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Survivor Segregates Along Ethnic Lines

by Chris de Morsella

In what can most charitably, be described as an odd response to critics who slammed

its lack of diversity, CBS's Survivor has unveiled a new plot twist for its upcoming season: The selected contestants will be divided by ethnicity. When it premieres Sept. 14, Survivor: Cook Islands will feature 20 castaways divided into four tribes: black, white, Asian and Latino.

In other words the contestants will be segregated along racial and ethnic lines. How this addresses the issue of a lack of diversity is hard to imagine. According to the show’s host Jeff Probs Survivor’s ethnically pure tribes

will battle eachother and supposedly in so doing humorously confront our societies persistent and very stubborn racial and ethnic stereotypes.

I fail to see how the spectacle of racially and ethnically divided groups battling eachother will foster a greater understanding amongst people of various ethnic and racial backgrounds. In fact, I think it runs quite the opposite risk of re-enforcing racial and ethnic stereotypes and promoting what amounts to a televised and stylized prison gang vision of society. Our nation’s racial and ethnic divide is already much too deep and our understanding and empathy for eachother much too shallow and fragile for this kind of message from our mass media to be delivered in millions of living rooms.

If the show had wanted to address issues of a lack of diversity amongst its contestants why did they not simply cast a more balanced mix of survivors that reflected in a better way the country’s racial and ethnic makeup? How is this Jim Crow like approach to television entertainment, that the producers of this show instead chose to adopt supposed to improve an understanding of diversity or address the show’s previous lack of diversity in its contestants? It would have been better if they had done nothing at all rather than sponsor a media circus that promotes the idea of ethnic ”tribal” differences and the odious notion of ethnic and racial purity.

The tribes are supposed to merge into a single group towards the end of the season after most contestants have been eliminated from their racial segregated for a final few rounds of elimination. Won’t the audience carry forward within their minds the racial ethnic identification that the show has spent most of the season showcasing? It will not be a contest of individuals, even at the final stage but a contest of the survivors from the various Jim Crow tribes – it will be Joe from the white tribe against Alice from the black tribe and Juan from the Latino Tribe and Sue from the Asian tribe. Even when the contestants match off against eachother on an individual level their individuality will be subsumed by the racial and ethnic brush they have all been tarred with throughout most of the season. The not so subtle sub-text will be written large right up to the final episode when some winner will get the pot of one million not as an individual survivor, but as the champion of his or her ethnic or racial tribe.

I am sure the producers of the show believe they are poking fun at our society and that they are demonstrating a kind of in your face irreverent attitude that actually demonstrates how beyond it all they are, but in fact there is nothing very funny about racism and our country and the whole world for that matter is still very much a place where the color of your skin, for example, generally has more bearing on how you do in life than the content of your character. This kind of flippant attitude from this show’s producers to what is still a burning and current issue demonstrates callousness to the feelings of those who still suffer because of prejudice day after day.

Promoting the idea of racial and ethnic tribalism is stupid, demeaning and dangerous. It is horribly wrong. Even if this is not the stated intent, it is the actual delivered sub-text that the new Survivor’s, divided along racial and ethnic lines season will deliver to its audience. In a world increasingly fraught with ethnic racial and tribal hatreds and in a country that remains to this day largely divided along these same ethnic and racial fault lines a Jim Crow season of Survivor is no laughing matter.

About the Author: Chris de Morsella is Chief Operating Officer of The Multicultural Advantage, a web site that provides resources designed to help professionals from diverse backgrounds succeed in the workplace and employers increase their diversity recruiting effectiveness. Chris is our global diversity and immigration commentator. Though his roots are in technology leadership, working on key projects within companies like Microsoft, Associated Press and Thompson Publishing, his work has been focused on diversity staffing issues for over five years. Having worked in the United States, Europe, Asia and Latin America and being able to speak English, Italian and Spanish gives him some interesting perspectives on global diversity issues.

Chris de Morsella