In conversation with MTV's Franchesca Ramsey: On life as an "accidental activist"

The comedian and author of a new memoir talks about why the world doesn't need "another hot take on Kanye"

By D. Watkins

Editor at Large

Published May 21, 2018 3:00PM (EDT)

Franchesca Ramsey (Getty/Jason Kempin)
Franchesca Ramsey (Getty/Jason Kempin)

Franchesca Ramsey catapulted to online fame with a 2012 video that went viral, "Shit White Girls Say to Black Girls," examining the issue of racial microaggressions — and just plain ridiculous statements like "why isn't there a White Entertainment Television?" — through a comedic lens. She transformed viral fame into a powerful entertainment career, becoming a writer and correspondent for Larry Wilmore's "The Nightly Show" on Comedy Central. Now she hosts "Decoded" for MTV News, a show that focused on topics around race, identity and culture.

"It really did change my life," Ramsey said on a recent episode of "Salon Talks." "I genuinely don’t think I’d be sitting here if that video hadn’t been made."

Ramsey can now add author to her bio. Her new book, "Well, That Escalated Quickly: Memoirs and Mistakes of an Accidental Activist," is a collection of personal essays about, as the book describes itself, "race, identity, online activism, and the downfall of real communication in the age of social media rants, trolls, and call-out wars."

Ramsey stepped into Salon's studio last week for a conversation about trolls, call-out culture, going viral and more. Our conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity. 

How did you make adjustments to your life after that video? What did that feel like?

I was working as a graphic designer at Ann Taylor when that video went viral, so I had a regular nine to seven — graphic designers, we stay late often — so I was working in a day job. When that video went viral I got an agent, I started auditioning more and doing public speaking, and I now executive produce and host a show for MTV News and have written for television and award shows.

This video really kind of kicked off my career and also just brought a spotlight onto my life in a way that I was genuinely not prepared for when it came to just talking about identity and race in a more meaningful and thoughtful way.

For me with my book, that’s a big part of why the subtitle is “Accidental Activist,” because I did not know that this would make me someone that people looked to have these conversations.

Watch the full conversation with Franchesca Ramsey

Comedian and author of the new memoir, "Well, That Escalated Quickly"

What type of negative feedback did you get?

Oh, what type of negative feedback? Was there a negative? Was there a negative?

You can’t just slander white women in open media and expect everything to be all rosy— 

It’s funny because that video is so light, in my opinion. Sure there is criticism there, but it’s really talking about the experience that I’ve had my entire life growing up in many spaces where I was sometimes the only black person there.

Story that we don’t really hear enough of?

I think that’s why that the video did so well. The video has almost 12 million views. I think it resonated with people because that was the experience a lot of people were having. I didn’t genuinely didn’t realize that. I thought like it was just a personal story.

For me, at least with my parents, I feel that they wanted me to have all the opportunities that they did not have, and for them that meant going to private school. I was in spaces with students that didn’t know any black people, and so with this video, I think, it shined a light on some uncomfortable situations for people. Sometimes when you are critiqued, you get defensive, so there were lots of people that were very angry about the video.

What was the meanest things somebody said to you?

The meanest thing is probably not something I would want to repeat. I’ve been called every name in the book, but—

The internet is a mean place.

The internet is a blessing and a curse. I mean, it’s a place where lots of people can express themselves, which is amazing, but it’s a place where a lot of people can express themselves that probably should keep those expressions to themselves.


I really tried to look at the positives in addition to the negatives. I think, again, it opened so many doors for me. It has removed a lot of the gatekeepers for folks who want to get into entertainment, who want to be writers, who are creative, but maybe they don’t live in New York, they don’t live in LA, they don’t know how to get an agent, they don’t have access to expensive equipment. You don’t really need those things anymore because of the internet, which is pretty cool.

Let’s get into the book. The title is, “Well, That Escalated Quickly: Memoirs and Mistakes of an Accidental Activist.” How’d the whole book come about?

After “Shit White Girls Say” [went viral], which was in 2012, I got approached by a number of literary agents asking me to write a book. I’m so glad I did not write a book then. I found my old proposal I had started working on at the time and it was trash. It was terrible. I was just not prepared to take that on.

So cut to now, six years later, when I was working at “The Nightly Show” on Comedy Central, when we got cancelled, I thought, “OK, this is a sign that I need to start working on this book.” It’s something I really wanted to do, and I’ve been kind of collecting ideas for stories in a Google Doc. And I started working on my book proposal. It was definitely a labor of love — you know, you are someone that has written a number of books. I just wanted to tell my story in a way that I would hope inspire people to be transparent about their mistakes and be honest about the fact that we all have to start somewhere.

And that’s why I really like the title, “Memoirs and Mistakes of an Accidental Activist.” Let’s share some of those mistakes?

I think probably one of the biggest mistakes that I made, especially online, is being a little too reactionary. Sometimes someone would say something or do something that was hurtful, and I wouldn’t necessarily always have all of the information. I think this happens a lot, where someone says something, or we hear that someone had said something, and everybody leaps into action, and then later on we find out that the details of the story weren’t completely clear.

I’ve often had times where I was responding to what someone said, but like, I just kind of skimmed what they said and didn’t realize that I misunderstood what they were saying, or maybe they were being sarcastic, or they were talking about something that someone else has said or done.

So, you’re like, ready to clap back?

I love, love a good clap back, but I had to step back and say, “I’m not always responding in a way that’s productive,” and I really now try to take a minute before I respond. Everybody doesn’t need a response. Every story doesn’t necessarily need my voice. I’m really trying to use my platform to uplift other people who I feel like have something important, or positive, to say about a story. We don’t need another hot take on Kanye, personally. I can share what somebody else has to say. I don’t necessarily have to center my voice and jump right in.

I feel like sometimes you can be more productive, or you can send a strong message by just not responding?

Yeah. I mean, I think sometimes we are giving attention to people who are saying and doing terrible, hateful things for the purpose of getting our attention. There is someone, who I will not name, that made [an] awful parody of Donald Glover’s “This is America,” and I believe that this person did it for the purpose of getting people upset. We will not speak this person’s name.

All right. I don’t know the name, but the dance moves were funny.

Listen, No. No, no, no. We are not giving that person clicks. The point meaning that there are some people who are trolling purposefully.

I got to be honest with you. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I gave it a click.

Oh, I’m so disappointed. You fell for that person’s tricks.

I work in media. I got to know what’s going on. How could we watch it without giving the clicks?

No, no, no. Look at the GIFs. Look at the screen caps. Look at the commentary about it, but do not give that person your clicks. This happens a lot. I feel like especially with black folks . . . black Twitter is so smart and so vibrant, but sometimes I get so frustrated because I’m like, “Yo, we are being played.” Someone will say something and you’re like, “I know you don’t really think that,” or, “I know you are smarter than . . .”

You see sometimes on red carpet [coverage] where a [photo of a] black celebrity will get labeled the wrong black celebrity [name] and then black Twitter will just be like, “How dare you, that’s not Oprah,” and then I just feel like there [is] some dude sitting there being like, “We’re getting all the clicks.” Like, “They fell for it again.”

Like it’s intentional?

Absolutely. Remember, there was some site. I can’t remember who the —

Who was the guy that played “Beetlejuice”? What’s his name? He played Batman.

Oh, yeah.

But he said somebody’s name wrong at the Oscars. [Michael Keaton, at the Golden Globes. — Ed.]

I don’t know his name. Yeah, it happens.

I’ve seen it happen sometimes where a news outlet will post something just like super inflammatory. Sometimes it’s a random site I’d never heard of before, and I’m like, “Look, now they’re trending on Twitter because everybody is mad about something that they did.” We should be angry, and we should critique it. I think sometimes we have to be a little more thoughtful and intentional about how we give that thing attention, rather than giving it all of our attention. Is there a way to pull back and talk about the big picture around that issue without driving traffic to that story?

Again, I’m guilty. One time I saw a news site called Brock Turner a "swimming attacker" instead of calling him a rapist, and I was like, “Yo, what?”

You’re like, “Everyone needs to see this now. Stop what you’re doing. Share this article.” No. Please do not do that.

How do you not do it, and do you tell us how to not do it in this book?

I do talk about that. The thing that I mentioned was a few years ago, I think it was two years ago, there was that ad for a detergent where the black guy got into the washing machine and then he came out as an Asian guy.

Yeah, I know. Dove did it. I know Dove did it recently in a soap ad.

There all those ads and everybody is sharing them, and, again, it’s like, “Wow.” Somebody is sitting there going, “Wow, our engagement is really high this month,” even though we screwed up and we got dragged. Internet moved so fast on that and months later no one’s talking about it anymore.

Is that like a "no press is bad press" thing?

I do think a lot of people think that.

I guess in the era of clicks?

In the era of clicks. A click is a click. A hate view is a hate view. A view is a view. It doesn’t matter. I mean I think we can talk about the issue — again, without driving attention of that person or that outlet — and we can say, “Well, what is the problem here when it comes to how we are representing people of color, or how we’re talking about women, and this is something we’ve seen in lots of different media and we can talk about the global issue versus this specific instance,” because unfortunately these things happen all the time, and there is a way, I think, to talk about it without rewarding that brand, or that celebrity or that YouTube blogger. Yeah, I see it happen all the time. And again, I’ve been guilty of it for sure.

Do you ever get into a YouTube beef?

I think that people have had very one-sided beefs with me.

Like you versus Alex Jones, Volume One?

No. Goodness. Please do not even put that into the universe. I do not want that in my life.

No, I don’t think I’m a type of person who is like beefed, per se, but I don’t hold my tongue in the sense that I will say what I feel about certain issues, and I’m not intimidated by the fact that someone is a celebrity or has a higher profile than me. I think one of the mistakes that I have had to acknowledge is I don’t think I’ve always been as thoughtful about my critique as I could be. The way that somebody looks, or who they’re dating or what past jobs they’ve had, those are very superficial things that I think get laughs, but they don’t always get to the heart of the problem, and that’s something that I regret, and that’s something that I’m trying to learn from. I’m hoping that by talking about those mistakes in this book in a comedic and thoughtful way, that more people will do the same thing.

You’ve got a platform, so you have to be careful. What you say?

You don’t even need a platform in this respect. Because sure it’s great, and I feel very thankful and fortunate that I have an audience, but our words have impact no matter where we are. You don’t need tons of Facebook followers, or Twitter followers or [a sizable] Instagram presence in order for your words to potentially cause harm, even if you don’t intend for them to. I think you have to think about not just the person that you’re talking to or talking about, like who else is there consuming that message.

I want to talk about the “Accidental Activist,” and I want to know how you see activism or what you think your role in activism [is]?

For me, I use the term “Accidental Activist” because when “Shit White Girls Say to Black Girls” happened, I did not genuinely understand or know how to talk about white privilege, how to talk about microaggressions. Those are the words that I just hadn’t been exposed to. I had lived those experiences, but I didn’t really know how to talk about them in a meaningful way, and so I kind of got catapulted into this place where people were looking to me to talk about these issues. Anderson Cooper was my first national television interview. They did an entire segment about me, and looking back I kind of cringe because I was not prepared for that at all.

It was like the new language and a new experience that the world wasn’t used to?

Absolutely. Yeah. I think for a lot of people, they are finding themselves in similar positions, especially post our most recent election where they are having conversations with people in their home, in their job, at school, that they didn’t know they were going to need to have and now they feel compelled to have, or someone is pushing them to say like, “Explain this to me. Tell me what this is about.” That's something you and I kind of talked about before we jumped into our interview, that a lot of people are being placed in a position where people are looking for them to speak up for them, or help them understand something, or advocate for them.

I think the beauty of the internet is that it’s giving a lot of people the opportunity to reach people around the world that they never would have been able to, and for people to tell their own stories where they don’t see themselves reflected in mainstream media, or the media is misrepresenting the truth, right. Now people can turn on their phone and they can capture the dude yelling in the store about [people] speaking in Spanish, or the woman who’s calling the cops because you started a barbecue.

Now people are being exposed to things that we know have been happening forever, but now the internet is giving them opportunity to say, “No this is what it really is like, and we need to be talking about this” because the media has been shaping our stories, or Hollywood has been telling these stories in a way that’s not true.

There’s a little black girl somewhere in the school, and she is the only black girl, and she is having an issue with identity and what she should be doing, and she is hurt by so many things that she hears and says. What do you say to her right now?

I say that well, we unfortunately have challenging experiences when we’re in school. School is not the be-all, end-all. It’s an amazing time where you can be exposed to important conversations and awesome people, but it is like a microcosm of the world experience that you will have, and so the classmates or sometimes the teachers who might be singling you out, or do not know how to talk to you or interact with you, that does not have to define you. There is [an] entire world that exists beyond the classroom, beyond the neighborhood that you live in, beyond the state, beyond the city, wherever you are, and you can move past that and find a tribe of people that understand you and care about you, and as you get older you will learn how to advocate for yourself.

When I look back on the girl that was inspiring “Shit White Girls Say to Black Girls,” that video came about because I didn’t have the language to speak up for myself in those situations, and now I do. Now I have a standard for how I make sure people do not speak to me in a way that I feel uncomfortable with. When I was younger, I didn’t have that. I was like, “Try not to make waves.” I wanted everybody to like me, and so I stifled a lot of the discomfort that I had. For anyone, no matter what background you’re from, if you are having that feeling now, my encouragement to you is that who you are in this moment does not define who you are forever.

By D. Watkins

D. Watkins is an Editor at Large for Salon. He is also a writer on the HBO limited series "We Own This City" and a professor at the University of Baltimore. Watkins is the author of the award-winning, New York Times best-selling memoirs “The Beast Side: Living  (and Dying) While Black in America”, "The Cook Up: A Crack Rock Memoir," "Where Tomorrows Aren't Promised: A Memoir of Survival and Hope" as well as "We Speak For Ourselves: How Woke Culture Prohibits Progress." His new books, "Black Boy Smile: A Memoir in Moments," and "The Wire: A Complete Visual History" are out now.

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