Racial Stereotypes of African-Americans and Arabs in Popular Culture
Social categorization is an inevitable process in our day-to-day interactions. We naturally tend to place individuals into social groups such as men/women; young/old; or black/white/white/brown. Individuals categorize others because it helps to reduce the amount of processing during interactions: social groups provide information about the characteristics of subjects. However, social categorizing has negative outcomes because it creates distorted or exaggerated perceptions about similarities between members of the same group and differences between people from distinct social groups. Although there are positive stereotypes, most stereotypes tend to portray a negative impression. Racial and ethnic assumptions are common in popular culture. Stereotypes about African-Americans and Arabs tend to be distorted, posing a threat to the subject groups. This paper looks at the common assumptions associated with African-Americans and Arabs, and how the recipients are affected.
Defining Popular Culture and its Role in Influencing Attitudes
Culture is a particular way of life of a given group of individuals with common beliefs, customs, and interests. Storey provides a greater insight into the understanding of popular culture and its unique ability of shaping societal norms and values. He first defines culture as “a general process of intellectual, spiritual, and aesthetic development.” (Childs, 2014). Culture refers to the productions that are designed to convey meaning in society including the array of media and art forms like movies, social networking sites, and graphic design. Popular culture, therefore, is the mainstream way of life of a particular group in the present era. Actions and behaviors of youth, who are great consumers of media and art, are influenced by cultural messages conveyed in TV shows, radios, movies, social media, and music videos among other social channels. The values and attitudes disseminated by the media are adopted by individuals who watch/read/listen to the messages. For instance, if a music video or film depicts women as sexual objects, viewers are likely to believe and apply the knowledge in real life. This indicates the power of popular culture in influencing attitudes and values, including racial stereotypes.
African-Americans are widely linked to violence and criminality. The association of Blacks with criminality and violence finds its expression in the series of viral incidents in which White people call the police on Black people, mostly men. Recently, a video of a White father calling the police on a black man entering an apartment went viral on social media and news channels (Karimi, 2019). The White man was accusing the black man of trespassing despite the Black man explaining that he had gone to visit a friend who stays at the apartment. On the friend’s arrival, the White man is seen aborting the call and explaining to the police that the man’s friend had arrived. Later, after the video was circulated on the internet, the White man denied targeting the man basing on race. Although the White man claimed that he was only being cautious after losing his father to a trespasser, it was clear that his judgment was first based on race.
In 2018, we also witnessed a number of similar cases connected to racism. At Yale, a White woman called the police on an African student, Lolade Siyonbola, after she found her napping at the dorm (Victor, 2018). The police arrived and the Black student was forced to show them her ID and a key to her apartment. In another incident, three Black teenagers shopping for prom at Nordstrom Rack store at St. Louis were trailed by the employees who called the police on them. The police let them go after inspecting their receipts, bags, and cars. Lastly, an owner of Grandview Golf Club in Dover Township called the police on a couple of Black women playing golf (Victor, 2018). The police arrived but left immediately after no threat was identified. Such cases reveal the negative attitudes Whites have against the Black people. In the mentioned cases, the fear of people who called the police was disapproved after realizing that the subjects were harmless.
Negative stereotyping of Blacks is also well demonstrated in a study performed to investigate the prevalence of racial stereotypes among White adults who worked with children from diverse races (Priest et al., 2018). It was revealed that the White adults perceived black children as violent-prone, lazy, and unintelligent, particularly Blacks (Priest et al., 2018). As a result, Black children from the age f 10 years were less likely to be considered innocent and vulnerable, and that their age was over-estimated by approximately 4.5 years. Consequently, the children were prone to poorer care and bias from service providers compared to their White age mates. Furthermore, the researchers found out that the negative stereotypes influenced support of policies designed to support the members of the stereotyped group (Priest et al., 2018). The revealed stereotypes are a representation of the views of the larger Whites group and the consequences endured by the minority groups particularly Blacks.
Popular culture also bears distorted views of Arabs, the attitudes being inflamed by the series of terrorist attacks by self-reported Muslims, who are viewed both as religious and ethnic outsiders (Ecklund & Khan, 2012). Although Muslim is a religious categorization, the line between race and religion is blurred. Arabs are predominantly Muslims, therefore, crime committed by Muslims ignite negative attitudes that extend to the entire Arab world. Since Arabs are visibly culturally distinct due to their way of dressing, they are easily subject to stereotyping and prejudice especially after the September 11 attack and the subsequent attacks including the Christchurch attack. However, negative stereotypes against Arabs had taken root even before the 9/11 attack, being fueled by the frequent media portrayal of Arab and Muslims as violent and aggressive (Ecklund & Khan, 2012). In a study that explored attitudes towards Arab-Muslims in America, Ecklund & Khan demonstrated that stereotypes and prejudice were intense in specific situations like boarding a plane or selling an item. The respondents reported heightened fear about being on a plane with an Arab-Muslim, sentiments that may have been triggered by the 9/11 attack.
Arabs, not only in America but in the rest of the world, are viewed as violent individuals and consequently, are discriminated of subjected to stricter security checks compared to other racial groups. Nafees Syed, a New York lawyer and a writer who often travels for business, expressed her complex experiences of traveling due to her Muslim-Arab heritage (Luongo, 2016). She said that she has to report at the airport an hour earlier than everybody because, as an Arab-Muslim, she is subjected to detailed security screening. The stigma of traveling an Arab-Muslim has been an issue of concern in the era of increased terrorism activities perpetrated by Muslims.
Syed further explained that she avoids traveling with her non-Muslim friends because she never wants them to witness the kind of humiliation she goes through (Luongo, 2016). However, when responding to this and other similar cases, the Transport and Security Administration of America said that the screening tends to take longer because it is difficult for scanners to capture images under “some type of clothing”. While this could be true, some members of the group have reported necessary and malicious treatment by security officers, due to their association to terrorism and violence. For this reason, Syed reported that some of her Muslim friends avoid travelling with their cultural clothing to mitigate the potential discrimination at security checks (Luongo, 2016). Such experiences illustrate the plight of Muslims and specifically Arabs in the face of a pop culture with distorted views towards them. Furthermore, stereotyping is intense among people who lack experience with the group, or have had a past negative experience. The assumptions have wrongfully subjected individuals of this group to unjust treatment.
As demonstrated in the passages above, stereotyping poses a threat to the recipients. It is known that stereotyping influences individual’s performance on important tasks (Jhangiani & Tarry, 2014). As a result, favorable stereotypes like “Asians are good in Math” instill confident in the subjects of the group and help them to perform better at the specific tasks while negative stereotypes elicit doubt, leading to poor performance (Jhangiani & Tarry, 2014). Academic performance is one of the areas in which effects of stereotyping have been illustrated. Black students and other minority students in the US averagely perform poorly on standardized exams compared to their White counterparts when other variables are held constant due to negative stereotypes.
A classic experiment by Claude Steele and Joshua Aronson (1995) investigated the above hypothesis and revealed the negative consequences of the stereotype, “Blacks are intellectually inferior to Whites,” to academic performance of the Blacks (Jhangiani & Tarry, 2014). The researchers demonstrated that compared to other score tests, Black students performed poorer in the Graduate Record Examination (GRE) when they were informed that the exam was to text their math ability. However, when the same test was administered as “an exercise in problem solving”, the students performed better. This classic experiment concluded that thinking about negative stereotypes subject to an individual create a stereotype threat. In another similar study, Whites performed poorly in a math test when they knew they would be compared to Asians, who are known to be good in math (Jhangiani & Tarry, 2014). Additionally, White men performed poorer in sports when they were informed they would be evaluated against Blacks, who are known to be excellent in sporting activities.
The existing racial stereotypes on African-Americans and Arabs in pop culture are predominantly negative and they impose harmful consequences on the recipients. Blacks are generally assumed to be criminals and lazy while Arabs are widely viewed as terrorists. These negative attitudes engender prejudice against the members of the groups, threatening their interactions and performance in tasks. Negative stereotyping, therefore, is detrimental and should be discouraged. Although some assumptions might be true about certain individuals, it is not accurate to associate the whole group with the negative character. Also, since negative stereotyping is extreme among the individuals who have little knowledge about the given group, individuals should be encouraged to develop interest in learning and appreciating different cultures to avoid negative labeling.
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