In the end, the first episode of “Survivor: Cook Islands” was pretty much just another episode of “Survivor.”
The 20 castaways salvaged items from a boat, dove into the water, and paddled rafts to their new beachfront homes, just like every other season. They started bonding, working together to build shelters, make fire, and find water. They became annoyed by the behavior of those who were particularly insistent upon doing something a particular way, or who did something stupid, like accidentally freeing the tribe’s chickens. They banded together to compete in a challenge for a reward and for the protection of the immunity idol.
The only difference was that these 20 men and women were divided into four groups based upon their race. The Aitu tribe is composed of Latinos, the Puka tribe of Asians, the Hiki tribe of African-Americans, and the Raro tribe of Caucasians.
Despite the division, there was little indication that the season had become what some have branded “Survivor: Race War.” Instead, in this first episode, nearly all of the conversation about race and ethnicity was internal; that is, the tribes discussed their own identities and the expectations or stereotypes that come along with it.
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For those who expected to see everyone in each group acting similarly and having identical worldviews, the reality was much different. Ultimately, each tribe was clearly composed of individuals who happen to share the same ethnicity. They may have similar experiences and perspectives, but no one let those similarities completely define them.
But what about the stereotypes?
Among the members of Puka, Cao Boi felt out of place, in part because he was older, but also because the others, he told us, were Asian-Americans who had “lost touch” with their ethnic roots. On Hiki, Stephannie said that she and her fellow tribemates “all feel the pressure to represent ... the African-American people, the culture.” The Aitu tribe included Billy, who joked about “paddling back to an island,” rather than away from one, and said that there was “an advantage for the Hispanics” because “we’re used to being in this tropical setting.” Raro tribe member Adam said that the game’s structure “doesn’t matter to me. ... The issue is what kind of people you have in your tribe, and what kind of personalities, and how you get along with them.”
These statements are all instructive, as it became clear that people stereotype themselves, perhaps accurately and perhaps inaccurately. And most significantly, there was disagreement among the members of some tribes about the accuracy of those stereotypes. The preview for next week’s episode shows that this conflict will arise on the Puka tribe as the result of one member’s jokes about his own ethnicity.
At least for now, then, until the tribes merge, the show’s discussion of race will be about how people who are members of groups view that group, and thus themselves.
The only suggestion of conflict between the groups came after the conclusion of that challenge, although of course they were ultimately competing against one another to begin with.
Afterwards, host Jeff Probst revealed that the losing tribe — Hiki — would select which person from any of the other three tribes went to Exile Island. They chose Jonathan, the member of Raro who admitted to taking a chicken that belonged to the Puka tribe. In other words, the black tribe sent a white tribe member to Exile Island as punishment for their theft of the Asian tribe’s chicken, so it wasn’t even one tribe versus another.
Perhaps most interestingly, the first visit to tribal council resulted in vote divided by sex. The men and the women in the Hiki tribe voted against one another, but the women outnumbered the two men, and sent one of them home.
Ultimately, the tribes will merge, and whether they retain their original alliances — and thus, because of the way the tribes are organized, allegiance to their race — remains to be seen.
Still the same ‘Survivor’
What’s clear now, however, is that because of the cast’s overall diversity, the show actually helped guard against the typical type of reality television stereotyping that often occurs because there are so few non-white people.
That’s certainly been the case with every other season of “Survivor,” which has been predominantly white during its first 12 seasons. This season, however, it is now much more difficult for ignorant viewers to link the behavior and appearance of certain cast members. If one person behaves in a certain way, there are others of the same skin color and background who may act completely differently, and make generalization impossible.
That said, it’s also unfair to ask five people to represent anything more than themselves. If all five members of one tribe do act in a similar way, or express a certain point of view, that doesn’t necessarily mean that everyone who shares their race behaves in the same way or thinks the same thing.
After three weeks of debate, outrage, defensiveness, dismissiveness and curiosity, some people will be content. Others may be horrified. But in the end, how viewers interpret the show may say more about them than about the show.
Those who pretend that race does not matter in our society and world may use the events of this season as evidence which permits them to continue to hold tightly to their ignorance, while those who have experienced racism and hatred in powerful ways may find illustrations of that in this episode or in those to come.
“Survivor” placed race at the forefront of viewers’ minds by dividing the tribes this way. At the end of the first episode, however, what’s most evident is that “Survivor” remains the same game as before.
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