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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

"I was called the N-word": Black Survivor all-stars reveal racism behind the scenes

Clockwise from top left: Earl Cole, Jolanda Jones, Sean Rector, Vecepia Towery
Clockwise from top left: Earl Cole, Jolanda Jones, Sean Rector, Vecepia Towery
Screenshot: Survivor (CBS All Access)

For the 18 years since he competed on Survivor: Marquesas, Sean Rector yearned to provide a forum for Black reality stars to speak out about their treatment while filming, and their portrayal on screen. “Usually when we would describe them individually, it would seem like it wasn’t valid,” explains Rector, who says he received death threats after his season aired in 2002. “I just figured if the world could all see us together and see the through line… that the [reality show producers and editors] would take caution and have a little more concern as to how the editing goes, and even the opportunities that follow after.”

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Rector finally brought his vision to life on Wednesday when he helped fellow Survivor alum and podcast host Rob Cesternino gather a panel of twelve Black Survivor players for a Zoom video chat and recording of Rob Has A Podcast. Cesternino and his co-host Teresa “T-Bird” Cooper (Africa, season 3) were joined by Rector; Ramona Gray Amaro (Borneo, season 1); Clarence Black (Africa, season 3); Ted Rogers Jr (Thailand, season 5); Rory Freeman (Vanuatu, season 9); Jolanda Jones (Palau, season 10); Sherea Lloyd (China, season 15); Phillip Sheppard (Redemption Island, season 22 and Caramoan, season 26); Sabrina Thompson Mitchell (One World, season 24); Julia Carter (Edge Of Extinction, season 38); and the first two of Survivor’s four Black winners, Vecepia Towery (Marquesas, season 4) and Earl Cole (Fiji, season 14).

Over 2 hours and 15 minutes, the group discussed how racism and racial bias affect Black contestants’ entire Survivor experience. “I’m not complaining. I’ve been Black all my life,” says Jolanda Jones. “But I’m telling you, it starts before, it’s on the island, it’s afterward.” Her comments were echoed by Earl Cole: “We go on this adventure just like everybody else, but we don’t even go with the same freedom because we’re carrying something else. And that’s part of our game, and it sucks that we have to do that. So when we win or get to the end, man, that is a testament that we actually had to be another person to be accepted, once again, to make it all the way to the end. And then most of the time we get voted out first or second anyway. Why? Because we look different? I don’t know. Who knows what it is? Oh yeah, racism.”

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See the full video here, and read some excerpts below.

Earl Cole didn’t watch the season prior to his—Survivor: Cook Islands, which split the contestants onto four teams based on their race—but he heard the tribe of Black contestants “imploded,” so he went into Fiji very vocal about taking all Black people to the end with him. And he succeeded: The final three of the season were all Black contestants—the only time that’s happened in 40 seasons. Cole thought the moment would be celebrated. It was not. Though he was booked on a few outlets like BET’s 106 & Park, he felt production could have sought out more opportunities to market the show to Black audiences.

I thought CBS would use this as an opportunity to actually try to get more Black viewers… I figured I was liked well enough on the show, maybe [they’d] market it a little bit. Nothing happened. They did nothing for me. They didn’t promote me in any kind of way. They had a system in place… you do all these interviews, and there were these country stations, rock stations, all these things like that, and I was like, “I live in LA. What about Power 106 and the Stevie Wonder station”—all these other stations they didn’t even try to get me on to just try to pull more people in.

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Though he was invited to and attended Survivor’s 10th anniversary party at the end of season 20 in 2009, Cole expressed frustration at not feeling more included as Survivor alum.

The main thing for me, I was never invited to any finales. I live in LA and the finale was right here. There would be other people from the past there, winners after me there. Not one invitation, not one.... I didn’t understand what that was about. I had already spoke about this to [host Jeff Probst] before about the things we went through, because—don’t get it wrong—when we had an all-Black finale, where your only choice is to “bet on Black,” I had to hear it all. They were hating left and right. People hated our season. And then Jeff publicly said he didn’t like our season, which doesn’t help. I thought that was socially irresponsible. So you’re going to say you hate Fiji of all seasons, where it’s an all-Black finale and the first African American male wins? So you’re going to tell all the fans, “I hate that season”?

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Jolanda Jones says red flags were there even during the casting process.

Jeff and Mark [Burnett, who serves as an executive producer,] both asked racial, racist questions. The one that sticks out to me the most, this was before casting, “So TV usually portrays Black women as angry Black women. How would you feel if we portrayed you as an angry Black woman?” I should have known what they were going to do, right? I should have known, because they told me what they were going to do. But I was naive. Survivor has a plan and… we have literally been caricatured.

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Jones then recounts a heated encounter she had after being voted off while being housed on another island with fellow early-eliminated contestants.

There was a racial incident on Ponderosa where I was called the N-word and I literally had to pick up a pool cue and pool ball to defend myself against two white young men in their early 20s because they were going to fight me. I was a 39-year-old Black woman… Normally you travel together, but they split us up and sent us to two separate places because of the racial issues.

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Cole applauds CBS and Survivor for their handling of Dan Spilo inappropriately touching women on set, but questions why racially charged tensions were edited out of Fjii.

On my season we actually stood up in Tribal Council, and said, “We do not feel protected, everybody on our tribe makes us feel invisible.” This actually happened and it all got cut out… Now, back then it was a different set of producers. I will say there are different producers now, and they are more mindful, whether its unconscious or conscious bias. I know CBS knows what they’re doing. Some things they do on purpose, some things may be by accident. I don’t know. No more excuses at this point. Let’s do something… We need more Black people behind the camera, we need more Black producers. We need that so we can feel like when something does happen, somebody can be culturally competent and can say, “You know what, you probably shouldn’t edit that that way. That would be perpetuating a negative stereotype. Just so you know,” If not, then these random crazy scenes might happen.

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Vecepia Towery agrees: “I want to see some of us at the table actually doing the editing, actually producing the shows out there on the island with us, and talking to someone and halting someone when they say, ‘Hey let’s edit it this way,’ and they say, ‘No. I’m not going to do that to that brother.’ ‘I’m not going to do that to that sister,’” says the Marquesas winner, who adds that she has not been asked to return to the show after her 2002 victory and would only be interested in competing again if she did it alongside her 17-year-old son. “I want to make sure that those who do go out there have the right people at the table to represent us properly.”

Cole says he’s been in contact with Survivor executive producers who are aware of Wednesday’s panel as well as other organized efforts—including a petition started in part by J’Tia Taylor (Cagayan, season 28) listing actionable items to create change in the show’s portrayal of BIPOC contestants and signed by dozens of alumni—and are working on an action plan to present to the alumni. (After the misconduct on season 39, CBS and the Survivor production team instituted mandatory anti-harassment and reporting policies and trainings for all crew and cast, which include unconscious bias and sensitivity training.)

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Ultimately, Cole is hopeful that positive change is in the future, and he’s grateful that technology has allowed him to find a community of fellow Black Survivor alums. “Now it’s kind of easier for everybody to connect because of social media, but back then we didn’t have anything,” the Fiji champion says of when he won in 2007. “I had heard of Vecepia and I had heard of Sean, but I didn’t know how to reach them and things like that. It wasn’t easy to get together and have this amplified voice… We needed this.”

Cesternino hosted a conversation with Julia Carter and J’Tia Taylor on Thursday night as part of his new Black Voices Of Survivor series. And Friday night, the Soul Survivor Organization, “a group formed by former African American participants of the American reality television series, Survivor,” will host Tribes and Tribulations a live discussion of their experiences being Black on a competitive reality television series. The conversation will be streamed via YouTube and through the event page starting at 6:30 p.m. ET.

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A.V. Club Editor in Chief...but really just a She-Ra, Schitt’s Creek, Grey’s Anatomy, Survivor, Big Brother, Top Chef, The Good Place superfan.

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