racializing survivor

as i am sure you have all heard by now, survivor is going to divide up their next set of contestants by race. i'm sure that many of you, when you first heard this, shook your head and cringed at the thought of racial representation on television being set back 20 years. this was my first reaction, but after a little bit of thought, i just wanted to say that we, especially the sociology community should actually welcome this opportunity. is the editing of the show going to play up the race card and do so in a way that probably plays up stereotypes? of course it is. however, that's something we know. and to be honest, even though it's better than it was in the eighties, racial representation on television isn't nearly as progressive as we want to think it is. did any of you realize that with the cancellation of the bernie mac show, that there isn't a single major network primetime show anchored by a person of color?

but like i said, that's not the point. what we should pay attention to is the discourse that it generates and how viewers react to this contrived racial segregation. it may not be what we hope it is, but i think that if we research this carefully we can learn a lot about where we are as a television viewing nation in terms of race. if i were a more enterprising sociologists, i would be coming up with ways to record observations of talk shows and internet fan sites and see how we talk about racial conflict. cuz let's face it, that's what the show is going to be about. the producers of the show are going to create situations where race is a salient issue and is part of the story line. anyways, i'm not an enterprising sociologist, rather i'm a lazy one who is trying to get his dissertation started, so i'll just be making armchair observations like the rest of you. but do i have any predictions? you bet.

1. i predict that the contestants will actually downplay race. the dominant discourse about race on television is what herman gray calls the assimilationist discourse which minimizes racial difference. contestants will instead be focused on the idea that they're all just trying to win a million dollars. this is not that different from how race is downplayed via the rhetoric of capitalism. in other words, people aren't oppressing me because they're racist, they're doing it because they're trying to make some cash.

2. i predict that there will be at least one storyline where a racial epiteth is uttered and made a very big deal about. this is one of the most tried and true television story lines when it comes to race, both in fictionalized television and news. i don't know how the producers will do it, as i imagine that people will be on their best behavior when on camera, but i bet that the producers will follow people around as best they can hoping that someone slips up and says something offensive. obviously, what the producers are really hoping is that one of the contestants, preferably white uses one of the big ones, like the n-word. however, what will probably happen is that one of the contestants will use a lesser epiteth, like calling one of the african americans lazy or saying that they have an advantage in physical challenges. either way, it will make for good discussion.

3. i predict that there is no way in hell that one of the white contestants wins. you do the math, 15 non-whites get to decide the fate of 5 white people. it's like the judicial system but in reverse!

lastly, let me also say that i think that most of the criticism seems to follow a corporate diversity kind of philosophy. that is, by talking about race, we're being racist. obviously, i think that this is stupid and the more chances we have to talk about race, even if it takes watching trashy televsion, then it's a good thing.

anyways, like i said, from a sociological and a pedagogical point of view, i think that this is going to be fun to follow. feel free to leave any predictions of your own in the comments section.


Ian said...

I've never watched a single episode of Survivor, nor do I intend to watch a single episode this season. You'll have to let me know how things play themselves out.

As far as the posted predictions go...

1. I expect that race will be brought to the forefront, because that is obviously the goal of this competition. Certain stereotypes may be dispelled. For instance, if the black team wins a swimming competition. (Of course, Erik knows the truth about this stereotype, having never beaten a black swimmer in his life.) However, I think it's even more likely that we'll have stereotype reinforcement along the way (i.e, "Of course we didn't win the swimming contest. We're black!").

2. I think it's even more likely that one of the minority groups will utter a racially degrading term and be confronted on the usage. It would be nice to see the real-life hypocrisy that considers white citations of racial stereotypes taboo, but minorities are still entitled to attack white stereotypes with impunity. As an aside, if black comedians weren't allowed to invoke perceived racial differences in their routines, BET Comic View would cease to exist. (Homer Simpson, after watching one such routine mocking whites: "It's true! It's true! We are soooo lame! *laughs hysterically*)

3. Mathematically, there's only a 1-in-4 chance that a white contestant would win anyway, so if a white contestant fails to win it doesn't really prove anything.

The only question I'm going to ask is, if Tiger Woods was going to be placed on a team, where would you place him? The man has more Asian ancestry than anything else. The reason I ask the question is I'm wondering whether they went on self-reports of individual's races, or if they just grouped people based on how they'd be perceived by the viewing audience.

Would a black hispanic be placed on the hispanic team or the black team? Is the black team African-American, or are there native Africans and Afro-Caribbeans on the team too?

I'm more white than black. What team would they put me on? And so forth.

Finally, if they weren't too concerned with how they grouped people, I'd expect to see some interesting intra-group hostility erupt. Afro-Caribbeans and African-Americans don't always get along. Neither do Japanese-Americans with Korean-Americans, and so on. Puerto Ricans and Mexicans is another combination that might produce some interesting comments. I just expect there may be more tension between ethnicities as opposed to "races."

mexicans everywhere said...

you said it. lord knows you can't trust them puerto ricans.

Bob said...

to answer your questions, i would place tiger on the white team.

my guess is that the contestants probably self reported their race, but i think i read somewhere that they weren't told that they were going to be divided up by race when they were trying out or whatever it is they do to get on that goofy show. so most likely, the producers get to decide who is black and who is asian and so on. i just heard a story about something like this about that mtv show, next, when they have gay dudes go on there, usually, two or three of the guys aren't even gay, they just fit the stereotype. we've seen this on the real world, as dave chapelle astutely pointed out, they always, and i mean always, seem to pick the craziest black people they can find, and the most effeminite gay people (although karamo in the philly season is a notable exception).

and you're probably right about all that other stuff that'll probably happen. i.e. it is well known that koreans have much hostility towards the japanese...actually all asian countries resent the japanese.

but anyways, like i said, all this stuff is going to be interesting and somewhat predictable, the thing to keep your eye on is how it is publicly debated in the entertainment reporting and amongst fans.

Nicki said...

All observations and predictions so far are astute and make sense from a sociological perspective, but I have to say, from a human perspective, what is being planned here for Survivor gives me a very sickly feeling in my stomach. I think this mainly derives from the way in which race is essentialized in this context, and I can't help but hear "one drop rule" in the back of my head. I feel like the world Spike Lee depicted in "Bamboozled" will be coming to life on-screen in this season of Survivor.

Another prediction, based on your research Bob -- the white team will be framed as having to rely on their "smarts".

I just really don't like this, even for the research opporunities it presents.