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Can stereotypes survive `Survivor'?

JOEL STEIN

It may not be good TV, but it may be good for us.

September 19, 2006|JOEL STEIN

I'VE NEVER BEEN interested in "Survivor," but the new, racist "Survivor" -- that, I was psyched about. If "Battle of the Network Stars" made good TV, weekly competitions between poorly fed "tribes" of African Americans, whites, Asians and Latinos were going to be awesome. So, last Thursday night, I got some brie and water crackers, put on a J. Crew sweater vest and settled down on the settee to root for whitey.

None of my white friends wanted to watch with me because -- although it was fine for the other races -- they felt it was unbecoming for Caucasian Americans to root for their own kind. I found that condescending. Cheering for the whites is no different from rooting for my college football team, for U.S. Olympic teams or for men to finish before women in porn scenes. The latter, unlike the men's Olympic basketball team, never let me down.

But it turns out lots of people got freaked out about this. As soon as CBS announced this season's theme, leaders of the New York City Council demanded that the network abandon the idea, and GM, Coca-Cola, Campbell Soup, Johnson & Johnson and Febreze ended their advertising on the series. You know you've stumbled into a huge pile of it when even Febreze walks away.

No one got upset in past seasons when the show used gender and age to divide people. But we've somehow decided that racial issues can only be discussed in books, college lectures, NPR and other mediums that are so boring people can't get riled up. Songs by Coldplay are probably largely about race.

Unlike 30 years ago, when "All in the Family" and "Chico and the Man" made cutting jokes about race, we've set so many rules about talking about skin color that we rarely do it at all. "Survivor: Cook Islands" isn't trivializing race -- it's just not avoiding it like the rest of us. If there really were a group of people stranded on a deserted island, this is exactly how things would go down. Just like in jail.

So I was pumped for some serious racial tension as soon as the contestants pulled up to the island. The giant old ship conjured different images depending on which team was on camera: a slave ship, a makeshift raft from the Dominican Republic, a boat full of Vietnamese or an afternoon sailing cruise to Nantucket. My team was going to rock.

Not only, to my delight, was my team the best looking, but the whiteys seemed to have a really fun attitude, joking and bonding and having a great time. A few minutes into the show, however -- long before any contests or voting anyone off -- something weird started to happen. I started to turn on my own people.

These white people were a little too preppy, too frat-boy, too happy with themselves. While other teams were fighting over hut building, the white folks were making toasts to each other over little bits of coconut milk and lying down to sleep half-naked and spooning en masse, thrilled with their total super awesomeness. It turns out I kind of hate white people.

The black team wasn't doing it for me either, with its sexism, infighting and talk about representing and feeling each other's vibes. They loved themselves almost as much as white people do.

The Latinos were kind of likable and hardworking if quiet, but those Asians -- they were terrific. In fact, better yet, they were like me. They were laid-back and self-effacing. There was a journalist, a lawyer, a management consultant -- just like my friends. One of them even went to Stanford four years after I did. And they won the first contest handily, even though their chicken was stolen by the white people. White people who probably didn't even eat the feet or eyeballs.

I don't know if my feelings are because of the fact that this is a particularly nice group of Asians, or if Jews are culturally more akin to Asians than other white people, or because Asians are a completely superior race destined to rule the planet. All I know is that the show is allowing me to make these kinds of racist comments in public.

And I think that's good. Not just because, as CBS argues, getting to know these contestants will help dispel stereotypes. It also will allow us to see which stereotypes are true and discuss which differences make us uncomfortable. Maybe if we admit that race is a factor -- just like gender and age -- we'll be a little more honest with each other. And maybe we'll also realize that, if we're going to survive, we really need to band together against the yellow people.

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jstein@latimescolumnists.com

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