Imagine if you will, four groups of people living in four different geographical areas, keeping to themselves, competing with other groups, and displaying various biases. Each of these groups shares a different racial or ethic background.
Does this sound like a radical, outrageous, totally new idea to you? To me, it does not sound all that different from what I experience everyday. For those of you who have somehow missed all of the hoopla and articles about the new CBS reality show “Survivor,” this is basically the theme of the new series which takes place on Cook Islands in the South Pacific. Twenty contestants are divided along the lines of race and ethnicity, pitting teams of Whites, Blacks, Hispanics, and Asians against each other. The host of Survivor calls this new series, “a social experiment like never before.”
Excuse me? Segregation on the basis of race and ethnicity gets played out every day in Carroll County and throughout the U. S. If you worship in Carroll County , take a moment to examine the mix of Blacks, Hispanics, African Americans and Whites. There is a good reason why Martin Luther King called the hour of worship each week the most segregated hour of the week.
Walk into a typical Carroll County school and eat lunch with the students. Again, look at who sits together. Given the latest Census data on Carroll County , my guess is that students seated at 95% of the tables are white. Beyond Carroll, racial self-segregation is the norm in cafeterias, classrooms, and co-curricular activities.
Certainly, we can look elsewhere as well. Consider the vacation spots we traveled to this past summer. What about the social clubs to which we belong? Take a look at racial and ethnic segregation around the water cooler where we work.
Racial slurs, trash talking, and other forms of bias are nothing new either. What are the worst stereotypes that could emerge from this installment of Survivor? Well, radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh suggested a few. He predicted Blacks would be at a disadvantage if there are many water events. His reason? Black people are poor swimmers. On the other hand, Limbaugh mentioned that the athleticism of Blacks might work to their advantage.
Limbaugh went on to talk about how Latinos “will do things other people won't do.” He pointed to their “survival tactics.” Asian-Americans, according to Limbaugh, are the “braniacs” who will outsmart everybody.
The idea of lumping people who appear distinctive together, and ignoring the diversity that exists within each of these groups, is nothing new. Limbaugh is simply recycling garbage that we have heard time and time again.
Interestingly, I have not heard too much commentary about how Whites will fare. One commentator flatly said “they're screwed” but did not elaborate. Perhaps some will surmise that they will be held back by the fact that they have lived a privileged existence.
Critics of this Survivor series have ranged from the Wall Street Journal to the New York City Council to the NAACP. Hollywood Reporter Magazine criticized the series for “tapping a raw segregationist nerve and exploiting America 's obsession with race for personal gain.”
Bruce Gordon, head of the NAACP, calls the show a “bad idea.” While this might be true, why stop with survivor? The stereotypes on Survivor pale in comparison to those on the The Jerry Springer show or the 6 o'clock news.
The problem with many of the depictions of racial and ethnic diversity in the media is that they take the form of one of two extremes. One extreme is pain-free pluralism. Picture those shows where the subject of race never comes up, where biases are virtually nonexistent, and where interpersonal relationships are sugarcoated with our ideal culture of brotherhood. When segregation and bigotry does surface, it is usually depicted as a thing of the past.
At the other extreme are those shows that fail to deal with people as individuals. In these shows, people's racial and ethnic identification somehow hides who they really are. Relationships among people are all about race and/or ethnicity, as if that is all we live, eat, breathe, and think about. The images are convenient and superficial. A typical character might be a hot-blooded Latina immigrant who only speaks Spanish, works as a domestic servant, and dances a mean salsa.
The creators of Survivor counter that this is the most ethnically diverse cast in the history of TV. They go on to say the series is intended to promote ethnic pride, not discrimination. How they can say this with a straight face is beyond me. It reminds me of spokespersons for the Washington Redskins who steadfastly argue that the use of the term “redskin” is a way of honoring Native Americans. If we buy into this reasoning, we might consider changing the mascots of some local schools. How about the Westminster or Winters Mill Whiteskins?
“Survivor” is entertainment. Like many forms of entertainment, it may come across as factual when it is not. That is the real danger of this Survivor series and shows like it. For instance, dividing people into Blacks, Whites, Hispanics, and Asian is portrayed as possible. It is not. People do not fall neatly into these seemingly distinct categories. For example, where do we put people who consider themselves White Hispanics or Black Hispanics? Where do we put individuals who do not identify with any of these categories?
In order to increase their viewing audience, the producers put the contestants into racial or ethnic “boxes.” In real life, we find these boxes are too confining and do not represent who we really are. Consequently, we may find ourselves thinking and acting outside of these boxes. And while competition is the overriding focus of Survivor, cooperation among people of different racial and cultural backgrounds is much more common in real life. Let's try to remember that.