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TV reality not often spoken of: race

Published October 22, 2004

The episode hadn't even aired by the time I got the question, delivered in an e-mail from a reporter for a black-centered Web site.

The subject was the Sept. 23 edition of NBC's reality TV game show The Apprentice, which many fans rightly anticipated would feature the firing of one of the show's two black contestants - the volatile Stacie "Stacie J." Upchurch.

Was Stacie a victim of gender-based racism?

Entertainment Weekly certainly thought so, concluding in its Oct. 8 issue that her ejection - by a group of white female teammates who fearfully questioned her sanity - was "about the perpetuation of an ugly reality TV stereotype: the Angry/Crazy Black Woman."

But I think reality shows such as The Apprentice and CBS's Survivor reveal a deeper truth about the personal politics of race in America.

What they really portray, in sometimes agonizing detail, is the saga of the assimilated minority vs. the non-assimilated one - not just in racial matters but in a lot of places where outsiders are looking in.

It's a simple story. Adept at fitting in among their white counterparts, the assimilated minority blends in, making few waves and earning loads of friends.

In contrast, the unassimilated person sticks out like a burr on a silk-covered bed, constantly conflicting with the larger group until they are isolated, demonized and eventually ejected.

What's surprising is how often this cautionary tale plays out on two of TV's most popular reality shows, The Apprentice and Survivor - products conveniently produced by the same guy, reality TV god Mark Burnett.

Often on these shows, there are two people of color among the contestants. And when they are both black people, one person usually finds fitting into the majority culture a much easier task than the other.

On the first Survivor, it was easygoing Gervase Peterson (assimilated) and irritable Ramona Gray (unassimilated). Later Survivor editions featured laid-back Harvard Law School student Nick Brown and Vecepia Towery fitting in, while in-your-face personal trainer Alicia Calaway and prickly South Central Los Angeles high school teacher Sean Rector stuck out.

The pattern has continued on Burnett's business-oriented reality showcase for Donald Trump, with Apprentice runnerup and Harvard MBA Kwame Jackson sailing past infamous villainess Omarosa Manigault-Stallworth in the show's first edition. This season, Wharton-educated Kevin Allen has hung in there, while Upchurch took a bullet in the show's third episode.

In most cases, the dynamics are striking. The unassimilated person begins to separate from the larger group quickly, usually as a result of personal clashes that lead to hard feelings and harsh assumptions on both sides.

To the unassimilated person, the group seems to be overreacting to their difference, which leads to suspicions of racism. To the group, the isolated person is overreacting to differences rooted in personality and is using race to justify personal friction.

It's a sadly familiar pattern for those who study how black people often struggle to fit into corporate culture or white society.

"Corporate America is part of an assimilation culture . . . they expect you to change to fit in," said Gerald D. Jaynes, a professor of economics and African-American studies at Yale University. "For black people, if you misunderstand the social cues, you become more alienated from your co-workers and your work environment, and it only gets worse."

Stacy Blake-Beard, an associate professor at Simmons College's school of management in Boston and an Apprentice fan, says Omarosa and Kwame reflected the two problems that often result from being "one of few."

The minority can be "hypervisible," basking in the way their differences may set them apart from the crowd. Or they can be "invisible," minimizing their differences with the majority to the point that they blend in.

Both approaches present dangers: The hypervisible person tends to spark conflicts with the majority group, which often doesn't understand why the minority member holds himself apart. And the invisible person has so little impact on the group, she might as well actually be transparent.

Further muddying the waters is another phenomenon that some social scientists call "attributional ambiguity." This occurs when members of minority groups are unsure if a negative interaction with the majority culture - whether it's in the workplace or the wider world - is evidence of racism.

Imagine a white person mistakenly calling a black co-worker by another black employee's name. Or a white employee who jokes that he's afraid a black colleague is going to steal something. Did they just make a stupid mistake, or was something else at work?

"If these were all white women interacting (with Stacie), then race would not have been an issue," said Donna Chrobot-Mason, an assistant professor at the University of Cincinnati. "Some people (say they are) living in a chronic state of ambiguity. . . . They're never sure if someone is reacting badly to them because they're a minority, or because they just don't like them."

Of course, there are other dynamics affecting relationships on the show.

Already, the cutthroat competition among The Apprentice's female contestants has drawn notice. And one ejected contender, ice-queen Jennifer Crisafulli, lost her day job with Prudential insurance after her derisive comment about "Jewish fat ladies" aired during an episode.

Indeed, Chrobot-Mason noted that the biggest problem white people have in such situations is an inability to see these conflicts through the lens of race. For example, a white person might say "I don't see color" to indicate a lack of bigotry.

But people of color may feel the speaker wants to deny their culture - unconsciously reinforcing the idea that minorities must become like white people to really fit in, said Chrobot-Mason.

"Whites in America tend to deny that racism exists," she added. "It's easier for them to believe that a society could exist where color doesn't matter at all."

After interviewing a wide range of black executives at a financial services company, University of Pennsylvania sociology professor Elijah Anderson divided them into two kinds: those who chose to assimilate and those who didn't.

Among the assimilated group, Anderson found that black executives didn't mind close personal relationships with their white co-workers, including friendships outside of work. Their comfort with the dominant culture usually resulted in higher-status jobs, though they risked identifying too much with the corporation.

But those who didn't assimilate were reluctant to trust their white co-workers. Exhausted by the effort of navigating white culture at work, they remained certain that most white people in their lives would eventually betray them.

"They start with the assumption that the white person is a racist," said Anderson. "The corporation is a difficult place for black people to navigate. I saw a lot of "floating' . . . where people make all these work friends, but never took them home."

It sounds like a heady mix of behavior to pin on a reality TV show - where producers film for dozens of hours and carefully control every moment shown onscreen.

Worse, no one involved with a reality show has much incentive to tell the truth about the production.

Not the contestants, who hope to make themselves look good and further their personal fame. Not the producers, who want audiences to think every emotional moment displayed on the show is real. And certainly not network TV executives, who just want people to watch the shows.

But those who suspect a hidden racism in reality TV may be reacting to a more subtle dynamic: a morality play that unfolds week after week highlighting the rewards of acceptance and dangers of resistance for those whose skin color and culture mark them as different.

- Eric Deggans can be reached at 727 893-8521 or

[Last modified October 21, 2004, 13:21:19]

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