How is it that the Arab people have come to be so pointedly stereotyped in the United States? Jack Shaheen’s exhibit entitled A is for Arab: Stereotypes in U.S. Popular Culture explores this question, displaying examples from books, cartoons, movies, and other elements of popular culture that highlight the distorted and yet widely accepted categories that we have come to sort Arabs into. Far from viewing Arabs in the light of their rich cultural history and traditions, our society sorts them into harshly defined categories connoting negativity and fear. Most often these categories take the form of the deranged villain, the enslaved harem dancer, and the greedy, powerful Sheikh.
What is perhaps most disturbing is how young we are when we first begin to consume media that promotes Arab stereotypes and anti-Arab prejudice. When we first watch a movie such as Disney’s Aladdin, we are not simply gazing upon a beloved childhood film, but absorbing twisted representations of the Arab race. All three of the major categorical stereotypes are present; Jasmine and her exotic beauty are confined to her wealthy father’s luxurious palace, with the insidious Jafar lurking just around the corner to put his evil plot into motion. Just as the movie itself has come to be acknowledged as a family classic, so too have the stereotypes portrayed in it become accepted household notions of who Arabs are.
Even though anti-Arab sentiment rose sharply in the United States after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, which perpetuated the image of the Arab terrorist, the negative representation of Arabs has roots that extend much farther back in history. Even as many Arab countries in the Middle East were fighting for freedom and the implementation of democracy during the mid and late 20th century, the portrayal of Arabs in American media remained highly stigmatized. Rather than identifying with the peoples’ struggle for liberty, United States media instead depicted the Middle East as a war-torn and backwards region, whose citizens were either crazed fanatics that committed heinous acts of violence, or were weak and powerless civilians.
In recent years, universities and other academic institutions have expanded studies and programs related to the Middle East and Arab culture, and have begun to cultivate outreach programs aimed at shattering prejudice and redefining how Americans think about the Arab people. As Shaheen claims, it is up to the next generation to write the fresh stories that will ultimately help to re-shape our thinking and understanding not only of Arabs, but of the incredible diversity of colors and cultures throughout the world. Perhaps with these new narratives, we will finally begin to see our neighbors not as threats, but as a diverse part of our community.