‘Survivor’ is finally addressing the show’s long-prevailing racial bias

Evan Ross Katz is In The Know’s pop culture contributor. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram for more.

“How beautiful that we are starting out with a cast that is 50% POC,” Liana Wallace declared moments before being voted out by her tribe on a recent episode of Survivor. She pointed to the jury, where another Black woman sat, and then behind her to the two Black men still left in a tribe of seven, expressing how the fanbase might come to better understand that Blackness is not monolithic. And then she poignantly expressed a unique and often unspoken (or unaired?) pressure facing her and her alliance in the game: “We love this game. We don’t just want to have an all-Black alliance and throw strategy out the window. We want to play. We want to do both. But how do we do it at the same time? Of course, that is a factor when we are playing this game. I am Black wherever I go. That’s just it.”

And, in that moment, Wallace lifted the curtain on the two-fold struggle of wanting to represent a culture in a game that has historically marginalized minorities, a struggle white players never have to grapple with, while also wanting to play said game.

Forty-one seasons in, and CBS’s Survivor still eludes being anything close to formulaic. From the outset of this long-delayed season, this seemed like a point that host Jeff Probst was eager to underline. “Drop the four, keep the one,” he told the 18 contestants as they arrived for the show’s prototypical marooning. But it wasn’t just his words. The visual on screen showcased one of Survivor’s most diverse casts to date, part of a new mandate from CBS ensuring that 50% of reality casts be non-white. Later in the season, fan-favorite Shan would even remark on this being the most diverse season of the show to date. (In fact, it’s not: Seasons 13 and 14 featured 15 POC each, surpassing this season, which featured 10). But her point isn’t lost. And beyond being one of the most diverse, it holds a key distinction in being the first season to bring the show’s implicit racial bias to the forefront, something former winner Earl Cole says the show has edited out in the past.

“I thought Liana’s speech was spot on, honest, emotional and real,” Cole said. “Black people are often judged, tried and sometimes even executed before we utter a word about who we are. Unconscious and intentional bias does exist. As the minority, we are ‘seen’ as Black no matter where we go, whether being in a safe space or hostile. It can be stressful figuring out the difference. It has often been the hidden game within the game that the majority of players don’t ever have to think about at all. But we do.”

Wallace expounded upon this further in a “love letter to Survivor” that she wrote, published days after her elimination. “If my playing Survivor is the catalyst for having important discourse in white households across America, then forget the rest of the season and the prize money. Our collective humanity will have won so much more. I formed a Black alliance because I am a Black woman, and Survivor, being a microcosm of the real world, would not let me forget that. I formed a Black alliance in solidarity. I formed a Black alliance because it meant George Floyd, Emmett Till and that little Black girl with a dream who might be watching knew that I saw them and that I would not forget them, not even for $1 million.”

So why now? Or rather, why has it taken this long to address this? First, some context: In its 40 seasons to date (not including the current season, since we do not yet have a winner), Survivor has had nine POC winners: Vecepia Towery (Season 4), Sandra Diaz-Twine (Season 7 and Season 20), Yul Kwon (Season 13), Earl Cole (Season 14), Natalie Anderson (Season 29), Jeremy Collins (Season 31), Wendell Holland (Season 36) and Chris Underwood (Season 38). Four of those winners are Black, two are Asian, and two are Latinx. The data shows a steep decline: from Seasons 15 to 40, there have been only two POC winners.

In its early years, the show had an all-white cast save for one, maximum two, POC players. It took five seasons to introduce an Asian cast member and 39 seasons to cast an Indian American. There’s also a troubling trend of POC cast members being overwhelmingly the first eliminated: Jolanda Jones, Sekou Bunch, Francesca Hogi (twice!), Semhar Tadesse, Nadiya Anderson, So Kim, Darnell Hamilton, Rachel Ako, Stephanie Gonzalez and Natalie Anderson were all voted out first in their respective seasons. 

There are also instances of explicit racism on the show, like when Ben Browning called Yasmin Giles “ghetto trash” in Season 19. When fellow Black contestant Jaison Robinson finally had enough, he brought the discussion to the forefront during tribal council. “You should have some sensitivity to history, and historically, when certain comments are made and directed at certain people, it is because of race.”

This was but a fleeting moment on the show, acknowledged only as the typical tensions that arise among “big personalities.” But the rise of social media (Twitter didn’t come into existence until Survivor was in its teens) helped center stories or moments that might have seemed inconsequential to the show’s editors. This has called attention to the show’s overwhelming whiteness on screen and off. Over time, Black alumni also began to speak out in their own way, forming the Black Survivor Alliance and The Soul Survivors Organization, spaces where Black survivors could commune, share their experiences in the game and work to create change. Davie Rickenbacker, who played on Season 37, was a leader in the process that ultimately helped push CBS to enact the casting mandate.

“I’m very proud of the direction they’ve taken with the season, and while it can never be perfect for everyone, I appreciate the extreme efforts that they are going through to improve the future of the franchise as a whole,” he said. “Personally, I think they are on the right path, but they should also keep in mind that this show has not always been marketed in spaces of color, so the viewer demographics will continue to affect who applies.”

Rickenbacker is a solution-oriented person, which you quickly learn upon even a brief discussion with him. He suggests hosting casting calls at places like Historically Black Colleges and Universities to help close the gap, as well as using POC alumni to help push the message out via their circles and social media channels. 

Many I spoke with were keen to highlight this moment more as a cracking open of the door rather than creating an entryway. Will we continue to see this same number of Black contestants every season? Will we see more Asian, Latinx, Indigenous and other racial groups represented in similar numbers? These are some of the questions being asked by fans like Gia Worthy, who helps run the Survivor Diversity Campaign. And that’s not even the half of it. “Has production hired an equally diverse team behind the camera to reflect their changes in front of it?” she mused. “Will they be changing any of their twists to reflect the gender bias as well? Looking at you, final four fire-making.”  

It’s because of groups like this that Survivor is still relevant 20-plus years later.

“There are more of us now, and I am finally able to connect with fans around the world to honor the show we have so much love for,” she said. “Because that’s what is truly at the center of this fight for change: love for the show that has profoundly impacted so many lives, mine included.”

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