Being Black in the Big Brother House
For the last 19 years, Big Brother, a reality competition show spanning 21 seasons, has been a summer staple in houses across the country. Three nights a week, for three months a year, viewers tune in to their televisions to watch as a crop of “houseguests”, the collective name of the show’s participants, compete week after week while being watched 24/7 by at home audiences. With zero contact with the outside world, and a quest to be the last one standing, the houseguests battle it out for a whopping $500,000 cash prize.
From chemists to cowboys, the show has featured varied casts over the years, including people from almost every profession, gender, sexualtiy, religion and race in between. Yet, fans have repeatedly noted that each year lacks one group in particular - black contestants.
Per season, the number of houseguests ranges from 10 to 17, with the average standing at 16. From 2010 to 2019, there have only been a total of 19 black or African American houseguests featured and only one third of those contestants have made it to the Jury House. The Jury House is the point where the last 7 to 9 remaining players are sequestered and later vote a winner between the last two players in the house. In fact, on average, most black players are evicted between the first and fourth week of competition and this current season has been no exception.
Of the 16 contestants to enter the house this season, 5 were people of color and only 2 identified as black. Within the first few hours of the game, 3 of the 5 people of color in the house, including both black players, were “banished” by the white camp director as a part of the game, left to battle each other to win back their spot in the house. While one black player, Kemi, was able to make her way back into the game, the other black player, David, was eliminated, ending his dream to be the first black winner of Big Brother.
When Kemi entered the house, she was immediately met with animosity from 2, white male houseguests in particular. Viewers who watched the live feeds reported the male houseguests repeatedly speaking negatively about Kemi even when she actively tried to avoid any conflict with them. One of the male guests even mentioned how he wished to, “...stomp a mud hole through her chest” and push her into traffic, while the other houseguest “jokingly” stated how he’d like to murder her and put her in a grave.
As tweets reporting this violent language flooded the bb21 hashtag, many began reaching out to producers in fear of Kemi’s safety in the house. Instead of meeting the viewers’ concerns, a producer shrugged off all threats made to Kemi, laughing it off as unserious dialogue. The producer went as far as to tell any concerned viewers to stop watching if uncomfortable.
Inside the house, Kemi feared how her recordings would be edited and was not protected by production. Instead, she was asked to up her own antics by wagging her fingers and adding “uh-uh girlfriend” to her dialogues, negatively encouraging caricatures of how black women are assumed to behave. Her fears of being edited wrongly proved valid as the edited cut broadcasted to the nation showed Kemi speaking to herself and appearing unstable. This, while one of her aggressors was shown as sympathetic towards her; a completely different portrayal from what the live feeds captured to be true.
In a surprise twist to the game, David was brought back into the house, with houseguests immediately assuming him to be angry and violent, some even alluding him to being a sexual predator, despite his actions not reflecting anything of that nature. Within hours, he was referred to as the n-word with one houseguest mentioning their desire to mule kick him.
When Kemi and David got a moment together, both spoke on how they felt isolated in the house, but neither wanted to explicitly mention racism as they feared the repercussions they might face. During the second live eviction of the season, Kemi was voted out of the house and into exile, joining David and Ovi, a Bangladeshi player who was evicted the previous week.
Some fans have voiced their decision to not watch this season given the ignored safety and comfort of black players by showrunners. Many have raised questions around perpetrated violence; such as when one houseguest was not punished after physically pushing Kemi during a heated argument while another tried to spit in her face. Others have taken to calling the show’s advertisers to get the attention of the network for effective and visible change. For a game meant to be a fun social experiment where your social skills are as important as your physical prowess, it seems as though being black can be the biggest burden and the basis for becoming an early and discriminated target.