There's this thing that happens when white people hear terms like systemic racism or social inequity. They bristle. They reject the premise of the question. They double down explaining how hard they've worked for everything they've ever gotten in their lives: I earned this house, this car, this vacation, this life. No one handed me anything. I poured my blood, sweat, and tears into everything I've ever done and will always be this way until my dying day. I had to work hard -- no one can tell me I don't deserve every single thing I have.
No one is telling you that you don't. So chill. I, too, am a white person who has worked very hard my entire life, who has gone through very difficult situations and, when the dust settled, was still standing. I completely agree that there is a pride and an honor and a sense of accomplishment with every achievement I make. I'm not automatically rich or worry-free because I'm a white person in America. I struggle, too. I have problems, too. As a woman, I'm not immune to systemic inequities, either -- I still have to fight for my voice to be heard, for my work to be acknowledged, for this society to value me on par with white men, who, by the way, make more money than me simply because they are white men.
I also am fully aware that social equity is in my favor because I'm a white person. I am fully aware that I have a little bit of a head start in this race to the finish because of the color of my skin. I am fully aware that my life is just a tiny bit easier because of this caste I was born into. That doesn't diminish my efforts or my accomplishments or my place at the table -- but it does make me aware that denying the lived of experiences of others isn't helping and, if anything, I should be using my status to amplify and support the lives of those whose path is not as easy as mine for reasons that are completely out of their control.
Here's an easy analogy: Imagine you are born six feet tall. You still need to make an effort to reach for things on a high shelf, but maybe that's just a little stretch to the ball of your feet as you rise up an extra couple of inches. Now imagine the person next to you is born four feet tall. They are tasked with reaching the same thing that even you, a full two feet taller than them, had a hard time reaching. That four-foot-tall person looks around, realizes there's no stool to stand on, no way to boost themselves up, so they have to get creative, they have to work a lot harder to get the same thing you got -- but it might not always be possible for them. They start out at a height disadvantage. That's no one's fault, but you have to agree that it makes their task harder to be successful at that it was for you. That is social inequity in its simplest form.
But can I interest you in a more complex example? Follow me, right this way.... Let's go on down to Fiji.
I have been watching Survivor these past couple of weeks. This reality television show takes maybe twenty strangers to an exotic and remote location and asks them to figure it out over the span of thirty-nine days. In between trying to find food or maintain a shelter or build a fire, they are asked to compete in these truly inane -- and typically physical -- challenges that can earn them rewards (like fishing gear or pillows or letters from home) or immunity (meaning they don't have to go to Tribal Council and vote a member of their team off). Prior to this exploration of seasons available with Amazon Prime (weirdly, not all of them -- not sure why some are included and some are not), I'd only ever watched the first season where Richard Hatch won and then famously later had to go to prison for not paying the taxes on his million dollar prize money. Watching some of these other seasons has been... interesting. Certainly, my inner sociologist eats it up with a spoon. It's dog-eat-dog every season on Survivor.
Recently, I started the Fiji season and even though I'm only a couple episodes in, I am deeply fascinated by what I'm seeing. Typically what happens on Day One is the contestants are divided into tribes that have pre-assigned names and color associations (symbolized by buffs that contestants are required to wear) and then they are sent off to set up their respective camps. Sometimes there are only two tribes that first day, sometimes there are four -- the show mixes it up. But with Fiji? Nineteen strangers converged on a beach with no Jeff Probst there to greet them and tell them who they were to each other. So.... they started to get to know each other and went exploring. One of the contestants said he felt like a "chicken with his head cut off," just running around, unsure of what to do without this standard ritual of the show. That's when Jeff flies by in a little plane and drops a crate in the water. The contestants retrieve it and find out there are materials nearby to build a shelter and an outhouse and a kitchen. They are given plans for the layout and for how to construct things. Everyone pitches in and gets to work and by Day Two, a pretty swanky campsite is put together. There's even food and a fire source, something that most Survivor gamers have to earn by winning challenges. Everything is handed to the full lot of them.
And then comes the twist.
Jeff finally shows up and asks one of the contestants to somewhat randomly assign her fellow competitors to stand behind a green or orange line. Then the person who did the assigning -- a middle-aged Asian woman named Sylvia -- is told she has immunity from the first elimination but she is going to be sent to Exile Island -- riddled with poisonous sea snakes -- and will return to join whichever team loses its first member.
Exile Island is a whole thing. I'll come back to it.
Once Sylvia is shipped off, the two tribes -- Ravu (orange) and Moto (green) have to face off in a challenge. The winning team gets to return to the camp they all built together -- which will now also have a couch and pillows and blankets and other amenities -- while the losing team will be sent to a new campsite that will have one cooking pot and a machete....and nothing else. Moto wins the challenge and returns to their relatively plush accommodations while Ravu forges off to start over.
The biggest disadvantage for Ravu? No fire. Without fire, they have no water. This is a huge problem.
Descriptions of the Survivor: Fiji season call it the Have's versus the Have Not's. What becomes readily apparent after even just a couple of episodes is that the comforts afforded Moto jettison them to the leaderboard. They win literally every challenge. They are stronger, better nourished, better rested, better taken care of. Video footage from their camp shows them lazing in hammocks, going back for seconds at chow time, enjoying leisurely swims. Even though two of their teammates incur injuries or ailments (one teammate has to be lifted from the game because of his health complications), they are clearly the "better team." They are simply better equipped to compete because their basic needs are more than met. One Moto member even joked this could be the season where contestants gained weight -- that's how well-cared for they were.
Meanwhile, over at the Ravu camp, things are going south, fast. They literally have no water for something like a week. They also have no food, besides coconuts that take an almost Herculean effort to crack open given how weak and dehydrated they all are. One tribe member finds a grove of pineapples and you'd think it was the mana from heaven story in the Bible. The group descends on this new food source. But without much else to eat and without water to drink, the Ravu camp is struggling, hard. When Sylvia comes back from Exile Island, she is astonished by what she sees and also immediately feels out of step with everyone else since she missed the first day or so of bonding. Even in a challenging situation like theirs -- or maybe even especially in a challenging situation like theirs -- she is extra on the outside because she's new and not a factor in whatever they had gone through as a group in her absence. She definitely feels like the target is on her back, should they lose the next challenge.
Spoiler alert: they lose the next challenge. They lose all of the challenges, at least as far as I've watched.
Part of the Moto team's prize is electing another member of the losing team to go to Exile Island. Sometimes that protects a player from being eliminated, sometimes it just sends them away for a day without that bonus. Either way, a player sent to Exile Island is alone for at least twenty-four hours, isolating them from whatever is happening back at camp. Being sent away is supposed to be a punishment, and often is. Sometimes it offers an advantage, but rarely. Mostly, what it does is prevent cohesion with the entire group. The person sent away has the potential of losing social status within the team since they become less and less bonded to whatever is happening with the others.
So what that means is the losing team:
1) Has no control over who is sent to Exile Island -- which creates stress, both for the those who are worried about being sent (some folks in previous seasons really had emotional breakdowns at being "othered" in this way) and for those who are going to have to maintain the camp strategy or status quo without probably a key member of the group (since the winning team is likely going to send a strong player to destabilize their perceived power)
2) Gets no reward or immunity
3) Has to vote a member of the group out.
Losing on Survivor has high stakes, every single time. It becomes especially challenging when your team loses over and over and over again, meaning that not only are you constantly being required to vote people out (which makes your team potentially weaker, just by numbers), you are also constantly forced into these divisive conversations about which person "should" be eliminated. Alliances are a huge part of the game, but there's also no reason to fully trust that what someone tells you is happening is actually happening. The team that is put in the position of having to go Tribal Council week after week is inherently more fractured and more wary of each other than the team that doesn't have to do that. Add to that the fact that the winning team is also well-nourished, well-hydrated, and living pretty comfortably, it is easily understandable why Ravu is such a mess and Moto is like a winning machine.
In one of the challenges, the two teams had to square off to eat local delicacies (like fish eyes and pig snouts, that sort of thing), and a member of the Ravu team taunted a member of Moto. The Ravu member won that round, but was chided by a member of Moto for being "unsportsmanlike." He made quite a speech about it, really emphasizing his disgust at the behavior. That's when a member of Ravu -- a very boisterous Bostonian who goes by Rocky -- clapped back, "You try having no food or water for days and having to vote off your teammates day after day and we'll see how sportsmanlike you are then, bro."
But Rocky's point is more than valid. The look on the Moto teammate's face after his competitor's speech was over illuminated that he hadn't taken a moment to consider what that team had been going through. He had no rebuttal. The truth is that neither camp really had much idea what was going on at the the other camp. Moto, especially, had never seen Ravu's setup. They just heard it kinda sucked and after offering a shrug and a spit, went back to swinging in their hammocks.
Having the nicer camp didn't prevent an older Moto teammate from cracking a rib in one of the challenges and then later becoming disoriented before the medical team had to lift him from the game -- being in the "better camp" didn't make anyone immune from life challenges -- but it did protect them all from the game itself. Their living situation and the many privileges that came with it boosted them. And it was clear that they were fully aware of those advantages when after winning an immunity challenge, Jeff told them they had to pick:
a) Keep the immunity idol but have to swap campus with Ravu
b) Give Ravu the immunity they'd won this round but get to keep their camp
and they, of course, picked keeping their camp. It was obviously better to have to vote one person out then it was to have to give up their ability to remain six feet tall instead of shrinking to four feet. Ravu could have this one -- to Moto, their camp was more precious then their ability to keep their team intact.
The fracturing within the Ravu camp was also quite bewildering to behold, so let's take a moment to break it down. Here are some demographics:
There are 10 original Ravu members.
Five men, five women.
Of the men, there were two Black men, two Asian men, and one white man.
Of the women, there was one Black woman, two Asian women, and two white women.
In the episodes I've watched so far, a white woman was voted out first, the Black woman was voted out second, and had they been forced to go to that third Tribal Council, Rocky (the only white man) was pushing hard for one of the Black men to be next to go. Since the first elimination is always a little arbitrary (no one really knows anyone that well by Day Three), let's just say that the first real elimination -- that second one -- really surprised me. The woman who was voted out? She's the one who'd discovered the pineapple grove earlier that day. Without her, they would have had no sustenance whatsoever going into that challenge. But Rocky, along with one of the Asian men, pushed to have this Black woman voted out because.....this is true....she was "yelling too much" during the challenge they lost. Hey, you know what she was yelling? "Try putting the piece over here!" while they were struggling to assemble a puzzle. How dare she "be so frantic." I couldn't believe her team voted her out so early on, even after she had proven to be a valuable member of their squad.
Was it because she was the only Black woman? I highly doubt anyone on that team would say that it was -- but according to social hierarchy, the Black woman has the least social value out of a group with Black men, Asian men and women, a white woman, and a white man. So pineapples or not, she's the next to go.
So very interesting.
It therefore didn't shock me at all when Rocky set the target next on the back of one of the Black men. Will he be the next one voted out of Ravu? Only time will tell.
What I can say for certain is that Survivor: Fiji is playing out the model for social equity and how systemic issues can be misunderstood by the "Have's" and unavoidably applicable to every single moment of every single day for the "Have Not's." The Have's are savvy enough to know that they don't want to give up their status and cope with the inherent disadvantages of the Have Not's but they are also just as willing to apply willful ignorance to what their compatriots are struggling through in their much less desirable position in this game.
The Have's still have to play along -- they still have to push through the obstacles -- but is anyone still confused about why it's just easier for them to be successful than the team that had nothing and had to face the same obstacles? These contestants all rowed over to this island together in one boat, worked together to build a nice existence, and then were forced apart by factors largely out of their control and one of those groups was told they couldn't enjoy these riches they'd helped foster and, instead, were going to have to start over, all on their own, without a hint of advantage on their side.
Six-feet-tall versus four-feet-tall. Everyone's reaching for the same bunch of bananas, but one group simply will have an easier time. That's it. That's social inequity.
I don't know how the rest of this season will play out. Eventually, the two tribes always merge into one once enough players have been voted out, so that will cause another shift in dynamics. It'll be interesting to see how it all plays out. Even though this is a game -- a reality television show with a cash prize -- its echoes to how systemic fracturing can take place....and how disconnected the Have's can get from the reality of the Have Not's....feels highly relevant to the way social misunderstandings can take place. If you've got Amazon Prime, give the season a watch and see what you pick up from it.
Systemic inequalities crop up as a means of protecting the people at the top of the social pyramid -- which in the United States is white men -- and filters down from there, with women of color being the least-advantaged group of people. The intersectionality of being part of multiple marginalized groups -- being both a woman and also Black, for example -- creates even more distance from social advantage and it's time to shine a light on that. To amplify the voices and stories of these women who have been shoved so far to the side that it causes those in power to blink absently and wonder what they're hollering about. It's time to stop being defensive about these inequities and get on the offense instead. What can we do to remedy these injustices? That seems to be a better use of energy than digging our heels in on well, I work hard, too. Who said you didn't? That's not the problem. Wake up, y'all. It's way past time.
The dynamics in Survivor: Fiji provide a useful illustration for how quickly humans can spiral out of power when they are denied access to goods and services -- or when they are forced to apply a "it's them or me" attitude to their decisions -- or how the toxic stress of being labeled a loser, less-than, weak, or unworthy can unravel confidence and crush spirits. It also effectively illustrates how hard it is to remain resilient in the face of such persistent challenge and how difficult it is to "bounce back" when all you're really doing is running into concrete walls that seem invisible to your competitors. There is a sense of loneliness and alienation and mistrust forever brewing amongst the Have Not's while the satiated Have's walk around oblivious to that lived experience. Out of sight, out of mind, not their problem, right?
Let me just leave this one here:
Once we know something is off-balance in a society that we claim we want to be equal, isn't that the only call to action we need?
I decided to go back to school to earn a social work degree to focus on community organizing, community storytelling, and community equity. I'm not saying you all have to change your careers or take such a drastic step, but there are ways you can become an ally in this fight. The first step is letting go of your "what about me"/"all lives matter" mentality and understand the issue at hand: no one is devaluing you -- we are simply acknowledging not only the disadvantages built in to our many social systems, we are also taking the next action step to do something about it. For me, that might mean I get into politics, policy initiatives, or other direct involvement in identifying where things went awry and working to correct those deficiencies.
What do you want to do about it?
Hey, I have a really simple thing that many of you can do: VOTE. Our elected officials hold the keys to our social welfare. Your vote matters. So cast your ballot. Information on how to do so in YOUR state is easily discoverable at Vote Save America. And if you're not eligible to vote, that's OK. You can still encourage others who are able to vote to make sure they do so. You can fill out the 2020 Census -- this is a huge way to ensure dollars flow into your community -- there is no disadvantage to filling this survey out and it will literally take you three minutes or less. The Census will close at the end of September, so just do it now, OK? There are so many low-impact ways for you to help advance our society and how our systems work for everyone -- these are just a few you can do today or in the next couple of months.
The competitors on Survivor get to go home after their experience and resume their "normal" lives. So what happens on the show isn't "real life" in that sort of sustainable way, but it can serve as a model for what happens in the social experiment where some people are gifted advantaged while others are flatly denied it. There is little doubt how huge of an impact this has both on the individual players and the teams themselves, even in this short blip of time.
It's not a huge stretch to apply this model to modern society and see how being "lucky" enough to be a Have isn't a small advantage -- it's a massive one. Social status is the game out here in the real world -- it determines our norms and sets the rules. It's time to pay attention and not just keep scrolling or claiming that you work hard so you're exempt from the process. We're all more productive and equipped to handle life when we're all nourished and rested and seen and heard. So let's go. The reward's a game-changer.
Written for the I Spy in 2020 blogcast.
Audio version of this post available by donation.
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