Letters

Readers respond to Bomani Jones' article about why blacks rarely survive on reality TV shows.


Salon Staff
May 15, 2003 12:00PM (UTC)

[Read "White Supremacy," by Bomani Jones.]

There is no doubt that racial stereotyping occurs every day, and unfortunately, so-called reality television shows mirror this true reality. However, the article "White Supremacy" shows a very biased slice of what goes on in these shows, and unfortunately for readers, this bias shoots a very legitimate argument in the foot. For every "angry black man" on "The Real World," there is a slutty white girl, a philandering frat boy, etc. The shows are edited to entertain -- not enlighten or debunk stereotypes.

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As far as "American Idol" goes, the author's opinion that Ruben is "clearly superior" is just that -- an opinion. Millions of voters are entitled to theirs. So far, the American population hasn't shown racially biased voting. How else can you explain that there is only one skinny white boy left? So next time you craft an argument around your opinions, please remember to consider the flip side of the coin. Oh -- and for the record -- Tamyra choked.

-- Erika Small

I am no great lover of TV. I am even less enamored with TV reality shows. I do not have cable, and if I did, I still would not watch the garbage on MTV mentioned in Jones' article.

I have, however, for some bizarre reason, watched "American Idol" a few times. I don't know why -- it's cheesy and terrible. But I've seen it enough to know that the entire premise of Jones' article is hogwash. Systematically, those with the least singing talent have been voted off. This was most striking when the beautiful white blond girls were all dismissed! This is huge! I was amazed that those who could sing the best were the finalists. I never, ever would have suspected that. Both Clay and Ruben are not beautiful people. Kimberly is (but is not traditionally skinny), but cannot sing as well as they -- I would not be surprised to see her go.

If either Clay or Ruben wins, it will be a victory, odd as it seems, for the teenager demographic who actually calls in to vote on the show. Neither of them fit the "idol" mold. I am shocked, and am *very oddly* proud, that talent has been the obvious deciding factor in this show -- not race and, more importantly, not beauty. Jones' premise is actually being proven incorrect by this show. Perhaps it demonstrates a difference between the broadcast and MTV demographics. Perhaps the live performances cannot cover up the lack of talent the way videos, studios and staging can. All I know is that the skinny white girls and the beefy white military dude are gone -- and we are left with a small group of anti-Britney misfits, who, in their own right, can really freaking sing. Color me surprisingly impressed.

-- Jennifer Gerbi

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Bomani Jones' decision to use race in "American Idol" as the backbone of the article was a poor one. The author never addresses the fact that two of the three finalists -- indeed, the majority -- are black, not white. That means that "American Idol's" voting audience, which is principally white, has bridged the "digital divide" much more successfully than Jones would have us think. Perhaps that audience actually one-ups Jones in its thinking -- placing musical ability, technique and charisma ahead of superficial identity politics.

No one has crowned the Clay Aiken the prince of "American Idol" yet, but even if that Peter Pan look-alike ultimately takes the No. 1 spot, who cares? With so much exposure, all three of these talented kids are sure to come away with recording contracts. Perhaps Jones forgot that Tamyra Gray, last year's fourth-place winner, was the first person to receive a contract with Simon Cowell's studio -- even before Kelly Clarkson.

And don't get me started on Jones' half-dismissal of Kimberly Locke. She's biracial -- not authentic! She's relaxed her hair -- what a sell-out! Whatever. It's possible that while Jones is madly dashing off notes about melatonin levels, the rest of the "American Idol" audience is quietly watching Locke sing her heart out.

-- Chandra Prasad

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I have to say that I agree with Bomani Jones' assessment of "American Idol" and other reality TV shows. As Jones points out, reality TV is often not concerned with reflecting reality, instead relying on extremely contrived situations and deliberately manipulated outcomes to provide entertainment. But even with all of the manipulation that goes into making reality television, it can still unintentionally provide some very real evidence of America's racism problem.

Although I am white, I grew up in a majority black city (Washington, D.C.), where I was a minority in my elementary and junior high schools. Thus I mostly grew up with so-called black music --rap, hip-hop, R&B. Most white kids don't, although in recent years the color line has become a bit more blurry in regards to rap music (Eminem had much to do with that). That's why most kids now who listen to 'N Sync aren't aware that Janet Jackson and Paula Abdul did all their dance moves first. Or that the Backstreet Boys are just a less talented, more white-bread version of Boyz II Men. Or that Christina Aguilera and Britney Spears are bad imitators of Whitney Houston and Toni Braxton. Or, for that matter, that Kelly Clarkson is a very pale (literally and figuratively) imitation of the incredibly talented Tamyra Gray.

Eminem hit it right on the nose in his hit "Without Me": "I am the worst thing since Elvis Presley/ To do Black Music so selfishly/ And use it to get myself wealthy."

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So why do we scoff at the idea that any time "America" picks a pop music idol it'll probably be white?

There is no question in my mind that this "American Idol" contest will come down to race. Ruben Studdard is, to me, the clear winner in terms of pure talent and personality, but that doesn't mean he'll be able to win in what amounts to a televised popularity contest. I think the choice is going to come down to which prejudice Americans feel stronger -- against rather effeminate men (i.e., Clay) or against black people. If previous shows are any indication, then I'm afraid race will be the deciding factor. And that's a shame.

But don't despair too much, Kimberly and Ruben! There's always the next season of "Boston Public." Right?

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-- Sonia Belasco

Funny thing is, for every horny African-American nut on "The Real World," there are usually five white ones (and Tek was the only cast member of "The Real World" to become an MTV VJ! Sounds like he won!). Also, for every semi-talented black person who doesn't reach the top of "American Idol," there are numerous semi-talented white people who won't get a record deal! When I compare the ratio of people who look like idiots on reality TV shows to people who don't look like idiots, I don't detect a drastic difference race-wise.

Instead of chastising the reality TV world for picking the elfish Tom Jones wannabe over the spherical Luther Vandross wannabe, you should be commending these shows for stripping everyone of their dignity, regardless of color.

-- Anthony Miccio

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I'm a lifelong liberal and have always been a strong supporter of blacks on most racial issues, but the arguments Bomani Jones presents in "White Supremacy" are poorly thought out and weak to the point of absurdity. The author undermines the article's premise at the outset by reminding us that a black woman was the winner in the fourth season of "Survivor." Gervase, from the first season, remains one of the most popular "Survivor" contestants ever. I'm not an MTV viewer, but perhaps the erratic behavior of the past black contestants the author mentions is influenced by their confinement in predominantly white, artificial settings, rather than a nefarious plot by white producers to cast deliberately volatile black contestants. Jones is really on shaky ground with the attack on "American Idol." Blacks make up less than 15 percent of the nation's population. By that measure, they have been overrepresented on "American Idol." Two of the three final contestants are black this season. One of the three judges, Randy Jackson, is black.

Jones has admitted that Clay Aiken's voice is technically perfect. The lack of emotion he perceives in Aiken's style is as subjective as the mediocrity I perceive in Ruben Studdard's voice and delivery. His enormous girth leaves him gasping and sweating after every song. Ironically, Simon has criticized several other contestants for their weight, but never Ruben. Side note: How is it "suspect" for a white contestant to choose a white partner on "The Bachelor?" You got it all wrong this time, Bomani.

-- B. Howell Ferguson

I am not going to deny that there is rampant racism in much of entertainment, especially in television. But this article does not come close to living up to Salon's high standards of proof.

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For instance, the litany of "angry black men" characters on different seasons of "The Real World" would be much more convincing if it showed that the same was not true of the white characters. That show purposely picks groups of people who will spark fireworks with each other, and who are easily classifiable.

As for Ruben Studdard and Clay Aiken -- the author may not be impressed by Clay, but many people are, and that does not make them racist (although many of them probably are). What I find most interesting, however, is that I think Ruben's weight would have gotten him voted off the show well before now if he were white. Why is it that fat black guys are so much more acceptable? Is it just because there is less weight-related prejudice in black culture? Or is it because his weight allows whites to put him in the lovable fat doofus category, à la Chris Farley, rather than the powerful threatening black guy, à la the guy you cross the street to avoid when you're walking alone at night? Now that would be an interesting article.

-- Sarah Siegel

Bomani Jones takes a perfectly interesting, valid premise and proceeds to unspool a completely misguided and misleading screed on the racial inequities inherent in the reality TV platform.

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Taking the "American Idol" example (which Jones should have stuck with), six of the final 12 contestants were persons of color, giving the American public ample opportunity to exercise its enlightened views on race and talent. Jones loses the thread of the argument early on by not looking at the most important factor facing contestants of color ... the makeup of those voting. That's where the real argument lies. The inherent problem is the voting audience's notions of who they see as the "American Idol."

Jones hints at this but gets off message by trying to quantify why each contestant may win or lose in relation to their color. In doing so, Jones relinquishes any sense of focus and the argument dissolves into contradiction after contradiction. To wit, "Kimberley Locke is biracial ... And Locke, who got back in Simon's good graces by relaxing her hair -- a suggestion that is curious at best and offensive at worst -- is not likely to win (like Justin Guarini before her), because of her inability to milk any passion out of the songs she sings."

That's the point! Buried deep in the article, almost as an afterthought: the revelation that Kimberly couldn't wring emotion out of a sopping wet sponge. Using her race (or, rather, half of it) as cover for a flimsy argument is, using Jones' construction, silly at best and disingenuous at worst.

There is no question that America, on the whole, prefers clean, nice white pop stars for its children, but in the context of "American Idol" (and the pop/ R&B charts) Jones misses the mark entirely. There is no conspiracy. Only bad, bad taste.

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-- Jason Corliss


Salon Staff

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