Past Big Brother contestants weigh in on the Cookout and accusations of 'reverse racism'
History was made Thursday on Big Brother when the Cookout — Azah Awasum, Derek Frazier, Hannah Chaddha, Kyland Young, Tiffany Mitchell, and Xavier Prather — became the first all-Black alliance to make it to the final six. This is also the first season of Big Brother after CBS' pledge to ensure that 50 percent of casts on their unscripted series would feature BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of color) contestants. The Cookout's success, though, is not without controversy: Fans who have grown accustomed to over 20 seasons of mostly-white alliances — and mostly white winners — have complained via social media that Big Brother is now guilty of "reverse racism." Christian Berkenberger, a white contestant who was eliminated in week 5, immediately scolded fans via Twitter.
Host Julie Chen Moonves also wholeheartedly disagrees with that sentiment. "I think it's hard for some people who are not of color to understand the importance of the Cookout making it this far," she told EW. "I have heard some call the formation of the Cookout a form of racism. In my humble opinion, it is not. As a fan of the show, it's impressive to see an alliance this big make it this far. That rarely happens."
Scholars who EW spoke with called the allegations of "reverse racism" both "absurd" and "fake outrage." Says Kia Jarmon, an adjunct professor with the College of Media and Entertainment at Middle Tennessee State University, "There is no such thing as reverse racism. Any disappointment from fans about Black contestants having an opportunity to win is only a reminder that we continue as a nation to operate in a divided world, a world where some can set the rules and win, and others must adhere to the rules, even when they change without notice."
"The accusation of so-called reverse racism amongst some fans is a bad faith argument," continues Dr. Brandy Monk-Payton, a professor of media on African Americans in popular culture at Fordham University. "What it elides is a discussion of the way that structural racism exists in the entertainment industry and even a reality TV show like Big Brother."
Adds Wes Jackson, the director of Emerson College's Business of Creative Enterprise program, "Reverse racism is a not so clever, outdated word that is used when white people who have historically had the game tilted in their favor encounter parity of equity."
We asked three persons of color from Big Brother's far less diverse seasons — Jun Song (BB4 winner), Kaysar Ridha (BB6, 7, and 12), and Ovi Kabir (BB21) — to weigh in on the Cookout and the fans' polarized reaction to the alliance's historic formation.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: CBS chief executive George Cheeks ordered that the casts of unscripted shows must be at least 50 percent BIPOC. What did you think about that mandate?
OVI KABIR: I just didn't really expect it, but it's a growing trend we're seeing across the nation, many organizations trying to figure out a way to combat what they've seen in this country. The biggest thing we've realized as a society — and there are populations that might disagree — that we can no longer stand on the sidelines. We must be anti-racist. CBS is trying to make an effort and acknowledging the past actions that happened in previous seasons.
JUN SONG: I'm just grateful that they're being made in general. The casting process has not changed for so long. I'm not even going to guess what happens behind the scenes to have brought together such casts, like a maximum of three Black people in one season, or three people of color, and only one of them is Black. Or even someone from the LGBTQ community. We're always a token casting choice.
KAYSAR RIDHA: This was an opportunity to correct mistakes of the past. And I'm not talking about CBS, I'm not talking about casting, I'm thinking more on a societal level. People make assumptions: "Black people can't get along." "Look, there's more Black-on-Black violence." "Oh, they can't get ahead because it's their fault." And we apply that lens on any people of color. What I loved about what happened this year was how [the Cookout] got along just fine. They're smart. They are composed. They are compassionate. Hell, they played one hell of a game. Bravo.
KABIR: From my season, we saw a lot of micro-aggressions. We saw implicit biases and heard a lot of racist remarks throughout that season. Cast members like myself could argue we were at a disadvantage from the get-go. It's really hard to go back and watch it. So I love to think of us as the straw that broke the camel's back. CBS is trying to figure out a way to mitigate that so it never happens again. The Cookout is not just one singular season. It is the culmination of all the past 21 seasons and the actions that have happened to our people of color house guests, to our African-American house guests.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What are your feelings about the Cookout and allegations that its mission amounts to "reverse racism"?
KABIR: The Cookout has done a really good job of doing what they're doing, but they're not playing a different game than what we've seen before like with The Brigade, which was a pact of four men making close connections. The difference is what is motivating it. It's not just to bring them further in the game. It is to ensure an individual winning who is an African-American player, 'cause we haven't had one in a normal, U.S. Big Brother season other than the celebrity season.
SONG: People have forgotten what the term racism is, so they tend to just throw it out there as a label when something is uncomfortable to them. This was never about Black versus white. It was more about this kind of beautiful solidarity between six people who came together. Maybe they didn't even realize at first that it was for a cause, but now it has become a cause.
I'm just really grateful that my son gets to see someone like Derek. He gets to see this Cookout Alliance come together. They respect each other. They're having fun. So shame on people who are saying that this is racist. Shame on them.
RIDHA: Is it a race-based Alliance? Maybe, but that's honestly inconsequential as far as I'm concerned. They're damned if they do and they're damned if they don't. They just stayed together because they put their group first and their self-interest second and they managed to make it work. I think that's fantastic. They had to over-index it on race to make a point. They didn't choose to have racism inflicted upon them. Society did. So the fact that they are even in this position, to have to go out so brazenly, is almost ridiculous.
KABIR: They want to make history, and they're kind of unselfishly pushing away their own individual games to get to this point. I think it's really admirable. I can't even judge them on a game basis because some of the moves they're making are actually against their own personal game. I think Tiffany is a great example of that. She cut her closest ally because she feels that she needs to make sure the Cookout gets to the final six. In her heart, she cannot take a shot at another African-American player.
RIDHA: This goes back to the saddest thing in the world: The folks who hate us the most are the ones who want to continue to control the narrative. They have to tell you what you are and who you are and how the story should play out. That's the ugliness of racism. If you try to present an alternative path forward, then you will be punished for that. That's what people don't realize. If you're trying to control an entire group of people about what and how they should think, then you're racist.
SONG: My son asked me a very direct question a couple of weeks ago about the Cookout. He asked me if there had ever been a group of Black people to have an alliance before on the show. I said no, because there have never been six Black people in the house before. He and I had a really frank talk about race and skin color and dynamics. I asked him, "Do you think that they're bullying people who are not Black in the house?" He was like, no. I said, "Do you think their alliance is based on hate in any way?" And he said no. I said, "I'm so proud of you, that you can recognize that. It's actually based on love for each other and how they really want to see the first Black Big Brother winner."
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY How do you see this season impacting the future of Big Brother?
KABIR: This is the reset Big Brother needed. People will be mad about it. You will never be able to convince everybody, but that's what change and progress are. People who are mad at CBS, I just want to say, "Get with the times. This is the way the world is moving forward."
RIDHA: I want the winner to bask in his or her glory. I really want that for them. I remember young kids who were getting bullied in high school, tears in their eyes, coming up to me and thanking me. They were brown and I'm brown. They said, "Thank you so much. I have the confidence to go to school because now the kids at school are no longer bullying me." I hope that this creates momentum rather than an excuse to celebrate a moment in time.
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