a Racial Divide in
By JON CARAMANICA
July 16, 2013
Thirteen years ago, on the first season of the CBS reality competition “Big Brother,” one houseguest was William Collins, also known as Will Mega, an intensely political black man who proved polarizing in the house for his sometimes confrontational talk about race. It was a novelty, this sort of conversation, in network prime time, and in the eyes of Americans, perhaps not a welcome one: the audience voted Mr. Collins off the show first.
In the years since, “Big Brother” casts have displayed token diversity, but rarely has race been a subject of conversation, partly because of the producers’ apparent belief that it will arise only when members of a minority group are present and vocal, a scenario they’ve largely avoided.
This season, though, race has become the dominant narrative thanks to a handful of white cast members who’ve turned the show, which runs three nights a week, into a rare opportunity to watch white privilege and unconscious racism in the field. It may be occurring in a sealed-off space, but it’s feasting on the oxygen of national network television.
Sunday’s episode was the most disturbing of the season so far. Aaryn Gries, a young white woman, flipped the mattress of Candice Stewart, one of the show’s black cast members, then taunted Ms. Stewart with an exaggerated, stereotypical voice: “What you gon’ do, girl?” and “Where’s yo class, girl?” She was soon backed up by another white cast member, GinaMarie Zimmerman, who screamed at Ms. Stewart, “You want the black to come out?”
This is execrable stuff by any measurement. The bullying is childish, but that’s standard on “Big Brother.” It’s the unchecked race privilege — the belief in the normative nature of whiteness, leading to blithe intolerance like that expressed by Ms. Gries — that is nauseating.
Later on Sunday, Ms. Stewart cried in the arms of Howard Overby, the other black cast member, and detailed other aggressions that had been directed her way, including being called “Shaniqua.”
Race is also encoded into conversations in more subtle, slippery ways. When a player is described as “strong” by other houseguests, almost invariably that player is one of the white, conventionally popular cast members. On Sunday’s episode, Ms. Gries complained that the housemates had teamed up against her. “They’ve come to the conclusion that they want to pick off all the strong players, just keep picking off the strongest players until the weakest person wins,” she griped, as if picking off players, strong or otherwise, weren’t part of savvy game play.
It’s not a surprise that the alliance that has targeted Ms. Gries and her comrades includes most of the minority group members — Helen Kim, who is Asian-American, and Andy Herren, who is gay. (Mr. Overby, a deeply religious youth counselor, has proved a more complicated player, and Jeremy McGuire, who is part Cherokee, is aligned with Ms. Gries.)
The operative conceit of “Big Brother” is the hermetic seal, both of the house itself, which is cut off from the outside world in all meaningful ways, and of the show, which turns nonactors into characters, and theoretically affords them an opportunity to present a self that is different from the one they display in their normal lives. Living in the house must feel like a safe space for those who are prejudiced. Possibly they forget that they are under constant surveillance, and come to believe that their worst behaviors might stay locked up inside.
But shows like this aggressively seek story lines rooted in conflict. After revelations about the irresponsible comments made by Ms. Gries and others, the producers were criticized for not including them in the show. (The offensive behavior was first noticed and detailed by fans who obsessively monitor and document — on blogs and Twitter — the live Internet feeds of the house, which are available for a fee.)
On a couple of recent episodes the comments were highlighted in the context of demonstrating how they affected Ms. Gries’s game play. But by Sunday’s episode her intolerance had become her narrative. Amanda Zuckerman, another houseguest, told her that she was “racist on this show, O.K., and when you get out of this house, you’re gonna have a lot of people” — here, she added a profanity — “hating you.” (Ms. Gries has already lost a modeling contract because of her actions, although she has not been informed.)
On Sunday, for the first time, the show opened with a disclaimer noting that “the houseguests may reveal prejudices and other beliefs that CBS does not condone.”
Suddenly “Big Brother” is in the business of broadcasting regular peeks into the actual experience of racism. While it might not be brave, it is revelatory.
Reality television has occasionally floated into this territory before — think of the fight between Kevin Powell and Julie Gentry in the first season of MTV’s “Real World” about race in America, or the callous prejudice of Colton Cumbie on “Survivor: One World.”
But the tensions in the “Big Brother” house are continuing, and seemingly increasing. This conflagration is unfolding at a tense moment in American race relations, coming after the not-guilty verdict in the killing of Trayvon Martin. On Monday Anderson Cooper interviewed a juror in the trial, and it was hard not to hear similarities between the comments of that woman, whose opinions appeared to be rooted in a lack of diverse cultural exposure, and the galling opinions expressed by Ms. Gries and other “Big Brother” contestants.
Racism flourishes in the shadows, where accountability is nil, but “Big Brother” is becoming a laboratory experiment in what happens when it is instead blatant and overt. Ms. Gries is eligible for elimination by her housemates this week — nominated by Ms. Kim — but she may survive. Certainly it will be a huge problem for CBS and “Big Brother” producers should Ms. Gries continue on the show, or even go on to win.
That seems unlikely, though. On Sunday night she listed the people in the house she felt she could trust, then concluded, “We are the minority.” She didn’t look happy about it.