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Don't look to 'Survivor' for honest dialogue on race

By ERIC DEGGANS, Times TV Critic

© St. Petersburg Times
published May 21, 2002

When Survivor host Jeff Probst finally pulled out all the ballots and crowned 36-year-old Vecepia Towery Survivor's first black winner Sunday, I wondered if creator-executive producer Mark Burnett wasn't in a corner somewhere chuckling.

Ever since Survivor helped redefine reality TV in the summer of 2000, critics have asked why so many black contestants have lived down to the worst misconceptions about people of color. In particular, the shows have featured men that too often seemed lazy, confrontational, race-baiting and shiftless.

But tempted as some may be to assume Towery's victory shows race is not an issue on Survivor, this critic suggests thinking again. Because events preceding her win also highlighted the problems we all have in facing how race affects our actions and perceptions.

Race emerged as an electrifying topic during Survivor: Marquesas, the fourth installment in Burnett's series of contests. It had been a simmering subtext for weeks, mostly because of incendiary Sean Rector, a muscular, aggressive competitor who seemed drawn as the series' resident Angry Young Black Man. He even made slave references whenever he was asked to do work.

The issue exploded when Rector and Towery argued with competitors Neleh Dennis and Paschal English over perceived alliances.

What came from that confrontation, however, was not insightful dialogue but gutless excuses. Rather than admit the ways they'd bonded as black people, Rector and Towery insisted they weren't aligned. They accused those who disagreed of lumping them together simply because of their skin color (Rector had told the camera several episodes earlier that he and Towery were bonding because of common experiences as black people).

Similarly, English complained about Rector and Towery's "agenda." (Which was what? Winning?) And he tried to guilt-trip competitor Kathy Vavrick-O'Brien into supporting him by noting she was from Vermont and he was from Georgia, while Rector was from Harlem.

Vavrick-O'Brien apparently fell for it. She helped to vote Rector off the island instead of busting up Dennis and English's alliance and giving herself a better shot at the $1-million prize. But given what an overbearing jerk Rector turned out to be, it's hard to argue he was singled out solely, or even mostly, due to his race.

What does this all mean? That so much justification, self-delusion and backbiting goes on in a reality TV contest such as Survivor, expecting honest dialogue on a topic as combustible as race seems foolish. As usual, people on all sides denied their cultural differences, or tried to pretend those differences had no impact, rather than accept and value them.

And with so few African-Americans in the game at all, Rector and Towery couldn't help but serve as symbols, even if they didn't want to. No wonder few expected Towery's fly-under-the-radar style to bring victory.

It all reminded me of my early days in college (Indiana University), when I watched other black students who had grown up in mostly black environments struggle to learn how to live with white people at a school that was just 10 percent black.

All the social shorthand and common cultural touchstones many white students took for granted had to be learned by many black students. Some of them never learned how to fit in without abandoning their roots.

I'd love to see Burnett come up with a Survivor angle that flips the script -- like stranding 14 black and Hispanic participants with two white contestants in a remote location.

Then, perhaps, we might better understand the way cultural differences play into the game -- and how fair or unfair it all might be.

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