How Reality TV Can Confront Its Very Real Racism Problem

Designed by Yazmin Butcher.
On Big Brother's most recent season, Jackson Michie, a southern jock with teeth as white as his skin, created a social-media firestorm when he nominated three of the five contestants of color for eviction on the first episode of the season. Things grew worse over the course of the season when Michie and several other contestants were caught making racist comments and committing microaggressions against remaining racialized contestants.
Despite fans campaigning for his removal, Michie was crowned the winner. When asked by ET Canada about his behavior, he dismissed many of the claims, including that he made misogynistic remarks and appeared to have it out for contestants of color. He excused himself as being too young to know better (he’s 24), proclaimed himself “the least racist person I have ever met” (a common refrain among accused racists), and blamed his getting called-out on cancel culture, adding, “I hate that this is a thing nowadays.”
Except that, this thing, meaning racism, has fuelled the world of reality television — be it Big Brother’s elimination tactics, Real Housewives' and Survivor’s love of stereotyping, or the conflict in pretty much any show where attention-seeking people are pitted against each other — for as long as we’ve been tuning into it. A microcosm of the world itself, racism impacts everything from the casting process, to how episodes are edited, to who emerges victorious at the end of a season. And while the running joke may be that these shows are more scripted than not, the fact is, reality TV has always held a mirror up to the ugliest parts of our culture, where white people form alliances against their racialized counterparts and where blonde-haired, blue-eyed men and women are considered the romantic ideal. With the global racial reckoning sparking conversations of change everywhere, including film and television, this is finally the time to use this popular platform to offer a look at how the rest of us live, what we dream of, what we look like when we win.
Because Michie is no exception.
For Big Brother fans, it’s practically a series trope that people of colour, queer people, and women are the first to go. Countless similar instances can be found throughout the history of various long-running reality series, including Survivor (in Season 33, two Asian contestants were eliminated one after another, sparking debate among fans) and The Real World (which, all the way back in 1992, provoked some of the first conversations around race on reality TV, for better and for worse). From 2002 to 2016, Black contestants on The Bachelor — which after 24 seasons just hired its first Black male lead, Matt James, amid the Black Lives Matter protests — never made it past the fifth week, with 59% eliminated in the initial two weeks amid the plethora of Johns and Laurens who fill the Bachelor mansion.
This picking-off feels inevitable when producers are actively instigating and exploiting racial conflict for entertainment value. Consider, for example, the 2006 season of Survivor, in which contestants were split into four teams based on their race. Producers claimed that this was in hopes of meeting the criticism and creating “the most ethnically diverse cast in the history of TV.” Instead, they created a literal race war.
More recently, in 2017, The Bachelorette featured its first lead of color, Rachel Lindsay. Although half of the potential beaus were non-white for the first time in franchise history, there was also Lee Garrett, a white man who spent much of his time on air antagonizing Black contestants without provocation, and had a history of making racist, homophobic, and Islamophobic tweets. His behavior and the resulting racial tension were blown up and marketed as a storyline where “drama explodes” and “blood’s gonna be shed.” When the Black contestants explained how they felt being antagonized by Garrett, he told them they were playing "the race card."
It’s akin to how producers chose how to portray the interracial relationship between Love is Blind’s Lauren Speed and Cameron Hamilton. The show, which followed singles trying to make romantic connections while unable to see their potential soulmates, centred their love story around them being interracial, with lots of talk of Speed having never dated a white man before. But the pair have since said that race was never "at the forefront" of their minds, and they wished the show had presented more "layers" to their relationship instead of focusing on the few conversations they had about race.

Reality TV is built on and thrives on controversy, which is much easier to manufacture when your cast is presented as token characters rather than human beings.

Other contestants are also speaking up. In June, a group of Black former Survivor contestants sent a letter to CBS requesting a meeting with executives; there’s also a petition asking for more diversity after 40 seasons of racial stereotyping in which many Black cast members said they were portrayed as "lazy” and “unintelligent.”
Which is par for the course in reality TV: According to a 2018 study of 42 reality series, Black people were commonly depicted as "more verbally aggressive, and more likely to be the victims of verbal aggression than other races/ethnicities and...[Black] women were more likely than men to be involved in verbal aggression, both as aggressor and victim." Think the Angry Black Woman trope we see perpetuated in tokenized casting. But also in the reaction to and meme-ification of The Real Housewives of Atlanta, for example, and its well-GIF'd stereotyping: finger-snapping, wig-grabbing, and trash-talking. These women have become racially and digitally commodified, in a sense, boiled down to stereotypical behavior in a way their white counterparts never are. In fact, it's white men and women, like Big Brother's Michie, getting the "special hero edits," as a Vanderpump Rules producer recently referred to the editing process behind making the racist and recently fired Stassi Schroeder the show's "protagonist."
Of course, reality TV is built on and thrives on controversy, which is much easier to manufacture when your cast is presented as token characters rather than human beings. One gay man cannot represent all gay men, while one Black woman cannot represent all Black women, but when series are consistently cast this way, that's the damaging message relayed to viewers.
“Reality TV is an important medium, and some people's only exposure to different groups, so we need to be more responsible with how we're portraying everyone,” says Joshua Grant, Big Brother Canada’s former social media strategist, who says he felt he was working in “a sea of whiteness” and experienced the impact of that firsthand: He says he was routinely sent prepackaged clips to share on social media to soften and troubleshoot the "problematic behavior" of white contestants. (In a joint statement to Refinery29, Global, Insight Productions, and Big Brother Canada reps say, "It is a routine process for the production company to provide the network with clips for marketing, PR, and social. These clips are intended to illustrate the events happening in the show in a straightforward and unbiased manner. We at Global and Insight Productions take any suggestion that this isn’t the case very seriously.") "I never felt they had the same sensitivities when it came to how they handled the reputation of contestants of color,” Grant tells Refinery29.
Which is why representation behind the scenes matters just as much who is cast to be on camera. “If you hire more people of color to work behind the scenes, there's less of an uphill battle when it comes to explaining the value of certain decisions, for example, in deciding to veer away from stereotypes,” says Grant.

If you hire more people of color to work behind the scenes, there's less of an uphill battle when it comes to explaining the value of certain decisions, for example, in deciding to veer away from stereotypes.

Joshua Grant, former social media strategist for BIG BROTHER CANADA
He’s not alone in his experiences. "I've worked on competition series, food shows, home-renovation shows and everything in between and the one thing that remained constant was microaggressions and lack of [people of color in] above-the-line crew and leadership positions,” says Aisha Fairclough, who has worked as a reality TV producer for over a decade for many networks, from Slice to HGTV. In 2016, she founded Representation Matters, a Toronto-based company, to address this discrepancy.
BBCAN took this step just this month when Global TV announced that host Arisa Cox will be an executive producer on the show’s ninth season in 2021. Her role will include "key creative input on the show’s real-time storylines, casting and outreach, and increasing BIPOC representation across the board, among others," according to a press release. This move was a long time coming. But change doesn’t stop with one show, nor should it rest entirely on the tired backs of people of color. It’s a systemic issue.
Moving forward, continuing to solve racism in reality TV won’t be as simple as firing problematic cast members or cancelling a show. In order to actually alter perspectives, there must be a willingness to delve into the uncomfortable and not shy away from racial conflict, while also not making it the whole story. Reality TV needs to normalize nuance. People of color are not a monolith; we can win competitions and we can also win the guy or the girl. If reality TV can offer this representation, it will be far more accessible. Here’s a suggestion for all the television networks out there: Maybe don’t let racists win your shows. You know, as a start.

More from TV

R29 Original Series