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Survivor: an honest, vulnerable discussion of race and privilege was just one part of an all-time-great episode

Survivor: an honest, vulnerable discussion of race and privilege was just one part of an all-time-great episode

It was just last season that Survivor completely ignored the casual use of the n-word on day one—and also ignored what happened when it was used again, which was that a white man, Ron, stepped up to educate his fellow white people about why that wasn’t okay. That’s according to Julia Carter’s excellent essay, which you should read.

And it was this summer that two CBS executives dismissed that critique by saying their reality TV does “a good job of” representing what happens during production of its show, and insisted that “most participants” (i.e. cast members) are “having a very, very good experience.”

So it was quite a surprise to see an extended scene in Survivor: Island of the Idols episode 6 about white privilege, implicit bias, and the representation of black men on television shows such as Survivor. And that was just a few minutes of a thoroughly excellent episode.

That conversation was between Jamal and Jack, and followed Jack referring to Jamal’s Buff—the production-issued multi-use garments that also indicate tribe colors—as a “durag.”

Jamal immediately said, “Buff,” and, in an interview, said that Jack’s reference was “deep-seated” and “subconscious.”

In an interview, Jack said this was an attempt at humor: “I made a joke. That sucked. I immediately knew that I had said something wrong. and I was very embarrassed to have to said it.”

At this point, the show hadn’t explained what joke he was attempting to make, or why what he said bothered Jamal, or why he realized it was “wrong.”

But then the episode switched to Jamal, and in an interview, he said “it’ll take me a little bit of time” to explain because it’s “complicated why this is insulting.” The episode gave him that time. His answer—which deserves to be watched in full—included a discussion of “the image that a lot of white America has about black men.”

In the moments we saw of them together, instead of them talking about it later, they were honest and vulnerable with each other, and actually had a real conversation. There was no wasn’t defensive lobbing of self-protection, but listening and sharing.

Jamal told Jack, “white straight men have a really long way to go when it comes to self-awareness about their privilege in the world.” And Jack agreed, apologizing sincerely and later explaining that “it was really cool to share a really human moment with my strongest ally.” They appear to be even stronger allies now.

(I was watching live and without a DVR, and was also just watching and listening, so I didn’t transcribe everything. I hope CBS puts the scene online, and if/when they do, I’ll embed it here.)

At the end, Jack told Jamal, “thank you for me allowing me to apologize,” and with Jamal confessing that “it’s hard to know when it’s safe to come on strong with this kind of thing” because “it can be divisive.”

After all, he said, “we’re playing a social game.” In other words, being honest about being affected by another’s words could be—and I’m sure has been—used against a player.

We need more of this: more conversations about the kind of ideas and biases that affect the actual game, and more conversations that give us deeper understanding of the people playing that game and what they must deal with, inside the game and out.

This scene and conversation was not a tangent nor extraneous to Survivor’s game: this was the backbone that Survivor and CBS haven’t had for years.

As I wrote on Twitter, the conversation was extraordinary—for Survivor, for a CBS reality show, for reality TV. Rarely do race, racism, and privilege get that kind of thoughtful, honest conversation.

I’m impressed and appreciative that it was included, but also don’t want to pretend that this one conversation is all that’s necessary to either erase CBS or Survivor’s past transgressions.

Survivor didn’t exactly address its own role in perpetuating the kinds of images that Jamal described, and as recently as this summer, a CBS reality show permitted and promoted bigotry and then clumsily and ineffectively attempted to confront it.

But this was a huge step forward, and it will hopefully be followed by many more steps.

And, of course, even watching two people talk honestly and share their experiences in a vulnerable way was not enough for some people—just scan social media for examples—to find their way out of their boxes of privilege, ignorance, and/or hatred.

‘A little busted can of biscuits’ takes control of the game

Elaine Stott and Aaron Meredith hanging out at Applebee's last week, before an immunity challenge loss threatened to tear their original tribe alliance apart
Elaine Stott and Aaron Meredith hanging out at Applebee’s last week, before an immunity challenge loss threatened to tear their original tribe alliance apart. (Photo by Robert Voets/CBS Entertainment)

In his final words, Jeff Probst said something about how “everybody loves this game” and “nights like tonight are why.” I agree, but it wasn’t just because of the surprising events at Tribal Council.

What also surprised me about Survivor: Island of the Idols episode six was that the Jamal/Jack scene was inside an episode that had so much more: a reward challenge, a visit to the Island of the Idols, an immunity challenge, strategizing, and a live-ish Tribal Council. Oh, and a chicken scene!

That was a lot packed into 42 minutes, yet it never felt rushed, and it also felt like everything we saw was rich and purposeful and enough.

After the tribe swap, the new purple/Vokai tribe ended up with four people from each of the two original tribes, so we’ve been living with the threat of their loss meaning that they are deadlocked and draw rocks instead of voting. But no rocks appeared.

That was in part because Elaine was sent to the Island of the Idols. She was chosen because she sat out of the reward challenge, and if I didn’t already love Elaine as a character, I would have become president of her fan club after this exchange with Jeff Probst, not all of which I was able to transcribe exactly, but here is the core:

Elaine: “Dang, that sucks”

Probst: “Dang that sucks?”

Elaine: “I wanted to play, Jeff”

Probst: “You were already sitting out!”

I read this as Probst being baffled that no one would want to visit the Island of the Idols, because why wouldn’t they love this twist?

Elaine’s visit there was short, but there was still time for a prologue with Rob building a mansion-shelter while Sandra held the ladder.

Perhaps because they were so fatigued from their island episode of Fixer Upper, neither Rob nor Sandra had any lessons for Elaine. The teaching, it seems, was left to episode one.

Instead, they just started a timer and Rob—why is it only Rob talking and offering these challenges?—and before Rob could even explain, Elaine said, “I don’t care. Let’s do it. This is Survivor—let’s go!”

During the Island of the Idols scene—I still can’t write it as IoI, because that looks like LOL to me—Elaine referred to herself as “a little busted can of biscuits” and also said that the challenge she was given had “big stakes! I like steaks—yum yum yum.” Heart emoji.

Elaine’s challenge: to retrieve an advantage from the middle of a challenge. She did, though she first dropped it and had to pick it up again. Her tribe was so busy untying knots that they didn’t see her putting something into her pants twice.

They did see when she pulled it out of her shirt at Tribal, though. I’m not exactly clear about whether she had to do this public declaration of the vote nullifier, or if she was doing that strategically, or both.

From what she read, it sounded like she was required to reveal it before the voting began, when she’d identify the person whose vote she was blocking. That adds a lot of weight to the advantage; it’s not one that can be played in secret.

And for a moment, it looked like this was going to burn Elaine. Having learned of the vote-blocking advantage earlier—Elaine told Elizabeth, and then they brought in Aaron and Missy—Aaron was already contemplating switching sides, so he’d get “cemented with these guys” on the original Vokai tribe.

There was whispering at Tribal about voting out Elaine, and when the vote came down to 3-3, I was convinced she was going. But no: Aaron stuck with his original tribe.

The original Vokai made a decent argument that, since there tribe will have a majority at the merge, it’s best to align with them.

But Survivor can’t be played with those kinds of guesses about the future; it has to be played with the best information you have in the moment. And with an opportunity to chip away at Vokai’s advantage, Lairo took it.

And with an opportunity to give its cast members a national platform to discuss race and privilege, CBS and Survivor took it, too.

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  • Andy Dehnart is the creator of reality blurred and a writer and teacher who obsessively and critically covers reality TV and unscripted entertainment, focusing on how it’s made and what it means. Learn more about Andy.

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