While reality television may be escapism, Survivor highlights the pulse of socialization.
Since its premiere in 2000, Survivor has been a social experiment providing a window into the lives of how people live with each other amid social and physical challenges.
Players, however, are not disavowed from their lives outside of the game — who they are does not change. They’re not only battling each other for immunity, but players are also grappling with the ways in which social constructions of identity bleed into the game, like race.
If you look back at Survivor winners there is some racial diversity, however patterns remain and have often been pointed out by cast members. In Season 42, Episode 9, Drea Wheeler pointed out that Black players get voted off before white players which opened up a discussion about race.
In 1989, critical race theorist Kimberlé Crenshaw gave a name to the experiences of injustice Black women are confronted with as they were often left out of policies meant to move justice forward for racialized people: intersectionality. The term addressed the ways in which Black women were oppressed by the dual identity of being a woman and being Black.
Since then, intersectionality has been expanded to other groups of people because it is “a way of thinking about identity and its relationship to power.” And when we think differently about relations of power, those who hold power begin to feel threatened as their power has been normalized through our engagement with socialization and the ways institutions and systems reproduce power. This is systemic racism.
Also playing into this notion is critical race theory (CRT) — another term Crenshaw helped coin — which recognizes that racism is embedded within our systems and institutions which are reproducing barriers to equity and inclusion.
Before children are born, they are socialized into gender stereotypes through gender reveal parties (really sex reveal parties), and moved through society that tells them who gets killed first in horror movies, the role of Black people in video games, who can play professional men’s ice hockey and who gets voted off Survivor.
Implicit bias and racism
On an episode of Survivor during a tribal council, a discussion about race emerged and a white male player, Jonathan Young, responded to the dialogue saying: “I don’t feel this is right, because y’all are coming at this like we’re racists.” In doing this, he showcased the ways in which socialization constructs racial identities.
The role of unconscious or implicit bias was implicated when Drea openly shared her frustration about her experience as a Black woman playing Survivor when she noticed two other Black players were voted off from a different tribe.
She called out the pattern of who gets voted off Survivor. This opened the conversation about what it means to be Black on the show: she has to question her identity and the impact race has on the game at every moment whereas someone like Jonathan does not.
Jonathan pushed back stating: “that’s saying I’m subconsciously racist. And that’s not true.” This steered the conversation away from the trend Drea pointed out towards Jonathan’s discomfort with the conversation about bias.
This implied connection between implicit bias and racism result in more accusations that CRT is hurting white people and this is absolutely not the case.
The conversation between Drea, Maryanne Oketch and Jonathan was not referring to Jonathan or the other tribal members as racist, but calling out the ways in which socialization leads people to believe stereotypes about certain people and how patterns continue to be reproduced.
By not having these open discussions, what is left is fear mongering and misunderstandings of CRT. Jonathan may or may not be a racist, but unfortunately that is where the conversation was focused — on white people having to become aware of how whiteness permeates our media and causes harm to Drea, Maryanne and other racialized people.
This conversation shouldn’t have centred white people. It should have played out by the white cast members being willing take a step back and listen to Drea and Maryanne. The conversation shouldn’t have been about white people feeling uncomfortable but centred on identifying the patterns of racism which feed how we are socialized into a hierarchy of skin colour.
This is not a drastic approach or a political agenda, but a call to open up spaces for conversations about racism, about whiteness, about race with white people listening.