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The reality of color on TV

Published October 29, 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. 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 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.

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 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?

Of course, some ostracized contestants of color seem to have their own abrasive personality issues. Those who suspect a hidden racism in reality TV may be reacting to a subtle force: 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 28, 2004, 15:48:54]