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Races Divided For Fall

Considering the efforts being put forth by public schools and other thoughtful groups to encourage children to overlook racial prejudices and visible differences, our media moguls are persisting on offering reminders as to why we should continue judging people based on their skin color.

“Contestants [are]... like lab rats, racing for a huge chunk of green cheese at the end of the maze.”

Often in American media, African-Americans often show up as rappers and b-ballers, white kids are spoiled brats living in ritzy suburbs, Eastern Europeans and Asians are usually crooks, Latinos are drug runners, and any guy with a British accent is passed off as intelligent and sophisticated.

The risk of these portrayals is that kids (and adults) are constantly reminded of perceived differences rather than observing how we are similar and should be able to work together no matter what the color of our skin or the country of our origin. Yet, creators of television programs and movies are addicted to using these stereotypes to quickly flesh out characters we are not familiar with.

Now, this fall, a major television show risks giving us a new set of reasons to widen the racial divide.

The popular Surivor will spend the first half of its new series with teams that are separated by racial differences. Blacks, Asian-Americans, Hispanics, and whites will compete for the big prize, with the losing group having to vote out a member of its own team.

Mark Burnett, the producer of Survivor, defends his reasons for creating this potential powder keg. Apparently, he sees his contestants somewhat more like lab rats, all racing for a huge chunk of green cheese at the end of the maze.

In a New York Times article (dated August 24), he describes his idea as "an interesting social experiment," and claims the controversial move isn't about creating a new ratings strategy, adding the show still enjoys high numbers in its time slot. "People here are playing for a million dollars," said Burnett, "if they’re hungry, they’ll want to know if you know how to catch a fish. They’re not going to care if you’re green or Martian."

Other groups have been quick to criticize the producer's plans, including some New York City officials, starting with City Councilman John Liu who suggests the idea is "preposterous" and wonders "how could anybody be so desperate for ratings" (quoting from another article from The Associated Press). He (who is an Asian-American), along with black and Latino members of the council, planned a rally at New York City's City Hall.

Officially, CBS has responded by recognizing the controversial nature of the new format, but "has full confidence in the producers and their ability to produce the program in a responsible manner."

For parents, whether or not you choose to huddle around the TV and watch Survivor with your children, it's important to help them recognize the many times media presents situations that directly or subtlety suggest we are different based on ethnic heritage alone. It's also important to illustrate how vastly different people of the same skin color can be.

Is a black person from Bermuda the same as one from Ethiopia or one living in Manhattan? How does a white Montana resident compare with a Caucasian from Norway?

In an effort to quickly present stories that introduce characters in a matter of a few minutes, too many scriptwriters depend on ancient stereotypes to "fill us in" on a character's personality. Yet this constant bombardment of "boys in the 'hood" or "Columbian drug lords" risks leaving indelible impressions on young audiences who will grow up believing these symbolic representations reflect upon an entire group of people.

At its best, this fall's Survivor has the potential to soften some of these hardened perceptions. At its worst, it could create yet another reason for us to be forming opinions with our eyes instead of our minds.

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