Sunday, September 10, 2006

Meme: Surviving the race

As anyone who is interested in such things already knows Survivor will be dividing people into tribes based on race. There isn't an obvious library angle on this but race is an interesting and persistent social construct. A number of people have already pointed to the Herbert Spencer inspired quality to the whole endeavor of "survival of the fittest." There are calls to boycott the show, since it does have the unfortunate potential to degenerate into racist boosterism based on arbitrary criteria taken out of context in the same way as the bestselling but disproved Bell Curve.

Ever since the first Survivor almost everyone tries the same strategy as Richard Hatch. Form alliances and lie and cheat anyone not in your alliance and then lie and cheat those in your alliance until there is only three left. Then it is a simple matter of either winning the last challenge or being such a villain throughout the show they take you to the final two because who would vote to give a million dollars to a guy who faked his grandmother's death. With this the lying and backstabbing can have the accusation of race traitor, racist, and Uncle Tom that race baiting always brings out. Some critics point out that it is a crass attempt to pull up sagging ratings of the show by having people root for their own race, which I think is true. Unfortunately the coarser language that comes with race baiting probably will be edited out for family viewing. The race war would have to be fought over the water cooler instead. Which with the show losing steam isn't going to amount to much fighting.

What would have been more interesting is an examination of the idea of race. Race is not a scientific categorization despite the fact that most people would think it is. In fact the host found out that lumping people under Asian puts together people who see ethnic divisions and may have tensions with other "Asians." If he did more searching he would find some people from the West Indies who do not see themselves as being Black or "Blacks" from Africa who do not see themselves as being in the same race as "Blacks" in America. Race is one of the most arbitrary ways to categorize human beings what constitutes a race is highly influenced by the society one is raised in. In America race is defined largely by visual cues even when the visual cues aren't there. A light skin Black man is Black even if he can pass for White.

Whiteness itself is an interesting concept. It took decades for the Irish and the Italians to be considered White. The Jewish community is considered White by the mainstream sometimes but as a minority that is separate and apart at others. The lines are flexible and exist only to hang myths upon. Those myths that tell people to clutch their purse when a black man approaches, that Asian men are all foreigners, and that Latinas are sex crazed freaks. They aren't remotely true in most cases but they let you shut your brain off for a few minutes, and that is what reality TV is all about.

If someone is looking for good resources that treat the construct of race in a meaningful way there are a few choices. There is the series "Matters of Race" that aired on PBS. It examines the meaning of race from a number of perspectives. Race: the Power of an Illusion provides an interactive site to learn about the realities of race. It's a good site for teens and younger kids. There are a lot of books on the subject of Race but two recent ones to mention are Covering: The Hidden assault on Our Civil Liberties by Kenji Yoshino and What White Looks Like by George Yancy. Covering deals in part with race but also gender and sexual orientation. It is an interesting take on the need to assimilate, when is assimilation necessary and when is it the destruction of the self. What White Looks Like tries to expand the field of White studies which is in its infancy by having professors in Black studies tackle philosophical concepts of Whiteness put forth by Foucault and others.

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