Franchesca Ramsey Uses Humor to Begin Critical Dialogues on Race for MTV's 'Decoded'

If you were anywhere near the internet in 2012, chances are you've seen Franchesa Ramsey's (also known as Chescaleigh) “Sh*t White Girls Say…to Black Girls” video and fell in love with the hilarious and bright youtube sensation.

Her Chescaleigh comedy channel is full of a mix of song parodies, impersonations and original characters as well as socially conscious and topical comedy sketches. She is also known for her Chescalocs channel which focuses on natural hair care and styling. For years, Franchesa, who has over 250k subscribers combined and over 26 million views on her videos, has been using her voice and platform to analyze race, social causes, and pop culture in America while teaching her viewers to critically confront race and other social issues.

Franchesa has been featured on MTV, The New York Times, NPR, Ebony Magazine and The BBC. Her masterful use of comedy to tackle tough issues like race and social justice has landed her the role of host for the MTV News webseries “Decoded”. There's a new episode of “Decoded” every Wednesday.

For Harriet's founder and Editor-in-Chief Kimberly Foster caught up with Franchesca to discuss being a Black woman in the age of Youtube.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

For Harriet: How long have you been creating content for the internet?

Franchesca: I've been on YouTube since 2006. I've been making internet content since 1998. When I was in the 8th grade I started my own website. So, I've really grown up online.

How has the landscape changed from the time that you started to now?

The landscape has changed drastically because now you can make a career out of your online presence. Even when I started making videos, there was no partner program. You weren't making money off of your YouTube videos, it was strictly for fun. Now because you can make a career, you've got people transitioning to TV. There are people that have products in stores, clothing lines, make-up brands, and all these awesome things outside the internet because of their online presence.

I'm really interested in your opinion as an internet OG. Now that access to these huge platforms is possible, how do you think that affects the way that people create content? Does it affect their authenticity or the way that they move in the industry?

Yeah, absolutely. I meet people at events and concerts or wherever else all the time, and get a lot of questions about like, "Well how do I get started? How do I get lots of followers to my blog?" And people are really going into the online space with a goal becoming a brand or having a television show. I think is really exciting and really cool that those opportunities exist, but I do think that for some people it's taking out the heart out of their work. It seems like it's become more about the opportunities and the things that they want from the content they make rather than just making really good content.

And I always tell people you have to do it because you love it, because those opportunities don't come for everyone. And sometimes they do come but they take a really long time. I had been making videos for 6 years before "Shit White Girls Say" went viral. And I wasn't making videos that I liked to go viral, I was making videos because it was fun. I had a regular job and YouTube was just my creative outlet. And I think that it's great to be very business-minded and strategic about the content that you create, but I do see a lot of people that are maybe doing questionable things or following trends or just jumping on bandwagons because they think, "This is what's going to go viral. This is what's going to get lots of followers on Twitter." Or whatever else. And it's less about just making great content that they believe in.

I love that you really emphasize the fact that this is a long-term thing, like you got to really be in it to win it. And so, what was your goal when you started creating content?

I've been doing this for a really long time and for me, I just loved the computer, the internet, and connecting with people. And I was building websites and making friends online because I just wanted an outlet, a creative place to share my ideas. And I felt like at school I had a lot of friends, but I felt like I was molding myself to be like other people rather than being my most authentic self. And on the internet you can be whoever you want. So some people use that to create fake versions of themselves or to catfish people; but for me the internet was a place where I could truly be myself and make amazing friends that I have to this day.

When I got to college and YouTube came out, I was an aspiring actress who had an agent that never sent me out on anything. When I did get sent out, the parts were really terrible. YouTube was really a place where I could make stuff that I thought was funny and stuff that I thought was interesting. I started making hair videos initially because I didn't have anyone to help me with my hair, I didn't know where to go, and I didn't see myself reflected anywhere online. It was always just a place to express myself and be who I am.

What sort of impact does being such a heavy internet user during the time when you're really trying to find yourself have on your development?

I think I've been really fortunate in the sense that the internet was not what it is now, when I was growing up on the internet. You know now we have Twitter, we have Vine, we have YouTube, we have Tumblr, and if you make a public mistake on the internet now, it can get away from you so fast that it can blow up and it can become a meme. It'll be on the news tomorrow night and everyone will know that you said this really awful, terrible, stupid thing.

So I do think that growing up online has really shaped who I am and what I do online now; but I do think that it was also really good for me because I now feel very comfortable on the online space. Like I know how to cultivate an opinion in 140 characters, because I've been doing it for a long time. You know?

Absolutely. So you've been on YouTube for a long time. Does YouTube have a race problem?

I don't know, it's hard to say. I think that YouTube is a reflection of mainstream media but it's also a new platform where lots of voices that don't a have place in mainstream media can express themselves. But the audience is largely dominated, in at least in a lot of the circles that I see online, by young affluent, or middle income white people.

So they really have a large amount of influence over like who is successful online. When you look at the top creators, we do have a lot of white creators in the top 100 and a lot of Asian creators in the top 100. I do think that we need a little bit more diversity in the people that are really big on YouTube, but I don't know how much of that is YouTube's fault. I think that they could be doing more to promote more diverse creators, because they have had advertising campaigns, television commercials, and billboards for creators, and they have not been very diverse at all. But besides that I think that brands need to expand their horizons as to who they work with.

You know all of those things are connected. Like the people who rise to the top are the people who have access to expensive cameras, computers, and high-speed internet at home. So the people who have access, unfortunately end up being a lot of white people. So I think it's like a multi-layered issue. I also think unfortunately a lot of people of color who do rise up to the top end up relying on like a lot of stereotypes and harmful content. Because that's what they believe their audiences want to see or that's what's going to make them successful and marketable and then it works. So it's like, yeah I'll keep making these like stereotypical jokes because that's what people want and it's made me successful so why would I stop.

I think that you're ahead of the pack in the niche of YouTube to create very smart cultural commentary that balances levity with being very, very informative. And I love that you have taken that to MTV.  So how did "Decoded" come about?

After "Shit White Girls Say," I developed the show pitch and took it around to a bunch of networks and MTV was one of the places that I really hoped I could get a show there. And I had really great feedback from them but it wasn't really the right time for them.

And then in 2013, MTV produced a web series called "Braless," which was hosted by Laci Green and is still on MTV. It's a web series and they've gotten millions of views. It's focused around feminism and pop culture. And so with the success of that show MTV was like, "We really think we should do something that is about race, especially with the cultural climate." So much stuff was happening like Ferguson and Trayvon Martin, so audiences were really calling for this kind of content. The production company that produces "Braless" talked to MTV about developing a show around race and pop culture, and based on my previous pitch, my name was like in the little circulation for a host. And I met with the production company, it was almost eerie how similar what they had wanted to do to was to what I had initially pitched to MTV. So we worked together to refine it so it was a good balance of both of our voices. It took about 8 months from start to finish to actually get it green lit and off the ground. So that was the end of 2014 and then in March I we got the okay, and spent a few months working on the name, and the set, and pulling together like our writers, and figuring out what our voice was.

Is it challenging to move from being independent to moving with a huge corporation like MTV who has their own set of rules and practices?

Actually, it's been like surprisingly easy and awesome. It was obviously always a challenge for me to produce on my own and on a schedule because I've always worked. I very briefly did YouTube full time, and even when I was doing it, I was also acting, public speaking, and consulting. It's really hard and time consuming to film and edit by yourself. So I never was able to stick to a schedule which is something that I regret.

So the luxury of working with MTV is that I have a team that can create the stuff that I have in my mind. You know a lot of times I find myself limited by my own skills. I would say, "This is what I really want to do, but I don't know how to do it" or I don't have the time and so there's a whole team at Kornhaber Brown that I can say, "Wouldn't it be really cool if we had a gospel choir show up and then this happen and then this happen," and they say, "Okay great we'll find them, we'll hire them. You want to do animation? Great, we'll get our animators in here."

And now that we've gotten 20 something episodes under our belt, it's a lot easier for me now, because I know when I need to get my script in and kind of the flow of our work flow, and it's a lot easier than I think most people would assume.

Well that's super, super dope. I love that you've been able to make this transition and not lose your voice. As a content creator, I think that you've been really instrumental in trying to hold other people who create content accountable for the ways that they can perpetuate stereotypes and damaging narratives. Do you consider yourself to be a comedian?

You know I did for awhile. I don't really know that I would call myself a comedian any more. I think I would say that I am a creator that uses comedy.

Sure. You're funny as hell. You're seriously super funny. So are there things about blackness or black people or black culture that you hesitate from exploring in your work for fear that they might be damaging or perpetuate stereotypes?

That's a really good question. I haven't really found anything that I've been afraid to tackle. Sometimes I get a little nervous when other people say certain things. Like I'm very conscious about whose content I share. Sometimes I will really agree with something that someone says but I'll dig around and see what other stuff that they talk about. And then I'm like, "Oh I don't really agree." I know some people that are very pro-black on the internet and I completely support them. But sometimes they venture into, "Let's kill all white people," or things like that and it makes me really uncomfortable and then I'm kind of like hesitant.

But aside from that, I can't really think of any topics that I've shied away from.

So, now that you are basically blowing up, do you feel responsibility to use your platform differently?

No, I try to keep the same mind about my content that I have always had. I want to make sure that I can stand behind the things that I say. As long as I feel confident in the content that I'm putting out there, I don't really worry about it. That's not to say that I won't still make mistakes or that I have to learn from those mistakes when they present themselves.

Speaking of mistakes, has somebody ever kind of pulled your coattails about something that you've said or created?

Oh my gosh, all the time. It happens all the time. I am very honest about the fact that I've had to learn things throughout my career and I think that that's a result of growing up slightly sheltered and not being exposed to certain things.

You know, even being checked on my language, when I talked about the Stonewall movie I used "gay" and "homophobia" very liberally to talk about a large intersection of people that includes LGBTQ. "Gay" is not really a catch-all for all those different identities, and so someone had to say to me, okay you're not just talking about gay people, you're talking about all these different identities so you shouldn't use "gay" or "homophobia" to talk about all those different types of people. And I had a moment of being like, "Whoa I hadn't really thought about that." There are all these different sexual identities that are asking for representation and asking for equal rights and they don't identify as gay.

So I'm very open to that because there's no way for me to get it right every single time. I'm not perfect, I don't know everything. So I try to be an example for my audience, to say I'm open to that feed back, so I hope you can be open to that feedback too, because no one is perfect.

My last question is, do you identify as a feminist?

Yes, I do. It's really interesting how it feels like in the past year that this has become a hot button subject. Are you a feminist or are you not a feminist? And like let's be mad at women that aren't feminists. You know it's a really weird thing and for me, I don't think that I ever had a specific time where I was like yes, I am a feminist now. But you know gender studies and women's equality have always been things that have been really important to me.

I grew up listening to riot grrrl music and reading things about women's issues and fighting against patriarchy. I read about those things as a teenager and it was interesting to me. I was really engaged in the LGBTQ community and I was just exposed to those things earlier than I was exposed to talking about racial equality and my identity as a black woman. And so I've always felt really comfortable identifying myself as someone that believes in the equality of women and men. That's just never been something that I shied away from.

I'm very much of the mind that I care less about the label and more about the work. Like I see lots of people who do the work but say "I don't identify as a feminist." Then they champion feminist causes and they celebrate feminist ideals but they just don't want the label.

I think that's a very common stance among black women in particular. Since we know the historical baggage that comes with the label of feminist, so I feel you.