“Survivor” Contestant Jamal Shipman Shares Insight on His Powerful Conversation with Tribemate Jack Nichting

“Survivor: Island of the Idols” (CBS)

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Gordon Holmes: We only saw a few minutes of what seemed like a very important conversation about race relations between you and Jack last week. What all was discussed?

Jamal Shipman: Jack and I are true friends. Up to this point, watching has been a little sad for us because this conversation is the first time the “Survivor” audience is seeing us interact in any meaningful way. But it’s important to understand that this conversation sits inside of a trusting, loving friendship that was built through weeks of shared experiences. We were playful, lighthearted, and fun. We were serious, reflective, and dependent on each other for survival. We bonded in times of victory and in times of disappointing defeat. So the discussion flowed pretty easily as we talked about why I was taken aback by his comment, his intentions behind the comment, how he felt about making me feel the way I felt, how I wanted him to know that this doesn’t change the way I feel about him, etc. 

The conversation got pretty deep as we discussed our backgrounds and our perspectives which eventually got us to the place where the audience sees us talking about social identifiers and the privilege that comes with occupying the “top step” as Jack calls it. While I do think that racial privilege allows for Jack to be unaware of the implications of off-handedly calling a black man’s buff a do-rag, I now understand that he meant no harm by it and inadvertently waded into sensitive territory for me. That’s why it was important to have the conversation and gain a better understanding.

Holmes: Having this conversation with Jack in the middle of a social game like “Survivor” made it extra risky. Walk me through the thought process that made you feel like it was worth having this talk even though it could be detrimental to your game.

Shipman: Before answering this question, I feel like I need to clarify the situation. So if you’ll allow me, I’d like to address some of the confusion about this issue. In the world of “Survivor”, the multifunctional headwear that denotes our tribe affiliation is called a buff. It’s always been called a buff. Jeff says, “Drop your buffs!” Buffs can be worn in 12 different ways–one of which is the way a do-rag would be worn. From the torrent of tweets and comments from people taking issue with my interpretation of the do-rag as a “black thing”, I gather that for some, it is news that the do-rag is a symbol of black culture. Some light Googling should enlighten most to how the do-rag became a feature of young, black fashion in hip-hop, entertainment and sports culture. As is the case with many symbols of black culture, society began to regard the do-rag as a marker of negative stereotypes about black men in particular: gang affiliations, thuggish activity and low-class status. This fashion piece was actually criminalized to the point where it was banned by the NFL and NBA. Dress codes at schools and clubs all over the country prohibit wearing them, and rampant police profiling made black parents wary of allowing their children to wear do-rags in public. 

This is the background knowledge and lived experience that I have, and this is why Jack’s comment landed the way it did. Jack would have called it a buff if he had been talking to anyone else on the tribe, but when talking to me, he called it a do-rag.  In that moment, I was confronted with the possibility that Jack might see me in ways that I don’t desire to be seen, that he is using inapplicable stereotypes to inform how he treats me differently than everyone else.

Disclaimer: I understand that the act of wearing a do-rag doesn’t make someone a criminal, a drug dealer, or anything else negative. It’s a hair thing. I get it. But, unfortunately, that’s how damaging stereotyping is. It makes it necessary for marginalized groups to be super self-conscious about mundane behavior. I wish it wasn’t the case, but as it stands, certain people don’t have the privilege to not need to think about it.

So, to answer your question, it was actually Jack who insisted on having a more in-depth conversation about the incident later that night. Initially, my instinct was to assure him that everything was fine and that it wasn’t a big deal. I didn’t want him thinking that we couldn’t work together anymore because of this. As we talked, we shared more and more about our lives, and it turned into the beautiful moment that we all saw. 

Holmes: As recently as last season, Julia Carter expressed frustrations that her in-game experiences with racially charged incidents didn’t make it to air. How important is it for reality TV programs to shine a light on moments like this?

Shipman: I can definitely understand Julia’s frustrations. I felt for her as I read her story. As soon as I saw the diversity of our cast, I felt supported in ways other castaways of color on past seasons might not have, and I knew that we would have the opportunity to tell a range of stories with our own lives.

The most heartwarming part of the fan reaction to this moment is how this interaction is helping people feel seen in ways they never thought possible. Representation matters, and I’m excited for all the people who can see themselves in me and for those who see themselves in Jack. People seem to be surprised that CBS even aired this conversation, and to be completely honest, so was I! But, when you think about it, “Survivor” is first and foremost described as a social experiment, and, in this environment, you have to expect that cultural clashes will happen. Reality TV can provide examples of how to handle those clashes and allow people to measure themselves against them. I’ve gotten so many messages from people saying how that scene made them think about how they handle conflict in their own lives and the examples they want to set for their own children. It’s wild.  

Holmes: “Survivor” legend Rudy Boesch passed away recently, his friendship with Richard Hatch during the first season of “Survivor” opened a lot of people’s eyes to LGBTQ issues in the United States. Your moment with Jack has similar potential. What do you hope viewers take away from this?

Shipman: You know…just you asking that question makes me think about this in a whole new way. As a “Survivor” fan, I see players like Rudy and Richard Hatch as legends, so to be mentioned in the same sentence as those two is pretty remarkable and overwhelming. 

The lesson I hope viewers take away is this: using yourself as a reference point to determine what should and shouldn’t be hurtful to others gets in the way of healing our societal wounds. It gets in the way of creating a more inclusive and just society. I’ve seen a lot of comments that say something like, “I wouldn’t be bothered by that, so Jamal shouldn’t be bothered either.” Or “I’ve never heard of a do-rag being a race thing, so Jamal is just overreacting.” Or “I (a white person) have worn do-rags for 30 years, so it can’t be racist. Jamal is playing the victim.” All of these comments have the same structure; “This doesn’t fit into my own understanding about the world, so therefore everything about this must be inherently invalid.” Where do we go from there? Where’s the compassion? Where’s the empathy? Where’s the room for progress on these issues? We should strive to open our minds to something that sounds more like, “I don’t understand this. This seems like it matters to a lot of people different from me. How can I learn more about what’s going on here and then incorporate that understanding into my own life for the purpose of reducing harm caused for those I care about?” Jack taught us how to do that. I’m gonna take his lead.

Holmes: And finally, on a scale of 1 to 2, how would you rate Noura’s game so far?

Shipman: Ha! I’m not sure what the construct of this scale is, but I’ll just say that Noura is still in the game. And the whole point of “Survivor” is to stay in the game, so she is playing as good a game as I am right now. 

Any Questions? Drop me a line on Twitter: @gordonholmes