Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Survivor's Races

CBS has confirmed that the next season of Survivor will feature racially segregated tribes (H/T: Orly Lobel). They're claiming that it will be a useful social experiment. I never watched Survivor (or any reality TV with the occasional exception of The Contender), however I suspect that they magnify existing but somewhat dormant traits in persons by subjecting them to hyper-competitive environments. So ideally, Survivor might showcase the type of racially hostility that can develop when race-identified groups are pitted against each other in high-stakes competition--which can be cross-applied to American society where we have a de facto segregated society that also has to deal with tremendously stressful competition with each other for attention, political favor, goods, services, and other items.

Alas, life is not the ideal, and I am skeptical that race-based Survivor will end up doing more good than harm. Waveflux indicates some of the racist stereotypes that are undergirding the decision (them exotic minorities will make fire differently!). Marc Lamont Hill notes that while the simple act of segregating the competitors into race-based groups isn't intrinsically racist
the claim that this show is an "experiment" that can tell us anything meaningful about race is spurious. Like FX's Black/White, Survivor places relatively privileged people (check the list of participants) in contrived circumstances that don't approximate the conditions of American social life.

Although White privilege, anti-Black racism, and systemic inequality certainly seep through the porous cultural walls of reality television, they are obscured by the heavily orchestrated interactions and identity performances that the reality television genre demands. Unfortunately, many Americans lack the theoretical tools and political will to understand how just how inaccurate and mendacious the show's "findings" are. Just like in Black/White, when everyday people buttressed claims that racism didn't exist by pointing out that Bruno (the White guy turned Black) didn't get ignored in the shoe store, the new Survivor runs the risk of misstating the truth by overstating its "realness."

That's all true, and I think ultimately controlling.

I will say that the change numbers race-wise might lead to some interesting events. Historically, Survivor has been very segregated already--mostly White contestants. Here, it appears that Whites will be only five of twenty contestants, assuming that the numbers are distributed evenly across the White, Latino, Black, and Asian tribes. Seeing how Whites act when they are in the minority is an interesting window in America's future where they likely will be. Will it fundamentally change the dynamic? I will admit some curiosity here. Unfortunately, I also have equally morbid curiosity as to whether CBS will use some selective editing to portray said future as an apocalyptic race war with poor Whitey huddled together to protect against the savage horde.

Remember: at the end of the day, CBS is going to cut this in a manner which makes the best ratings, not which shows the most honest portrayal of racial dynamics. That alone taints the entire endeavor.


Rachel Sullivan is taking a wait-and-see attitude, but thinks this probably isn't the best way to diversify the cast.

Ace of Spades sees the next season--Jews, Christians, Muslims, and Druze going at it on Survivor: Beirut. Oh, Christ no.

Ankle Biting Pundits is more curious as to the alliance-making the will occur when the tribes merge in the mid- to end-game.

Rush Limbaugh handicaps the races. And doesn't use a single racial stereotype to do it! Haha, just kidding. About the lack of stereotyping that is. He really did handicap.

Lindsay Beyerstein calls it "Survivor: Jim Crow Edition".

Matt Yglesias recommends a similar format for the NBA all-star game, with the teams being "Black" and "Other." As he notes, "Yao Ming, Dirk Nowitzki, Andrei Kirlenko, Manu Ginobili, and Steve Nash is a solid starting squad for Team Other."

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