Light Up a Fat One and Just Say No to Survivor Next Week

09/08/2006 08:05 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

I admit it. I am not immune to the lurid lure of reality TV. My all-time favorite show so far was The Starlet. Call it an occupational hazard, but on the two occasions that I tuned in, I couldn't take my eyes off of it and I have never laughed so hard as I did watching Faye Dunaway in the most dulcet of tones instruct the gals that they were about to be receive the ultimate challenge. They were being asked to do a dramatic reading of a pivotal scene from a great work. Would it be Shakespeare, I wondered? No, surely Chekhov, I mused. No doubt, she was going to ask them to do a scene from The Seagull. But no, it was scene from that cinematic classic: The Bodyguard, with Whitney Houston and Kevin Costner. I didn't know whether to laugh or cry, but it was entertaining! So I don't want to sound like an elitist snob when I offer the following advice. Let's all turn off our televisions when Survivor comes on next week.

Following the announcement of the show's decision to divide the team by races, my heart sank. Do we really need this kind of programming on television right now, or for that matter, ever? After the announcement and the immediate negative response from community leaders, the network quickly informed us that they were certain the producers of the show would handle the situation responsibly. Really, based on what . . . because of their track record as legitimate social scientists? Or their past record of screening out the nut cases and responsible folks from their pack, as evidenced by the fact that one of their past winners sits in prison as I write this?

Moreover, this simple divide flies in the face of current research and debate. One of the more interesting challenges facing the census department -- and, furthermore, colleges and other institutions interested in serving their communities based on needs that relate to race -- is the fact that racial divide is so difficult to quantify now that so many of our citizens are of mixed heritage. Even more fascinating and relevant to this case is the current research, which looks at skin color as only one detail perhaps even of small relevance to understanding differences between humans.

Here is an except from an article by Ann Morning, professor of sociology at NYU. In 2001 and 2002, she interviewed over 40 university professors in biology and anthropology about their definitions of the term "race."

Nor did anyone believe the old essentialist view that there are clear cut, sharply-defined discrete race groups, all of whose members share some trait (or traits) that no members of other races share.

Second, the multiple-trait approach to outlining races--a kind of triangulation process--does not eliminate the question of which traits should be selected to make this determination. A handpicked collection of characteristics like skin and hair color, eye and nose shape, might well delineate the groups that we commonly understand to be races: Africans, Europeans, Asians, Native Americans, and perhaps Australians. But we could also choose other traits to analyze together, and come up with a different picture of which races exist in the world. If we overlaid a map of the sickle-cell trait (found in malarial areas like western and central Africa, the Mediterranean basin, and South Asia) on top of that for lactose intolerance (likely distinguishing northwest Europe from the rest of the world), would we still obtain a clear picture of black, white, yellow and red races? And which would be better indicators of difference: surface traits like skin color or those related to blood and digestion?

As a lactose-intolerant eastern European Jew, anyone whose spends time in my immediate vicinity after I indulge in a secret passion for sheep cheese would agree with me that lactose intolerance might just be the most predominate characteristic of my being -- before they excused themselves to open a window.

Now I am going to make a confession. In the summer of my freshman year of high school, I attended Northwestern University's cherub program in which high school students spend a summer on campus studying in a chosen field. This was not a great experience for me as it was for most who attend. I can't exactly explain why except to suggest that as one of the younger students, I was not yet having sex, and that eliminated me from the predominant social activity. I spent most of the summer at Swenson's, where I gained an unattractive amount of weight, but I did make a friend that summer. I met Tonya Pinkins, who would go on to win a Tony Award and become one of the great Broadway divas of our time, and who, I might add, is one of my closet friends today, our friendship cemented that summer. Here is the striking part, coming from my segregated suburban enclave: I had never set foot in the home of a person with black skin until I accompanied Tonya home after summer school ended for a week-long visit with her family. I couldn't believe what an insulated life I had held, and I knew I was headed for a different life. As soon as I graduated high school I moved to New York to attend college and joined the artist class, not without its own set of prejudices, but still a world far more integrated than the one I was raised in. Today my own son lives an entirely different existence than I did growing up. He moves back and forth between cultures with ease, and if I were to say, "You know at your slumber party there was an even split: 3 African American boys, 3 boys of Asian descent, and 3 Caucasian boys." I don't think he'd blink an eye.

So, I don't know what I would do if I had signed on as a Survivor candidate and been told we would be divided by race. First of all, completely improbable -- I don't know what lurks beyond the cameras we see, but I for one have no desire to endure poor bathroom facilities, battle mosquitoes, and be photographed without a makeup artist -- too vain. But I do have a plan as a viewer: I'm taking my cue from my fellow former Thespian Nancy Reagan. I don't have much positive to say about Nancy Reagan except that maybe I did reconsider adding red into my wardrobe following her example. However, in this case, I think she might have been onto something. Now, am I really recommending we all light up a joint instead? Well, of course I would never endorse an illegal activity, but let's face it: living rooms full of lit-up neighbors with the munchies sounds a lot friendlier and less contentious than an island of segregated competitors fighting tooth and nail to eliminate each other. So, I'll recommend the former and "Just Say No" to watching the show -- and perhaps you'll do the same.

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