• David Wolfe Bender

OPINION: Inclusive, holistic education will resolve the stereotyping of cultures (work sample)

The following article was originally published as a part of the High School Journalism Institute at Indiana University in July 2019.

Beth Applegate spoke at Indiana University's High School Journalism Institute (Photo Credit: IU Media School)

“Captain Phillips” dramatized the Maersk Alabama hijacking of 2009, where Somali pirates hijacked the ship, wielding machine guns to assert their violence. The movie pitted a brave American hero against a group of Somali aggressors. In the James Bond film “Tomorrow Never Dies”, Asian actress Michelle Yeoh portrays a Chinese secret agent. But instead of displaying her brains and physical strength, the writers force her into a contained and quiet role, opposite that of her Western counterparts, who are fierce and brave fighters. 

These situations, when normalized across the industry, are examples of priming: an unintentional, but dangerous tactic to reinforce a viewer's opinions of a race, gender, or religion. Priming, when paired with the subsequent stereotyping that may occur, sparks the racism and misleading news coverage that we see presently.

Academic Jack Shaheen’s study of 1,200 depictions of Muslims showed that 97% of depictions of Muslims are unfavourable, typically depicting Arabs and Muslims as terrorists or enemies (“Iron Man,” for example, features hero Tony Stark fighting a group of extremist Muslims). Seldom do movies feature a Muslim protagonist. 

Of course, none of these films accurately reflect the populations they portray. Implicit biases developed from the inaccurate film portrayals may lead to irrelevant judgements and unjust stereotyping of innocent people who are plagued by the associations made to any of their various cultural identities. Muslims start to be viewed as terrorists, Asians viewed as quiet and passive and Africans viewed as plagued by war and famine.

Behaviour analyst Beth Applegate says that implicit biases can’t be completely reduced, but reassures that consistent education can be the key to combating stereotypes. Unfortunately, the American public school system is failing in this category due to its monopolization of Christian-based literature, history involving Europe and the endeavours of white men and many other exclusive topics in the classroom.

The College Board offers an entire class dedicated to European history, while to get a more holistic picture of African history, students must take Comparative Government, which many schools do not offer. Even those who do take it are only exposed to Africa for 16% of the class, and it only focuses on Nigeria. Their World History curriculum will soon be amended, not to include more of Africa, the Middle East, or Asia, but to exclude it. 

While the war on implicit biases at the subconscious level may seem fruitless, there are battles to be won at a conscious state. Controversial conversations should be facilitated to help students comprehend important issues. Curriculums must be altered to educate about cultures from all corners of the map. Doing so will allow students, our future, to distance themselves from the stereotypes of any culture. In turn, this will give birth to a new generation of leaders who will portray foreign groups for who they really are and not based on what role someone from their culture plays in a movie. 

© 2020 by David Wolfe Bender.

Photos courtesy of the Freedom Forum Institute.