Young children are very aware of the prejudiced attitudes of the adults in their family and community life. They also are much more aware of widespread stereotypes than adults often realize. Be aware of prevailing stereotypes that young children tend to believe, such as the following:
1. All Arabs have the same culture.
This misguided idea permeates adult thinking as well as the thinking of children. However, the term “Arab” refers to the ethnicity of people who live in a large geographic area, comprising many countries, in the Middle East and parts of Northern Africa. A wide range of cultures, dress, and occupations make up this far-flung ethnicity. Furthermore, the culture of Arab Americans reflects a wide diversity of individuals who are more or less embedded in their heritage group’s culture.
2. All Arabs look the same.
This untrue idea often takes the form of all men looking like “sheiks,” or like the men we see fighting on our TV screens. The women wear traditional clothing (the hijab) or look like a belly dancer (e.g., the princess in the Arabian Nights). And, as a first grader explained to her teacher, in the movie Aladdin, the darker-skinned people are the Arabs while Aladdin and Jasmine, who are light-skinned, are not. Many of the other children agreed with her. It is also important to emphasize that most Arab Americans “look like” other Americans in dress, although some may wear items of traditional clothing.
3. All Arabs live in the desert.
In reality, Arab people live in a wide range of topographical locations—fertile coastal regions, river valleys, and mountainous areas—as well as in desert regions. The Arab world has always been an urban civilization. Most Arabs live in cities, towns, and villages. Bedouins make up about 2 percent of the population in the Arab world. Arab Americans live throughout the United States.
4. All women stay at home.
Arabs and Arab Americans—men and women—engage in a wide range of occupations similar to those of people with other racial/ethnic backgrounds. They are doctors, teachers, truck drivers, computer programmers, farmers, oil workers, artists, musicians, and elected government officials.
5. Arabs hurt people and are scary.
This is the predominant image most children see—especially on television. Stories about the various wars in the Middle East get widespread coverage. The lives of the majority of Arabs do not, nor do the lives of Arab Americans get any attention. This is an especially dangerous stereotype for young children to believe; if it goes un-encountered it becomes the basis for more full-blown dislike, fear, and prejudice.
6. All Arabs are Muslim and all Muslims are Arab.
This erroneous thinking is at the root of much prejudice and discrimination directed at people of Arab heritage. Not all Arabs are Muslims and not all Muslims are of Arab heritage. People who are “Muslims” are members of the religion of Islam, practice different forms of Islam, and exist in almost every country in the world. Interestingly, the majority of Arab Americans are Christian.
Design appropriate activities to counter misinformation and help children resist prejudice. Keep in mind that “Ethnic stereotypes are especially harmful in the absence of positive ethnic images” (Wingfield & Karaman, Beyond Heroes and Holidays, p.138). Be sure to do a combination of developmentally appropriate activities that promote positive images and accurate information about Americans of Arab heritage, and about Arabs in other countries.
The information on this page has been adapted from the important work of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee. Please visit their website to learn more.