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Media, Culture and Image: New Resources Promote Media Literacy and Challenge Middle East Stereotypes
By Greta Scharnweber, New York University

Jack Shaheen, renowned analyst of images of Arabs and Muslims in Hollywood and other forms of American popular culture and media, was born in the U.S. to Christian Lebanese immigrants and grew up in multi-ethnic, working class Pittsburgh. As if personifying the American dream, Jack was the first Shaheen to go to college, let alone earn a PhD and become a college professor. It was relatively late in his life that he even developed a deliberate sense of his Arab heritage and identity or began to cultivate an interest in the Middle East region:

So here I am with a PhD, I ‘m, let’s see, 1975, 40 years of age…I’m as ignorant, I can say that openly, about what’s going on in that region, as most Americans [are]. I simply didn’t know. And people might say, “well, you should have known” but I didn’t know! Why? Because I was exposed to the images and literature and news that told a completely different story. I was a product of my environment. I didn’t have access to American Arabs who were Muslim. I didn’t know any American Arabs who had lived in the region who could counter all of these images that had taken place. So I was very naive, very very naive.

As a professor of mass communications, an advocate for quality children’s television programming and a father himself, Jack and his wife Bernice watched with concern as their children began to notice “bad Arabs” in cartoons. His eyes were forever opened to these images which seemed to appear wherever he looked. Despite parallels he found between Arab images and derogatory images of Jews and African-Americans, his colleagues, publishers and the media branded him negatively as an Arab for the first time and deemed the subject unworthy of academic study. With a hardened resolve, Shaheen, assisted by his wife and family, spent the next 40 years archiving mass media and other materials that contained images of Arabs and Muslims. His hard-won publications demonstrate just how negative those images are: Reel Bad Arabs: Hollywood Villifies a People (which only documents 20th century films and was published in 2001, prior to 9/11), reviews more than 1000 films and finds only a dozen positive and 50 neutral images of Arabs or Muslims–the rest (900+) are negative. In the years since 9/11, we have seen these stereotypical images repeated perhaps even with an increased intensity. This indicates an even greater need to build skills to critique and remake our images of Muslims and Arabs. Shaheen cites an Arabic proverb in his book: “Al tikrar biallem il hmar. By repetition even the donkey learns.” His comprehensive research shows that Hollywood and American media have been using repetition as a teaching tool to instill fear and hatred of the perceived “others” of today’s America–Arabs and Muslims, and anyone who looks like them.

As educators, teaching our students how to read and understand an ever-complex web of media–let alone recognize stereotypes and prejudice in it–is a task of enormous importance. In the process of cataloging, preserving, and mining Shaheen’s archive at NYU, I am convinced of the collection’s value in helping us do that hard work. The lessons explored through Jack’s collection and the resources we have culled from his life’s work teach not only recognition of the stereotypical negative, but also direct us to new media that present more realistic and empathetic depictions of Arabs and Muslims. Far from sugarcoating “the truth” as critics might have us believe, Shaheen’s ideal image would present Arabs and Muslims as human beings who, like other groups, engage in a full range of good, bad, and simply ordinary activities.

Just as Jack’s eyes were opened in the mid-70s to these powerful stereotypes, first we must train our own eyes to recognize these images. Only then can we pass the critical thinking skills required to read and critique the media along to our students.

This issue of Perspectives introduces new resources culled from Jack’s collection designed to engage audiences in understanding the history and
development of Arab and Muslim stereotypes in American popular culture. Specifically, scholars at NYU have developed an affordable and versatile portable exhibit, A is for Arab, that is effective particularly when paired with media critique such as Shaheen’s documentary Reel Bad Arabs or by taking a historical look at Hollywood in the proposed Reel Arabs vs. Real Arabs film program (p. 8). We also point you to other classroom tools to counter stereotypes through a resource list (p. 7) and classroom ideas inspired by the 2011-2012 uprisings compiled by Susan Douglass (p. 3).

The lessons we learn through these activities of course extend beyond their applicaiton for Arabs and Muslims. Indeed, comparative analyses of other groups are present in the material and simple to connect with (Native Americans, Africans and African-Americans, Asians and Asian-Americans and many other groups). As we increasingly claim ownership of and seek to understand our prejudices as a society, we come closer to the ideal we preach in the American nation–liberty and justice for all.

Download the complete Fall 2012 issue of Perspectives as a pdf Perspectives Fall 2012.

Categories: Perspectives, Resources

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