How Survivor's J'Tia Hart Is Changing the Way Black Women Are Represented on Reality TV

After being portrayed as "Incompetent" on her season of Survivor, J'Tia Hart started a petition focused on improving diversity, equity and inclusion on the show—on screen and off.

By Tierney Bricker Feb 28, 2021 1:00 PMTags
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In honor of Black History Month, E! is talking to Black reality show contestants to reveal what it's really like being a minority on TV.

J'Tia Hart knew exactly what she was doing when she infamously dumped her starving tribe's rice supply in the fire on Survivor: Cayagan.

"Let me be honest, I am dramatic. My friends know that, my family knows that and that is why I was casted," she recently told E! News. "That is totally my personality. I was like, if I'm going home, I'm going out with a bang. I wasn't in a rage, I did it to be outrageous."

What the nuclear engineer didn't know, however, was how the longrunning CBS reality series would portray her admittedly over-the-top actions. 

"I never thought I would be portrayed the way I saw myself on TV because that's not the way I see myself," Hart, 39, recalled. "I don't think that I am mentally ill, in any way, shape or form and I don't think I'm, like, incompetent."

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Even before the season began airing in 2014, Hart felt her "ability to do her job" was being called into question in an interview host Jeff Probst did with Entertainment Weekly previewing the new castaways for the "Brains vs. Brawn vs. Beauty"-themed outing. 

"I'm not sure anyone's gonna feel too comfortable about our future knowing that J'Tia is a nuclear engineer," Probst said. Never mind that his show had cast her as a member of the Brains tribe.

Still, despite destroying all of her tribemates' food, Hart managed to survive another tribal council, something she believed would earn her praise for her political game. 

E! Illustration; Monty Brinton/CBS via Getty Images

"I was just wondering, why do I get that?" Hart recalled of her edit. "I thought it was going to be like, oh my goodness, this woman figured out how to stay and she made a relationship with people who wouldn't even seem like she'd be able to do that with because she's cunning. I thought I would be shown as cunning and making it work. I think that was easier for the producers and decision-makers to do because they don't identify with who I am."

While Hart said she "loved" the casting director and viewed the show's psychologist as "a mother figure" during her time trying to outwit, outplay and outlast, "It was different when I got to production."

Feeling like she "didn't have any friends" among the crew, Hart explained, "I didn't feel like the camera crew, like, liked me. They were kind of rough and gruff with me, but I didn't know. So I thought maybe it's just me."

"There was one woman producer and one African American producer and both of them I connected with. Everyone else, meh," she continued. "That made it more isolating, but I've felt like that a lot of my life, so it didn't necessarily stand out. I think it's a common experience of Black people, you get to the situation like, is it me?"

And it took some time for Hart to process her Survivor experience, from first being cast to receiving online backlash.

"It took me a minute to remember who I am. It took me a month or two, probably until after the finale, to like, process it," she said. "And then I just remembered, you know what? I am a boss-ass bitch and f—k these people. [Laughs.] I had to remember who I was."

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And that was a person with a life outside of the show. Hart married Graeme Ross Hart in 2015, moved to Chicago and had two children. And yes, she's still a nuclear engineer, with Hart saying, "There are not many people who can do what I do. I'm really good, I'm really dedicated."

It was only recently that she started engaging with the Survivor community again in the wake of George Floyd's death and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement.

"It's something that, with everything coming up about systematic racism, I felt like I was in a position that I could address," she explained, going on to say her kids were "really the catalyst" for her to speak out. 

Monty Brinton/CBS

"I want to change stuff for my children," she said. "I want them to be able to see people who look like them on TV and be able to root for them. Part of me wanting to go on Survivor was, like, look, I want to go out there and represent for my ladies because I didn't see a lot of people like me on TV. You don't see a lot of Black female engineers on TV."

"And I was just thinking, damn, even when my children do see somebody on TV who's killing it," she continued, "they're going to be made to look like an idiot?" 

So, along with several other Black Survivor alums, including Julia Carter and Brice Johnston, Hart helped form the Soul Survivors Organization, a collective focused on improving diversity, equity and inclusion on the show—on screen and off. 

"It's not only having Black people there, but telling the broadness of their stories," Hart explained. "So on Survivor, you have archetypes. You have the beauty, the nerd, the strategic mastermind, the challenge beast, and Black people get stereotyped into a very small, narrow broadband. It's like the lazy, crazy side-chick or the workhorse. There are very few Black people who break that mold."

The group started a petition that called for several steps for the CBS series to take, including casting at least 30 percent of contestants on each season to be BIPOC, equitable screen time and promotion events for BIPOC, mental health resources geared to helping BIPOC cast members navigate their experience on the show, hiring more BIPOC in all parts of production and a zero-tolerance policy toward racism.

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Along with members of The Black Survivor Alliance—another contestant-formed coalition committed to representation—Hart had several meetings with Probst, CBS executives and the show's producers about how to make the show more inclusive. 

"We were actually planning a Black Survivor family reunion, it was actually supposed to take place in May of 2020," Hart said. "So it got cancelled, but we had already been talking, so it was like a perfect storm and things came together. We had different groups and different tacts to get together, but in the end we all came together."

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In the meetings, Hart said the representatives from each cast group talked about their experiences, saying, "I really wanted to tell them issues. Not so much so tell them that they need to say sorry to me personally, but to let them know this is how you make people feel, because I'm not sure they understood that."

In November of last year, CBS announced a diversity pledge, promising that all future casts on Survivor, Love Island and Big Brother will be at least 50 percent Black, indigenous and people of color.

It's a "great" start, for sure, Hart said. But, she stressed,  "We continue to work with them. It is not over by any means. It's going to be ongoing." 

For now, Hart is taking her story and those of other Black female engineers into her own hands with her new web series, STEM Queens

The episodes, each shorter than 10 minutes long, will feature a woman speaking about her life and career in an effort to expose young girls to role models in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). 

"That is what motivates me to put myself out there," Hart said. "I feel like this is something I can do for good. Putting myself out there is part of my superpower. If I can do that for the next generation, that will make me so happy."

STEM Queens first episode debuts Tuesday, March 2 on YouTube.