By Professor Evelyn Alsultany

To a certain extent, stereotyping is part of the human condition. Everyday, we take mental shortcuts to simplify information. Stereotypes become problematic, however, when we assume that all people in a particular group (racial, ethnic, gender, sexual, religious, etc.) are the same or can be understood through a simplistic category.

Stereotypes gain their power through repetition. Through repeating the same few images of a particular group of people, it comes to stand in for what we think we “know” about them. If we have never been to the Middle East or do not know Arabs, then it becomes easy to form an idea of what we think the Middle East is – not because of one image, but because of repeated images that reinforce the same message – for example, that Arabs are uncivilized, violent, and hate freedom.

Argosy pulp fiction novelIMAGE: Argosy pulp fiction novel, Jan 20, 1934, vol. 244 no. 2. Image from, also in the Jonathan Friedlander collection.

People often ask me if I think Arabs should never be portrayed as terrorists. My response to this question is that the issue is not that Arabs should not be portrayed as terrorists. Rather, the issue is that they are rarely portrayed in other contexts. If we had a field of representations in which Arabs and Arab Americans were portrayed as fathers, mothers, friends, neighbors, doctors, government officials, artists, kind, generous, as well as evil, greedy, pathological, terroristic, extreme, etc. – as heroes, as villains, as everyday people - then the danger of a repeated image or story would lessen.

This is akin to watching portrayals of European Americans in the U.S. media. If there is a story about a white man who is a serial murderer, it is regarded as one story, not as a story that is representative of all white men because we have so many other stories of white men as heroes, fathers, civil servants, everyday people that a few portrayals do not threaten to stereotype all white men.

Sheet music, A Cabaret ‘Neath the Old Egyptian MoonIMAGE: Sheet music, A Cabaret ‘Neath the Old Egyptian Moon, 1915. Courtesy of UCB, website source

Breaking stereotypes is not a matter of simply creating positive images to counteract the negative images. Many of the images of Arabs in the history of popular culture have not necessarily been negative - such as the belly dancer, who is exotic and pleasurable - but they have been limiting nonetheless. The issue is one of having access to a diverse field of images so that one representation does not have the power to represent an entire group of people. There are 300 million Arabs, and 1.2 billion Muslims, in the world and it is simply not possible to generalize 300 million or 1.2 billion people through a reductive category with any accuracy.