Survivor: The Race Wars?

Last week, the producers of Survivor announced that this season, they would feature what is almost certainly the most racially diverse cast in the history of reality television. The contestants would initially be organized into four tribes defined around their race -- African-American, Asian-American, Hispanic, and White-American. The announcement has provoked controversy from the very outset with even CBS Early Show host Harry Smith challenging Survivor M.C. Jeff Probst about the story line on the air. Today's post is intended as a primer of sorts to the debates about race which this announcement have set into motion.

Casting for Diversity

We can understand the producer's decision in the context of several variables surrounding race and reality television. First, shows like Survivor and American Idol are among the few on American television that perform more or less equally well among white and black viewers. (I don't have access to data on other minority groups). For the most part, American television is already segregated with very few shows being shared cultural reference points amongst racially diverse audiences. Reality television also probably already provides greater representation of minority groups than the vast majority of American programs -- which tend to be all white and more rarely, all black casts. But this is a sad commentary on the number of minority performers on network television since the percentage of minorities on Survivor has consistently been much lower than their relative percentage in the American population.

The producers have directly acknowledged at least some of these factors in explaining this new "twist" in the series.

Probst argued that the decision emerged from the production's efforts to respond to long-standing criticisms that minority contestants were under-represented on the program:

"The idea for this actually came from the criticism that Survivor was not ethnically diverse enough, because for whatever reason, we always have a low number of minority applicants apply for the show... So we set out and said, 'Let's turn this criticism into creative for the show.' And I think it fits perfectly with what Survivor does, which is, it is a social experiment. And this is adding another layer to that experiment, which is taking the show to a completely different level."

Probst added that the casting directors for the series actively recruited from local community centers within minority neighborhoods, seeking contestants who represented the diversity within these different racial groupings and trying to significantly broaden the range of people represented on the series: "We really just took off all blinders and said we want to find 20 people to play this game and we're really gonna have to source them out." Fans of the show believe this will add some fresh energy to the series because these participants are so different from those on previous seasons and because they are less familiar with the well-worn strategies and tactics deployed by previous contestants.

Probst has also described the way that cultural differences matter in terms of behavior within the game: "Suddenly you have new slang, new rituals--people doing things like making fire in ways that haven't been done on Survivor. I think we have a season where people will say you can never go back to what you were before."

Producer Mark Burnett has argued that the series is much more apt to challenge rather than reinforce existing racial stereotypes:

"We're smart enough to have gotten rid of every racist person in casting...There's no one race or sexual preference or other group who have an exclusive on being an asshole or being nice...Maybe that taboo (of race) could disappear through this."

Segregation Island?

In some quarters, the news of racially-constituted teams has provoked horror and dread with critics describing the new series as "segregation island." New York City councilman John Liu has launched a campaign to pressure CBS to pull the series from the air: "The idea of having a battle of the races is preposterous. How could anybody be so desperate for ratings?"

Pop Culture scholar Robert Thompson has attacked the series for an "unseemly interest" in race: "It's like a return back to segregated leagues in sports."

Hispanics across America founder Fernando Mateo told Reuters, "Survivor is not reality TV--it's racist TV. The participants will be held to the daunting and unfair challenge of representing an entire race of people. What will it mean for a team--a race--to fail in a battle of wits and strength against another race?"

James Pritchett, professor of anthropology and director of the African Studies Center at Boston University, told The Boston Herald on Thursday. "This program is drumming up every old stereotype, and I don't think it is going to be useful at all. What next, a show pitting Jews and Muslims and Christians against each other?"

Fans are quick to note that Survivor has previously cast teams based on gender differences (twice) and age differences without provoking this same level of controversy -- and The Apprentice has used thinly veiled class differences (Street Smarts vs. Book Smarts).

"I can't decide if the producers are completely naive and clueless or completely soulless," said Lisa Navarrete, vice president of the National Council of La Raza.

Nationally syndicated columnist DeWayne Wickham accuses the producers of trying to "stage a race war" with a program "that will appeal to the unspoken racism that festers just below the surface for many people in today's more tolerant society."

Perhaps making Wickham's point that the program could invite a range of racist responses, conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh has unleashed a series of racial stereotypes that have themselves provoked intense backlash. Among other things, Limbaugh argued that swimming competitions could be unfair to African-American contestants, that Hispanic contestants have "probably shown the most survival tactics," including " a remarkable ability to cross borders" and that they can "do it without water for a long time, they don't get apprehended, and they will do things other people won't do," that Asian-Americans will be the "brainiacs" in the group and can outsmart the other contestants, and that the white tribe would first dominate and then provide government support to the various minority groups. There's no question that what Limbaugh said publicly is no doubt being debated in living rooms around the country -- with some people mindlessly repeating stereotypes and others reflecting more deeply upon the place of cultural and racial difference in American culture today.

A Teachable Moment?

Defenders of the program don't necessarily think that the conversations the show is likely to produce will be a bad thing for the country, feeling that Americans tend to remain silent rather than openly discussing and working through their feelings about race. In an editorial in the St. Petersburg Times, Eric Deggans aargues, "Burnett is going to make race a front-and-center discussion, after years of shrugging off the implications of his portrayals."

There's no question that the production decision has already provided a context for some thoughtful discussions of the place of race in contemporary American society, with a number of activists and bloggers finding this a "teachable moment."

At her blog, Rachel, a sociology professor who works on race, discusses her own mixed feelings about the "twist" on this season's Survivor:

I don't want to get too deep into the problem of how they are going to assign people into racial categories, but I'm very curious who they are going to assign to the Asian and Latino categories. I supposed they don't even realize the dramatic ethnic variation within those categories. I also wonder how they will assign mixed race contestants (of course, maybe they just eliminated all mixed race people from the casting).

I do see a few upsides to having a cast that has more than a token representation of Blacks, Asians, and Latinos. I think when various racial and ethnic groups are represented in more than token numbers people can get a better sense of the diversity and variety of views within racial groups. The TV pundits were proposing the idea that this is exploiting racial tension. Assuming the tribes are separated in the beginning, this may have the opposite effect. The biggest tensions and rivalries will be within race, at least until the tribes merge.

As Rachel's comments suggest, the most sophisticated comments -- both the most nuanced defenses and the most complicated critiques -- have come from those who are most familiar with the genre conventions and history of reality television. One could expand Rachel's analysis to suggest that the program reflects two important debates about race: first, the idea that America should be seen as a multiracial rather than biracial culture -- the inclusion of Latino/a and Asian-American contestants complicates the usual black/white construction of race, even if, as some critics have noted, it doesn't reflect the full range of ethnic groups in American society. Even a superficial review of the cast suggests an effort to show the range of different ethnicities within these broadly constituted racial categories including a fairly nuanced range of different "white" ethnicities. At the same time, the casting -- where only five out of twenty participants are "white" -- suggests recognition of demographic trends that suggest that the majority of Americans in the not-so-distant future will be "non-white" or as some are putting it, we will become a "majority minority" nation.

As many defenders of the series suggest, the rules of the game will force alliances as the series continues amongst people of different racial groups. The winner of the game will necessarily have to appeal across racial categories and be capable of navigating through cultural differences. The most divisive figures of any racial group will alienate the other players whose votes they have to receive in order to win.

Writing in the Los Angeles Times, Tony Pierce argues that critics simply don't understand the rules of the game:

Each tribe doesn't literally beat up their competitors -- they square off in puzzle-solving games or obstacle courses or tests of endurance, like standing on a beam for the longest amount of time. Unless one desperate dude on a pole drops the N-bomb to distract his opponent, it's difficult to see how race would even come into the game until the second half of the season, when the tribes all merge into one. And even then, the way to win is not by hurling slurs but by getting along with your new tribe and otherwise laying low, as the troublemakers and superstars almost inevitably get voted off.

In Survivor, if there's going to be any hate going on for the first half of the season, it will be self-hate, as the tribes get to learn all the little irritating things about one another rather than focus on the contestants they don't see very often. It's not the person with the different skin color, it's the guy on your team who eats the last scoop of rice, or that other guy who doesn't seem to ever work around the camp, or the alpha leader who runs around shouting orders.

This stage of the show is where you might see the Japanese American dig at the Korean American (helping people understand that not all "Asians" are the same), or the Mexican American diss the Cuban, who'd probably be put out at being called "Latino" anyway....

What tribal Survivor has a real chance of showing us is how much race isn't an issue when it comes to the bare necessities of living on an island for 39 days; how much race is an issue when talk show hosts want to artificially spice up their debates; and that teamwork, communication and trust are the foundation of great teams, not skin color.


But again, we don't want to simply celebrate the kinds of inter-racial politics that might emerge in such a context. As Deggans predicts, "race difference plays out as a parable on assimilation -- the people of color who understand white culture and can fit in survive, often by being as bland and undistinguished as possible. Those who don't, wind up fulfilling the worst stereotypes. Their exclusion makes them racially paranoid, their inability to bond with their teammates makes them look lazy and their defensiveness looks like an empty excuse." Of course, with whites in the minority on the series, it just as likely that the winner will form a "rainbow coalition" across different minority groups as it is that they will assimilate into white society.

Guy Aoki, founder of the Media Action Network for Asian Americans, has said he was "withholding judgment" until he watched the show: "It could be interesting. A lot of people put down reality shows. But if they're done well, they can be very interesting sociological experiments. You see people's first impressions of each other based on race. I'm not alarmed by it." Yet, he expressed concern that Survivor "would turn into that Crash movie, in which everyone clashes with each other and hurls racial slurs."

Aoki's analogy to Crash is provocative: after all, while the characters in the film display many different forms of racial divisiveness, many regard the film itself as encouraging an anti-racist attitude. It is not simply a reproduction of racism; it is a reflection upon it. Could reality television operate in the same way, encouraging us to reflect upon the way race operates within American culture? Industry research suggests that the overwhelming majority of reality television viewers engage in conversations about the ethical dimensions of the series -- more, in fact, than discuss strategy or the personality of the contestants. Reality television generates a series of ethical dramas which encourage us to share our own values and perspectives about both decisions made by participants within the series and decisions made by the program producers. While reality television often depicts amoral aspects of human interactions, the discussions around the series are often highly moralistic.

The format of reality television may offer some unique vantage points into how race operates -- taking viewers into a series of racial enclaves that might otherwise be closed to view and at the same time, using confessionals to show the same conflict from multiple perspectives. Despite Burnett's claims to have weeded out the racists, we know racism takes many different forms and there's no question we will see it at work in many different ways in the course of the series. Yet, as with Crash, there is the possibility that we will learn more about how it operates both within and outside our own communities.

As one African-American blogger notes, race has always played a role in shaping her identifications within the series, but , because reality television deals with real people and not fictional characters, she has also identified across racial lines:

If anything, this season of Survivor has the potential to build racial pride. More often than not, I tend to root for Black people when they are contestants in these television reality shows. Even though I get nothing when they win, I want to see Black people compete and win sometimes. I was glad to see Randal Pinkett become the first African American winner of The Apprentice...I rooted for Rueben Studdard and Fantasia Barrino (site) to win American Idol. So, yeah I admit I like to see someone who looks like me compete against people who don't look like me and win. But, what Wickham seems to miss is that Americans don't necessarily root for people of their own race. I was glad to see Omarosa Manigault-Stallworth get booted off The Apprentice. And if the Blacks team on next season's Survivor rub me the wrong way, or seem to be weak, or do something to shame the Black community, I'll have no problem rooting for another team."

We have similarly seen contestants on the series rise above their own prejudices -- most famously in the alliance between the homophobic Rudy and the openly gay Richard on the original Survivor series -- and in the process, model ways that the groups they represent can get along. Critics often assume that reality television brings out the worst elements in human nature: they don't acknowledge that it can also bring out the best in people with surprising moments of personal growth and self sacrifice being emotional highlights of many seasons. Contestants often go on the show to explicitly challenge the audience's stereotyped assumptions about their group with varying degrees of success (especially given that the editors play an enormous role in shaping how we perceive any given character). Indeed, Probst has suggested that they were led to the decision to divide the tribes by race because racial pride had been such a consistent theme in their interviews with these contestants.

All of this is the say that the value of a program like Survivor is in part the fact that it forces us to talk about the ties and divisions within human society, forces us to think about the attitudes and practices by which different groups interact with each other. On one level, Survivor may be the worst possible program to get us to think about race in America. On another, it may be the perfect vehicle. I have profoundly mixed feelings about the decision -- which is one reason why I am trying to lay out all sides of the argument here in order to encourage a deeper level of discourse than the first round of responses. But, I think there is plenty of evidence that even the idea (let alone the reality) of a racially divided Survivor is forcing us to think and talk about race in ways we normally avoid -- and I have to think that's a good thing, even if or maybe precisely because there are going to be some cringe-worthy moments from all camps before this series (and the controversy around it) has run its course. If it rigidifies or simplifies our views on race, that's a bad thing, but the show forces us to dig a bit deeper than that (and reality television at its best certainly can do that much), then it will have a more positive influence. I don't think it is going to live up with Burnett's odd prediction that Survivor will make the taboo of race disappear (whatever that means) nor do I think it is apt to provoke race riots as some have predicted. It may make us think a lot and talk a little.

Let me give the last word to Reality News Online columnist David Bloomberg who argues that Survivor will read race through its own particular lens: "we'll see a diverse group of people trying to stab people in the back, lie to them, and metaphorically cut their throats no matter what race they belong to." And maybe this is a step past the rhetoric of "can't we all just get along" which in the end means can't we just pretend that race will go away if we don't talk about it very much. Cultural critics have talked about the "enlightened racism" that shapes our modern moment -- we pretend to be "past" racism and resent efforts to re-introduce race into our conversations, but the effects of racism are still felt in potent ways in our everyday lives.

Thanks to Henry Jenkins IV for help in developing this article.