access and right to the broad spectrum of human emotion. When that is taken away, we lose all opportunity to build an equitable society.
It’s uncomfortable work, and sometimes even the discomfort is too much for me. I knew what was going to happen with those episodes, but I relived the pain as I saw audience reactions. To be a Black woman in America, a free one and a thriving one, the lone one in a room full of white people – well, we know this story by now, or I thought we did.
Not too long ago, I attended a Shabbat dinner of friends where I was so moved by the notion of holding space. At Shabbat, our host asked us, what, if anything, are we willing to die for?
The first time I went to Shabbat at my host's home, she asked a series of questions and we picked which one we wanted to answer. The first time I heard that question I thought, "What a bizarre question! Willing to die for? What in the world could that be?" Yet in this recent moment I realized there was, in fact, something beyond myself, something I was willing to die for.
Hold space for each other
I would die in exchange for my fellow Americans being able to sit with that ability to hold space for one another's pain and experience it without judgment, without condemnation, without skepticism. Just the ability to sit with the actuality of one another's pain – not a projection as to what that person's experience should be, but to actually sit and process and feel in solidarity with one another. And, in doing so, get at least one step closer to seeing them as a fellow human, allowing them a shared humanity.
I realized this very recently: I would die for the actualization of this America.
Around the time I signed on to be on "RHONY," I was reaching that place of emotional maturity to go deeper with my place in this world. I came to learn Shabbat is the Jewish day of rest, Saturday, where one gathers to reflect and observe. And as we sit with pain, we embrace the hope of creating the space to hold the pain as it is. And when we do that, we realize the greatest capability of humanity. I believe it is only through that action that we put our nation on an authentic path towards the journey, which is not to be confused with a destination: a journey of truth and reconciliation.
I took that journey very literally this month, to the heart of Black Wall Street and the Tulsa race massacre, while the headlines tried to pull me back into "RHONY" trauma.
One hundred years ago, a white supremacist mob took over one of the most prosperous Black neighborhoods America had seen – the Greenwood district of Tulsa, Oklahoma – with the intent to destroy it. They succeeded in a way, homes and businesses were destroyed by violent white mobs, with 300 Black Americans killed and nearly 10,000 homeless – they were out to not just break Black American prosperity but to remind us they had the power to break our spirit.
The ultimate American dream
On June 1, when "RHONY’s" “race moment” aired and viewers all over the world took their sides, Tulsa was where my thoughts were, Tulsa was where my body physically was and Tulsa was where my spirit gathered itself again.
Nowhere are the lessons of sitting with pain and allowing for shared humanity more evident than in the Tulsa race massacre. My work has been and will always be about helping to put Americans on a trajectory of realizing our shared humanity. But we must process both truth and reconciliation – in that order, and as an inextricable pair. There can never be reconciliation without first identifying and articulating the truth.
Some might not have grasped the milestone of me appearing as the first Black housewife on "RHONY" but, if they knew my work, they know disrupting has always been a part of every space I enter. My predisposition to disruption is singularly rooted in my unrelenting desire to seek and speak the truth.
Disruption can feel uncomfortable, because it is. But in Tulsa, our tour guide – a wise indigenous artist and executive named Vanessa Adams-Harris – paused to tell us something I will never forget: Disruption is essential to life, and if we need further evidence of it, remember that the placenta must break for life to be formed.
In Tulsa so much fell in place for me. What happened on "RHONY," during the Shabbat dinner, and what I have carried with me my whole life as a Black woman navigating white spaces all comes down to the benevolent intention behind the disruption that has been so natural to me for so long.
So, when I say I will not be policed, I will not be silenced, I must be free to speak my truth, you are hearing my invitation to sit with me and my pain. And that invitation is the only pathway to both truth and reconciliation, which is the blessing of our shared humanity, the ultimate American Dream.
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 'RHONY' Eboni K. Williams: Black women are not 'angry.' We are human.