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Several former contestants on "Survivor," the CBS reality show, are criticizing it. They say systemic racism makes it tougher for Black contestants to succeed on the show. NPR's TV critic Eric Deggans spoke with a couple of them.
ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: Ramona Gray Amaro made reality TV history. She's the first Black woman to compete on "Survivor," which took 16 people and isolated them on an island in Malaysia to fend for themselves back in 2000. But when Amaro saw how she was depicted on the show, which takes footage filmed on the island and edits it into episodes shown on CBS months later, she also felt she was one of the first Black people stereotyped by the show.
She says footage showing her lying around her team's camp site early in the competition made her look lazy, but she was suffering from dehydration. In the clip, Amaro - who was working as a biochemist - describes the shock of landing on the island.
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RAMONA GRAY AMARO: I'm used to being in a lab with my lab coat on and the air conditioning (laughter). But this is, like, outdoors 24/7, and you're exerting energy, like, almost all of that time.
DEGGANS: Even though the program eventually showed her regaining her strength and working harder, Amaro felt the damage was done.
AMARO: And so then I became the lazy person, which is the farthest thing from the truth. And if it had been anything close to who I was, I would've been like, I mean, OK, all right. But, like, anybody that knows me knows that that's just not me.
DEGGANS: And watching the series since then - it's had 40 seasons over the last 20 years - Amaro says other Black contestants were stereotyped in similar ways.
AMARO: We can't swim. You know, we butt heads. We're athletic but maybe not smart and strategic because then that gets us in trouble.
DEGGANS: That's why Amaro has joined with more than a dozen other Black people who once competed on "Survivor" to advocate for changes to the show. Among their requests - hire more people of color to work behind the scenes in casting, editing and producing the show to create more sensitive portrayals, enforce a zero-tolerance policy for racist acts and issue a public statement acknowledging the show's systemic racism.
BRICE JOHNSTON: Like, you know, it's not just Black Lives Matters when it comes to the police; our lives, our stories are we matter as well, too.
DEGGANS: That's Brice Johnston, who competed on "Survivor: Cagayan" in 2014. He says the show's Black alumni began networking in a private Facebook group and got energized by civil rights discussions after George Floyd's killing by Minneapolis police in May. Johnston says he wants to see more diversity in the Black people they choose to cast. There are actually a few different groups of Black "Survivor" alumni pursuing different strategies.
One group sent a letter to CBS on June 19, Juneteenth, to request a meeting. Another Black alum, J'Tia Hart, created a petition on moveon.org requesting better representation. More than 4,500 people have signed it. And a dozen Black alumni gathered last week on a podcast by former "Survivor" contestant Rob Cesternino in a discussion led by Sean Rector, a Black man who competed in "Survivor: Marquesas" in 2002.
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SEAN RECTOR: We see that this isn't just a "Survivor" thing; this is a systemic thing that has happened. So racism is systemic.
DEGGANS: They talked about the stress of auditioning for roomfuls of white executives and negotiating microaggressions from clueless white castmates.
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UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing in non-English language).
DEGGANS: "Survivor" is CBS' longest-running reality TV show, made by several production companies, including MGM Television. The network did release a statement saying, in part, quote, "CBS condemns racism in all its forms," and they are working to arrange a meeting between the alumni, show representatives and network executives. The statement also notes, in the last 10 seasons, 32% of the show's cast has been nonwhite, which was one of the petition's demands.
But only four Black people have won since "Survivor" began. At 10%, that's less than the proportion of Black people in America, which stands at 13%. Most seasons feature two or three Black contestants; one season had none.
Earl Cole became the first Black man to win the show in 2007 on "Survivor: Fiji." He doesn't have many gripes about how he was depicted but felt CBS didn't offer him many opportunities afterward, failing to capitalize on the historic nature of his win, especially in reaching out to Black-centered media.
EARL COLE: They could have really uplifted me a certain way. They would have maybe got more of a Black audience. Like, maybe you'd have got more people interested in watching the show if you would just, like - kind of elevating me a certain way.
DEGGANS: "Survivor" was criticized last year for moving too slowly to address a series of sexual harassment allegations against a male contestant. And Julia Carter, a Black contestant from the 38th season, alleged in a blog post two instances when white teammates used the N-word around her while quoting a film or TV show, which wasn't shown on air. Cole and the show's other Black alumni believe their suggestions will help "Survivor" create an environment that doesn't echo the racism they face in the real world. The only questions now are whether CBS and MGM Television agree and are willing to change.
Eric Deggans, NPR News.
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