'The Amazing Race' Saves Africa

10/11/2010 12:27 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

I love The Amazing Race. I truly do. But last night's episode was off. And maybe a little ignorant.

Mild spoilers ahead... but I won't tell you who won or lost.

For one thing, the challenges in this episode, which was the second in a row that took place in Ghana, were really weak. Finding Ghana on a map, jumping rope, and running with a hoop may be standard activities for a student at a British boarding school, but as televised entertainment, they are boring.

But there were bigger problems here. From the beginning, you could sense that the episode was building to some kind of humanitarian crescendo.

First, we got a bevy of contestant testimonials about how terrible life is in Africa compared to the United States. Those are pretty standard any time the show visits an impoverished nation, but this time, we also saw interviews about the school where contestants performed the geography challenge. By comparison, we were told, American schools are palaces.

On one level, these interviews are not a bad thing: It's always helpful to see privileged people be reminded that they're privileged, because it reminds the rest of us to count our blessings and not take them for granted.

However, there's something disingenuous about the show's tacit assertion that its contestants are right when they say America is flawless compared to Africa. For one thing, America is not flawless, and as anyone who absorbs the news or has seen Waiting for "Superman" knows, plenty of its schools are disasters. When contestants imply that America doesn't have these problems and when the show doesn't do anything to contradict them, it makes everyone seem either naive or willfully ignorant.

Plus, this casual acceptance of Africa's horror ignores the fact that not everything in Africa is horrible. I mean, yes, sure... I've never been there, but come on... the second-largest continent in the world has got have more nuance than the American media typically projects.

Of course, I can't say for sure, because I'm pretty much devoid of knowledge about Africa, just like many other Americans. But that leads me to the deepest problem in this week's episode. During the geography bee, we see that almost none of the contestants -- including the Princeton grads -- can find Ghana on a map. The implication is that not a lot of these people know anything about the country they're in. Yet at the end of the episode, Phil tells the contestants they'll be staying an extra day in Ghana to help build new buildings. Or, as Phil puts it, "to give something back to the community."

In other words, despite the fact that the contestants don't know squat about Ghana, the show assumes that they still have the wherewithal to improve it. And that's because of... what, exactly? Their skill with a trowel? The fact that they have cute athletic gear? The fact that Africa, by not being America, clearly needs help?

And sure... there's probably more nuance to what The Amazing Race is doing than what we see on TV, but the story the episode tells boils things down to a pandering, colonialist assumption: We don't know you, but we know that we can help you.

I'm giving the producers the benefit of the doubt and assuming this unfortunate moral slipped by them, but it was still there, massaging my face with its oily hands.