Race to the bottom

Will "Survivor: Cook Islands" reinforce racial stereotypes? The first episode provides a few clues -- and elicits even more criticism.

Published September 15, 2006 1:00PM (EDT)

"Black people don't like to be told what to do. We have a bunch of headstrong people around here -- me being one of them." -- Nate, African-American tribe

"We fly under the radar, nobody suspects these little people with slanted eyes to see anything or to be strong enough to do anything or maybe don't even speak English. People always underestimate the Asians." -- Cao Boi, Asian tribe

"We're used to being in this tropical setting." -- Billy, Hispanic tribe

"I don't believe that just because these groups have the cultural similarities that that will make them more specifically cohesive. This is 'Survivor,' somebody is gonna win a million dollars, and they're gonna have to cut the throat of the guy next to them at some point." -- Jonathan, White tribe

The anxiously awaited 13th season of "Survivor" started with a flurry of predictions by various tribe members, as the four teams, separated by race, guessed at how ethnic differences might play a part in the game. But the real guessing game began weeks ago, when producers' announcement of the show's racial twist resulted in a public outcry. Critics called it a gimmick, declaring the idea "racist," "stupid" and "preposterous." Naysayers claimed the show would enforce racial stereotypes by grouping members of the same race together, and suggested that editing based on racist notions was inevitable. According to Advertising Age, several companies have pulled their sponsorship since the theme was announced, but producer Mark Burnett and host Jeff Probst have been adamant in backing the show, and CBS hasn't bowed to pressure to remove it from the lineup. "I still feel very strongly that this was worth doing," Probst told a reporter from Pittsburgh CBS affiliate KDKA. "I think it will surprise people. I think it will entertain people, and hopefully it will be inspiring rather than discouraging."

Still, plenty of critics and journalists weren't buying Probst's positive spin. In an article in San Francisco Chronicle, writer CW Nevius suggested that simply grouping people of the same race together might encourage misconceptions and stereotyping. He pointed to Rush Limbaugh's racist comments on the show as proof -- Limbaugh posited that the black team would be poor swimmers, the Asians would be brainiacs and the Latinos would "do things other people won't do."

And once Thursday night's show aired, journalists roundly criticized it. Robert Bianco of USA Today called it "a publicity stunt of the rankest and most obvious kind," and stated that "'Survivor' has embraced the very essence of discrimination: treating people not as individuals but as members of an ethnically defined group." (Bianco also complained about the separation of the different tribes onto different islands, perhaps unaware that this format was used last season as well.) Charlie McCollum of the San Jose Mercury News declared that the first episode wasn't contentious enough, calling the format "pure hype": "This wasn't some grand social experiment or clueless racism. It was and is an attempt to reverse a ratings slide, nothing more." And Alessandra Stanley of the New York Times sniped that "even with this fraught conceit, CBS may have to worry more about ratings than race relations."

Of course, worrying about ratings doesn't exactly set the producers of "Survivor" apart -- the teams behind every single show on network TV are engaged in a shallow ploy to attract viewers. In fact, the show's producers have been quite open about their attempts to mix things up every single season, recognizing that any reality competition will begin to feel repetitive without such twists, which have included everything from pitting men against women to creating four tribes separated by age and gender, as they did last spring. You don't have to buy the notion that Probst and Burnett are high-minded civil servants engaged in a quest for the truth, of course, but that doesn't mean they don't have a genuine interest in keeping the show fresh and unpredictable for viewers. Remember, both men made their names on this show; it's their baby. Summing up their latest concept as a dishonorable ploy may be the easiest conclusion, but it's clearly not the most accurate one.

If anything, by separating the tribes by race, the producers of "Survivor" have set themselves up with an impossible challenge: tackling race without appearing to reinforce racial stereotypes. On Thursday night's premiere, after the African-American tribe lost the first challenge, it was revealed that tribe members would be allowed to send one member of any other team to Exile Island. The two men on the team decided whom to send without consulting the women, and Probst pointed it out and asked why. Was Probst trying to be provocative? Was he making some commentary on African-American culture? Critics could have a field day (and likely will) with every single thing Probst, the producers or the editors do. But the moment was odd -- normally, when a team is asked to make a decision, everyone decides together. In this case, the two guys stepped away from the group. Were viewers at home wondering if this was a "black thing"? Maybe. Or maybe they were wondering, as I did, why those particular two guys would be so presumptuous to decide without consulting the women.

For writers and journalists covering the show, the format can be just as challenging. For example, here are the facts -- just the facts -- surrounding one particular sequence on the premiere: Within the first few seconds of the game, teams are encouraged to try to take everything they can, from machetes to chickens, with them as they jump overboard and row to their respective islands. A member of the white tribe steals a chicken from a member of the Asian tribe, and is unrepentant, saying later, "I saw a chicken, I grabbed a chicken, because the chicken was free." Upon arriving on their island, the white tribe members congratulate one another on "kicking ass" and grabbing so much good stuff so quickly. Later, while chatting about her nickname, one of the tribe members accidentally sets both of the two chickens free. The tribe members chase the chickens, but can't catch them, and the guy who stole the chickens is extremely angry. Later that night, the first night on the island, two of the cute young people, Adam and Candice, cuddle. Candice explains it by saying that Adam has "a good-looking face, you know, he's fit."

So, let's summarize, shall we? The white people grab the most loot, some of it out of the hands of members of one of the other tribes, sum it up as "kicking ass," then squander the pilfered loot, blame one another, and the two hottest tribe members pair up. Next week, we can only assume the hot couple will sharpen some sticks and gang up on the big one named Piggy. Is this really "Survivor," or some kind of ominous fable depicting the rise and fall of Western civilization?

But of course, it's incredibly racist to say so, isn't it? And God forbid we declare the white team a bunch of greedy honkies. Right? Because if we made similar statements about the African-American team, we'd sound just like Rush Limbaugh. Or am I allowed to generalize about white people, since I'm white, just like the Asians and African-Americans and Hispanics on the show generalize about their own races? What are the rules again? Almost immediately we're anxious to extract ourselves from this sticky mess, pretend to be above it, pretend it's just a TV show pandering for ratings, pretend that it's irrelevant or crass or nasty, but most of all, we, in all of our enlightened glory, are utterly above such small-minded pap.

Or are we? However crass and deplorable "Survivor's" new season may seem, no matter how many times we're told that the editors or producers or the host is pumping up the hype or straining to tell stories about race, let's just review what they're actually doing: merely separating groups by race. You might remember that process from your own life, you know, when you refused to shop at the Mexican grocery store right around the corner, opting for the Vons more than a mile away, or when you neglected to give a second glance to any of that bargain-priced property on the black side of town? As Americans, we separate ourselves by race all the time -- this is what makes Stephen Colbert's repeated assertion that he doesn't see race so funny: Everyone sees race, and not only that, we act on it, despite our best intentions. Pretending otherwise doesn't make us more enlightened; it just keeps us all in the dark.

"It makes me feel like because we are divided by race, now we have to step up to the plate and show that, yes, black people do swim," offers Rebecca, a contestant in the African-American tribe. "Yes, black people do know how to get on a boat and paddle. I mean, we don't just run track!"

Sundra, her tribe member, sees it differently. "With our group, it has nothing to do with race. We're just city slickers thrown into the bareness of life."

"Survivor: Cook Islands" may not be some groundbreaking social experiment, but it is interesting, and anyone who says otherwise is taking pains to sidestep the stickiness of it all. Sure, there'll still be the same old boring physical challenges and repetitive puzzles to solve, and the same old conflicts between individuals with clashing personalities -- it's just a reality show, after all, one that's been around for years now. And yes, viewers at home will jump to conclusions about black people and white people and Asians based on everything they see -- but they're doing that anyway, aren't they? What reality show hasn't created its own Omarosa, either through casting directors in search of serious personality disorders and racial stereotypes or through merciless editing? By comparison, "Survivor's" premise seems relatively benign. Merely opening up the question of race doesn't encourage racism, and it doesn't make people any more racist than they already are. Like Hurricane Katrina, it exposes those attitudes, assumptions and misconceptions that lurk beneath the surface. It's not always pretty, of course, but that doesn't mean we couldn't benefit from taking a closer look.

By Heather Havrilesky

Heather Havrilesky is a regular contributor to the New York Times Magazine, The Awl and Bookforum, and is the author of the memoir "Disaster Preparedness." You can also follow her on Twitter at @hhavrilesky.

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