Racism in Big Brother 21

Christian Patterson
Underground Mall

Big Brother 21 started, and has already gained controversy online. People have noticed a pattern: generally, the white houseguests targeted people of color first. This draws comparisons to Big Brother 15, a season known for racist remarks. At the time, it was easy for people (even people with latent racist inclinations) to criticize houseguests in BB15, for the explicit use of racial slurs and offensive jokes.

But Big Brother 21 is different. No one is saying outright racist slurs. There have been a couple remarks on the feeds that raises eyebrows, and have racist elements, but people haven’t been outright evoking race in a mean way, like in BB15.

This makes BB21 a litmus test for racism in 2019. It’s easy for right-wing racists to distance themselves from egregious uses of racial slurs. But right-wing racists absolutely defend the structural, underlying racism that leads to people of color being targeted first on a reality show. The racism in Big Brother 21 is enabled by a mob rule system.

In this post I’ll rundown Big Brother 21 so far. I’ll analyze how and why this racial dynamic happened, and what it says about racism in broader society.

If you’re reading this and don’t watch Big Brother, I’d encourage you to keep reading. I think Big Brother is applicable to the real world, because it is a social experiment, even though the social experiment element has been de-emphasized in place of more game show elements. And social experiments can illuminate a lot about everyday, lived experience.

First, I’ll run down the racial makeup of the season:

  • Ten white people
  • Two Latina women
  • One Chinese woman
  • One black woman
  • One black man
  • One Bangladeshi man

In the first episode, the host Julie Chen declares that one person will become a “camp counselor”. Everyone would vote for someone to win that prize. Julie then offered the houseguests a chance to campaign for the prize, if they chose. The first person to volunteer was the old (white) guy Cliff, who said the old guy is an easy first target, so they should protect him. The second person was one of the Latina women, Jessica, the third was a white guy, Jackson – and one of the douchier white guys at that – and the fourth was the black guy.

The white guy, Jackson, then went around peer-pressuring people in the house to vote for him. He did a “woe is me, I’m white, young, and attractive so people will target me first” routine. Before long, most of the house agreed to vote for Jackson, because they just wanted to vote in the majority.

After he won, he nominated the old guy, the black guy, the latina lady (all three who also asked for the power). He also nominated **drum roll** the other black person, Kemi. The show protrayed it as Kemi didn’t campaign to Jackson at all. But honestly, my guess is several people didn’t campaign to him, and he picked out the one black girl among several. The edited show then emphasized the justification – could be wrong, but just a guess.

So they do the competition between the chosen four, where the loser gets eliminated. It was a crapshoot competition too, they basically crawled through the dark to find an exit. And the black guy, David, lost. It was really sad too, because he talked about wanting to be the first black person to win Big Brother.

Julie Chen said he would come back in some form on the first eviction, so we’ll see how that went soon…

Ovi, Jack, and Jackson

At this point, people were questioning Jackson’s nominee choices online. Putting up such a high proportion of minorities come across as bad, even if he has some semblance of an excuse. But rightfully, people online pointed out his choices were, to put it lightly, racially iffy.

Then, the livefeeds turn on. These allow people to see most things going on in the house, at most times. They don’t turn on until after the premiere.

We learned that the nominations were white girl Kat, and the old guy Cliff. However, it didn’t take long to realize that Kemi was the actual target, and they intended to make her the replacement target. This made people online, understandably, very upset. Because if you put up four people, and three of them are POC, and one of them is old, it looks fishy, but could be a coincidence. If one of the black guys leaves, it’s unfortunate, but he lost a competition, rather than being evicted himself. But then, on top of all that, they’re backdoor-targeting the black person who stayed.

At that point, it becomes hard to believe any of it’s coincidental.

Nicole, Analyse, and Holly

We learned that Jack, one of the bros (confusingly, the other bro is named Jackson) was the one pushing for Kemi, the black woman, to go. Jack quickly made himself into the most-hated house guest to viewers, not only for targeting Kemi, but generally being a douche bag.

Here are some passages from blog Reality Blurred, about Jack’s behavior. (I recommend reading the whole thing if you’re interested).

Talking about Kemi, Jack told another houseguest, “It’s like, bitch you’re fucking going up and you can play for your veto, but I’m gonna fuck you up. God, dude, she gets me so hyped! I fuckin’ hate…”

The producers cut the feed at that moment, switching to another camera.

He makes charged and aggressive remarks like this about Kemi all the time, and it’s still not clear why, since the animosity started before the live feeds started (assuming there’s a specific cause to begin with). He never talks about her, except with an aggro racist misogyny behind it.

Reality Blurred continues:

Among the things he’s said […] include telling a fellow houseguest, Nick, that he doesn’t talk to Jessica but “I flirt with her just to make her feel good about herself.”

He’s also referred to Jessica, the Latina plus-sized model, as “Conseula.”

This is especially laughable because Jessica, who’s not only a model, but also in her mid-30s, would be at a point in life where she’s fawning for a random meathead’s attention. Also, here’s a tweet of something Jack said along the same lines (albeit, we hear it secondhand):

Nicole is the “nerd” archetype casted for the season, for context.

And then, to wrap up the overall tone of the house right now:

Jack also referred to both Jessica and Kemi as “fucking maggots” and said she was “fucking toxic.”

Specifically, he said: “It’s crazy that these fucking maggots are just saying shit. … This is the whole reason why I want to get rid of Kemi: because she’s fucking toxic and says shit like that. She said something, she said something that I met with her, that I asked—she put that in Christie’s mind.”

This type of dehumanizing language, although maybe not the most violent or degrading thing Jack has said, exemplifies his worldview of seeing any woman he doesn’t want to have sex with (who happen to also be women of color) as subhuman.

Kemi and Jack

And while Jack’s virulent energy is mainly targeted at women of color, he has also contributed heavily to a culture of bullying Ovi, the Bangladeshi guy.

Nick and Sam have been the biggest bullies of Ovi. However, they tend to do it more behind Ovi’s back, in a high schooler kind of way. Jack, on the other hand, actively participated in treating Ovi like shit. Really though, most houseguests joined in on the mob bullying of Ovi.

This type of bullying involves stuff like harassing him for how he bakes cookies, and how he hid the cookies for himself, making fun of his weight, how much he poops because he has IBS or something like it, etc.

The girls who associate with Jack and Jackson would say patronizing things like “Ovi was good today,” when he doesn’t annoy them. Analyse said something along the lines of “I don’t like when Ovi touches me,” which in itself is totally reasonable, except she added something else along the lines of “I wouldn’t mind if he was hot though.”

To quote from Reality Blurred again:

At one point, Jack said to Ovi, “You feelin’ swole right now boss? You look a little swole.” Ovi responded and then walked out into the back yard, and after the door closed, Jack said, in a quieter voice, “Douche.”

Of course, Jack asked an obviously passive-aggressive rhetorical question, insinuating Ovi shouldn’t work out, or doesn’t deserve to, because he’s not buff. Ovi, put in this awkward situation, politely responds, then leaves. And then Jack has the audacity to scoff and say “douche”. What the hell is that?

And then one more passage from Hamster Watch, which is also quoted by Reality Blurred:

Nick told Jack and Sam (at Sam’s urging as he’d already been told) that Ovi told Kemi, Bella, Jessica “we’re both people of color, we need to stick together” (Ovi and Kemi), “pulling that fuckin card.” Sam said that makes the rest of them look bad, and Nick said “it’s fuckin bullshit.”

As far as I know, this is one of the only times the white houseguests have commented on race in a direct way, as most of their racialized comments don’t actually spell it out.

Nick, Sam, and Jack

Then Ovi gets nominated by Christie, after she does this corny routine where she pretends she nominated someone completely randomly. Ovi campaigned his ass off to say, and people entertained it. They kept insisting he wouldn’t go, but had already decided he would.

Julie Chen then reveals that both Ovi, and David, the guy eliminated first, would stay in the house for the next two weeks, but not compete in any competitions or votes. While they stayed in the house, two more people would be evicted into this scenario. These first four eliminated would compete. One would stay in as a regular contestant, and the other three would leave.

Out of all of the Big Brother twists throughout history, I kind of like this one. It allows us to see more of David and Ovi, and the other two first evictees, when otherwise they would be forgotten to Big Brother history. However, there is a downside to the twist: it makes it so they can’t do any big power move eliminations, like eliminating the Jacks, because they would still be in the house and possibly return.

And then, the worst thing possible happened: Jack one the next HoH. And of course, he immediately targeted Kemi and Jessica.

With David and Ovi, the evictees, in the house, Jack, the HoH (and Christie the old HoH), started telling people not to discuss the game with David and Ovi. They went as far as saying not to talk to them at all.

The dominant white people are pressuring people not to talk to the evictees. This is mixed with the fact there’s two people of color in the Camp Comeback, and a third person of color will likely join them, most likely the only other black person.

Here are some specifics going on in the house, courtesy of Hamsterwatch:

[Jack] reiterated the importance of not gametalking to David and Ovi, they took a vote and agreed to that, and they group-bashed David and repeated various things he’d said through the evening.

This is basic manipulation and bully behavior we’ve come to expect from Jack, but this type of behavior is present in most of the white people in the house, even the ones not being most criticized. For example, Hamsterwatch continues:

Holly […] told [Christie] and Analyse that Kat will flirt with David to find out what info he gathers (and to annoy Kemi, in case she likes him). Kat started that task by having a late, long chat with David where she explained the game and what’s transpired so far, including such tidbits as “there are no alliances.” His expressions made it clear that he wasn’t buying most of what she was selling, but it was humorous to watch it play out. Earlier Kat had said David “terrified” her, Holly said “he’s 100% the villain,” and Jackson called him “cancer of the house” (which he’d also called Kemi), and complained to Kat that David was “disrespectful.”

This is just bizarre for several reasons. For one, it seems like Kat likes David. It seems like they talk on the feeds a lot. But whether or not she likes him, all of them have to play along with this charade that you can only talk to the black guy if you have some ulterior motive to fuck with him.

Not to say Kat is innocent, saying that he “terrified” her is unfounded. Also Holly calling him the villain makes no sense, considering he has no power. But either way, Jackson “broke up” with Kat the next day, and she immediately started warming up more to David, so who knows what happened there.

Jackson, however, seemed to especially hate David the first few days, although the house turned around on him eventually. It appears Jack has the most issue with women of color, and Jackson has the most issue with black men, or at least men of color that Jackson feels threatened by. For example, even though he’s a racist shit bag, Jackson was actually one of the nicer houseguests to Ovi.

Jackson around this time, also got pulled into the diary room and scolded by producers. Here’s Hamsterwatch again:

Jackson said he had a bad Diary session but he couldn’t talk about it. It may have been for having said he wanted to “mule-kick” David: he told Kat “I fucked up” and “I’ll find out in 84 days.” […] Jack told Christie he’d been scolded for his “mudstomp” comment, and added fans would understand because he was just quoting BB20 Sam (nope).

Jackson is likely right. The BB producers probably want to tell them to knock off some of the things he says in general, but they can most assuredly peg them on violent rhetoric, because it’s specific and targeted.

There was also a rumor going around that both Jack and Jackson called David the “n” word. I listened to the clip and I can hear what people are referring to, but it’s not conclusive. They were whisper, and on top of that, drowned out by the sound of washing dishes. I don’t think they said it though. But just putting that out there.

To wrap this section up, there’s one more moment that is probably the most egregious. People were in the HoH room, which comes with a camera, so people in the HoH room can see people around the house.

Jack was up there with several people, and David appeared on the camera, walking through the house. Jack then stood up, and walked across the room, “imitating” David, by walking like an ape or monkey.

Finally, at the end of the second week, Kemi was eliminated. This makes the three people in Camp Comeback the three darkest skinned people. Once the third week started, the toxic nature of the house shifted to a different type of toxicity, like Lord of the Flies style bullying and ganging up.

Holly, Cliff, Tommy, and Ovi

Ultimately, there’s more remarks I could include that are questionable, but this is enough to give you the idea. This Big Brother house is infected with an underlying, systemic racism.

As mentioned earlier, there have been other instances of racism in Big Brother, most notably Big Brother 15. But also, in Big Brother 20, Bayleigh, who was black, used the word “midget” while talking to JC, who was very short (but not actually a dwarf). JC got upset about this and said “that would be like if I said n*****”.

The show portrayed this on tv with a “come together” moment where Bayleigh and JC “talk it out”. Obviously, “midget” is a derogatory slur, but the n-word is a historical artifact of the violence of slavery that built the US. The show, in typical basic cable fashion, takes a very neoliberal approach. They “both-sides” it, reduces all slurs to being “equally bad”, and slightly sided with JC.

Part of this is because Bayleigh was extremely rich and seemingly not politically literate. She didn’t really know how to articulate why the n-word is much worse. She doesn’t have an understanding of power in a political and capitalist sense, and how that impacts racism, so she didn’t really make her case well.

I could also go into moments of racism in other seasons as well. But the main thing to know is that traditionally, Big Brother houseguests have been quick to eliminate POC.

For example, in Big Brother 16, every POC was gone within the first six eliminations. In Big Brother 17, the only black person was eliminated second. In Big Brother 18, black people did slightly better, with the two black women being eliminated sixth and seventh – not great but better. In Big Brother 19, the two black people were eliminated fourth and fifth. In Big Brother 20, the two black people were eliminated within the first six as well.

I could go into other seasons, because this is an overarching trend. And it’s not to say all of these POC deserved to stay. For example, Devin who was eliminated very early in BB16 deserved it, he completely ruined his game and put other people’s games highly at risk. It’s not about individual poc, it’s about the trend of the show.

It’s also worth noting that Big Brother wasn’t always like this. The trend of getting black and brown people out first, for the most part, started around Big Brother 12. Before that, there’d be POC eliminated on the early side sometimes, but with no discernible pattern or trend. In BB12, the black woman Monet was eliminated second, although at this point, it was the best choice, because Rachel was HOH, and knew both Britney and Monet were targeting her. Fair enough.

In Big Brother 13, that trend continued with Keith being eliminated first. The returnees claimed that Keith was the newbie that threatened their game the most. This one feels a lot more unfounded. From there, the trend largely continued.

David and Jackson

While this season hasn’t had as much in-your-face explicit racism as others, it does have an implicitly racist social structure. This type of racism is more useful to acknowledge and understand in contemporary times.

My diagnosis of contemporary racism is basically: accelerating in the 2000s, anti-racist activism targeted the structural and social institutions that maintain racism. People with latent racist views can tolerate racists being called out for explicit racism, but they won’t stand for calling out racist social structures.

After awhile of this mode of anti-racist thought, more people began openly embracing structural racism, which consequently makes someone carry more personally, explicitly racist views (even if they may have opposed those to begin with). Of course, that’s not to blame racism on anti-racists. But conservatives are naturally reactive, and a factor in growing explicit racism is the victim complex white people have. If the social structures that prop up their racism are questioned, they then retreat into it, for safety.

Big Brother 21 can be a litmus test for identifying racism in everyday life. Some people won’t find the first few weeks of the season racist because they don’t acknowledge structural racism as a type of racism.

The real takeaway, however, isn’t even that the first three people evicted were the darkest skinned people. We can imagine a non-racist society, where it makes sense that these certain people were evicted first. Maybe, in some world, they were all just playing very poorly.

Instead, the takeaway is that the white people in the house fostered a social environment where they felt threatened by the people of color first. Were David, Ovi, and Kemi actually the biggest threats to their game? No. They may have been threats on some level, but not the biggest threats. But the toxic, bullying nature of the house led to exclusionary thinking, which led to targeting the people of color.

Ovi and David

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