Stereotyping vs. Typing

Miranda Bator
March 6, 2015

Even thirteen years post-9/11, the modern day American stereotypes towards members of the Arab nation are increasing. The average American cannot easily describe the distinct difference between Muslims, members of Arabic nations, and many other culturally defining demographics typically associated with the terrorists associated with Al Qaeda. Because of this common ignorance of Americans, the stereotypes and generalizations made towards Arabic Americans and other Americans of Middle Eastern descent are not only inaccurate but damning to all members of society.

In the short film Think For Yourself, the scene opens with a woman walking down the street, holding her daughter's hand. A man displaying physical attributes of a stereotypical Middle Eastern man—holding a large suitcase—begins walking along the sidewalk parallel to the woman and her child, in the same direction. The woman begins showing facial expressions of fear and holds her child closer to her. As the woman stops walking, a car pulls up near them and three police officers sprint from the car in the direction of the man. As they approach the man, the woman holds her child even closer, anticipating the officers to take down the man. Instead, they run around him.

A white man in the distance turns around, sees the officers running towards him, and immediately begins sprinting. The man is dressed in a very white-collar business suit. The officers begin tackling him, putting him in handcuffs, and grabbing his suitcase out of his hands. One of the officers removes a large bag of pills from the suitcase and the officers begin escorting him to the police car.

In the background, the Middle Eastern-looking man is shown with what appears to be his two children and his wife. He pulls a scooter out of the suitcase and hands it to his daughter. He grabs his son and begins carrying him on his shoulders and walks away with his family. A smile grows on the woman's face and she resumes walking with her daughter.

This short film demonstrates a very powerful message which is prevalent in our current society: stereotyping. The term "othering" is a common practice of perceiving anyone other than our own personal demographics as an "other." This is what builds up personal stereotypes and prejudices in our culture. Isra El-beshir, the Curator of Education and Public Programming of the Arab American National Museum, explains the difference between "typing" and "stereotyping" in terms of how humans make sense of the world compared to having a fixed, essential character which generalizes a certain type of person.

Typing is a human trait; it cannot be avoided and is healthy. Stereotyping is not a natural habit; it is learned from those around us. In the short film Think For Yourself, the Caucasian woman is unintentionally teaching her child to fear men who fit the traditional physical description of an Arabic/ Middle Eastern/ Muslim man (depending on her personal views and stereotypes). The young girl will view her mother's behavior and most likely exhibit similar activities based on how she views her mother.

However, there was nothing to fear from this man. He was casually meeting his family in the city. So why did the Caucasian woman fear him? If it was a white man walking down the street, would she have feared him? Obviously not, as demonstrated by the police officers tackling the drug-dealing Caucasian man. She didn't bat an eye at that man but was very visually apprehensive about the Middle Eastern-looking man.

How is this message damning to our nation? It shows how stereotyping can shelter us from real, imminent dangers in our modern times. After 9/11, people all over the world began to label Arabs as "terrorists" or "non-terrorists," meaning dangerous or helpful to our nation. There is no in between anymore; no Arab-American can live as a normal human being. What people do not think about is that there was not a single Arab-American associated with the terrorist attacks of 9/11. As El-beshir explains, only foreign Arabs were involved in the attack.

The message behind Think For Yourself, is clear. Stereotyping of Middle-Eastern/ Arab/ Muslim people can negatively affect people in many situations. A person who looks "normal" or "safe" could very well be the next terrorist attacker. How are we to know who is a terrorist and who is not? The answer is that there is no way to know. Stereotyping is a useless practice that only inhibits the growth of cultural awareness and acceptance into the "Melting Pot" that our country is assumed to be seen as.

Click on the screen capture from Think For Yourself to watch the film.