Real Housewife Robyn Dixon on How Race Plays a Role on the Show

The “Real Housewives of Potomac” star opens up about her unconventional relationship with her live-in ex-husband, her bankruptcy, and why racial identity became such a controversial issue this season.

May 20 2016, 6:45pm

Photos courtesy of Robyn Dixon

During the first season of The Real Housewives of Potomac, Robyn Dixon had one of the more intense storylines. By the time the season ended last month, she'd discussed her unconventional romantic relationship with her live-in ex-husband, former professional basketball player Juan Dixon; revealed that they'd had to declare bankruptcy in 2015 after being scammed by a close friend in what Robyn called a "mini-Ponzi scheme"; and gotten into heated arguments about her racial identity after other cast mates insinuated she wasn't black enough.

It all came to a head when one Housewife's husband grabbed another Housewife's boyfriend's butt at a party—and Robyn responded by asking if it was a "white guy thing." While this might seem merely playful, it caused an uproar, with one of the Housewives calling Robyn "racially obsessed" and saying Dixon was biracial "as if it was a fighting word." Following the dramatic season finale, we talked to Dixon about her relationship, the bankruptcy, race, and how they all played out on the show.

BROADLY: This season, you revealed that you had to file bankruptcy in 2015 after you were scammed in a Ponzi scheme. What happened?
Robyn Dixon: Juan and I have a friend that we knew since high school, and we all went to college together. He was in our wedding, and he was the guy who would always check on me and the kids when Juan played [basketball] overseas in Europe. This guy was very close to us.

As long as we knew him, he always worked in the financial industry—that's what he always told us, so that's what we believed. Why would we not believe our friend when he tells us what he does?

So eventually he's like, I've got this great opportunity coming up where you'll make 40 percent and get your money back in a couple of months, blah, blah, blah. Obviously now that sounds too good to be true, but at the time I was like, why would I doubt him? That was our close friend. He looked like he was living a reasonable life.

When did you figure out something was up?
He kept periodically sending phony documents so you'd be like, let's put more in, or leave it in, or whatever. Then Juan and I got to a point where we no longer had income. We said, "OK, we need our money back." Then it was lie after lie after lie. [The friend] was in court for a year from a guy that was suing him, and we didn't even know this. He was just hiding so much behind the scam.

Then he was going to face jail time because he needed to give this guy his money. That's when he came to me and asked me for more money. I was like, wait a minute—what are you telling me? You're telling me you don't have anyone's money?

A few days after I realized the money was gone, he threw himself off a bridge and killed himself. It was very crazy and emotionally complicated because I was so angry, but I was so devastated that he killed himself. Losing a ton of money sucks, but the fact he was our friend that killed himself was so awful. It was the worst time of my life.

People would always say things like, 'What color are you? You're not black.'

Did this situation impact your decision to do the show?
I was very honest with the producers and casting people when I was approached to do this show. I was like, listen—I'm not living that glamorous life that you might want to portray. They were totally fine with that, because I have connections to the women and I have lived that life and am in that circle.

I made the conscious decision to go on the show and tell my story. Most people in my situation would run away from an opportunity like this because of embarrassment or shame, or just because they don't want people to know what happened. I kind of looked at it as an opportunity to help people who watch the show by proving there is still hope after going through a devastating situation like mine.

Can you talk about your unconventional relationship with Juan?
Juan and I met in high school a few months after he had lost both of his parents to AIDS-related illness. They were drug addicts who were in and out of jail and the street and weren't really consistent parents in his life. When I met him, it was shocking to me that somebody my age had already experienced so much. My father is a dentist and my mother is a business owner and college professor, and they've been married for 43 years; my life was completely different. I was so touched by his experiences, and we just immediately connected after we met. We've been stuck together for the rest of the lives.

Did you expect racial identity to be such a big topic of conversation on the show?
I went to predominately white schools all my life, and whether I wanted to or not, race was always discussed. People would always say things like, "What color are you? You're not black." I remember being in third grade and during a Black History Month lesson, the discussion turned into "What color is Robyn?" The teacher herself said, "Your parents must be white."

People just didn't understand why I looked the way I looked. I was like, no, I'm black. They were always like, there must be something else there. And my best friend at the time was like, "No, she's black. I know her parents and they're black." We need a whole other episode or show just to talk about black history. There [is] white ancestry in my blood, and I don't deny that, but I can't identify a white parent or relative like Katie [Rost] can.

Were you surprised by the reaction of some of your fellow cast members to these discussions about race and racial identity?
I was mostly surprised by Katie's, because I thought she would understand my experience, but after awhile I realized she had a completely different experience than [I did].

I was surprised that she gets so defensive at just the subject of race being brought up. I never brought it up to try to start a confrontational exchange. I thought it would be something we would talk about and then move on. Even at [the reunion episode], we get heated about it. It's very interesting.

Why do you think discussions surrounding race became such a big part of the fabric of the show?
On all the other franchises, it's usually just people who identify as one race. Atlanta has an all-black cast; Beverly Hills has an all-white cast. So the topic of race never comes up. Why would it? There's no reason for a group of all-white people to talk about race when they all have similar backgrounds, and the same thing goes for the black cast on Atlanta.

On Potomac we have black women and biracial women, and both biracial women also happen to be married to white men. We have an intermingling of races; the topic more naturally came up. It shouldn't be a super-sensitive topic in my opinion, but I guess it is. In today's world, it's even more sensitive than it should be.

I think it's a pretty cool thing that Bravo didn't edit these conversations out. Race is nothing people should sweep under the rug. I think it's cool that we were able to get some conversations going.

How have viewers responded to the conversations on social media?
Overall the reactions were very mixed. As a cast, we could see the viewers' reactions on Twitter and Instagram. A lot of people understood my experience and they applauded me for embracing it. A lot of people have attacked Katie for what they think is her not embracing her identity. I've been attacked for my silly comments, which truly were not meant to be offensive.

Look, I have so many white friends. I have been to like 30 bat and bar mitzvahs in my life. But if people don't know my background, they think my comments are coming from a mean place. I guess my filter was off during the season.

My filter will be on next season. I have learned there are certain things I can't say. A lot of people called me a racist. First of all, racist is a harsh word, and I want people to look that up in the dictionary before throwing it around. They'd say I was a bigot and ask, "Why do you hate white people?" Oh my God, there just aren't enough characters on Twitter for me to even begin to explain myself. I'm just hoping people realize none of the conversations and commentary came from a place of hate.