'Survivor' -- Can reality show's racial makeup outwit, outlast, outplay debate?

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"Survivor: Cook Islands," the 13th season of the reality series that pits different races and ethnic groups against each other this fall, has conjured up a whirlwind of debate since CBS announced the tribal alignments last month.

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Ozzy Lusth is a member of the Aitutaki Tribe.
Click photo for larger image.

'Survivor' chat Friday

Please join Post-Gazette staff writer L.A. Johnson for an online chat about the premiere episode of "Survivor: Cook Island" Friday from noon to 1 p.m. The PG plans to monitor viewer reaction to the show throughout the season.

The show, which debuts at 8 p.m. tomorrow and features African-American, white, Hispanic and Asian-American tribes, is defended by its creators as an attempt to make the reality show more racially and ethnically diverse.

In the eyes of some academics and racial advocacy groups, however, the show is more about divisiveness than diversity.

Dr. Edward Rhymes, head of Rhymes Consulting Services and former director of race relations and advocacy for the YWCA of Greater Pittsburgh, is very vocal about this season's approach to the show.

The reality of what it's like to be an ethnic minority in American society, he said, is not going to be reflected in a reality television program in which the goal is to entertain and garner ratings.

"Let's stop trying to make this seem so altruistic," Rhymes said. "If they have to exploit social ills to make money, that's what they do. Does that replace James Baldwin's 'Go Tell It on the Mountain' or Toni Morrison's 'The Bluest Eye'?"

Both are novels that have as their central focus the struggles faced by African-Americans in their everyday lives.

"We've replaced these wonderful and thought-provoking works with 'Survivor,'" Rhymes said. "That tells you the depth we have fallen to. That tells you where we are morally."

"Survivor" host Jeff Probst held a news conference last week to talk about the controversy.

"I think when most people hear the idea, the first reaction is to flinch a little bit. It's a sensitive topic," he said. "I think if people give it a chance, they're going to be surprised by the results."

He added that a lot of people who have never seen the show and have no idea what they're condemning are using the uproar surrounding it to further their own platform.

"If they're surprised by it or their expectations are reversed, I hope they'll be just as vocal."

Becky Lee, formerly of Pittsburgh, is a member of the Puka Puka Tribe.
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Nathan "Nate" Gonzalez is a member of the Manihiki Tribe.
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That scenario may be a little tough to imagine when a group like Hispanics Across America, a nonprofit advocacy group, already bluntly condemned the show as "racist TV."

Dr. Tukufu Zuberi, professor of sociology and director of the Africana Studies Center at the University of Pennsylvania, was perhaps even more blunt.

"Racial competition is about being called a nigger," he said. "Racial competition is about being lynched, racial competition is not being able to make it to the corporate board.

"I'm not interested in watching it because it seems to me that all it's doing is perpetuating the fantasy that racial competition is a neutral thing that's just engaged in. That's a perversion of history and a perversion of the current reality."

Probst argued that the intention of producers was to make this year's cast of participants more diverse after years of criticism that the show was too white.

He said 85 percent of the applicants to the show are white. For this season, producers went to churches, community groups, even the Miss Korean Town pageant in Seattle to increase the pool of ethnic contestants.

During the interview process, he said, producers heard "fresh points of view" and noticed the recurring theme of ethnic pride, Probst said.

He cited Cecilia Mansilla, a member of the Hispanic tribe (Aitutaki), as an example.

"There was no question about her ethnicity," Probst said. "No question about socially where she spent her time and who she spent it with."

The realization that her life was steeped in a culture that was different from that of creator Mark Burnett or Probst prompted the idea of grouping the tribes by race, Probst said.

"White people are just mutts. We don't have any ethnicity that we hang onto," he said.

Eventually, the groups will have to integrate.

That, said Probst, will prompt interesting questions of whether a person will stick with his or her ethnic group or form alliances outside the group.

"Survivor's" tribal alignment surprised author Christopher J. Wright, whose book "Tribal Warfare: Survivor and the Political Unconscious of Reality Television" focuses on the social, political and racial undertones and impact of the show.

"I thought it had to be a joke because I couldn't believe they would actually do that," he said.

While he applauds the show for trying to be more diverse, Wright said it would have been more interesting to have more ethnic participants but have them divided among the various tribes.

Probst said Yul Kwon, a representative of the Asian tribe (Puka Puka), was the only participant in this installment of the show who questioned dividing participants by race for fear that it would somehow perpetuate stereotypes.

In his book, Wright said analysis of 16 African-Americans who have appeared on the show left a perception of stereotypical behavior: laziness, aggression, overly religious, etc. But that is the case, he said in the book, with African-Americans who appear in most reality shows.

Would an entire tribe of African-Americans help eliminate what may be viewed as a stereotypical portrayal?

"What society are we in when that becomes the filter?" asked Rhymes. "A reality show is going to prove that for us? I can't believe that's what Malcolm saw, what King saw, what Harriet Tubman saw. I profoundly believe if they were here now, this would disgust them."

Jessica Smith is a member of the Rarotonga Tribe.
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Monica Haynes can be reached at mhaynes@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1660.


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