An intelligent conversation about race emerges from Phillip’s craziness on Survivor

On Survivor Redemption Island, Matt and Mike may have won the first three-way duel, making its loser, Dave, the first member of the jury, and Julie may have been voted off, but the episode was entirely about Phillip, the former federal agent whose spiral into odd behavior reached a new low tonight, when he turned others’ response to his behavior into something about race.

Maggot-infested rice led Phillip and some tribemates to dump out their remaining rice and pick out the maggots, but they needed a new container in which to store the remaining and allegedly good rice. He asked Steve and Julie if he could use their container, and they said no, perhaps because they were being selfish, perhaps because it’s just smart to not put formerly maggot-infested rice into a container with maggot-free rice.

But Phillip thought his argument was rational and freaked out, leading Steve to call him a “lunatic.” Phillip then played the “race card,” as his own tribemate Grant said. Phillip started using the n-word, talking as if he was a racist white person, and said that “some white folks like to take a black man and make him crazy.”

In the middle of his rant, Phillip actually made some excellent points about race and sounded surprisingly intelligent for someone who can never pronounce the other tribe’s name correctly. At his best, Phillip seems like a goofball, and at worst, seems like he’s having a disturbing Kelly Killoren Bensimon-style meltdown that is no longer fun to watch, and there was a lot of the latter last night.

The problem is that he brought race into a situation where it just didn’t belong. Steve called Phillip crazy–as we all have been doing–after Phillip threatened the three remaining members of the original Zapatera tribe, saying he’d hide their rice can and telling Steve that would happen “unless you walk with that fucking can everywhere you go.” Then, with no sense of self-awareness, Phillip said, “I’m a reasonable person.” This from a man prone to rants who walks around with a feather poking out of a headband on his bald head.

In other words, Phillip was acting like a lunatic. And while we have seem plenty of instances of racism or quasi-racism on reality TV before–including ones where cast members and viewers alike refuse to admit that behavior is a form of racism–there was not a fragment of evidence that Steve was responding to anything except Phillip’s increasingly erratic behavior.

All of this came up at Tribal Council, of course, and while there were lots of emotions, primarily from Phillip and from Steve, who was defending himself against the racist label, Jeff Probst handled the conversation very well. It’s remarkable that an intelligent conversation about race could emerge from some ridiculous behavior in the middle of a game that literally had its contestants spin in a circle to get dizzy before assembling a puzzle. But that is exactly what happened, and is an excellent example of why Survivor remains awesome and continues to surprise.

Summarizing Jeff Probst’s summation of the situation and the “ugly history” of the n-word without just transcribing it, but it’s worth watching and re-watching. At the end, Jeff said, “If this were therapy, I would say, ‘very good session.'” Along the way, Phillip challenged Jeff, asking him, “Do you know what it’s like to be a woman?” and saying, “You don’t know what it’s like to be an African American.” Again, a good point: It’s hard for to understand what it’d be like to be treated differently and hated based on your skin color alone. That Phillip has that kind of history is sad, and Probst managed to explain how it’s impossible for him to leave that behind, but from what we saw, the accusation wasn’t warranted.

After the Probst-led Tribal Council, the second-most surprising thing was Julie’s reaction to Phillip’s flip-out: She stole his bathing suit and hid it. “Phillip is right: it is war. Phillip is going to have to hang out in his cute little underwear from now on,” she said. Despite the Survivor rule book‘s prohibition of property-stealing (it’s on page 2), it’s become part of the game now, and however lame, it was not a bad way to get Phillip to freak out and thus maybe convince some of his own tribemates to vote against him.

It worked: His own tribe was whispering “go away,” and he got even more angry, playing with the machete and saying, “I don’t really threaten people. I just go off like that,” he said, snapping his fingers.

But Rob–who won the double-puzzle immunity challenge, probably because he has so much experience doing puzzles on the show, although Steve was just Survivor history as one of the best challenge participants for winning seven duel challenges in a row, but instead he won’t give himself any credit and is freaking out instead–a break-down that looks like will continue next week.

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about the writer

Andy Dehnart is a journalist who has covered reality television for more than 15 years and created reality blurred in 2000. A member of the Television Critics Association, his writing and criticism about television, culture, and media has appeared on NPR and in Playboy, Buzzfeed, and many other publications. Andy, 36, also directs the journalism program at Stetson University in Florida, where he teaches creative nonfiction and journalism. He has an M.F.A. in nonfiction writing and literature from Bennington College. More about reality blurred and Andy.