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Saturday, June 15

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For the 13th and most recent installment of the Survivor series, Survivor: Cook Islands, producer Mark Burnett decided to separate the teams by ethnic background: Asian-American, Caucasian, Latino and African-American. Tribes in previous seasons had been segregated by age and gender, but never by race. This "twist" caused a huge amount of pre-show buzz, aided by clueless remarks by host Jeff Probst:

"When you start talking to a person from Asia, you realize — Wow! They have all different backgrounds!" gushed Probst, who described himself repeatedly as a 44-year-old white guy from Wichita…

The other day, he told the reporters, he went to his dentist, who is white, and the dentist brought in another dentist, who is Asian. "And I found myself saying to the Asian doctor, 'Where in Asia is your family from?' " The dentist said he was Korean. "The only reason I had the courage to even ask that question or the knowledge to ask that question was I'd just spent 39 days with people from Korea," Probst said.

Yes, he really did.

Asians, he explained, include Chinese and Japanese and Koreans and "they don't necessarily get along," adding, "This is stuff maybe I should know."

Several corporate sponsors pulled funding and product placement before the season premiere, and special interest groups and coalitions called for a boycott. The initial ratings results showed neither a jump nor a fall in numbers of viewers when compared with last season. The first episode boasted that the separation of races was a "social experiment like never before." It wasn't a lengthy experiment, though; this past Thursday, at the beginning of its third episode, the tribes were integrated from four racially divided tribes into two mixed ones. Will voting be determined along racial lines? Does it really matter? Was this gimmick a mere ploy to get people talking about the show, or could it encourage meaningful discourse?

In another interview, Probst admitted the casting this time around was more of a recruiting method, because "The first problem was we don't have Asian-Americans, African-Americans and Latinos applying to the show." He guessed that 85 percent of the new crop of castaways were not chosen through the regular application process. Probst neglected to reveal, however, that 13 of the 20 are from California, and several are actors. There's "reality" for you!

MadTV parodied the set-up with a spoof featuring Team Burrito, Team Chicken & Waffles, Team Soy Sauce and Team White Bread. In the fire building challenge, Team White Bread was given a top-of-the-line fire-starting kit, Team Burrito received flint, and Team Soy Sauce got a single wooden match. Team Chicken & Waffles? A glass of water. On Survivor itself, several members in the original minority-based tribes expressed concerns about stereotypes and the pressure to "represent." But Cao Boi, who was born in Vietnam, regularly upset his younger and American-raised teammates with jokes and generalities about Asians. He saw them as a way of showing the absurdity of racism; the others thought they were hateful and could perpetuate negative impressions. In the African-American tribe, members kidded about cornrows and not knowing how to swim. Sekou emerged as the leader, although more of a "hands off" kind; he spent a lot of time issuing orders, and then lying down. At least, that's what the editing implied. He and fellow male tribemate Nathan made a unilateral team decision without consulting the three women on his team. Not the best move. As a result, Sekou was the first contestant voted off the island.

This isn't the first time Survivor has been accused of portraying African-American men in a negative light. In its inaugural season, castaway Gervase Peterson, a YMCA basketball coach who looked to be physically fit, was often shown napping, playing cards and not "pulling his weight" around camp. He claimed he saved his energy for challenges, but his tribe eventually voted out the charmer; he finished in seventh place overall. Season 7's Osten Taylor was the first contestant to quit the game. Although previous castaways had asked their teammates to vote them out at a tribal council, Taylor decided his health was too important to continue. Afterward, he defended his action by saying, "Mark Burnett quit on us by letting the Outcasts in," referring to a twist in which previously booted people returned. Burnett responded, "Here's this big, huge guy who could kill me outside the game…and yet he cried about [the game] all the time." Very mature. On both sides.

Another Burnett show, Donald Trump's The Apprentice, hasn't been positive toward African-American women. In 2004, critics accused Manigault-Stallworth of deliberately sabotaging fellow African-American Kwame Jackson's chances to be The Donald's first apprentice. (Incidentally, the job went to Chicagoan Bill Rancic, whose first job for the Trump Organization was working on Trump International Hotel & Tower, Chicago.) Manigault-Stallworth claimed a fellow contestant used racial slurs, a charge denied by the accused, Burnett, Trump and NBC. Omarosa, who dropped both her last names and her husband, milked her 15 minutes of villainous infamy by participating in several more reality shows and continuing to trade in controversy. In Season 2, Stacie Jones Upchurch initially caused concern among her teammates — all women — for her reliance on a Magic-8 Ball to help her make decisions. This morphed into her teammates accusing her of having a multiple personality disorder, being "borderline schizophrenic" and fearing for their very lives. Jones Upchurch later returned for another task, and Trump complimented her for her "hard work," but the impression of her being "loony" still stuck. The following season, Verna Felton became the first Apprentice contestant to quit the show. Footage of her leaving the game mid- task, dragging her suitcase behind her for several blocks and wandering without a determined destination, made Felton appear indecisive and inept. Were these accurate portrayals of individuals, or was Burnett making a point about African-American women and business?

Tyra Banks insists she wants to be a positive role model for young women of color and develop self-esteem among her wannabes on America's Next Top Model. However, she often casts at least one "angry black woman" per installment. This is most likely so Banks can tear down the girl and build her back up (witness Cycle 3's winner, way-too-short Eva the Diva), not perpetuate negative stereotypes. And heaven help the poor fool who doesn't worship at the altar of Tyra, especially when one is a former ABW who was given a second chance after a "bitch poured beer in [her] weave!" This year's villain is Chicago's own Monique. She cried that her dark skin caused her sisters to nickname her "Blacula"; however, her fellow housemates may wonder if the moniker was bestowed because of Monique's selfishness. She poured water on one girl's bed to claim it as her own, refused to spend less than an hour in the shower and monopolized the community phone, recently spending more than three hours on the line as her competitors fumed. Of course, this all makes what is considered "good" television.

But not all reality shows treat diversity as a publicity device. The Amazing Race — the ultimate competition to decide, once and for all, which ethnicity is best! (Heh.) — has cast people of different races, ages and sexual orientations since its first season (though, to be fair, there is always an overabundance of actors/models). Then again, this is competition around the world, with Americans experiencing varied cultures and nations not their own. There isn't a lot of time or inclination to examine intrapersonal relationships based on racial backgrounds. Mostly people judge other teams on their game play rather than the color of their skin. Would MLK be proud?

After the merge last week, one Survivor claimed her new, integrated tribe was "more like America" now; "a melting pot." If the reaction of corporations and certain minority groups is anything to go by, I think she was being naively optimistic. Race is still an issue in this country, and it should be. There's still a long way to go…even in pop culture.

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About the Author(s)

As a child, Dee Stiffler was only allowed to watch one hour of television a day. She usually chose Sesame Street. Today, she overcompensates by knowing far too much about the CW's lineup as well as pop culture in general. Email her at pop@gapersblock.com.

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