In fact, there is no doubt that media stereotypes and representations have wide-ranging influence, but how should we respond to these when they impact our everyday interactions as adults?
Media Smarts, Canada's Centre for Digital and Media Literacy, reports that stereotypes in video games, films, and other avenues of popular culture influence the real-life treatment of protected groups across North America, including:
- First Nations, Aboriginal, and Indigenous people,
- persons with disabilities, and
- people of varying sexual orientation and gender identification.
Moreover, in her oft-cited book English With an Accent, sociolinguist Rosina Lippi-Green, among others, has shown how media stereotypes--even those in Disney films--reflective of ideologies of language contribute to depictions of racial, ethnic, and gender groups in particular ways. These are depictions that have long been a tool of language discrimination in the U.S., as linguists John McWhorter, John Rickford, and others have explained, in separate analyses of courtroom proceedings in the wake of the 2012 Trayvon Martin shooting.
So, if media stereotypes and language ideologies impact young children, popular culture, and the everyday conduct of courtrooms, how do they impact contexts of education abroad? How might it be empowering to speak truth to disarm stereotypes?
"This image that people see outside of America,
this portrayal in music videos and things like that."
Racialized Stereotypes Abroad
You can watch my interview here in Arabic (with English subtitles), as part of a 2018 documentary short I produced on the learning of Arabic through study abroad in Jordan.
Several insights emerged from our conversation that I continue to appreciate:
- The context of our interview provided an important opportunity for the student to reflect on his recent experiences of racialized call-outs while still in the host country.
- The student described a particular incident (that I had not witnessed), in which a local Arabic-speaker made unsolicited comments that openly disparaged his skin color as "the opposite of White," and therefore "bad" and "not beautiful."
- During that incident, it became important--from the student's perspective--to respond directly to the local person's disparaging comments, by using Arabic to explain that did not agree with the person's words and that he felt good about himself.
- Having been referred to as "Will Smith" and "Abu Jackson" by a Jordanian taxi driver in the presence of other students from the U.S., the student later interpreted this as a result of local racism and the globalized, stereotyped portrayal of Black males. As he put it, these were perceptions that singled him out as the only Black student in his study abroad program, making him hypervisible: "There's a greater stereotypical [view] of me, more so than the other students." He expressed the term stereotypical through use of the Arabic words صورة نمطية [soora namaTeeah].
- Abilities to both comprehend racially disparaging stereotypes, and respond on-the-spot in the target language, were key in the student's being able to reflect on the experience as a growth opportunity.
- Speaking his mind in those moments was an empowering experience for this student because it reasserted his communicative language ability, conveyed his strong self-esteem, and demonstrated that he was more than what any mediatized stereotypes might have conditioned locals to expect of him as a Black male and non-Jordanian.
Empowered by Speaking His Mind.
For university students confronted with this discourse while abroad, it can be hugely important to have supportive opportunities to acknowledge the truth of their experiences while abroad. It is also immensely meaningful and empowering for learners to be able to communicate their opposition and dissatisfaction with those that confront them, as well.
Ever keeping with his positive outlook, Laye described the powerful reach of disparaging images of Black males in media:
- "This image that people see outside of America, this portrayal in music videos and things like that."
But this left him undeterred:
- "First of all, I want to know the Arabic language [...] in addition to that, I want to see how [...] people see me. You know, as in 'Black person.' [...] Or as an 'African person.' As a man, as anything. And that's the reason, I think, this experience is a good one."
In the end, I was incredibly buoyed by Laye's strength, self-esteem, and determination. His own positive take on the study abroad experience, despite its ups and downs, inspired me to continue reflecting on my own racialized and gendered experiences as a resource to inform my future ventures into the field. I take this as evidence that whether we are at home or abroad, there remains a clear power in speaking your mind, and speaking your truth.