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Rethinking stereotypes about Arabs for a brighter future

Let us start over!

American writer Walter Lippman once said that “the subtlest and most pervasive of all influences are those which create and maintain the repertory of stereotypes. We are told about the world before we see it. We imagine most things before we experience them. And those preconceptions, unless education has made us acutely aware, govern deeply the whole process of perception.” 

We are all born equal. It is stereotypes, however, that make us think in an “us” versus “them” mentality as we start grouping all people who do not look like us into one category. Stereotypes then lead us to ignore all differences between people within these categories. Being from the Middle East, I am automatically thrown into the “Arabs” group. 

“You don’t look Arab! How do you speak three languages? Did you live in a desert? Did you come here to escape some war?” As a Lebanese woman studying in a foreign country, I’ve been asked to answer these questions on several occasions. Stereotypical opinions about Arabs have long been shaped by the Western media and their personal view of the Middle East. 

Edward Said, a Palestinian academic, was one of the first people to research orientalism and how the West views the rest. In an adaptation of his book Orientalism, Said talks about “the constant sort of disparity [he] felt between what my [his] experience of being an Arab was, and the representations of that that one saw in art.”

I like to believe that the world has evolved and people are more educated today, but the truth is we still have a long way to go.

That is not to say that the Arab world does not have its own set of problems. Being part of the LGBTQIA+ community is still prohibited in most Arab countries. Bahrain, Iraq and Jordan are the only three countries in the Middle East that do not criminalize homosexual relations.

I find that Lebanon’s case on this matter is particular. Even though homosexuality is criminalized, there is a still a big LGBTQIA+ community in the country. Compared to its neighbours, Beirut is “secretly” progressive. 

This week’s opening of the World Cup, however, set us back in time once again. With fans coming to support the players from different countries and  backgrounds, they were met with the reality of Qatar’s laws and culture. Qatar’s penal code criminalizes homosexuality, and LGBTQIA+ members could face imprisonment. 

Instead of being proud that an Arab country is hosting the World Cup for the first time in history, I cannot help but feel disappointed about these laws still existing today. 

The BBC decided not to broadcast the World Cup opening ceremony to express their opinion on the matter. While the World Cup is one of those events that should be uniting all countries together, it is creating even more prejudice and hatred towards Arabs. 

It is important to understand that not all Arab countries are the same and that no two people are the same. Even within the same family, views could differ. If we treat people as individuals and not collective entities we can start creating new narratives.

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I’m just a female dirtbag, baby

Ever since first watching the 2000 film High Fidelity in high school, I found myself relating to the record store-owning protagonist Rob, played by John Cusack. Rob was a moody, unlucky in love music snob, too in touch with his emotions and stuck in the past— embarrassingly relatable. 

So, when I heard that High Fidelity was getting a TV remake, starring the iconic Zoë Kravitz as a gender-swapped Rob (now short for Robyn), I was instantly excited. My issues with the film had always been my cognitive dissonance between relating to Cusack’s Rob, but struggling with his toxic “but I’m a nice guy” demeanour—something I found inherently masculine and obnoxious.

Yet, High Fidelity (both the film and the new Hulu show) is shown through Rob’s eyes, as the character often breaks the fourth wall to talk to the camera directly. So when Rob is played by the dreamy Cusack, with his puppy dog eyes, you can’t help but be pulled into his guise, no matter how much of a dirtbag he is.

Watching the Hulu adaptation made me wonder why I felt the need to relate to Rob. I realized that while there has been no shortage of “cool girls” on screen, their range was always limited. The cool girl is never the main character. She’s often a foil placed in opposition to the stereotypical uptight, prissy, feminine character due to her chillness (think the iconic Gone Girl monologue).

In Hulu’s “High Fidelity,” Rob is undoubtedly cool—Kravitz just seems to bring that to everything she does. Yet, no matter how hip she appears on the outside, Rob is still a complex character with as much agency as any male protagonist. Like Cusack before her, Kravitz takes on the role of an utter dirtbag.

The female dirtbag may be a useful subversion of the cool girl archetype. BBC’s “Fleabag” made a huge splash in 2016 arguably due to its realistically messy, horny and self-involved main character, depicted by Phoebe Waller-Bridge. She’s well-dressed and creative, but deeply flawed in her relationships and unabashedly gross. Similar to “High Fidelity,” Waller-Bridge often faces the camera to engage the audience in her outer monologue. Sure she’s cool, but she’s in control of her own story.

There’s a misconception that for a female character to be “strong,” they have to be exceptionally smart, confident and capable. But, how many among us can truly relate to Captain Marvel or Buffy Summers? Not even mentioning these characters’ overwhelming whiteness and thinness. This outdated focus on strength should be replaced by an imperative for truth and realism.

One trend within this new wave of female dirtbag representation is that most of these narratives are helmed by women. The aforementioned 2020 “High Fidelity,” “Fleabag”—and we can’t forget the pinnacle of female grossness—”Broad City” were all created by women.

When women are allowed to shape their own stories, they’re bound to represent a more truthful depiction of the female experience—warts and all. 

 

Graphic by @sundaeghost

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Minorities can have racist tendencies

They say stereotypes are there for a reason. That they wouldn’t exist if someone hadn’t experienced similar behaviour in a number of people from that specific group, and that stereotypes are not akin to racism. 

Let’s sit back and ponder on that for a second. For understandable reasons, it seems that people tread around the word “racism” very carefully, and try as hard as they can to not be associated with it. Because racism led to slavery, and still to this day, leads to discrimination, and downright violence.

But in case you didn’t already know, you don’t need to beat someone with a stick, use slurs against them or look at minorities in disgust to be racist.

When you browse for the definition of the word “racism,” you won’t get just one. The main definition as given by the Merriam-Webster dictionary, is “a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race.” Any other interpretation is a variation of that exact principle, extending it to not only racial prejudice, but an ethnic one too.

Therefore, whether we wish to admit it or not, stereotypes are racist—having an opinion about a certain ethnicity or race based solely on hearsay and social conventions is racist. Here are some examples. 

When someone says Latino men are cheaters who will toy with your emotions until they get bored, and go onto the next, that’s racist. When Latinas are equated to crazy women with attitude, that’s racist. When people “can’t tell the difference” between Far-Easterns, that’s a whole level of rude. When Russian women are always seen as prostitutes, that’s racist. When Arab women are seen as either oppressed veil-wearing women, or sensual belly-dancers with all of Daddy’s money to spend, that’s racist. When Arab men are considered terrorists, that’s racist

Now here is where I get a tad problematic and add to the generalization. When I hear such statements, I get even more enraged when it comes from a person of colour or a fellow minority. Simply because, someone who isn’t the latter wouldn’t be able to understand how it feels to be limited to negative connotations that date back to an age of discrimination. A white person wouldn’t be able to understand how it feels to stay silent when someone equates your people to terrorists because of the perpetuation of a false image.

So, when I hear a minority who has been a victim of discriminatory and crude comments regarding their race and ethnicity participate in this hateful discourse, it makes me sick—to say the least. What’s worse is when a minority uses their status to justify their racism.

“Oh, I’m Lebanese, I get to publicly insult all Arabs, because I am one, and I don’t get offended.” Honey, no. Just … no. Criticize if you must, no one is feigning perfection and claiming no culture has faults. But when your criticism further intensifies an already-racist image, that’s when you need to check yourself. Because you might not be offended, but many suffer at those unjust racist claims—and yes, it is your business.

To be clear, I am not exempting myself from this equation. I by no means am innocent of racial bias, and the tendency to equate something to someone just because of what it says on their passport. But moving to Montreal and experiencing this mosaic of culture made me realize that if I were to stay in this city, and if I just want to be a decent human being, I better get used to getting all my prejudices crushed—and I am not complaining. 

Graphic by Sasha Axenova

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Changing the way we talk about women in business

The business world can be a scary place. I wouldn’t know much about it, because I have rarely stepped foot into JMSB (unless I really had to pee).

The shiny interior and clean glass windows intimidate me. How can you keep the windows so clean, like dude, it’s downtown Montreal.

I have always been an “Arts kid.” Math, finance and economics are intimidating words that I don’t really understand. Although my dad has explained the stock market about 600 times to me, I still don’t get it. Anyways, what I lack in knowledge of numbers, I hope I have gained in communication and critical thinking. These tools have helped me understand the social world and contextualize my experiences.

The other day, I was having a conversation with a friend in JMSB. She expressed her concerns about how the school approaches gender differences in business. Quite like myself, she has a background in psychology, meaning gender differences and bias were no foreign concept. In psychology, we learn about the social construction of gender as well as biological differences. She explained that in business, her teachers often address gender differences with slides that proclaim “women are less direct and men dominate the conversation” without further explanation. This lack of context, explanation and acknowledgement of the trend as a stereotype is not only dangerous, it is enabling the behaviour. With my friend’s arts background, she can contextualize these factors and understands not to take them at face value. As she sits in the class, she wonders how many people around her understand not only that the gender differences exist, but why.

I have spent a lot of my degree attempting to understand the “why.” This is something that I often take for granted; I didn’t know any of this stuff before. For a lot of these business students, they won’t understand the “why” until they are taught. I have learned about toxic masculinity, social constructions of gender and what these concepts do to our behaviour. We cannot keep blaming the business world for not understanding why these gender discrepancies exist if the curriculum consistently lacks the tools to help.

No one is saying that men and women are not different. The gender differences that show up in the business world are real—but they are real because they are perpetuated by society, and not because they are inherently real. That is the issue with how these topics are being presented.

Let’s go over the stereotypes that usually follow women in business. According to The Harvard Business Review, “One set of assumed differences is marshalled to explain women’s failure to achieve parity with men: women negotiate poorly, lack confidence, are too risk-averse, or don’t put in the requisite hours at work because they value family more than their careers.” With these stereotypes usually follows, “women are more caring, cooperative, or mission-driven—are used as a rationale for companies to invest in women’s success.”

All this to say, these characteristics, when presented as rigid facts, help solidify the gender discrepancies in business. As a woman in business, learning about how you differ from men, without breaking down exactly why this happens, can be quite damaging. This is not something to be taken at face value. There is a social responsibility for unpacking gender differences.

I am in no way saying that it is more beneficial to get an arts degree. Heck—I probably won’t find a job once I graduate (let’s not go there), but what I am saying is that there are aspects of an arts degree that should be universally taught. Kind of like how I should know more about finance—and learn how to do my taxes. 

 

Graphic by @sundaeghost

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Let’s kill the cool girl trope

She’s pretty! She’s fun! She likes sports and hot dogs but still looks great in a little black dress! You know her well! She is the cool girl

A trope we see everywhere, whether she’s in the latest action movie, romcom, drama or even manifesting herself in a Jennifer Lawrence’s celebrity persona, trust me when I say —  everywhere. But, here’s a little secret — she doesn’t actually exist.

That’s right. The cool girl is not real, sorry boys! This is not to say that women are not cool, because trust me, they are. This is to comment on the fact that the cool girl we see in the media is made up and simply a manifestation of male desires.

To clarify, I am not saying that women are not naturally drawn to stereotypically male interests; that’s ridiculous. Women are complex, making their desires diverse and vast. I am simply referring to a systemic trope; one born from male writers, directors and producers who create a female character solely to fit the male gaze. It’s not just about her liking sports or fixing cars, it’s that above all these characters must be insanely hot. It’s a crucial prerequisite, characters have to look like Megan Fox or Sandra Bullock before they are even considered on the cool girl radar. People will say, “she’s not like other girls,” but ha! You’re wrong. Friends, she is like other girls, she just might be better at hiding it.

According to a video by The Take, many women go through a phase where they want to be seen as the cool girl and honestly, I can relate. After fiddling with my sweaty ponytail in an attempt to look effortlessly windswept when I was playing soccer with my guy friends, or trying time and time again to look cool in a baseball cap, I have given up. Cool girls might seem effortless, but I can assure you — they’re not.

The Take explains that the cool girl is often juxtaposed with a very uptight and traditionally “girlier” version. This girl is shown to like more stereotypical girly things such as shopping, painting their nails, and does her makeup, a girl who is seen as annoying, superficial or less-than by the male characters and audience. The cool girl and the girly girl are both very demeaning to women and are both portrayed for the sole purpose of living and dying for male attention. These tropes plant deep roots of internalized sexism between women, often turning them against each other.

To be the cool girl you must renounce your gender, separating yourself from stereotypically feminine characteristics, while also being flawless. How exhausting!

Once we identify these patterns, they are very difficult to miss. When was the last time that you consumed a movie, television show or book where there was only one redeeming female character? I have a feeling you won’t have to look very far.

All this being said, things are getting better. Jennifer Lawrence has calmed down, and at the same time, we are starting to see representation of many interesting and emotionally intelligent women on screen.

Can you imagine? Female characters that reflect the multidimensional interests, motivations, hobbies, hopes and dreams of real people! Female characters showing each other love and support and not putting each other down to gain credibility. Movies like Bridesmaids and Gone Girl address this stereotype head on, using humor and even fear to explain the ridiculousness and the damage of continuing to write women this way.

So let’s move away from “being one of the guys,” and let her just be. Who knows, maybe you’ll find that real women are pretty cool after all.

 

 

Collage by Brittany Clarke

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Professional persona vs. public persona

Why we must keep a distance between our private and professional side

Recently, Twitter struck again with a post that resulted in the end of someone’s career. In August, a woman tweeted: “Everyone shut the f*ck up I got accepted for a NASA internship.” A man named Homer Hickam tweeted back: “Language.” To which the woman responded: “Suck my dick and balls I’m working for NASA.”

Hickam replied with a simple statement revealing his identity as a member of the National Space Council that oversees NASA. As quickly as it started, the woman’s heated tweet got her fired from her intern position, according to Buzzfeed News.

Inevitably, the entire exchange as well as its outcome caused a fair amount of backlash online. Some people defended Hickam’s choice to end her internship before it even began. Others, however, went so far as to attack Hickam’s “white-man privilege” for firing a woman because she didn’t mind her language.

Eventually, it was discovered that Hickam was not involved in the decision to fire the woman. Hickam explained that he only replied to her tweet as a warning because he feared she would lose her job if NASA officials saw the tweet.

This brings us to the topic of the day: Should there really be a difference between a person’s personal and professional persona? In my opinion, there should be. Biases and opinions tend to scare some people off and affect how they view others. In this case, excessive swearing smeared a woman’s professional persona. Had she made sure to keep her personal persona, one where she is the master of her own words, different from her professional one, she would not have suffered such consequences.

Ideally, nothing should faze an employer’s view of their employees besides how they deliver the work asked of them. If someone’s competence is not affected by their opinions or, in this case, excessive swearing, why should they be punished for it? However, oftentimes, that is not the case. Too often, employers cannot get past certain values or habits their employees have.

Social media is a dangerous place to venture, and while people may think the World Wide Web is synonymous with freedom of expression, it definitely isn’t. Once a person chooses to use your public persona against you, there is little you can do about it. There is little you can do about how certain people will choose to hurt you and get away with it.

In a perfect world devoid of limitations and social norms, people would not worry about such things. They would be trusted in the professional world despite opinions they have or their way of life. Unfortunately, in our world, people are held accountable for what they choose to show to the public, and not without reason.

Human beings are biased creatures, whether we like to admit it or not. Once we see a person act a certain way, we cannot control the need to put that person into a box or stereotype. At times, that can get harmful. For example, an Islamophobic employer will inevitably let his negative bias affect his choice in hiring a Muslim individual, regardless of the person’s professional abilities.

In my opinion, this is rigid and counterproductive. Excessive stereotypes derail people from possible life opportunities, especially on a professional level. For instance, when one hears a person excessively swearing, one might think they are not professional and borderline disrespectful. Nonetheless, this is the reality of our ever-evolving world, and while some constraints might seem unfair, others––such as keeping certain things private––are deemed necessary.

In the case of the woman on Twitter, she not only swore excessively, but directed her language toward an important person in her field of work—a person she obviously did not know to be of such importance until he corrected her. Hence why it is better to be safe than sorry when it comes to such stories. Ideally, one should not fear their private lives affecting their professional life, because  the profession should only be defined with the work you put into it.

Graphic by Ana Bilokin

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Conversations and the cultural stereotypes within them

One student’s observations about the “French” and “Canadian” ways of discussing

Have you ever heard the phrase “the British are too polite to be honest and the Germans are too honest to be polite?” I really get a kick out of cultural stereotypes. Not the nasty ones that pigeon-hole people into a category to exclude or ostracise them. Quite the opposite. I enjoy cultural stereotypes that bring us together by showing us there are patterns in human behaviour and many of us are creatures of habit. These cultural habits provide some humour to the process of being human and give us something to relate to each other with. Unless those generalities don’t work well together—then there can be trouble.

All that just to ask, which culture doesn’t like to chat? I know that, growing up in rural Manitoba, the kitchen table is the centre of discussion in the home, and as a Française, my partner will agree. But that’s where our similarities on the topic end. I often get the impression that I don’t “discuss” the way she expects me to, and my partner’s method of discussion is one that invariably leads to a fight. So, I am wondering about the whole process of discussion because I’m sure most of us enjoy sitting with friends and gossiping about work or even the banal observations from the day. This is what makes us people; this is what we do, and this is how we exchange our thoughts and ideas. But I’ve noticed I may be going about it wrong. So, what does this have to do with how people exchange ideas? I think it depends who you ask.

As someone from the countryside, this is how I discuss: I make a statement of observation within a group of friends, and it’s either accepted without much pause or it is received in silence. Obviously, the former is the most desired outcome, and this essentially means your observation was met with no real opposition and requires no further discussion. The latter means it was not agreed with, but the other participants feel no need to take it any further nor create a big stink over it. Nice and neat. It doesn’t require the barrage of questioning and scrutinizing that my partner expects from her listeners. Perhaps this is why I get corralled into being called passive or even naïve.

From my observations, this is the “French way” of discussing: Propose an idea and let it be subjected to a hammering of questions and critiques by all within earshot, whether they’re at the table, standing nearby, or even just walking past the café where the “discussion” is taking place.

The end goal being that, even if your observational statement is not true, it has survived countless rounds of interrogation, and you can rest easily knowing you have convinced everyone involved that this is just one perspective of many available to the situation.

Despite my way of discussing and hers, I cannot help but be attracted to those with strong opinions who challenge every goddamn thing I say. As much as it pisses me off, I respect that. I respect people who balk at a theory and take things to task to see just who’s who and what’s what. I love her very much but, even after nearly seven years of “discussing” with her, my Canadian-ness still struggles to adapt.

At the same time, I know that Canadians are not innocent, and we have our assumptions. We are just as guilty of possessing our own silly stereotypes about others. And for that, I’d like to apologize.

Graphic by Alexa Hawksworth 

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