Reality show fails to capture reality of race
September 20, 2006
With its ratings in the tank, CBS's "Survivor" has turned for salvation to America's most disquieting subject: race.
For the new season, the reality show's producers divided their 20 contestants into four teams based on race and ethnicity -- whites, blacks, Asian Americans and Latinos.
The set-up of "Survivor: Cook Islands" grew out of recurring criticism that the show has had few non-white characters, host Jeff Probst said. But it's an affirmative-action effort gone sadly awry.
Contestants have started off as good sports, playing down the significance of their tribal arrangements while still serving up the necessary caricatures.
The Asians fretted over their model minority status as Vietnamese refugee Cao Boi (with the perfectly ironic pronunciation of "cowboy") forced the issue with jokes about eating rice and his team's slim build. He later salved a teammate's headache with an alternative healing technique as the show's producers cued up
vaguely eastern background music.
Across the island, the hunks and sorority girls of the white team plotted how to hook up with each other, and the tribe's suburban dad behaved with appropriate oafishness.
The black team dutifully split verbs, chanted their intent to "represent" and divided along gender lines -- while losing the first competition badly.
And the Latino team was composed entirely of only white Latinos.
But the show hardly met its potential for mining the dredge of American racism. And producer Mark Burnett insists there's a built-in fail-safe to keep "Survivor" out of the muck. "We're smart enough to have gotten rid of every racist person in casting," he has boasted.
How they pulled off that feat is anybody's guess.
The interesting part of this "social experiment like never before," as Probst put it, is that it reveals just how blithe America remains about its horrific racial past -- and present.
We're a nation founded on the genocide of one people and generations of brutal enslavement of another, both of which were justified by creating racial castes. Racism is our national legacy, at the center of our historical narrative.
We now widely agree that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. is a hero, but we refute any tie between the 192 years of slavery and Jim Crow that preceded his assassination and the black poverty that has followed it.
Rather than confront such demons, we alternate between ignoring them and spoofing them in buddy comedies and reality TV shows.
"Survivor" is no different, fittingly contributing to this racial myopia.
Instead of developing a system for attracting suitable non-white contestants, theproducers retreated into a cheap gimmick.
Perhaps to do otherwise would have just been too real.
Kai Wright is a freelance writer living in New York City. He can be reached at email@example.com.