Jeopardy!, Eugenics and Me

© Cynthia Greenlee When Cynthia Greenlee got a chance to compete on Jeopardy!, she did not expect her appearance to become a referendum on race and intelligence.

In 1994, when I heard my beloved game show Jeopardy! was searching for college contestants, I somehow convinced my parents to finance a family trip to Orlando, Florida, where we’d make a holiday of the audition and take a trip to Disney World. If I didn’t pass the 50-item, fill-in-the-blank test, at least we’d have time with Mickey Mouse and each other.

Despite passing the test, though, I didn’t make it. And I took it personally. How many cute Black girls like me did they have on the show? I decided that the next year, when I was a 20-year-old junior at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, I’d find my way to the nearest tryout. My college suite mate, a young Trinidadian woman of Chinese and African descent, was bemused that I planned to skip classes—something I never did—for the opportunity.

She teased me about “my big brain”—a stray comment that would later seem weirdly prescient. I didn’t know it then, but my appearance on Jeopardy! would become a vehicle for my understanding the depth of American racism, the persistence of eugenics thinking, and our investment in the myth of meritocracy.

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When in-person tryouts were announced around the country (keep in mind, this is the infancy of the Internet), I booked plane tickets for me and my middle sister. We headed to Philadelphia on a dreary spring day. In a big, nondescript auditorium, rows of would-be competitors listened to a pep talk from Alex Trebek, and then we sat down with the paper test. The show’s scouts wouldn’t disclose how many correct answers were necessary to advance, so I waited in sweaty anticipation.

Finally, they shared the results. I had passed again. Minutes later, the game show crew organized mock games, with buzzers and all. I trounced my opponents and did a short-and-saucy interview. I doubled down on my Southern accent. Among this sea of Northeasterners, I needed to stand out. It was impossible not to notice that I was the only Black person to successfully pass that audition’s test.

A week or so later, a FedEx envelope arrived with an invitation to compete in the upcoming college tournament.

I remember the show with the hazy pleasure of a childhood dream. I got to travel to Los Angeles, stay in the swank and historic Beverly Hilton, and order room service on someone else’s tab, which felt like the pinnacle of all my 20 years.

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Whatever the Nielsen ratings or Jeopardy! audience demographics said, I knew that Black people—and not just the Talented Tenth kind—watched the show. My family watched it every evening, crowding around the tube in an act of collective participation. If my father retired to my parents’ bedroom after work, he’d yell out answers from that end of our brick ranch. When I was at college, he’d call me and flag that a Black person was on the show. We took classist pride that we were a“Jeopardy! family” and not adherents of its easier (and more popular) game show sib, Wheel of Fortune.

I knew that many Black people desired seeing Blackness in front of the blue screens. They would be rooting for me. But I felt little pressure. I have rarely struggled with white ideas of Black inferiority—something a white friend found shocking when I told them some time ago. I grew up in a Black family and institutions that experienced racism and where we discussed white folks ad nauseam. But we never gave credence to the ridiculous idea of white superiority, wherever it reared its ideological head. In fact, we often hewed to an unstated idea of Black superiority, because we—this small nation of people from which I come—have created culture, survived centuries of systematic oppression, and remain the ethical and moral North Stars of this nation.

I can’t tell you what I was thinking as I sat in that room with the other contestants. But when the Jeopardy! staff called my name, I patted my fresh Tootie-on-The Facts of Life-mushroom hairdo and went to the stage. I do remember the incredible rush of scrawling my name on that blue monitor and testing my wits against two competitors so close I could smell their sweat and fear. Jeopardy! sells a heady blend of elitism with everyman competitiveness. You at home can play along, but in theory, knowledge reigns supreme. If you know, you just know. But knowing isn’t quite sufficient. It’s about fortitude under the hot lights while that annoying countdown music tinkles away. It’s about whether you can balance quick recall and even quicker motor skills.

Thirteen long-short minutes later—that’s how long it really takes to play, without commercial breaks and niceties with Alex—I had eviscerated my opponents and won my first-round match. But I lost momentum when taping stopped for a half hour while judges disputed an answer I gave. My loss was disappointing in the moment but relatively painless in the long run. I came home with a story to tell and parting gifts that included a Hooked on Phonics cassette kit, hair curlers and shampoo—and $5,000 cash.

Not long after my second show aired, I was back in my dorm room in Chapel Hill, when the phone rang. My father was sputtering with rage due to a segment on one of those fluffy night “news magazines” that proliferated on late 1990s TV. This one highlighted the eventual winner of the tournament, a white male University of Oklahoma freshman. I turned on my TV to catch the last words.

The show’s theory of why he bested us all? The size of his head, clearly evidence of a larger-than-usual brain and superior intellect.

“They didn’t even measure my head!” was my first thought. On the spot, I jokingly nicknamed us losers The Fellowship of the Wee Crania. Until my face flashed across the screen. Several times.

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I wasn’t mentioned by name. There were no direct aspersions about my smarts. Yet the images said it all. “Maybe it wasn’t intended to be racist,” I reasoned. But the camera seemed to linger on me. And somehow, it wasn’t a caring or caressing kind of televisual linger, but a visual association with the idea of intellectual inferiority.

The segment was over before I had time to process that I had become a living example of 19th-century pseudoscience at work. A semester before, I’d studied Georges Cuvier’s theories of racial taxonomy and scoffed at the “science” of phrenology, which argues that skull bumps and cranium size determine intellect. I had read about the so-called hierarchy of man, which inevitably places people of African descent at the bottom heap of the evolutionary ladder. But I didn’t expect to confront racial poppycock when I went on a modern game show.

Jeopardy! was ostensibly all about the facts. “If I’d passed the test, then I deserved to be there,” I reasoned. But suddenly, the racial logic of the past revealed an unpleasant, sticky residue that hadn’t been dissolved by merit and time. The fact was, even though the segment was a collective slam against all but the victor, it was my image that occupied the screen the most. When the correspondent talked seriously about disputed and ugly theories that had been used to say that Black people were barely human and devoid of intellect, that was about me. Not that I didn’t know that racism existed or hadn’t felt its sting, but this was blatant scientific racism broadcast to an audience of potentially millions. I learned in a particularly public and memorable way that no matter how I aced my exam or left my opponents in the dust, I was never going to be qualified enough, meritorious enough, or equal enough for some people.

My father called the network and railed into the void of a megacorporation answering machine. He felt vindicated months later when in late October 1995, the writer Maya Angelou, speaking in a PBS interview, criticized the show.

Black Americans, she noted, “have changed everything about this country—our very being here,” she said. “And I turn on a program like Jeopardy!, where quite often I am featured, or my name or some book I’ve written or some music I’ve written is the answer. And I see no Black people on it.” She added, “I mean, I haven’t seen a Black person on Jeopardy! for two years. So I ‘m boycotting it, although I love it.”

I was a little hurt that she had not seen me. I consoled myself, “Maybe her boycott started earlier in the spring.”

In a Seattle Times article, Trebek pronounced himself disappointed that “Maya would have made the comment without being in possession of all the facts, because obviously she doesn’t know the steps we have taken to try to get Black Americans to compete on the program,” including advertising in Black newspapers and setting up booths at NAACP conventions. He added that “it may well be that our [screening] test, which is made up of 50 questions, is culturally biased in favor of whites and against African Americans and other minorities.”

I supposed that comment was a hard concession for Trebek, who had written some questions in his early days with the show, but it was also a clueless one. Getting on the show wasn’t a simple matter of will and wanting it bad enough. My family had financed two trips to get me to auditions, and my mother had taken time off from her work as a nurse (one of her white male colleagues even sneered that she didn’t have a child smart enough to be on Jeopardy!). The balance sheet worked out for me, with my prize money, but traveling to tryouts meant paying to play.

In the wake of Angelou’s comments, a TV Guide analysis of about 20 episodes showed that there had indeed been one Black contestant on the show in the immediate past: celebrity LeVar Burton of Roots and Reading Rainbow fame. Burton has recently made Jeopardy!-related headlines as one of many media personalities vying for the hosting seat left vacant by Trebek’s death late last year.

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Through some combination of machination, intrigue, and poor decision making, the famed gig initially went to Mike Richards, the white male Jeopardy! executive producer who was initially involved in the permanent host search, including training candidates and scheduling their time slots. A scant week after Sony announced Richards as the new host, he resigned, as The Ringer and other media outlets released details about multiple pregnancy and gender discrimination cases regarding his behavior when he produced The Price Is Right. He also made inappropriate podcast comments that focused on women’s appearances and denigrated people with cognitive disabilities, or dwarfism, and even the nation of Haiti. On August 31, Richards was relieved of his executive producer duties.

Twenty years and a doctorate later, I relish the idea of going back on Jeopardy! A clause in my appearance contract says that I can’t appear on the show again until it changes hosts. Well, that happened. Who knew that in the space of several weeks, the host would change several times and we might yet see a Black one. I, for one, am still quick on the buzzer.

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