Well, That Escalated Quickly

Memoirs and Mistakes of an Accidental Activist


By Franchesca Ramsey

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A sharp and timely exploration of race, online activism, and real communication in the age of social media rants, trolls, and call-out wars, from veteran video blogger and star of MTV’s Decoded Franchesca Ramsey.

Franchesca Ramsey didn’t set out to be an activist. Or a comedian. Or a commentator on identity, race, and culture, really. But then her YouTube video “What White Girls Say . . . to Black Girls” went viral. Twelve million views viral. Faced with an avalanche of media requests, fan letters, and hate mail, she had two choices: Jump in and make her voice heard or step back and let others frame the conversation. After a crash course in social justice and more than a few foot-in-mouth moments, she realized she had a unique talent and passion for breaking down injustice in America in ways that could make people listen and engage.

In her first book, Ramsey uses her own experiences as an accidental activist to explore the many ways we communicate with each other–from the highs of bridging gaps and making connections to the many pitfalls that accompany talking about race, power, sexuality, and gender in an unpredictable public space…the internet.

Well, that Escalated Quickly includes Ramsey’s advice on dealing with internet trolls and low-key racists, confessions about being a former online hater herself, and her personal hits and misses in activist debates with everyone from bigoted Facebook friends and misguided relatives to mainstream celebrities and YouTube influencers. With sharp humor and her trademark candor, Ramsey shows readers we can have tough conversations that move the dialogue forward, rather than backward, if we just approach them in the right way.




I know the exact date I went from being a nobody, minding my own business in my corporate retail job, to being “internet famous”—and inadvertently making a lot of girls cry.

I have a long and complicated history with the internet. I basically grew up online. I built my first website in middle school after spending the summer at computer camp learning how to code. My first boyfriend was a kid I met in an AOL chatroom. Smartphones and digital cameras didn’t exist back then, so our late-’90s version of sexting was me taking a Polaroid of my nipple and scanning it. When I’m super famous and my long-lost internet boyfriend inevitably comes out of the woodwork and releases that photo to the press, I have a statement ready: “That low-res mess of pixels is not recognizable as a human breast.”

In high school I bought my own domain name, franchesca.net, and started blogging about my life before it was actually called blogging. I kept that up through college before making the leap to video in 2006, one year after YouTube was founded. I spent the next six years making YouTube videos in my spare time, just for fun; the topics spanned everything from hairstyle tutorials to informational discussions about safe sex to original songs about student loan debt. (A sample: “Went off to school to get my education / Little did I know debt was part of the equation”—I know, I’m good.)

I’d spend hours each week filming and editing videos after work—and sometimes during work, when no one was paying attention—but I never had a very big audience. My comment section generally broke down into three categories:

1. “LOL”

2. “Kill yourself.”

3. My mom scolding me about typos in graphics and inappropriate jokes

Then, one day, it actually happened—every YouTuber’s not-so-secret dream: One of my videos went viral. And I don’t mean Huffington Post viral. I’m talking supermassive, mainstream-news viral—an unstoppable contagion, if contagions also had some good side effects. It launched my career.

You could say it all happened because my high school’s alumni Christmas party left me sick of white people’s shit. I was frustrated by the same tired conversations I kept having with friends and acquaintances I had known for decades, the head patting, the hair yanking, and the gently racist observations that seem to just roll off the tongue after a few drinks. So I did the only thing I knew how to do moderately well: I put my frustrations into a video.

And before I knew it, my life got turned upside down, Fresh Prince style.

That video was “Shit White Girls Say… to Black Girls,” and it was right on brand for the kind of social commentary I’d been begging people to watch on my YouTube channel and would soon be known for. Within a couple of hours of uploading “SWGSTBG,” I was officially the new (sh)it girl. I soon quit my job to pursue acting and internetting full-time.

In the years since, a lot has changed. These days, most people know me as a fiercely passionate, outspoken social justice advocate, laying down truth on my MTV show Decoded or popping up as a commentator on cable news. But while I am extremely proud of the conversations my work has sparked around the world, I’m still embarrassed to admit that none of this was expected. Before my career exploded, I was pretty comfortable pushing pixels at my desk job as a graphic designer.

In other words, I didn’t set out to be an activist, and I’ve made a lot of mistakes along the way. And precisely because of that, I think I have a lot to teach folks who find themselves on this same journey, struggling to find their voice and stand up for what they believe in without screaming at some guy who calls himself LethalDUMPS22 on Twitter that he doesn’t know your life! Of course he doesn’t know your life—he has chosen to go by the name LethalDUMPS22.

While I’ve never rocked a war bonnet at Coachella, I have put my foot in my mouth more than a few times. Social media means we’re all living our lives in public now, and many of us are learning how to be advocates, allies, and activists in public, too. And while there may be nothing that can prepare you for the perks and pitfalls of being elected the “racism referee” among your friends and family, there are some proven methods for coping when someone writes a 1,500-word Tumblr post about how you are obviously oblivious to your self-hating racism. (The social justice glossary at the end of this book—“Franchesca’s Simple Explanations of Not-So-Simple Concepts”—may also come in handy.) I’ve been on the receiving end of more than a few of those missives—and, I hate to admit it, have dished them out, too.

As the conversation about social justice broadens, I wish we could be more understanding of those who may be coming to it later than others. I was at a speaking gig at a university recently, and toward the end of the talk a girl in the audience asked me a question that made me really sad. She began by sharing that she felt guilty about how “ignorant” she had been in high school, where she’d been the only Asian student but had never thought about it much. Once she got to college, she started watching my videos, and now she couldn’t get over all the times she hadn’t objected to people’s offensive comments, and times when she’d said disrespectful things herself. She ended by saying that she wanted to go back to her hometown and raise awareness at her high school, but she worried she would be hypocritical for doing so.

It can be really scary to admit that there are a lot of things you don’t know. We live in a world where people are quick to pounce on you if you express confusion or ask a question, and many online activists aren’t honest about the fact that they didn’t always know what the gender binary was, either. Too often, people climb the ladder and say, “Hell yeah, I climbed the ladder! And I beat you to the top!” The thing about the ladder is that you never stop climbing, and if you think you have, you have a lot more work to do.

I told the “guilty” college student standing in front of me that I didn’t even start thinking about this stuff until way after college, when a mob of angry Tumblr users descended on my social media accounts to explain to me exactly why I was a hopeless person who had no idea what she was talking about. I may not have always had the vocabulary to explain what I was talking about, but I was certainly not hopeless. My wake-up call didn’t come until my twenties, and I’m still learning, too.

It can be hard to remember this today, when the stakes for these kinds of conversations are higher than ever. Because much of this work is happening online, especially for young people, the crucial nuances of face-to-face interaction are almost nonexistent. What’s more, we now have a record of everything. It used to be that if you made a crass joke, someone might call you out on it, you could learn, and you could move on. But now these offhand, often accidental comments can be used as an indictment of someone’s character in perpetuity. There are experts in the field of Problematic Archaeology who will spend hours combing through your tweets and preteen blogging efforts to uncover the most offensive artifacts of your past. (I’ve been those people—and I found what I was looking for.) Often, disagreements and misunderstandings escalate so quickly that there isn’t time to reflect, understand where you went wrong (if you actually went wrong at all), and figure out how to fix it.

This book is an attempt to show you that mistakes are inevitable, and that what’s actually important is how we use them to make a better world. For all the hate and abuse I get from all points on the political spectrum, I’ve been fortunate that many people have been compassionate about showing me where I messed up and helping me get back on track. I wanted to pay that generosity forward somehow, and I’m doing it the best way I can: by pulling my own receipts and dragging my former self.



If I could do it all over again, I would have bought a better wig. The hair I wore to parody white girls was platinum blond, of course, and it hung a little past my shoulders in the kind of long layers beloved by women who star in reality TV shows set in California. In that way, it was perfect. But it also didn’t really fit my head.

The morning before my life changed was like any other, except that I spent most of it looking at endless footage of myself in this bad wig. I’d set “Shit White Girls Say… to Black Girls” to upload to YouTube the night before; high-speed internet was a luxury I couldn’t yet afford, and my connection was slow as hell. When I woke up, I saw that the upload had failed. Before I left for my job as a graphic designer at Ann Taylor, I started the upload again, thinking my hour-long commute would give it plenty of uninterrupted time to transfer and that I could finish the posting process from work. I looked at the still I’d chosen for the video: My eyebrows were halfway up my forehead, and my smile was cheesy. A few blond strands were caught on my hand, which was paused in the middle of raising the roof—part of my imitation of a white girl singing Nicki Minaj’s “Super Bass.” I didn’t know it at the time, but millions of people were about to meet my freeze-frame face rocking this look.

When I got to work, I saw that my janky internet had pulled through. Our office had an open floor plan, which, while gorgeous and modern, was not architecturally convenient for maintaining a side hustle. As I edited my video’s description box, I switched back and forth between YouTube and the image of Demi Moore in business-casual that I was Photoshopping for our new ad campaign, constantly looking over my shoulder to watch out for someone about to catch me in the act. “Ms. Ramsey… have you been producing humorous videos for the internet on company time?” (I have since accepted that procrastination is a fundamental part of any job requiring a computer.) I created a prewritten “Click to tweet” link, added all my social media links, and made sure to note the royalty-free music site I used for the end credits per instructions from Patrick, my then-aspiring-lawyer boyfriend. (Getting sued is one of my major career phobias.)

With the description box finished, “Shit White Girls Say… to Black Girls” was ready for her close-up. I changed the setting from private to public, and then, a full hour after arriving at work, finally decided to give Ann Taylor my full attention. I spent the morning listening to my Hunger Games audiobook and wielding my Magic Wand and Healing Brush on ladies in tasteful cardigans.

Before “SWGSTBG,” I was convinced I was going to go viral for a parody video I’d made a few months before, “Student Loan Countdown.” It was based on the criminally underrated Beyoncé bop “Countdown,” and the idea for the parody came to me as soon as the original music video dropped. I worked around the clock to post mine in time to take advantage of the press already surrounding Bey. I stayed up all night writing lyrics; I went to American Apparel as soon as it opened to buy turtlenecks to match the ones she wears in the video; I spent hours tinkering with GarageBand to get my knockoff track to sound passable; and I exhausted myself learning Beyoncé’s choreography and shooting multiple takes to get it exactly right. I got my parody up in twenty-four hours, which is some Beyoncé-level dedication, if I do say so myself. I’d worked hard writing and editing “SWGSTBG,” but it was nothing like what I did for “Student Loan Countdown,” which generated about 100,000 views and was my most popular video ever. So I’d lowered my expectations. I thought “SWGSTBG” would do well, but for me that meant a couple hundred thousand views, maybe.

When lunch rolled around and I was able to pull myself away from the dual sagas of Katniss Everdeen and pleated slacks, I noticed my phone was buzzing a bit more than usual. My Gchats were blinking. My inbox was full of unread emails—sprinkled in with the usual YouTube comments were messages from Fox, the Village Voice, MSNBC, and the Huffington Post. Normally, when I made a video, I would spend an hour emailing blogs and media asking them to feature it. But I was at work, so I hadn’t done any of that. Why were these people emailing me?

I typed “Shit White Girls Say to Black Girls” into Google, and there, at the top of the search results, was me, cheesing in that platinum-blond wig, next to one million views. I took a screenshot and pasted it into an email to my mom, my best friend De’Lon, and Patrick. Then I burst into tears. This was not a poignant, cinematic, twinkle-in-my-eye moment, but a sloppy, snotty, my first boyfriend dumped me and we were SUPPOSED TO GET MARRIED kind of cry. I don’t know if it was the shock of it, or feeling overwhelmed because I had gone from no one watching my videos to, suddenly, everyone watching. It only took six long years and four incredibly fast hours. I was clutching my face, rocking back and forth, and mumbling, “Oh my God, oh my God,” when a coworker came over and put her hand on my shoulder. “Is everything okay?”

I looked up at her. Where could I begin?

When “SWGSTBG” hit, I had no idea what going viral would entail, which I guess is why I burst into tears. Though I was working full-time, I barely made enough money to cover rent, bills, and my student loans. Patrick and I were living above an out-of-work opera singer whose erratic yet rigorous practice schedule meant my filming was often interrupted midmonologue by a burst of muffled eighteenth-century baritone. Once, I had to go down there at three a.m. to ask if he could please stop working on his Italian arias. He responded, “How did it sound, though?” While I’ve always been more of a lover than a fighter, it took everything in me to not slap him across the face and say, “It sounded like you need to shut the hell up.” If he wasn’t singing, he was fighting with his wife, who was upset that he was out of work. It was like my life was a sitcom about an aspiring actress in New York.

By that time, I had been making videos and posting them on YouTube for about six years. My first was a hair tutorial in which I explained how I put my hair up without a hair tie. The “secret” was taking two sections of locs and tying them into a bow. Very high-level stuff. The video was, to put it lightly, awful. To start, I was backlit, which is a total no-no. Always know where your light is, folks: in front of you. Then the tutorial hit a few snags when my narcissism got the best of me—“I’m trying to look at myself in the camera and I’m realizing it looks weird,” I noted, aloud, about halfway through. But I persevered. I followed up that video with a blurry fifty-six-second clip of my dog Kaya jumping around on my bed to a heavy-metal soundtrack (chosen by Patrick). Soon I expanded my repertoire to making things people might actually want to watch, developed a little audience, and began devoting most of my free time (and much of my time on the clock at my day job) to YouTube.

Although I never had a specific goal, exactly, I knew I wanted to “work in entertainment” in some way. I’d racked up a nice chunk of student loan debt for half of an acting degree from the University of Michigan; after a few semesters taking classes on clowning, stage combat, and rolling around on the ground like a baby, I still had no idea how to break into the business, so I transferred to the graphic design program at Miami International University of Art & Design.

After graduating, I didn’t necessarily think YouTube was going to get me into show business. Back then, there was no formula for YouTube success because there was no such thing as YouTube success, no webcam-to-riches tales of network executives discovering sensations and offering them development deals. In 2008 YouTube launched its Partner Program, which gave people the opportunity to make money off the ads that played before their videos. After being denied twice, I was finally approved to participate and managed to make a little money from ads—I got a check for a hundred dollars every few months, if that. Though that’s not to say I didn’t see the potential. In 2008, right before I moved to New York in order to be close to auditions and agents, I won a contest to interview celebrities on the red carpet for the Emmys; this was the first of many times I was sure I was going to become famous and subsequently did not become famous. But really, YouTube was just a place to mess around, make stuff exactly how I wanted to make it, and meet people.

Especially after I moved to New York, posting videos on YouTube was a way to scratch my performer’s itch without having to claw my way through the city’s stand-up scene. I didn’t like to go out or drink; open mics were always late at night, and they usually paid in alcohol, if they paid at all. Because I lived in Queens, far away from the clubs downtown, I’d end up getting home at one or two in the morning before having to wake up at seven thirty for work the next day. Unlike most of the other comics I met, I couldn’t work as a bartender or waiter because I can’t even carry a single glass of wine across my living room without becoming a danger to myself and others. So I took odd jobs, like handing out club flyers and stuffing envelopes, in between working retail and graphic design temp jobs. Nevertheless, it was cool to be able to reach thousands of people on YouTube, rather than the same seven white dudes who frequented comedy clubs, and I liked being able to film multiple takes, especially when I had to pause for my neighbor’s nightly opera performances.

In 2011 I thought for sure I’d gotten my big entertainment break when I entered YouTube’s NextUp contest and, after two excruciating rounds of voting, managed to win. Along with twenty-four other YouTubers from around the country, I spent a week at the Google offices in New York City learning the ins and outs of YouTube and being mentored by some of the platform’s top creators. We also got grants to invest in our channels. I spent most of the money on video equipment, including a new camera, computer, editing software, and lights, before putting the rest into savings and toward my hefty student loans. I decided this was my chance to get serious and make something out of my channel.

But even as I got more and more invested in my fans and my videos, in the real world I kept quiet about my YouTube jobby. In those days, most people thought of YouTube as a place to watch videos, not make videos. Whenever I told people I had been making hairstyle tutorials and comedy videos for years, they would look at me as if I had just said something ludicrous, like “I dunno, I just don’t think Lupita Nyong’o is THAT pretty.” (Who would say this?!) YouTube was so new that many people didn’t see the point in investing money and hours into a platform that was for movie trailers and cat videos. My friends from my performing arts high school didn’t consider what I did “real acting,” and although my family supported me, they didn’t get it, either. When I told my grandmother, who doesn’t have internet, that I made videos in my bedroom and posted them online—and that sometimes my boyfriend was in them—her response was “Do you have clothes on, Frannie?”

Nevertheless, by the time the “Shit Girls Say” phenomenon hit in late 2011, I’d developed a voice and a dedicated audience of about ten thousand subscribers. If you somehow managed to not be one of the forty million people who watched the four-part “Shit…” series, I’ll bring you up to speed. “Shit Girls Say” starred comedian Kyle Humphrey in drag, going through a series of quick scenes depicting stereotypical things “girls” say. When delivered in Humphrey’s over-the-top upspeak and mashed together in a two-minute supercut, ordinary lines like “Do you know anything about computers?” and “Go into my purse…” and “Shut UP” took on a universal relatability. It went viral thanks to a perfect combination of “funny ’cause it’s true,” “dude in a wig,” and “ha ha, girls are dumb.”

As I watched the “Shit…” parodies pop up around the internet, I started to think about making my own. Then, about a week after the original video appeared, I got my inspiration from a video posted by stand-up comedian Billy Sorrells: “Shit Black Girls Say.”

Well, sort of. As soon as the video began to play, Sorrells’s portrayal of a stereotypical black girl named “Peaches” who liked blingy sunglasses and Basketball Wives made me feel weird. While the idea of a man in drag imitating the harmless things women and girls say has undertones of misogyny, in general “Shit Girls Say” felt lighthearted, all in good fun. I’m sure every person on earth, regardless of gender, has said, “Could you do me a favor?” at one time or another, and that’s partially what made it funny. But the Peaches character felt different. Sorrells’s dramatic, obnoxious black woman character seemed more like the butt of the joke than someone who was laughing along with it. There were also a few casual quips about domestic violence, as if that could ever possibly be funny.

Today, I know the vocabulary word to explain exactly why “Shit Black Girls Say” made me uncomfortable: misogynoir. The term, coined by activist Moya Bailey, describes the unique interplay of racism and sexism that black women face. Sorrells was drawing on an all-too-familiar trope: Black male comedians like Tyler Perry and Eddie Murphy donning drag and regurgitating the same racist stereotypes that white supremacy uses to oppress black women. These portrayals paint us as loud, angry, aggressive, hysterical, overly sexual, neck-swerving, gum-popping clichés who scream, “Oh, no, he didn’t!” on loop. While these tropes persist all over modern media like Instagram, YouTube, Vine (RIP), and film and television, they’re not too different from the mammy and Jezebel stereotypes promoted by Jim Crow–era advertisements and cartoons.

But at the time, I couldn’t have explained any of this to you; all I knew was that I didn’t relate. Like everyone else, I saw “Shit Black Girls Say” all over Facebook, and even a few of my coworkers were sending it around, laughing hysterically and exchanging omg so true!’s. (As the only black woman on my team, I found this particularly alienating.) The whole point of the “Shit…” meme was for audiences to see themselves in the character. But that wasn’t my version of blackness; Peaches was like a cross between my high school bullies and Martin Lawrence’s Sheneneh character. The more I thought about it, the more angry I got that this video might make my white coworkers and friends believe stereotyping blackness—and especially black womanhood—in this way was acceptable. As long as it’s done by a black person, with a dose of humor!

If that’s not me, I thought, then what “shit” do I say? I started to brainstorm ideas for my own take on the meme. I considered “Shit Black Suburban Girls Say,” since I grew up in the suburbs, but that was too clunky. I toyed with “Shit Oreos Say,” since that’s what people used to say I was—an Oreo. But my fear of litigation stopped me there. What if Nabisco tried to come after me for trademark infringement? After racking my brain for days, I decided it was probably too late to make a spinoff of my own anyway.

That changed around Christmas. While home in Florida I went to my high school’s annual holiday reunion. That year’s party wasn’t any different from those of years past, except that night I was driving, which meant I wasn’t drinking. As the night went on, things got awkward, and I guess this was the first time I was sober enough to recognize just how much I put up with people treating me differently. I had shown up to the party with my locs (duh—they’re attached to my head), which I hadn’t had in high school, and as everyone around me got drunker, they became bolder. The usual questions about my hair, including “Is it real?” and especially “Can I touch it?” started to come out. And like most white people I’d ever talked to about my hair, these sloppy drunks already had their hands out, en route to groping my head, when they “asked.”

I’m embarrassed to say that I didn’t exactly stand up for myself when my friends started acting this way. I did my best to bob and weave as hands flew at me left and right, but I didn’t have the courage to say outright, “Please keep your grubby fingers to yourself,” or “Notice I’m not asking if your breasts are real because that’s none of my business.” Dealing with white people faux pas as a black woman is tricky: If you get upset, you can quickly be labeled the “angry black girl”; if you’re too passive, it seems like you’re giving permission, or letting racism slide. I had always been the token black girl in the group, so I knew this struggle well. Before I went natural, I hardly knew anyone in real life with natural hair, let alone with locs, so I can see how my hair seemed new and strange to some of my friends. But curiosity doesn’t give you free rein to treat me like a baby goat at the petting zoo. I know I’m just as cute as a baby goat, but back off.

The combination of this party and “Shit Black Girls Say” made something click. While part of me cringed, another part knew that this could be the makings of an incredible video. I whipped out my phone and started making a list of all the “Can I touch your hair?”–type comments I could think of. You’re not the same as other black people. He’s so cute for a black guy! You can say the N-word, but I can’t? You guys can do so much with your hair. It kind of feels like Cheetos! Is that racist? Is that racist? That’s NOT racist! An old friend, Megan, who was at the alumni party, provided the perfect inspiration for the nasal voice and the lazy way I waved that cigarette around in some of the scenes. As soon as I got back to New York, I called my friend with a fancy camera, Eric Walter, and got to work on what would become “Shit White Girls Say… to Black Girls.”


On Sale
May 22, 2018
Page Count
256 pages

Franchesca Ramsey

About the Author

Franchesca Ramsey is a social justice advocate, comedian, actress, writer, video blogger, sought-after speaker, and the host of the award-winning web series Decoded on MTV. With videos topping 12 million views, she has been featured on NPR, Anderson Cooper, CNN, MTV, the BBC, and in the New York Times. A former writer and correspondent for The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore, she now has a major late-night television show in development with Comedy Central. She lives in New York City and this is her first book.

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