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Reality Television and the Metapragmatics of Racism



In the contemporary United States, racism is commonly thought to be located in the hearts and minds of a particular negatively valorized social figure: the “racist.” Racist discourse is often implicit and indexical, and interracial interactions may be overdetermined by mutual “racial paranoia” (Jackson 2008) about interlocutors' true thoughts. In this paper I argue that the reality television genre has a unique engagement with tropes of authenticity and intentionality that exploits this dynamic of suspicion. I take as an example a conflict that occurred on an episode of Survivor around comments made by a White southern man to an African American woman. In the scenes analyzed, racial paranoia is itself mobilized as a narrative hook. Participants prod each other to reveal the indexical meaning that they suspect is underlying each other's utterances, showing a perceived incongruence between language and intention. Casting, production, and editorial practices contribute to the dramatization of racism as interpersonal conflict. I show that interventions like sound mixing, the use of testimonial interviews, and the editorial placement of reaction shots reinscribe broader cultural oppositions between “authentic” mental states and “false” performed identities.

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