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Shows miss chance to explore realities of race

By ERIC DEGGANS

© St. Petersburg Times, published July 31, 2000


PASADENA, Calif. -- After 50 minutes listening to his circuitous arguments and childish taunts, I was tempted to dismiss William "Will Mega" Collins, the first contestant voted out of CBS's Big Brother house, as an overblown publicity hound.

In a press conference with TV writers last week, he faced a golden opportunity to school us all.

He could have explained why he constantly provoked heated discussions, often about race, with his housemates. He could have detailed his past ties to ousted Nation of Islam leader Khalid Abdul Muhammad, known for anti-Semitic and anti-white statements.

But Collins, who is black, instead confounded reporters with a bizarre mixture of religious imagery and word contortions, like a spoiled child who enjoys the spotlight a little too much.

"It's not too often the prey is happy to see the vultures," he said, prompting a burst of nervous laughter from the room. "(But) this is a warm reception for me."

Midway through his oddball performance, I had another thought.

He blew it.

Whether Collins fully realized it or not, he started something rarely seen on prime time network TV during his 16 days on Big Brother: an in-depth discussion of race.

And while he may have let petty bickering derail those discussions, Collins also helped unearth a dynamic in reality TV rarely explored by the pundits.

Each of the biggest reality TV shows now on the air -- Big Brother, Survivor and MTV's The Real World -- began with at least two people of color. Beyond the obvious titillation of such "voyeur TV" efforts, their stories outline important lessons about race, assimilation and success in today's world.

Watched constantly by cameras, the housemates on Big Brother nominate two of their number for expulsion every two weeks, with the loser chosen by viewers in a telephone poll. The last one remaining gets $500,000.

Conflict on the show started early as Collins, 27, seemed to delight in antagonizing and provoking his nine fellow housemates. He pushed 25-year-old roommate Brittany to tears and taunted another resident, 21-year-old Eddie, with veiled comments about his missing leg.

But Collins' outbursts also provoked an incisive, in-your-face discussion about race.

He challenged Brittany about keeping "token" black friends. He and the other black resident, Cassandra (CBS only discloses first names of contestants in the house), talked about how white people who say they "don't see color" seem to be denying or ignoring a central aspect of their lives.

Both also talked about feeling pressure to serve as symbols for black people everywhere.

"Every time there's a black person in a public forum, black folks want to find themselves in them," said Cassandra, 38, who had an easier time getting along with her housemates than Collins did. "Whatever that person does will be weighed and reviewed by white people. There's enormous pressure to perform."

Collins told reporters he saw the Big Brother house as a golden opportunity to educate his housemates -- and by extension, America's TV audience -- on the feelings of black people in a mostly white world.

"Issues . . . that were brought up through (our) conversations allow people to understand the black man, black people and our reality from another perspective," he said. "One of the subjects that ofttimes is taboo along with politics and religion in American is race. This, again, forced some conversation about race."

Cassandra tried to counsel Collins on tempering his reactions, warning him about "gratuitously seek(ing) to intimidate" housemates, and urging him to "learn how to relate to their world." But it didn't keep him from being ousted.

On Survivor, CBS' summer smash featuring 16 people isolated on a tropical island who vote one person off every three days, 30-year-old Gervase Peterson seemed to blend well with his fellow castaways.

Ramona Gray, the show's other black contestant, got sick shortly after arriving on the island and grew isolated from her teammates. While there, she admitted that fellow castaway Jenna Lewis was her first white friend since high school.

"It was tough living in such close quarters with people different (basically whites) from me," said Gray, 29, in an e-mail to the St. Petersburg Times. "I truly believe that racism is rampant in America today, so that made it even harder. I always wondered if and when I was voted off, would some part of it have to do with the color of my skin?"

(Survivor executive producer Mark Burnett has denied that race played a part in any voting decisions).

The one time that talk on the island turned to race, Gray confessed that, outside of her job, she doesn't interact with white people much. That, she said, is why she didn't feel comfortable among the group.

"It felt like a taboo subject. . . . no one really wanted to talk about it," added Gray. "Gervase and I were on opposite ends of the spectrum, because he'd been around whites all his life and felt totally comfortable," which added to her sense of isolation.

Just as Cassandra counseled Collins on Big Brother, Peterson talked with Gray, encouraging her to try harder to fit in. But her efforts came too late; she soon became the fourth person voted off the island.

Looking back, Gray wishes she would have overcome her hesitancy and reached out to her white teammates sooner.

"I don't think America will ever overcome its race problem until we admit there is one and sit down and talk about it," she said. "We're more alike than we'd all like to admit."

Melissa Howard, the former Valrico resident now appearing on MTV's latest installment of The Real World, said race issues actually kept her from bonding with the show's other black resident, David.

"He called me "culturally confused,' " said Howard, who is biracial (African-American and Filipino) and talks about it during the show.

"If I'm culturally confused because I'm half black and not listening to The Thong Song every day like (he) was, then he's buying into the lie that all black people have to do these stereotypical things," she added. "And that upsets me."

The lessons learned here might not be new or even profound: the subtle strain of relationships across racial differences; the strain minorities face in choosing whether to assimilate (and the consequences that result); the enormous trust and courage required to talk across race about race.

Still, as more reality TV shows offer ethnically mixed casts, we may learn more about race in America than anyone expects. All we have to do is pay attention.

To reach Eric Deggans call (727) 893-8521, e-mail deggans@sptimes.com or see the St. Petersburg Times Web site at http://www.sptimes.com.

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