Sunday, April 21, 2013

'The Road to Morocco' and Racism - Andrew Covert

          I first saw The Road to Morocco when I was a little kid. If you would have asked me then if I thought it was racist, I probably would have answered no. I might have said that it obviously exaggerated the Arab world, but would have added that such exaggeration wouldn’t necessarily be offensive or problematic. Today, after learning a bit more about what racism really means and the many subtle forms through which it can occur, I would answer that yes, The Road to Morocco was, intentionally or not, a racist film according to the way we understand racism now.
          In her famous work “Eating the Other”, bell hooks explains that racism occurs not only through conflict, but through commodification and sexualization. She writes: “When race and ethnicity become commodified as resources for pleasure, the culture of specific groups, as well as the bodies of individuals, can be seen as constituting and alternative playground where members of dominating races, genders [and] sexual practices affirm their power-over in intimate relations with the Other”[1]. “Eating the Other” is precisely what Bing Crosby and Bob Hope’s characters are doing throughout the film: conquering Arab women through their sexuality and their wit. The film centers around Bing and Bob meeting exoticized, high-class Moroccan women and convincing them to flee away to the West with them where they can be free from the advances of tyrannical and rapacious Moroccan men. What looks like love is actually a restatement of the power relations between white men and women of color, where the former is positioned as hero and the latter as victim.
          This can be explained another way through Stuart Hall’s differentiation between overt and covert racism. Hall describes overt racism as an open statement of a racist position. This is what most people think of when they consider something “racist”. Covert (or inferential) racism, on the other hand occurs through the naturalization of oppressive notions of race, usually through “representations … which have racist premisses and propositions inscribed in them as a set of unquestioned assumptions”[2]. The Road to Morocco, though not overtly racist, indeed contains extensive inferential racism. Arab men are represented as less intelligent and overly-possessive over women.
          One might be inclined to write off The Road to Morocco as racist because it was from a racist era. However, I argue that if we examine such an excellent example of primitivization and exoticism and seriously consider all the ways in which this can be done, we can see that such constructions appear in modern media: women of color are sexualized, men of color are demonized. Through Professor Alsultany’s class, I have grown more aware of all the forms that racism can take. I believe that if more viewers were similarly equipped to recognize the complexity and versatility of racism, they could be better able to identify it and challenge it in the world around them.

[1] bell hooks, “Eating the Other: Desire and Resistance,” in Media and Cultural Studies: KeyWorks. Durham and Kellner, Eds. (Blackwell Publishers, 2001), 425.
[2] Stuart Hall, “Racist Ideologies and the Media,” in Paul Marris and Sue Thornham, eds. Media Studies: A Reader, 2nd Edition (New York: New York University Press, 2002), 273.

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