Tag Archives: discrimination

Crashing Stereotypes

If you watch Crash, at first you would think the movie is racist. But what is racist, and how do we judge it? While the movie throws many racial language and images, it does not really tell us what is racist. It does, nonetheless, draws an interesting picture of what racism is. Racism stems from ignorance.

Typical stereotypic images presented included white district attorney buys off a black cop, Hispanic man with shaved head and tattoos, and Persian woman wearing hijab are prevalent in the movie. It is up to the viewer to judge who is racist among them. As the movie unfolds one finds interesting twist: those we thought were victims turn out to be offenders, and vice versa. For example, a Persian man is pictured trying to buy a gun. The all-proud American shop owner, irritated by the man’s inability to speak well, refuses to carry out the transaction and asks him to leave. The man is upset because he thinks he was discriminated against by the shop owner. Later, the Persian man tries to commit a murder. And he failed. Initially, I had a clear picture of who is the victim, but later in the movie that changed. Now, it is not just black and white. I’m not justifying the actions of either men but simply saying that I’m more aware of the circumstances that not only allowed the American dude to refuse the Persian the transaction, but also that made the latter almost commit a crime. I think being aware of these complexities helps us better understand people, ourselves and our biases.

Another example is a white male policeman pulls over a black couple in a Cadillac Escalade. The cop searches the affluent couple, touches the wife inappropriately in a defying gesture, waiting for the couple to react so he can arrest them, or to apologize for something they have not committed – humiliate them. The cop’s white partner protests initially but submits eventually. The movie establishes two things here: institutionalized racism and white supremacy. Clearly, it was race of the couple what prompted the cop to stop and humiliate them. So, I developed a negative attitude towards this cop. I made assumptions based on that one incident. Later, however, the cop almost lost his own life saving another’s of a black person during a car accident. Ironically, it was that same person he searched, touched inappropriately earlier. So, I think these conflicting notions made me slightly at unease calling the cop racist. I mean he IS racist for pulling over the black couple, but he is also NOT racist because he saved the life of a black person..?

Apart from that, in the movie, men are depicted as leaders, whereas women as servers. Examples range from a black secretary and white district attorney, to a Hispanic cop as black detective assistant. Movie starts with a scene of two women in a car accident: Asian and a Hispanic. LA officer writes a report and talks to victims, trying to calm them down and control the situation. Sitting in the car, next to the Hispanic women, is a police detective who investigates a crime scene. He gives orders to cops – who appeared to be mostly women work under him. Furthermore, I noticed that women are generally silenced and unheard. For example, the district attorney’s secretary spoke only a line or two in the movie; district attorney’s wife was often ignored. I believe that the movie not only address these issues in an impartial way, but also helps us examine ourselves from an outsider perspective. Do we think of women like that when we go on our daily lives? Is that how we view women at work, school, etc.?

I think this movie really helps us examine racial and social complexities from afar and so we can educate and correct ourselves when we err. I don’t know, just thought this is something we can ponder.

Artificial Pluralism in American Society

America is a nation of immigrants. Since its inception and formation of the republic America has attracted various peoples. They learned that pluralism is essential to forge a civil society. America has been struggling since to create a pluralist, accepting social order that is torn between race, gender, and hyphenated identity. Americans of Arab descent live in a pluralist society in spite of growing, institutionalized, anti-Arab sentiments. Film industry has historically used Arab-Americans to convey ideas of anger, violence, and death. Movies such as Crash, Don’t Mess with the Zohan, and Amreeka project a false image of Arab-Americans as foreigners, inexperienced people with an extravagant worldview that clashes with European-American culture.

In order to understand how artificially pluralist American society is, one ought to examine sincere social pluralism. Pluralism is a guiding principle which states that different views, groups coexist equally. Coming from a not-so-pluralist society, I have a trained eye that recognizes injustice and misrepresentation. I recently immigrated to this country and was given an alien number, not so long ago became a permanent resident, and soon I will become a US citizen. Although I have not spent long enough time to understand the culture per se, I think I know quite a lot. I consider myself part of this society. People like to think of themselves as accepting and tolerant, but in reality they seclude “the other” and hyphenate them, at best. I think that Paul Haggis, the director of Crash, does a good job addressing issues of racism and stereotypes for they communicates to the viewer how intolerant, or ignorant really, we are towards those who are different. This is evident through depicting blacks as thugs, Mexicans as locksmiths, Arabs as terrorists, and whites as influential.[1] By casting everybody as different, one effectively fails to make a pluralist society. Nationally, America is a very diverse country where people form and debate various ideas and beliefs to govern their lives and suit their social structure. Internationally, however, America is far from diverse. In fact, I would argue that the United States has an exclusivist, somewhat distrustful, worldview towards the world. Perfect example of this is exporting “democracy” and civilizing people abroad.

Arab-Americans are not only vilified in visual media and culture, but also portrayed as naïve, ignorant, and alien. Don’t Mess with the Zohan is filled with such notions.[2] Zohan, the protagonist and counter-terrorism Israeli soldier, played by Adam Sandler, seemed to be troubled by how uncivilized and quarrelsome the terrorists he fights are, namely Arabs. The movie not only portrays Arabs as barbaric, but also implies that Israel has the right to demilitarize and kill off Palestinians. This one-sided message echoes many sentiments championed by either AIPAC or policy makers in Washington DC. When I arrived the US I noticed that a considerable number of “educated” people base their opinion off of media and film industry, especially those who have not been to the Middle East or Israel.

Zohan moves to America in order to start a new life where he finds comfort and peace of mind. He meets a nice girl who happens to be Palestinian with whom he wants to settle. The only problem I have with this is that Zohan does not try to address problems in his home country. Rather, he leaves for the US, a more advanced, accepting country, to get a job and better his standards of living. While in the US, Zohan comes in contact with Arab-Americans. The movie here restates how backward and quarrelsome Arabs are indicating that our stereotypes of Arabs in the Middle East can be applied to those in the US. The Director of the movie goes as far as to show a Palestinian cab driver trying to bomb the shop where Zohan worked. The proess of acquiring the bomb wrongly shows that every Arab has easy access to bombs and to Hezbollah – anti-Israel organization that is viewed by both the United States State Department and the movie director as a terrorist group. While I’m not defending terrorists or Hezbollah, I think juxtaposing these images together is lethal to public opinion and those unfamiliar with the culture and people. If anything I believe that the movie augments people’s biases towards Arabs post 9/11.

The story of Arab-Americans is seldom told by mainstream media. Americans of Arab descent are doctors, lawyers, engineers, and entrepreneurs who enrich their society and improve the quality of life as much as those of European descent. Misrepresentation of Arab-Americans saturates U.S. popular culture starting with Disney’s Arabian Nights. Aside from glorifying Aladdin and Jasmine – who are conveniently light-skinned – and vilifying dark-skinned characters, the opening song describes home as “barbaric” where people “cut off your ear if they don’t like your face.”[3] It is not a surprise, then, for children to grow up having an inaccurate image of Arabs that persists through their life.

This “barbaric” notion was especially cemented after events of 9/11 and emergence of radical, militant Islam. Very few Muslim Arab-Americans endorse Al-Qaeda and fewer than one in ten Americans think suicide bombing is justified – that is less that 1% of Muslim Arab-Americans.[4] Dismissing all Arab-Americans as Muslim terrorists is preposterous. Neither all Arabs are Muslims, nor are all Muslims Arabs. Arabs, speak Arabic and share a common ethnic heritage, originated from the Arabian Peninsula before migrating north and westward. Muslims, however, represent a religious group that is not necessarily linked to an ethnic heritage. Arabs, Persians, Asians and so on can be Muslims; Arabs can be Christians, Jews, or non-religious.[5] The reason, I think, why it is assumed that all Arabs are Muslims is because Islam was founded in the Arabian Peninsula and the Quran is written in Arabic. But regardless, violence and terrorism is discordant with the core values and worldviews of Arab-Americans who immigrated to this country to better their standards of living.

Discrimination against Arab immigrants was noted in American society since the beginning of the twentieth century.  Arabs were perceived as parasites because they shipped money back to their home countries. Assimilation of Arab immigrants to the new culture meant learning new language, shedding old loyalties, and actively participating in society. Cherien Dabis is a perfect example of a first generation Arab-American who was “neither fully American nor fully Arab.”[6] She directed Amreeka which tells the story of a Palestinian immigrant who struggles to fit in a pluralist society.[7] I generally enjoyed the movie and thought it portrayed relatively accurately some of what immigrants – like myself – go through in the process of leaving their homeland and assimilating to a new culture. For example, I could relate almost vividly to the scene where Muna, the Palestinian protagonist, was saying goodbye to her mom and brother. I felt, however, that Dabis herself makes assumptions similar to those found in Crash and Don’t Mess with the Zohan in that Arabs are lost, naïve, and simply awkward to fit in the new culture. While there was not much of a language barrier, Dabis stressed the cultural barrier between Muna and her new society. It seemed as if clumsy Muna who lost her savings at the airport and advertised weight loss cream at a fast food restaurant was not fit for an American society.

Furthermore, I could not relate very much to the movie as I thought I would, especially given my own personal experience as an immigrant. Overall, I found her depiction of anti-Arab racism is a bit exaggerated. Although anti-Arab and anti-Muslim sentiments were used in the movie to picture the sort of racism Arabs go through, I believe that it had a reverse effect. Using too much racist remarks and comments to illustrate intolerance is in and of itself wrong. Dabis fell in the trap of perpetuating the same stereotypes film industry sells to people.

Pluralism is an idea similar to ecumenism and the notion of unity in a society comprised of different groups. America as a nation is extremely diverse and, paradoxically, greatly segregated. People are split into different groups according to their race, beliefs, and other factors, or have their identities hyphenated such as Arab-Americans. I believe that American society is saturated with explicit anti-Arab sentiments championed by the film industry. Intolerance stems from ignorance which is perpetuated by media. In order to have a pluralist society, we need to challenge our beliefs, avoid generalizations, and accept others for who they are regardless of their affiliations and physical characteristics.

[1] Crash. Dir. Paul Haggis. Perf. Don Cheadle, Sandra Bullock, Thandie Newton. Lionsgate, 2004. Film.
[2] Don’t Mess with the Zohan. Dir. Dennis Dugan. Perf. Adam Sandler, John Turturro, Emmanuelle Chriqui, Nick Swardson, Lainie Kazan, Rob Schneider, Ido Mosseri. Columbia Pictures, 2008. Film.
[3] Wingfield M, Bushra K. Arab Stereotypes and American Educators. Social Studies and the Young Learner. V7 N4 p7-10 Mar-Apr 1995. [web]. Retrieved March 15, 2013. http://www.adc.org/index.php?id=283
[4] Richard W., Greg S. Little Support for Terrorism Among Muslim Americans. Pew Global Attitudes Project and Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. Pew Research Center. December 2009. [web]. Retrieved March 14, 2013.  http://www.pewforum.org/Politics-and-Elections/Little-Support-for-Terrorism-Among-Muslim-Americans.aspx
[5] The Global Religious Landscape: A Report on the Size and Distribution of the World’s Major Religious Groups as of 2010. Pew Research Center. December 12. [web]. Retrieved March 14, 2013. http://www.pewforum.org/global-religious-landscape-exec.aspx
[6] Director Cherien Dabis straddles two worlds. Reed Johnson. Los Angeles Times. 09 04, 2009. [web]. Retrieved March 28, 2013. http://articles.latimes.com/2009/sep/04/entertainment/et-dabis4
[7] Amreeka. Dir. Cherien Dabis. Perf. Nisreen Faour, Melkar Muallem, Hiam Abbass, Alia Shawkat, Yussuf Abu-Warda, Joseph Ziegler, Miriam Smith. National Geographic, 2009. Film.