The long-running, reality/competition television show Big Brother (CBS), now in its 24th season has some controversy around race going on. This may or may not seem like a major event in the historical arc of America and civil rights, but bear with me. Sometimes dynamics of the “real” world can seep into such shows. Over the last few seasons, Big Brother has been a place for some remarkable demonstrations of race, tribalism, institutionalized racism, and “reverse” racism that may serve as a helpful mirror for America in 2022 and possibly provide some direction.
For those unfamiliar with Big Brother, the show’s format is very much like several other group competition shows (Survivor, The Challenge). In Big Brother’s case, there are 16 contestants who live together in a large home for several months. The contestants’ only contact with the outside world is with the show’s in-studio host, Julie Chen Moonves.
Almost everything in the house is recorded 24/7; a live stream can be watched online, while the show is an edited one-hour segment airing three times a week. Over the months, contestants compete against each other in various competitions, generally best described as a game show/P.E. class hybrid with an enormous budget. At stake are in-game advantages.
While living with one another around the clock, competitors also vote one another out, thus “evicting” one person at a time every week or so. At first, no one knows one another, and alliances/voting blocs are formed fairly quickly and secretively. Some alliances will carry them deep into the game, though they will also switch loyalties along the way as the game dynamics and the numbers change. When two contestants are left, a jury comprised of the evicted vote for the winner who takes home, this year, a $750k grand prize.
There is an important additional note regarding reality shows in which contestants live together and vote each other out. Normally, people would understand the “playing field” to be the set areas used for competitions and voting. Here, however, the competition envelops the contestants’ lives entirely. The jockeying and the negotiating for votes go on 24/7 via a whispered chat outside the shower area, a talk before bed, and so on. This increases the drama—Yay, ratings—while making moral and ethical game decisions confusing, e.g., Is John turning on his good friend Mary?!? Yet sometimes, it is just competition, and complaining about Big Brother‘s ethics can be tantamount to an NFL coach being mad at the opposing coach for calling a fake reverse. This confusing blurring of boundaries should be kept in mind.
As to contestants’ race, many observers have noticed over the years that certain racial demographics have tended not to fare as well as others. We do not seem to be talking about overt bigotry (though there have been some questionable moments and comments over the seasons, which I will not get into here), but non-white people simply were not advancing as far. I had not done a statistical analysis, but not only was it clear to me that this was happening, but it reminded me of something from my past. Allow me a brief aside.
In the early ’90s, I served in the U.S. Army, an extremely diverse entity. I should say that I happen to be a white male from a white suburb, and my experience with so-called “others” in the Army was very positive. Having said that, watching this show brought up a memory from my first days of basic training.
Drill sergeants give basic trainees little time to find a seat in the “chow” hall, eat, and move out. While none of us Privates knew each other at that point, I noticed that the seating always looked the same at every meal. Each booth, which accommodated four soldiers, would have four white guys at one, another four Black guys at the next, then four Latinos, four white guys, and so on. This self-segregation, if you will, was not about racism, and I believe it was scarcely conscious, but it was an example of tribalism. Young people, alone and away from home for the first time, and stressed, seemed to simply attach themselves to what was immediately familiar. Not to minimize the impact of race, of course, but to some degree, people often tend to group themselves by such immediately recognizable traits.
In Big Brother, that tribalism partly explains the lesser success of people of color as white participants and white culture, if you will, dominate the show. However, by definition, that domination is institutional racism. Institutional racism need not be intentional or even conscious, yet it still has a profoundly negative impact on a particular minority group. This has been playing out on Big Brother for years.
In 2019, for Season 21 of the show, the 16 contestants included two Black people, one dark-skinned person of Bangladeshi descent, one contestant of Asian descent, and the other 12 people were white. This seemed like a realistic cross-section of America. Also, there was one openly gay person, only one person over 40, and another who happened to be a plus-size model in the outside world. Most of the cast were in their 20s, outgoing, white, and physically very attractive, which is typical for Big Brother.
It occurred to me that I would have bet the house that the first person gone would be a person of color, most likely due to tribalism, and just like back in the chow hall. I was certain the other three people of color would be gone shortly thereafter, and probably the older person, too.
What happened? One at a time, the first four people eliminated were the four non-white people. Like clockwork. By my calculations, the odds of this being pure chance are less than six-hundredths of a single percent (.056%). The gay person, the older person, and the plus-sized model all lasted longer—and were all also, of course, white. Even though I was expecting what transpired, I was shocked at the sheer efficiency. I did not observe nor believe that any overt racism was at play.
I wasn’t the only person taking notice. After an “All-Star” Season 22, which brought back previous contestants, the show’s producers increased the number of people of color for Season 23 to counteract this tribal/racial discrepancy. For Season 22, six of the 16 contestants were Black, and one person was Asian.
The Season 23 contestants were aware of and discussed the track record for non-white folk and how it seemed to happen year after year. So, what to do about it? If the problem is generally not overt, racist acts, conscious or not, then Big Brother cannot address the issue simply by prescribing a specific rule against “racism”. The problem, like America itself, is seemingly built into the show. So, should people of color just accept that Big Brother’s playing field will always be slanted against them?
A few weeks into the season, and in a conscious effort to finally reverse this “tribal” handicap, the Black contestants secretly formed their alliance/voting bloc, which they dubbed “The Cookout” (naming an alliance is a show tradition). Only because Big Brother had increased the number of contestants of color could this become a feasible strategy. The alliance was hugely successful, and all of its members got to the end. A Black person (Xavier) won the show and the $750k prize for the first time.
This brings us to the current Season 23. It appears that nine of the 16 are people of color, either Black or darker-skinned people of unknown or mixed backgrounds. In the first few weeks, one Black woman (Taylor) mentioned to some others that she wanted to avoid voting another woman of color out. What was her motivation for making that statement? She was definitely aware of the previous struggles of people of color. For anyone with such knowledge, there is no doubt some level of real or perceived pressure to support others of one’s “tribe”. Another contestant (Joseph) mentioned that he was proud to represent people of Arabic descent on the show. Per social media, these comments rubbed some viewers the wrong way. Wasn’t using skin color to gain an advantage over another just more racism? One could see it that way.
Shortly after those comments were made, one of the white people on the show (Kyle) came to make an assumption, based both on the comments and on what had been successfully achieved just two seasons prior. His concern was that the contestants of color could well band together again. If they did, he knew he would likely be eliminated from the show and lose any shot at the prize. He then voiced this concern to two other white contestants and, in doing so, he very clearly implied that the white folk should pre-emptively form a white person’s alliance to defeat the racial minorities. Uh-oh.
As we all know, the track record of groups being formed on the criteria of having white skin to prevail over minority groups has not been good. This suggested white alliance has not gone over well with many on social media.
At the same time, some on social media have offered that the Cookout group did the same thing, except that they had been people of color specifically trying to eliminate white contestants. So why was that okay and this was not? Didn’t this white contestant have a legitimate reason for his concern? Can his comments be seen in the very specific context of simply competing on a game show, and race is just another potential tool? Big Brother is a zero-sum proposition, where there can only be one “winner,” and the other 15 participants must “lose”. If only some contestants could use race as a tool to align votes while others cannot, is that not unfair? It is certainly a challenging situation.
In short, the white contestant in question took quite a bit of heat from the other contestants and especially from the people of color. But it also became a learning experience and even led to some bonding. One Black contestant (Monte) spoke to a white contestant movingly about his own life experiences, such as being Black in a white school and people either assuming they knew him—or otherwise simply not caring what his life experiences were.
Overall, however, the offending contestant (and, to be clear, he had made a couple of other somewhat, I’ll say, sketchy comments) seemed to be genuinely contrite, and he had not seemed to make the comments in a hateful way. He had also already formed fairly solid personal connections with the Black contestants. The people of color then genuinely forgave him and/or acknowledged that they believed he was less speaking out of racism and more out of insensitivity and being fairly oblivious to certain issues. He was still evicted, but there had at least been some positive resolution. While Big Brother is just a reality-TV show, this entire scenario tracks real life in America in a rather remarkable way.
To make this discussion as clear as possible, assume for a second that the people of color had already declared a Cookout-like alliance in the current season, and the white contestant had only said what he had in direct response. Wouldn’t that be a responsible, strategic move—given that he would almost certainly lose if he didn’t try that strategy? One could even note that someone else had brought race into the equation, and his response was merely an act of game survival. Indeed, in this view, the people that made race an issue were the people of color.
But if one did then attribute the aligned people of color for this whole sequence of events, one would have to accept some other realities as well. That is, one would have to believe further that people of color should simply accept Big Brother’s long-running and tough elimination process and, though rooted in race, should never respond by referencing skin color. Since there is no consciously racist actor to be singled out and censured somehow, there is simply and literally nothing that can be done to alter this tribal/racial dynamic. Sorry.
Would a person of color have any other options? Big Brother‘s “white bias” dynamic has proven insurmountable against competitors of color, no matter how well, or badly they play. Should people of color not waste their time participating and just forfeit any chance at playing and winning the $750k?
There is another perspective to all of this, too. What if the Cookout was an entirely rational response to a blatantly unjust situation that otherwise never seems to change? If the Cookout is not to blame, however, who is? Who has power in Big Brother to effect real change? That comes down to America itself.
Donnellan, S. (2022, September 2). ‘Big Brother’ Houseguests Confront Kyle Capener for His Comments About Race. Us Weekly. 2 September 2022.