The Power of Stereotypes

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People are judged everyday, whether by the way they look, their religion, nationality, or by the certain qualities they possess. The media has been the number one advocate in influencing our thoughts and has created us to view Arab ethnicity in a negative light.  When stereotyping, we no longer view a person as an individual, but rather as the group he or she belongs to.  Sometimes we never stop to think that the generalizations we have made about these people may be wrong.  We always make assumptions about people based on what history or generations have perceived to be true.   As Heilbroner states in “Don’t Let Stereotypes Warp Your Judgments, “we tend to create stereotypes because it helps us make sense out a highly confusing world.”   At times, we are so absorbed in our own culture and traditions that we become ethnocentric and see things only the way we have accepted them to be.  We must break through these misconceptions and learn to accept others ways of life and thinking.  In some ways, stereotyping can be a good thing as long as others do not instill them in their minds and remain static about them. Stereotypical thinking is an unjust way to judge someone given that it does not represent the real personality of a person. We come to think whether stereotypes can play a positive role and the social consequences that may emerge due to this stereotype.

According to the article, The Myth of the Latin Woman: I Just Met a Girl Named Maria, Cofer explains the many cultural clashes she had gone through, due to the stereotypes many people have of the Latina woman.  For example, she states that Latina women are seen as dressing too flashy and they tend to show more of their body and curves.  Americans make the generalization that these women dress in a vulgar way, but the Latino society accepts it as being a normal way for women to dress.  She emphasizes that even if someone has lived in a country he or she is not native to his or her whole life, the speculations people make about him or her will never fade away.  This is mainly because they have grown with time and people have been accustomed to believe such things.  It is often hard to eliminate things that have grown from generation to generation.  In addition to the many stereotypes made of Latinas, stereotypes have been made about Arabs, and these speculations have seemed to grow throughout time.  Some articles centered on Arabs are very biased and are based on personal experience alone. In other words, statistically, they may be very wrong.  The article “The Arab World,” written by Edward T. Hall, poses a very biased, generalized image of Arabs.  It aims at attacking Arabs, almost degrading them as human beings.  It seems as though Arabs were some kind of species up for observations.  The article claims that Arabs have no sense of personal space.  Hall states, “ Arabs are unable to formulate specific rules for their informal behavior patterns.” (122) He also states, “pushing and shoving is characteristic of Middle Eastern culture.” (118) He over-generalized the behaviors of Arabs most probably based on a few interactions he had with them.  Sometimes Arabs tend be very friendly, warm and humble that people place a wrong image about them and are a bit taken back.  We like to show emotion, whereas in many other cultures it is taught to stay calm and reserved.  Stereotyping is just based on a few misunderstandings that people take to be true about a whole society, without accepting the fact that we are all different individuals.

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All Arabs are named Mohamed, are rich in oil, are terrorists, and are religious extremists.  These are just a few of the stereotypical images portrayed of Arabs. Recently, Arabs have been the center of many stereotypical images.  These generalizations about Arabs were certainly sparked after 9-11.  According to the article “Arabs and the Media,” by Narmeen El-Farra, (Journal of Media Psychology, Spring 1996) Arabs are seen as terrorists due to how the media presents them. Keywords such as, terrorists and fanatics are used to describe Arabs everyday on some news channels.  El-Farra states that even with current events such as the Palestinian Arab-Israeli conflict, American media portrays a distorted image between who the victim and who the aggressor really is.  These misconceptions sparked by the media have created major tensions between Arab-Americans nationwide, who are constantly being judged by the images the media creates of their culture.  In many movies, Arabs are perceived as violent and religious fanatics.  For instance, in the critically acclaimed movie, Syriana, Arabs are looked at as terrorists and ruthless-evil people who are somehow inferior to mankind.  I think this is mainly due to the lack of knowledge or research people have acquired that leads them to a distorted image of Middle Easterns.

Stereotyping creates a big barrier between two cultures both socially and mentally.  An entire religion or ethnicity cannot be judged solely based on one person’s actions.  During the aftermath of 9/11, I was living in the states.  Many Arab-Americans in the area I lived in were discriminated against.  Even those who looked like Arabs were physically and verbally abused and racial slurs were used.  Mosques were vandalized based on the actions of a few extremists.  A large Arab-American newspaper in the United States received threatening voice mail messages from those who just wanted to take it out on individuals who had no prior knowledge of the attacks. Most people were angry and scared but that does not justify their actions against innocent people.  Most of those I knew and interacted with knew of my Arab ethnicity and would ask me questions that would allow me to feel belittled.  It is unjust and unfair that they perceive the actions of those who acted immorally and straight away look at other Arabs in a judgmental way.  They are approaching me for answers that I do not have. Arabs feel that they need to prevent the ignorant acts of others and are forced to take actions to protect those that may be vulnerable to such acts. For instance, the weeks after 9-11 hundreds of Saudi students studying in the United States were given the option to either continue the semester or return to their homeland. This would not have occurred if stereotypical incidences were not happening all across the United States. Even the most educated people today generalize about others and compare their culture to others, instead of learning and taking interest in other people’s way of living and thinking. Most people are too focused on reading things that are based on stereotypical thinking rather than looking for the inconsistencies of these stereotypical images. Generalizations are exclusively made to make groups of people feel mediocre. Most people create these stereotypes due to their lack of communication with other groups of people and their misconceptions. This only leads to lack of knowledge and great ignorance.

From a psychological point of view, stereotyping a person can be very detrimental and lead people to feel inferior.  Before actually getting to know a person these days, we place labels on them based on our prior knowledge, regardless of whether they are consistent or not. We all have positive attributes to give to the world and cannot be judged based on how a group of people, who share the same ethnicity that we do, act. In other words, just because a person or group of people from a certain ethnic background did something wrong, does not give anyone the right to prejudge a certain individual based on that assumption. In this way, we are not giving the person the benefit of the doubt. Once we get to know a person, we can later make our assumptions about them based on factual evidence, rather than just on hearsay.

In the “Myth of the Latin Woman,” Cofer states that stereotyping can be a good thing if one wants to think about it in a positive way. As she claims, it can be a way to win a person’s ‘minute of attention.’ (107) It can also make way for people to erase their misconceptions by trying to learn more about others cultures. All in all, stereotyping can be very misleading and harming, which make people feel inferior and often isolated. People that are stereotyped should not just play the victim role, but create proactive ways to change stereotypes made of them.  In other words, they need to take the initiative to create a new image of themselves.  People who are subjected to stereotypes should stand up for their right to be treated equally, and should strive to change the image that has been to unfairly bound upon them.  Only then will they be taken seriously, and acknowledged for who they really are, and not what society or the media have made them out to be.

Kofi Annan once stated in an Istanbul Address, “We need to get away from stereotypes, generalizations and preconceptions, and take care not to let crimes committed by individuals or small groups dictate our image of an entire people, an entire region, or an entire religion.” (105) I strongly believe that this very profound quote sums up the dangers and misconceptions of stereotypical thinking. There will always be tensions between the east and west, but by creating stereotypes, we only make them worse.  We must all open our eyes to other cultures, ethnicities, religions and be respectful of others ways of thinking, even if it does not coincide with ours.  We must not let the media, which can be very biased at times, take control of our mind and thoughts.  Instead the media and other associations should raise awareness to show our future generations not to base stereotypical portrayal on anyone.  Instead, one should take the initiative to get to know a person for who he or she really is.  If we do not do this, then we are leaving a lot of room for hatred, anger and barriers will remain.  In the end, we are unique individuals with flaws. We must not base all of our thinking on myths or traditions. If we allow ourselves to be consumed by these stereotypes, which are manifested in our minds and cause harm to others, we will never live in a just society.

                       Works Cited

Annan, Kofi. “Stress Basic Values Common to All Religions, Secretary-General

Says.” When Silence Speaks. Pearson Custom Publishing 2008.

Cofer, Judith Ortiz . “The Myth of the Latin Woman.” When Silence Speaks. Pearson

Custom Publishing 2008.

El-Farra, Narmeen. “Arabs and the Media.” Journal of Media Psychology 1.2

(1996): 01 Mar. 2008 <http://www.calstatela.edu/faculty/sfischo/Arabs.html&gt;.

Hall, Edward T. “The Arab World.” When Silence Speaks. Pearson Custom

Publishing 2008.

Heilbroner, Robert. “Don’t Let Stereotypes Warp Your Judgements.” Reader’s

Digest.

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