The Purging of Dee Nguyen and MTV’s Disturbing History of Reality TV Racism
MTV recently cut ties with “The Challenge’s” reigning champ, Dee Nguyen, over insensitive comments concerning police brutality. Here’s why it’s a wildly hypocritical move.
Just before Bravo announced its decision to fire a handful of cast members from Vanderpump Rules for accusations of racism and past racist tweets, MTV had done some Black Lives Matter-related purging of its own.
On June 8, the network’s legendary reality-competition series The Challenge announced on Twitter that it had permanently cut ties with the show’s reigning champion, Geordie Shore alum Dee Nguyen, for offensive remarks she made on Twitter about the current civil rights movement. In response to an Instagram user calling her out for posting selfies amid global protests for George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and others killed by police, Nguyen commented, “people die every fucking day.” She followed that callous remark with a particularly gross tweet that read, “Idk why some of u think I’m anti BLM. I’ve been saying that since the day I lost my virginity.” The next day, MTV also announced that they had fired Taylor Selfridge of Teen Mom OG, in addition to canceling her pregnancy special, for a series of racist tweets from 2012 that have been circulating since last year.
As has been the case with corporations simultaneously denouncing racism within the past few weeks, reactions on social media to MTV’s statement that they “strongly condemn systemic racism and stand with those raising their voice against injustice” were mostly skeptical. For one thing, it seemed that MTV had already come to terms with Selfridge’s past transgressions by having her discuss the controversy on Teen Mom OG, presumably as a teachable moment for viewers but also to save face as they kept her employed. It’s hard not to interpret MTV’s retroactive ousting of her as anything but performative virtue signaling from yet another company in the wake of, well, racism. Nguyen’s exit from The Challenge, however, prompted a lot more than just an eye-roll from viewers on social media—and not just because MTV needlessly decided to edit her out of the rest of the season. It didn’t take long for fans and former cast members on Twitter to call out the show’s long, troubling history of tolerating racist behavior and question the optics of MTV enforcing such severe punishment on one of the network’s only Asian stars.
Throughout its 22-year run, The Challenge—which has entire Reddit threads dedicated to its racist moments—has seen white contestants dress up in blackface, call Black cast members racial slurs, and taunt them in other racially charged ways without so much as a slap on the wrist from production.
It was only three years ago on The Challenge: Dirty XXX that Camila Nakagawa, a Latina, called cast member Leroy Garrett a “Black motherfucker” during a drunken tirade and, according to Garrett, several racial slurs that either occurred off-camera or were edited out of the show. Despite producers hammering down on how awful the incident was, showing back-to-back confessionals of contestants expressing their horror and disgust in the episode, and even airing an aftershow about racism in America, Nakagawa was allowed to stay in the game and go on to win the season’s $450,000 grand prize. What’s even more embarrassing for MTV, though, is that Nakagawa’s reported ban from the series since 2017 allegedly came from an altercation she had with a crew member on The Challenge spin-off Champs vs. Stars and had nothing to do with her derogatory comments. It’s gross to imagine the amount of money she could’ve possibly made from the show, which has had five seasons since her last appearance, if she hadn’t allegedly made herself a financial liability to the network—not to mention the amount of discomfort her presence could’ve caused Garrett and other Black cast members had she appeared on future seasons.
In light of this new stance, The Challenge’s format—which puts cast members from Real World, Road Rules and, more recently, any reality program featuring attractive twentysomethings in a Survivor/Big Brother-like competition—has also proven to be problematic as cast members’ controversies from previous reality shows have begun to resurface. For example, what is The Challenge to do with someone like Jordan Wiseley, a three-time champion and popular Challenge staple, who infamously made monkey noises at his Black, female roommate Nia Moore on Real World: Portland and called her the N-word? Despite the fact that he apologized to Moore on the show, which aired in 2013, it’s going to be hard for viewers, particularly those who think Nguyen was mishandled, not to be reminded of this incident whenever he reappears on the show and perhaps call for his termination as well.
Additionally, people on Twitter, including former Challenge competitor Marlon Williams, who was on Wiseley’s season of Real World, were quick to point out the optics of The Challenge’s sudden zero-tolerance policy on racism coming down on a woman of color. Williams argued in a video on Twitter that MTV was feeding into the racist systems that punish people of color more harshly than white people for ousting Nguyen “while not even handing out any punishment to white counterparts.” The passion in his voice tells me he’s probably witnessed or heard about instances of racism on the program that viewers aren’t privy to but Black viewers like me can only assume occurred. Or he could just be pointing to Wiseley, whose racist antics he unfortunately had to witness in person.
Despite an air of whataboutism in his argument, Williams’ call for the network to acknowledge its history of negligence with regard to Black people is spot-on. While anti-Blackness within Asian communities should be taken seriously, the ironic singling out of one of the few Asian women MTV has hired for its reality programming makes the network look even more irresponsible and ignores the structural change needed to make The Challenge as safe and welcoming for Black people as it is for white people. Doing so and following the standard they set in firing Nguyen would mean publicly condemning and cutting future ties with several of its white stars—including the face of the show Johnny “Bananas” Devenzio for his role in lobbing racial microaggressions at Cheyenne Floyd with his cousin Vince Gliatta on the show in 2016.
For now, The Challenge producers seem to think that cropping Nguyen out of every frame for the rest of the season, even for storylines that directly involve her, amounts to real anti-racist work. Not only is this decision infantilizing to Black viewers who MTV seems to think will be triggered by the mere sight of her on our TV screens, it also makes for bad television.