Reality TV, in all of its pre-scripted, overly edited glory, is an escape of sorts. After a busy day of readings, club meetings, and exhausting social interactions, I like to open up my laptop and soothe myself with it. Sometimes I turn on E! to Keep Up with the Kardashians. Other nights, “Say Yes to the Dress” gives me the day of wedding dress shopping I’ll never have. On warm summer evenings, “Big Brother” transports me into a house of romance, lies, and competition.
The shows are different enough from my own life, but with the potential to be like mine if a few things in my life had gone a bit differently, making them engaging. I, like many Americans, do not watch reality TV because it reflects my daily life or what I aspire to have. I indulge in it because it offers a retreat from the hardships and monotony of everyday life. In the past few months though, the exploitation of racial conflict has tainted reality television.
On a recent episode of “Big Brother,” one of the contestants referred to a fellow contestant, Alex Ow, as “Pao Pao.” The nickname was a reference to former Big Brother contestant Paola Shea who, like Alex Ow, is an Asian American woman. A third contestant, Megan, misheard the conversation and told Alex that they’d referred to her as “Panda.” “Isn’t that a little racist?” Megan asked, putting her into the center of a racial controversy. The person who called Alex “Pao Pao” defended herself, saying she’d never said “Panda,” and she got away scott free. No one addressed that she’d played into the overplayed, racist idea that all Asians look the same.
“The Bachelorette” recently made made headlines for choosing Rachel Lindsay as its first black female lead. With her came one of the most sexist, racist, and bigoted male suitors the show has ever seen—Lee. To advertise an episode, the producers of the show put together a teaser that made it seem that Kenny, a black contestant, got into a physical fight with Lee. What actually happened was much more muted verbal conflict and a discussion about why calling black men “aggressive” is racially charged.
Racial strife is centered in American political consciousness in a way it hasn’t been since the late 1960s. Reality TV is trying to package racial awareness into bite-size pieces for their consumers, but they’re failing because racial violence is too real for too many people. When it comes to addressing oppression, reality television fails because it takes experiences familiar to Americans of color and strips them of their context without offering solutions.
If we want to learn about racial violence, we can turn to documentaries backed by extensive research and personal narratives, not E! Network or TLC. When white Americans watch “13th,” Ava DuVernay’s documentary on slavery and mass incarceration, it’s likely that they leave having learned something. It’s difficult to leave a screening of the documentary without a greater sense of awareness surrounding black strife. I can’t say the same about “The Bachelorette.”
Dealing with race through a reality television lens isn’t just passively ineffective—it’s actively counterproductive. A child does not wake up and randomly decide that someone of a different race is inferior to him. He learns it from the things the adults in his life say, whether it be about how Mexicans are criminals or how all black people live in poverty. When racial conflict is shown on TV, even if only in the form of verbal disputes, it desensitizes viewers and subconsciously makes them think that racism is commonplace, acceptable, and something to simply be watched.
We can’t afford to grow numb when racism is leaving black mothers childless throughout the country. Innocent Latinx people’s skin color puts them at a higher risk of racial profiling as racism informs sloppy, ineffective legislation. For too many people, racial violence is not relegated to the news or movies. It takes their neighbors, draws blood, and rips apart communities. Americans who are not at risk of racial violence watch videos of police officers shooting Americans or ICE agents ripping families apart but do little about it. Now, this passive consumption of racial suffering is making its way onto reality television.
No one’s been under the impression that reality television represents the world as it is. When networks use racism as a way to get people to watch reality television shows, it trivializes the ways racism actually devastates the lives of people of color. We simply can’t afford to accept racism as a phenomenon to be watched rather than fought. The stakes are too high for us to trade justice for ratings.
Ruben E. Reyes Jr. ’19, a Crimson Editorial Chair, is a History and Literature concentrator in Leverett House. His column appears on Mondays.
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