“ Not your Average Arab” Did we normalize stereotypes?

[13-10-2021 01:58 PM]

BY Ruba Zeidan

Here I was, a human from the Middle East, lecturing in English to a Spanish-speaking international audience at this far away communication school bordering Southern Spain.

Oh, how proud I must have been, welcomed, celebrated, and listened to attentively, talking of media challenges in the Arab world, dissecting my favorite topics of hate speech combat, sexism, and stereotyping.

And I heard it, first quite then loud and clear, coming from the back of the hall, an enthusiastic young man, behind a mask, throwing it at me. “Well, but I reckon you are not the average Arab, Dr, are you?”

And I was baffled for a second before I proceeded to congratulate him for being that honest and brave and unconsciously presenting us with a live, unintentional example of how we perfectly normalized stereotypes. I had no intention to gratify his feeling of embarrassment as he repeatedly apologized for unintentionally “offending” me! But he did not. I did not take it like that anyway.

I honestly thought of it as a perfect example of how we, humans of the world, have come to normalize, to different degrees, such expressions.

“Not an Average Arab”, I hear that a lot on my travels, especially when I choose less trodden by destinations like the one, I ended up at, talking about hate speech to an audience that has never been, and probably won't be for quite some time, to my part of the world.

It has never been easy.

Combating the traditional image of who we are, vs. how we should or should not be, has been quite a struggle. Fortunate for me, I have not been faced with the challenges this international audience thought I might probably had, regarding fundamental rights like education and career choices, however being there, stubborn and alone, thousands of miles away from home, was something I needed to defy some classical “ convictions” to achieve.

A mother for two, with many responsibilities already, and deciding to take the less-traveled road by choosing to study and live away from my “culturally agreed-upon roles” and not only that but also choosing to defend and probably correct a few conceptions concerning my people, the Middle Easterners, was not quite an average standard journey, I tend to agree somehow.

What the young Navvarian thought of as probably an inquiry or maybe strangely a compliment he regretted uttering, does fit all the definitions of stereotyping, a slippery route that mostly ends up in instilling hate speech, and in some cases to verbal or physical abuse.

“How would an average Arab look like to you?”, I ask while I flip through my slides to present few shots of Jack Shaheen’s “Reel Bad Arabs” .

And while the senior students of faculties of international communication and law, fidgeted in their rows, I went on to explain how we, academics, journalists, writers, and media people, intentionally or unintentionally normalize stereotypes.

The pervasiveness of stereotyped representations across diverse media platforms regardless of their type is partly the outcome of complex media production processes which mainly stem from the fear of “others”. Some could argue that this should not be the case in today’s world. Globalization has made it much easier and more affordable for humans from different races to know, understand, and probably embrace each other, but it is not always the case. Especially when at times, political agendas, financial industries, and idealogy nurtures the fear and feeds on the exclusion.

Needless to say, as an Arab woman, writer, and researcher, I find myself many times, being the object of stereotyping as well as the mentor on how to detect and avoid it. It is Ironic yet; quite beneficial, since it enables me at times, to present my Western audience with a first-hand experience of how brainwashed we, consumers of the mass media can be. And how many non-journalistic, and purely political and ideological factors affect the way the news presents us. This irony gives me a front seat to dilute the stigma.

Had I known less, I would have safely said that it all changed after September 11th. But it has been rooted deep in history. Magnifying differences create otherness, and as long as international, national, and country-based media is controlled by autarchic governments, political parties, “misinformed” editors in chief, and propagandists newsroom managers, we will have to deal with stereotypes for a very long time, that is how I concluded my two-hour lecture.

Leaving the university campus that day, I wondered if opting to handle such encounters the way I did that Wedendesy evening in the study hall, first with a slight shock, then with a reassuring smile, and ultimately with a sincere, yet scientific talk on the deep-rooted media myth of “An average anyone” would be my new norm.
At least I was aware enough to detect it, aware enough not to judge it, and fortunate enough, to have the chance, and the platform to refuse “normalizing” it.

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