‘Survivor’ plays the race card for ratings


I watch reality television shows, even though I have a suspicion that they’re fake. Shows like Survivor are edited, so some people come off looking like saints, while others emerge as cantankerous crab-asses you can’t wait to see voted off the island.

Coming from a third-world country, I feel no sympathy for bourgeois crybabies sweating it out for a prize, complaining about eating something “gross” that would have been considered pretty good food compared to, oh, say … NOTHING in the refugee camp where I grew up.

Survivor shot up onto everyone’s radar this month when host Jeff Probst announced the show’s new season would feature a race war, pitting Asian Americans, Hispanics, African Americans and Caucasians against each other.

Playing the race card for ratings is a definite button-pusher, and bloggers and the media are already up in arms over the whole thing. Some people are crying foul, calling for Probst’s head on a platter. Predictably, right-wing mouthpiece Rush Limbaugh already has declared the white man the winner on his radio show.

Hispanics, he said, “have shown a remarkable ability to cross borders” and “will do things other people won’t do.” Asians, per Limbaugh, are “the best at espionage, keeping secrets.” Blacks “lack buoyancy” and are “more likely to drown,” while the white man’s burden will weigh down the last team with “guilt over the fact that they run things.”

These stereotypes about the races, which I guarantee Survivor will edit into the show, will set race relations back 100 years to the time of Rudyard Kipling, when it was considered noble for whites to oppress and colonize people of color.

Probst claims the new season is a grand social experiment: For example, maybe the Asians, Blacks or Latinos can show America a new way of starting fire. The show hasn’t even aired yet and people already say that as an Asian woman I can keep secrets and create an innovative way of starting fire!

This “experiment on race” is really about money. Last season the show dropped to a franchise-low average of 16.8 million viewers. This means the producers and CBS will no longer get big money from advertisers to air their commercials. But instead of admitting the profit motive, the show’s powers-that-be insist the stunt was the next logical step in a series that made its name on exploring social politics.

What is this social experiment supposed to prove? That one race is superior or inferior to another.

I hope people don’t fall for this. If their total sense of cultural identity and pride hinges on one season of arbitrary competitions by a group of strangers, then they need to check themselves in for some therapy. A handful of people cannot represent their whole race. It is tokenism and offensive.

As a Hmong woman, am I really supposed to identify with the two Filipinos, the two Koreans and the Vietnamese man just because we’re all theoretically from the same geographical zone?

And yet, if I don’t root for the Asian American team, what kind of racial self-hatred have I got going on? It’s a racial Catch-22 if there ever was one. As a feminist I find it’s interesting that we didn’t see the same type of hoopla when the teams were divided into all-men, all-women tribes.

What’s next for Survivor? Pitting Christians, Jews, Muslims and atheists against each other? When and where will the producers of “Survivor” draw the line? CBS and the producers of “Survivor” are deliberately tearing our nation apart, and should be held accountable. After all they are a corporation, and a corporation has to be held accountable whether they are dumping hazardous chemicals into our oceans, mismanaging employees’ retirement accounts or destroying race relations in this country.

I urge you to give your feedback to CBS at www.cbs.com; express your outrage and ask the network not to air the show.

However, if Survivor: Cook Island premieres on Sept. 14, I won’t be watching. I’ll spend that evening reading the nonfiction book Black Like Me by John Howard Griffin, a white journalist who disguised himself as a black man by undergoing skin treatments to darken his skin. Griffin’s real-life experience has no sound bites or music soundtrack, but it is a true social experiment. I admit Griffin’s approach has its share of problems, but I give him credit for making a serious effort to bridge the lack of dialogue between the African American and white communities of the racially charged 1950s. Survivor does just the opposite.

Ka Vang was born in Laos and raised in St. Paul. A poet, playwright and community activist, she can be reached at kvangcolumn@hotmail.com.