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‘Survivor’s’ new racial divide

Dividing this season’s teams by race is just a bad idea. By Linda Holmes

Leave it to "Survivor" producer Mark Burnett to find the one thing you definitely didn't think he would do. As announced on this morning's "Early Show," the cast of the 13th "Survivor," set in the Cook Islands and scheduled to premiere Sept. 14, will initially square off in teams divided by race. That's right: the season will begin with a bloated cast of 20, and they will be divided into four tribes, which the show is calling the White Tribe, the African-American Tribe, the Asian-American Tribe and the Hispanic Tribe. If your reaction is "oof," you are not alone.

Given its long history, "Survivor" has been surprisingly resilient, but its greatest challenge has been avoiding staleness. Burnett and his team of strategic mad scientists have unveiled tribe shuffles, season themes like pirates and volcanoes, and most recently the division of teams, for a brief time, by gender and age — older men, older women, younger men, and younger women.

But nothing compares to this. It's not even sporting to rattle off the reasons why it's a terrible idea. Start with the fact that it smells like an attempt to "represent" everyone, and expecting five people to be representative of millions or billions is begging for trouble. Consider what happens if, for reasons unrelated to race, four of the first five people to leave are Asian? What if the final four are all black? Or all white? What do those headlines look like?

Host Jeff Probst, being interviewed about this stunt — which he unconvincingly denied was a stunt — said that the idea arose because the producers noticed that the applicants had so much "ethnic pride," so it decided to divide them on that basis. But does "ethnic pride" really mean the same thing to all people, such that we assume a contestant whose family is Korean automatically feels some special pride on behalf of someone whose family is Japanese? That is not to even consider the enormously sticky issue of whether someone whose great-grandparents are Russian is supposed to have shared "ethnic pride" with someone whose great-grandparents are Irish. It's a big jump to go from understanding that ethnic pride exists to believing it allows everyone to be divided into four teams.

"Survivor" has shown, usually in spite of itself, a talent for surprisingly adept social commentary. It has delivered sharp insights about gender politics, much more in its small moments of cajoling and strong-arming than in broad strokes like contrived "Battle Of The Sexes" scenarios. Viewed with a careful eye, it has much to say about celebrity, manipulation, groupthink, and how a game show becomes a morality play in the minds of its participants.

Battling stereotypesIn fact, racial politics are nothing new. As Probst acknowledged, there has always been frustration among fans and critics that there haven't been more contestants of color, particularly ones who are strong competitors. Most stinging have been persistent accusations that the show embraces a stereotype of African-American men as lazy, a complaint that dates back to the show's first season.

So if this season is supposed to reveal something interesting, what is it meant to reveal? It may be that there will be a lot to learn that's interesting. To give just one example, it's not clear whether contestants will or won't feel any special affinity for a tribe that's composed this way. Undoubtedly, some will and some won't, and there is enormous potential for conflict between those who do and those who don't.

It could be riveting. But how much morelikely is it that it will just be overwhelmingly uncomfortable to watch? "Survivor" has made its fortune on its status as a water-cooler show, both in person and on the Internet. What are those conversations going to be like? What will it mean to favor one tribe over another? Will people spend the entire season issuing disclaimers?

In a sense, this hazardous high-wire act is Burnett's genius in full flower — he knows that his American audience fears its inability to productively process and discuss race more than it fears disgusting food, isolation among strangers, or stinging jellyfish. But on the other hand, if something like this is to be a successful and meaningful social experiment, it has to be handled exactly right. Whether Burnett and "Survivor" are up to the challenge remains to be seen.

It is interesting to note, however, that "Survivor" has not chosen to cast "the Arab-American Tribe." Meanwhile, the 10th season of "The Amazing Race" will include, without a special announcement or a special season, a team of best friends who are bonded in part through their shared Islamic faith, one of whom has a request he delivers in the season's early ads: "Don't associate me with terrorists." The power of that simple sentence makes the "Survivor" casting look, by comparison, even more like an ill-advised ploy.