"I became the lazy person, which is the furthest thing from the truth," Ramona Gray Amaro claimed

By Robyn Merrett
July 02, 2020 03:26 PM
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Ramona Gray Amaro, J’Tia Hart

Black Survivor alums are opening up about their experiences on the CBS series, with some claiming the show reinforced harmful stereotypes.

Ramona Gray Amaro — the first Black woman to compete on the reality competition series on season 1 (Survivor: Borneo) in 2000 — told NPR she believes the editing depicted her as "lazy."

"I became the lazy person," Amaro said of the footage that showed her lying around her team's campsite early on in the competition, which follows a group of contestants as they are stranded in a remote location and compete for a million dollars. She explained to NPR that she wasn't just tired or lounging around, but she was actually suffering from dehydration.

Amaro did recover and regained her strength, but she felt it was too late and that her image had already been tainted. After 12 days, she was voted off the island.

"That really upset me and it took me a long time to get over it. ... To realize, we signed our life away. They can do whatever they want to do," Amaro told NPR.

She believes she isn't the only Black contestant to be stereotyped. "We can't swim ... we butt heads, we're athletic, but maybe not smart and strategic," Amaro claimed. "I'm just saying, 'Do right by us.' "

In a statement to PEOPLE on Thursday, Lori DelliColli, Vice President, CBS Entertainment Communications said: "CBS condemns racism in all its forms and we are committed to inclusive and safe production environments. In the spirit of partnership with former contestants, we have responded to the request from the Black Survivor Alliance to meet with representatives from the show and CBS, and we’re working together to set a time for this discussion.”

J'Tia Hart, who competed on the 2014 season of Survivor: Cagayan, had similar sentiments.

Ramona Gray Amaro
CBS

"What they don't do a great job with is telling positive stories and connecting with the multifacets of being African American," Hart told NPR.

"I have a degree in nuclear engineering from a top engineering school. I'm a mother. I work in national security. I am very well-rounded. And I just got boiled down to a simple trope of a lazy, unintelligent person," she claimed.

Former contestant Brice Izyah Johnston, who competed on Survivor: Cagayan alongside Hart, also spoke out, saying he felt he was stereotyped as a flamboyant Black gay man.

"It's Black Lives Matter [for us] as reality contestants ... our lives, our stories, we matter as well," Johnston told NPR.

Brice Izyah Johnston
Monty Brinton/CBS via Getty

Last month, Hart created a petition for anti-racism action on the long-running show.

The petition is addressed to Survivor's executive producers Jeff Probst, Matt VanWagenen and Mark Burnett as well as ViacomCBS, MGM Television, Survivor Production LLC and Castaway Production LLC. Notable Survivor alumni who have signed the petition include Ghost Island winner Wendell Holland and Cagayan contestant Johnston.

"Survivor should reflect and honor the racial diversity of our society-both in front of and behind the camera. With this petition, we call on the executive producers of this show to use their influence within ViacomCBS, MGM Television, Survivor Production LLC, Castaway Production LLC and all others involved in the making of this great show," the petition reads.

The petition is encouraging the show to select Black, Indigenous, People of Color for at least 30 percent of the cast each season, as well as giving BIPOC "equitable screen time and opportunities to participate in marketing and promotional events."

Survivor alumni are also calling for the show to create a safe space for people of color by providing "mental health resources specifically geared to helping them navigate the Survivor experience." The petition asks that more BIPOC are hired to work in casting, filming, editing and promoting.

Former contestants are encouraging Survivor to condemn racism in all forms and announce a "zero tolerance" policy towards racism as well as vet potential cast members to "ensure those who have promoted prejudices are not cast." The petition calls for Survivor to issue a public statement acknowledging systemic racism within the franchise and "offer a clear plan for demonstrable anti-racism efforts moving forward."

In an effort to amplify more Black voices, Rob Has a Podcast host Rob Cesternino (seasons 6 and 8) launched a virtual panel of 12 Black former Survivor contestants — Amaro (season 1). Clarence Black (season 3), Ted Rogers Jr. (season 5), Rory Freeman (season 9), Jolanda Jones (season 10), Sherea Lloyd (season 15), Phillip Sheppard (seasons 22 and 26), Sabrina Thompson Mitchell (season 24), Julia Carter (season 38), Vecepia Towery (season 4 winner) and Earl Cole (season 14 winner) — via a Zoom call on Wednesday, when they discussed their experiences of racism on the series.

Teresa "T-Bird" Cooper, who appeared on season 3, co-hosted the event with Cesternino. During the panel, Cole — who competed in Fiji and became the first Black male Survivor winner — expressed his disappointment in CBS for not highlighting him or his season after the final three were all Black contestants.

"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," Cole said during the panel.

"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 pull more people in," he added.

Cole also opened up about not feeling like a member of the Survivor family.

"I was never invited to any finales," Cole said. "I live in L.A. 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."

Survivor first premiered in 2000. The show wrapped up its 40th season in April.

To help combat systemic racism, consider learning from or donating to these organizations:

  • Campaign Zero (joincampaignzero.org) which works to end police brutality in America through research-proven strategies.
  • ColorofChange.org works to make the government more responsive to racial disparities.
  • National Cares Mentoring Movement (caresmentoring.org) provides social and academic support to help Black youth succeed in college and beyond