Profile: Arab-American author, consultant speaks on racial stereotypes

As an Arab-American, Dr. Jack Shaheen has been involved in changing racial and ethnic stereotypes in U.S. media for decades. Now an author, former CBS news consultant and professor emeritus, he continues to spread awareness of Arab and Muslim stereotyping in the United States.

// Photo by Thomas Delgado

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In the 1970s, Dr. Jack Shaheen’s children would wake up early and enjoy Saturday morning cartoons starring their favorite cartoon heroes, Bugs Bunny and Popeye. One Saturday morning, however, Shaheen found his children watching an episode of their cartoon heroes hurting Arabian characters.

An Arab-American himself, this moment sparked Shaheen’s interest to investigate how Arabs and Muslims are portrayed in United States media. Now an author, former CBS news consultant and professor emeritus, Shaheen has made a name for himself in racial and ethnic stereotyping.

“I just began looking how television portrayed Arabs and I looked at eight years of television programming, everything from documentaries to sitcoms to dramas to children’s cartoons, and that led to my first book,” he said.

After studying years of programming, Shaheen concluded that Arabs and Muslims are mostly played as threats. He added that since Sept. 11, this image has intensified to not just Arabs and Muslims, but also Arab-Americans and Muslim Americans.

“We’ve had monolithic images of hate and distress, meaning we seldom—if ever—see an Arab or a Muslim like a normal human being,” he said. “The American Arabs and American Muslims who were (once) invisible in the media are now being targeted as a threat to this country.”

Shaheen has written several novels on the subject. His award-winning novel “Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People” was turned into a documentary by the Media Education Foundation in 2006. Shaheen said that it was an off-and-on 10 year project that has had a “profound impact” worldwide.

Krista Weigand, UT associate professor of political science and a faculty fellow of the Howard H. Baker Center for Public Policy, was influenced by Shaheen in the early 1990s when she had to read one of his novels in college. She now focuses her time on helping spread diversity awareness to Knoxville and UT.

“Any time there’s stereotypes and racism and simplification of an entire group of people, it’s really frustrating because (…) sometimes governments make bad policies, people are mistreated and in some cases violence against these people,” she said. “None of these things should be happening. There’s no reason based on stereotypes that people should be treated in certain ways.”

Shaheen headlined the second annual Arab Fest Thursday in the Toyota Auditorium at the Baker Center. Weigand thought that Shaheen was the right choice to start Arab Fest because of his knowledge and critical acclaim in Hollywood.

“I think the more people understand different cultures and also get to know people, individuals from those cultures, then they say ‘Oh wow, you’re not at all like I thought these people were,’” she said. “Once people are familiar with those cultures, they won’t be as nervous or scared about them.”

Shaheen said he has seen recent efforts from the media trying to “change the status quo of images.” One example is “Shimmer and Shine,” a Nickelodeon series that Shaheen was a cultural consultant for. He hopes to see this progression continue because the U.S. is the global leader of exporting entertainment.

“I’ve always said that my goal is to see Arabs and Muslims being portrayed like a normal group, no better or no worse,” he said.

Feature image by Thomas Delgado

Edited by Taylor Owens

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