Too often, much of what we think we know about other people is based on assumptions and stereotypes rather than accurate information. Historically, stereotypes of Arabs and Arab Americans can be traced back to the 19th century and to an intellectual movement called Orientalism. In the following sections you will learn about Orientalism and its origins in European colonialism and expression in U.S. popular culture from the late 1800s. We will examine how Arab women, Arab men, and Arab nations have historically been represented in U.S. popular culture. In each section you will also meet scholars of Orientalism and stereotyping as well as real Arab Americans, whose personal stories will further enhance our understanding of the impact of Orientalism on our everyday lives.
Throughout the 20th century, Western stereotypes of the Arab World and Arab Americans moved from the elite realms of art and literature into American popular culture. Over generalized images of Arabs have been sustained through songs, television programs, films, consumer products, comic strips and national news media reports.
For example, media analyst Jack Shaheen reviewed more than 1,000 movies, from Hollywood’s earliest days through the present, in his book Reel Bad Arabs. Of all the films, just 50 portrayed Arabs even-handedly, and only 12 contained positive Arab depictions.
The harmful influences of stereotypes depend not only on the repetition of distorted imagery, but also the omission of diverse imagery. What is absent in American popular culture are the important images of Arabs and Arab Americans who are business owners, family members, teachers, classmates, artists, engineers, neighbors, and who have made lasting contributions to society.
We use the terms “Orientalism” and “Othering” in addition to “stereotyping” in order to point to how representations are more than about images and perceptions, but can influence policies and impact human lives.