Saturday, September 16, 2006

Survivor's Social Experiment

A favorite television show of mine, CBS's Survivor, has entered into unchartered territory in the land of reality television. For the first time in its thirteen seasons, the tribes have been divided by racial lines. There are twenty contestants overall, with five initially on each tribe. The tribes are comprised of Asian Americans, African Americans, Caucasian Americans, and Hispanic Americans. With its decision to divide the tribes based on race, CBS and the show's mastermind, Mark Burnett, have caused quite a firestorm of opinons and judgments from the general public and from mainstream media.

As a longtime watcher of Survivor (Lori and I have religiously watched every season), I have always been aware of the lack of American ethnic minorities on the show. The average season has 16 or 18 contestants with about two African Americans, one Hispanic or Asian American and the rest are white. I have never heard anyone in the mainstream media bemoan this reality. Ethnic minority participants on the show have always had to adjust to the white majority every season and this seems to be okay to many people. There have been a number of tribes that have been exclusively white on the show, but because this was done "unintentionally" it is often ignored. I think it's pretty cool that there is finally a very diverse cast on the show. There have never been more than a couple African Americans in any given season and there have hardly been any Asian or Hispanic contestants at all!

Now that a season is actually made up of 75% of people of color, the mainstream media doesn't like it. Many feel that somehow this will contribute to stereotypes regarding the various ethnic groups. I'm sorry, but Survivor has been doing this for years. The lazy black man, the argumentative black woman, the hot-tempered Hispanic woman, the close-minded Christian...these are all stereotypes that have been demonstrated on Survivor. I think that people actually being on a tribe with people of similar backgrounds will help with how other people on the show view them. They won't be misunderstood as much, will not have to be defending their perspective or values all the time and won't feel that they are "representing their people" as much to fellow tribesmates.

However, the reality is that people do talk and act differently among their own people than how they act around others of different ethnicities. White people tend to think that how we act in any setting is normal and that other cultures are somehow weird or different. So when you have a handful of Asians or blacks being televised with their guard down, the general public may hear things that they typically wouldn't. Without proper context this can lead to wrong assumptions or stereotypes and this does concern me. "White America" may unfairly judge some of the people on the show because they've never interacted with ethnic minorities when they aren't in the minority. Trust me... all of us act differently when we are with those of the same culture than when we are around those of a different cultural background.

Any time segregation exists nowadays, people rise up in anger. But there is a major difference between forced segregation and that of choice. For instance, back in the day of Jim Crow, African Americans were not allowed by law to go to certain schools, churches or certain public places. Some restaurants had signs that said "No dogs or Mexicans." This is obviously bad. But when, for example, a Korean American wants to go to a Korean-speaking church, an African American wants to attend a historically black college, or a Cuban American wants to live in a predominately Hispanic neighborhood, then I don't see a problem with this. The reason is because people of other ethnicities can still go to that church, attend that college or live in that neighborhood if they so choose. Some complain about historically black colleges, for example. But if a white person wants to attend one of these institutions, they can. No one will stop them.

Whether people want to admit it or not, we still live in a very segregated society. Eleven o'clock on Sunday morning is not the most segregated hour of the week. Every day is. Most Americans still live in neighborhoods with people that look like them, attend churches of people that talk like them and go to schools where they are the majority. This season of Survivor is merely reflecting the reality that people of color don't have to operate in white dominated settings. I, for one, I'm looking forward to seeing how the white contestants on the show do once the tribes merge and they have to adjust to being in the minority. It should be fun to watch.

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Anonymous said...

Nice perspective on all of this. I blogged it on Thanks for your insight.

Truman and Amber said...

well written!!