This season of Survivor, which airs its finale Wednesday (CBS, 8/7c), I drank in the excitement as 20 former winners battled it out for a whopping $2 million prize. I chuckled as the more eccentric characters made entertaining comments or paranoia-fueled game moves. I cheered as some pushed past breaking points on an isolated island, the “Edge of Extinction.” I wrung my hands in suspense as cast members sunk or saved themselves at unpredictable tribal councils.
But I only saw two people who looked like me: African American contestants Wendell Holland and Jeremy Collins. Vecepia Robinson, the only African American woman to have won in the show’s 40 seasons, said she has never been invited to return.
Holland was voted out in Episode 8. Collins became the target for four consecutive tribal councils before being eliminated in Episode 13. I do not believe those events were based on conscious bias, but watching African Americans exist as a minority and then get singled out is an all-too familiar — and uncomfortable — experience.
That, combined with explicit, documented racism on shows like Survivor and its close cousin, Big Brother, is enough to justify a personal boycott of the long-running reality competition shows.
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But I continue to watch them. And I’m trying to figure out why.
Since its premiere in 2000, I’ve been a fan of Big Brother’s test of human will amid confinement, social politics and game twists. In the beginning, the cast varied according to age, ethnicity, physical appearance and economic background, and I grew to love legendary players like “Dr. Will” Kirby and Danielle Reyes. But, as time went on, and perhaps to target a youthful audience, the competitors got younger, whiter, more conventionally attractive and far less worldly.
I took breaks from Big Brother as I digested national coverage of police-involved killings of African Americans these past several years: The traumas in the news, compounded with the racism and microaggressions on the show, were too much to bear. Season 15, in 2013, was especially appalling, as multiple houseguests hurled slurs against their African American, Asian and gay peers. Unfortunately, the show’s problems have continued; Jackson Michie, the winner last season, came under fire for his racist remarks.
Becoming a fan of Survivor only recently, I’ve been able to pick and choose old seasons to watch; racism is one of my criteria. For example, I know to avoid Season 13, when contestants were divided into tribes by race — a sensationalized and sickening response to criticism about the show’s lack of diversity. However, I haven’t been able to avoid seeing African Americans become the target of name-calling and other ignorant remarks. During Season 24, a castaway called an African American contestant “ghetto trash,” and more emphasis was placed on the culprit’s “redemption” at the reunion than on the person he hurt. And last season, much was made of an African American cast member’s role as a “teacher” and “healer” after a competitor made an ignorant comment. Too often, African Americans are expected to bear the responsibility for educating people about racism, when the people making the comments should know better in the first place.
Both shows are still entertaining, though my watching Big Brother may be more about holding on to nostalgia for the early seasons. But finding resonance in the experiences of African American contestants may also play an important role. The rules they have to abide by to survive the games are the same rules we are conditioned to abide by in life: If you’re too angry or form an alliance with other African Americans, you’ll be perceived as a threat to white people’s security. If you’re too flashy or too withdrawn, you’ll be singled out for not fitting into the group. If you’re too relaxed, you’ll be called lazy. But you’ll probably still get stereotyped no matter what you do.
And if you’re an African American woman (Survivor fan-favorite Cirie Fields comes to mind), you’ll be beloved and befriended, but, ultimately, you won’t be chosen as the winner — or you won’t get noticed at all. Just ask Season 38 competitor Julia Carter, who was taken aback by how little camera time she received. She also revealed that the N-word was said at camp, but that storyline never aired.
I’m of the opinion that racist events should always be broadcast, and perhaps there is a part of me that is drawn to these shows because it forces viewers to acknowledge that racism still exists, when the world is constantly (and incorrectly) heralding the arrival of a post-racial era.
I also find myself hoping for redemption, that Survivor will crown a fifth African American winner and Big Brother will crown one. Perhaps CBS, which oversees both shows, will strengthen its vetting and casting process and hire more African American executives. After all, viewers and participants alike still crave and celebrate representation. For example, last season on Survivor, one African American contestant mentioned that it was historic that she and another African American contestant won an immunity award at the same time. And Holland, who took home the top prize in Season 36, posted about the importance of representation on social media.
In real life, we are still looking for white-controlled entities — corporations, organizations, our country as a whole — to redeem themselves. We still seek their validation, getting excited about the first African American to fill a role or win an award. It feels futile. It feels insane. It feels familiar.
To varying degrees, I’m always intellectually or emotionally evaluating the costs of entertainment. Ironically, I seek out reality competition shows to get a dose of fantasy — an adventure I’ll never take and a distraction from the world. But too often, Survivor and Big Brother have failed at the latter, pulling me back into the traumatic aspects of life as an African American. So even as I grapple with my own complacency and culpability in giving these shows attention, ultimately, they are teaching a valuable lesson: You can travel to a remote island or lock yourself in a house away from society, but there is no escaping the reality of racism. — Erica Thompson (@miss_ethompson) is a features reporter for The Columbus Dispatch