Discussing the topic of stereotypes and internalized racism has allowed me to realize my experiences with narrow-minded commentary on my ethnicity. As an Asian-American and more specifically an Afghan-American, I have been commonly told that I look Hispanic. This becomes problematic when the response to my true ethnicity is look of surprise, denial or confusion. Numerous times I have had that uncomfortable conversation with people (who share the reaction mentioned above) in regards to my ethnicity. I respond by explaining how my appearance is common within my ethnic community and that just like any other ethnic group we have very diverse features. We not have one static identity. That leads me to think what they expected me to be…darker? Wearing what the west has deemed as the oppressive burqa? Some people confuse my explaining with antagonism and ease off the subject. But my awkward and mostly ineffective ways at explaining the diversity among my ethnic community gets answered with “…ok. But you look Hispanic”. As my cousin once told an individual who commented that she did not look Afghan, “what did you expect? Someone with horns and a tail.”
I always wondered if the common reaction to my ethnicity is rooted to the concept of internalized racism. Through the media, especially the news, these geographic regions have been the face of poverty, war, oppression and anti-American sentiment. Seen as those who have not adopted “liberal individualism” and the capitalist culture that the West has, is a root source which stereotypes form. The dichotomy of the East vs. West rhetoric which leads to prejudgments is critically analyzed by Edward Said’s critical analysis of Orientalism and the cultural ideas that formed its foundation. Being non-western in the west there is a desire to assimilate or “pass” as a privileged citizen in order to avoid being stereotyped. I was even once told that it might be a good thing that I could pass as Hispanic in order to avoid being harassed (especially during the post 9/11 against Afghans, Arab, Muslims and other groups blamed for starting the War on Terror).
Nadine Naber, my favorite writer on gender and cultural politics also exemplifies the stereotypical portrayal of non-westerners. She delves into how imperialist racism has constructed the identity of the Orient as “uncivilized” and “backwards”. The generalized, artificial attributions created by colonial European forces have been and are being portrayed by media and other cultural envoys ever since the Crusades! The “othering” of marginalized ethnic groups in society enforces the desire of assimilation as an attempt to resist the stereotypical representations of ourselves by the culture defining us.
Other resources that draw on the theme of this blog post!
Bell hooks’ Killing Rage is a must read
Watch the film Amreeka by Cherien Dabis which draws on the 9/11 backlash stimulated by prejudiced stereotypes of Arab Americans