One might think that the American version of a show called The Amazing Race (CBS, 2001-present) might be somewhat sensitive to ethnicity, given the potential misreading of its title. Sadly, however, the show (currently in its 19th season) continues to exhibit signs of ethnocentrism as it shuttles contestants around the globe on a race around the world.
Assuredly, part of the problem manifests in the contestants themselves, who rarely, if ever, show large amounts of cultural sensitivity and/or knowledge. (It should be noted that there are certainly exceptions to this rule, but the general lack of awareness seems to be somewhat surprising given that contestants have had numerous opportunities to learn from past racers’ mistakes and although some have learned the value of doing research on a country or picking up a guidebook, none seem to grasp the utility of learning foreign languages or customs. To be fair, the situation may be admittedly more complex with producers having control over which teams are actually selected to race—I am not a conspiracy theorist, but it seems like selected teams do not have distinct advantages [e.g., nobody reports spending extended amounts of time overseas] and it is entirely possible that producers do not select teams who prepare in this fashion.) Perhaps unwittingly perpetuating the stereotype of “ugly Americans,” discourteous behavior is most often exhibited by teams/racers 1) yelling at foreign cab drivers (in English) and getting frustrated when said drivers do not understand the racers (even when the racers resort to speaking as they would to a child or an elderly person), 2) becoming upset that locals do not instantly know the location of some destination in the city (e.g., a specific plaza, street, or shop), or 3) complaining about India or China (size, poverty, food, smell, crowding, etc.).
Worse, perhaps, the show itself presents as a sort of extended travel narrative, painting the contestants as little more than tourists who zip from location to location, participating in challenges that are little more than thinly-disguised vacation package day trips. Ostensibly grounded in the traditions, customs, or ritual of the current location, the challenges that racers face (called roadblocks and detours) demonstrate little respect for the practices upon which they draw and definitely do not ask the racers to internalize the importance of the activity in the lives of those around them. Instead of asking racers to truly engage on a meaningful level, one might argue that the racers are, as Dean MacCannell suggests, “simply collect[ing] experiences of difference” (again, we need to question the role of editors/producers as such internalization may in fact occur for racers but such a transformation is never highlighted in the on-screen interviews, unless the reaction is so over-the-top as to be insincere). Moreover, building upon thoughts mentioned elsewhere in Lisa Nakamura’s chapter “Where Do You Want to Go Today?” one can see that, from a Western (in this case, American) perspective, The Amazing Race is constructed on pillars of Otherness, exoticism, and foreignness.
Take the above scene, for example, that features a font designed to invoke associations of “Asian culture” imprinted upon paper umbrellas, set in a temple. Putting aside the issue that the task at hand has nothing to do with any of the Asian “props,” the font itself is incredibly problematic as it represents Roman (i.e., Western) letters that are constructed out of faux brush strokes—a type of writing that finds a home in no Asian culture on Earth. Second only to the typography used on the stereotypical Chinese take-out container (see image to the right) in familiarity with a Western audience, the font used in The Amazing Race demonstrates just how shallow the program really is.
On a larger level, however, the show also demonstrates no small amount of Orientalism as it works to legitimize Western culture, often presenting local culture/customs in a tone that invokes terms like “quaint” or “backward.” (Although primarily focused on America, one might also note that the show’s host, Phil Keoghan, expands the narrative slightly, presenting a form of acceptable/valued Otherness in the form of a man who presents as White but speaks with a New Zealand accent.) The exotic nature of the locations/tasks is also often conveyed through their status as spectacle.
Watching the main titles, one can almost ignore the distinctly (yet ambiguous) “ethnic” soundtrack and compare the images to those of other travelogues. In particular, The Chipmunk Adventure (1987), a movie made for children, seems striking in its presentation of cultural icons from around the world, suggesting that The Amazing Race is not the first media product to treat foreign people in this way. This treatment, aspects of which are also mentioned in Vijay Prashad’s The Karma of Brown Folk, alludes to the trope of “forever foreigner,” which suggests that although dominant American culture may tolerate, absorb, or incorporate aspects of other cultures, titillation derives from the notion that one is participating in activity that is perpetually Othered and will never be as “American” as apple pie (amusingly, and perhaps rightly, Jennifer 8. Lee argues that this phrase should be changed to “American as Chinese food“) and country music.
Instead of taking the opportunity to truly educate an American audience about the complexities and joys of life abroad, The Amazing Race pushes an ideology that, in large and small ways, reaffirms just how great it is to be American. With a television as passport, we are able to visit distant lands (from the comfort of our couch, no less) and accrue knowledge, if not understanding. We watch for an hour a week and come away feeling worldly, content to accept the manufactured diversity on screen (through composition of racing teams and locations) as substitute for the real thing as we reassure ourselves that we, as White Americans, truly represent the amazing race.