Why Stereotypes Will Always Exist

June 7, 2012
Stereotypes and generalizations have relentlessly plagued generations of people for centuries. Today, some claim that all Asians are handy with numbers, that all Jews are stingy, and that all women are terrible drivers. Author Marjane Satrapi, in her novel Persepolis, has attempted to do her part in helping to lessen such inaccuracies against her native Iran and its people. And while she is successful in showing a softer, more relatable side to an otherwise foreign and harsh country, Satrapi herself has been quoted as stereotyping the United States and its actions. Inadvertently, she is living proof that these sweeping generalizations can never truly be dispelled.

Satrapi has openly told interviewers such as Geoffrey Macnab why she chose to write Persepolis, a story of her childhood in the Middle East. It was mainly meant as a way to show the rest of the world that her native Iran is not only made up of “fundamentalism, fanaticism, and terrorism” (Macnab 3). In the eyes of many, her goal was very near accomplished. Satrapi uses her own family and experiences as a prime example of the day-to-day struggles faced by Iranians, as well as their varying opinions and beliefs regarding the regimes of the Shah and Ayatollah Khomeini. It is Satrapi’s experiences like the death of her beloved uncle Anoosh and lying to a Revolutionary Guard about her controversial choice of clothing which show that in the midst of all of her country’s struggles, she, and many others just like her, are actual humans (Satrapi 70, 134). Throughout her tale, she highlights the emotional rollercoaster within herself, which everyone has experienced, and the challenges she faced in finding her true identity under administrations which attempted to stifle outward individuality. Satrapi does succeed somewhat in showing the pure humanity of her misunderstood Iran, but at the same time, she cannot possibly completely eradicate the mindset that countries in the Middle East are full of violent extremists.

Walter Lippman, the man who first introduced the word “stereotype” into the English vocabulary, once said, “For the most part, we do not first see and then define, we define first and then see” (Moore 2). From a young age, people are taught to draw conclusions about their surroundings from whatever knowledge is available. They are trained to seek out what is different in order to learn from it. There are plenty of examples of logic problems for children which include picking the item from a group which does not belong with the others. Nearly all of geometry relies on this principle: drawing conclusions from given information. These particular exercises, though meant to condition the mind for critical thinking, logic, and making inferences in an academic setting, also carry over to other aspects of life. Although the word generally has a negative connotation, stereotypes can be very helpful when they are largely correct. For example, they can be especially helpful in business if they accurately depict how a group from another culture communicates or operates, as they can eliminate embarrassing and detrimental faux pas and help to predict behavior (“Why Do We Stereotype?” 1). However, there are many situations opposite these positive ones which are simply inaccurate and hostile. The belief that all Irishmen are drunks or that all Iranians are extremists are examples of these prejudices (Moore 1). Even so, these generalizations did not stem simply from the imagination. They are based on the information which was available from a given environment, including peers, family, schools, and the media (Moore 2). Because many people do not have the means to travel to a foreign land and experience the country’s true culture for themselves, the information they receive originates mainly from the media that they see and hear. This simple fact is the cause of a vicious cycle of stereotypes: media reports shocking or negative news about others to bring in better ratings, viewers use this material to shape an opinion about those people, and negative generalizations strengthen.

Commercial media is not the only catalyst of social prejudices; messages from the government can also spark them. In 2002, former President George W. Bush identified Iran as a part of an “axis of evil.” The United States State Department has noted that the world’s “most active state sponsor of terrorism” is Iran. Other government officials state that the country’s continued contribution of funds, arms, training, and refuge to terrorist groups pose a high level of threat to international society. Other groups, such as the United Nations Security Council, the European Union, and numerous countries as individuals, such as the United States, have applied financial pressure and sanctions against Iran. Former United States Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has been quoted as saying, “Iran has been the country that has been in many ways a kind of central banker for terrorism in important regions like Lebanon through Hezbollah in the Middle East, in the Palestinian Territories, and we have deep concerns about what Iran is doing in the south of Iraq” (Bruno 1). These characterizations have come at a tense time for America, especially after the horrific September 11th attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon by Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda, and carry more weight than they may have otherwise (Chossudovsky 1). Americans and citizens of other countries of the world are aware of these accusations and take them into account when forming their opinions. Unfortunately, many times outsiders only see the violent fanatics shown to them; not the families struggling as they are.

People are judgmental; stereotypes exist not only because humans let them, but because it is in their nature. Even though they can be false or hurtful, they do serve a purpose. Generalizations are a way to become more knowledgeable about one’s surroundings, and because of this, they will continue to be a part of society. For example, following the December 1941 bombing of Pearl Harbor, many white Americans displayed feelings of mistrust and suspicion to those who were descendants of the Japanese. Despite a lack of convincing evidence and years of previous loyalty, many held the belief that Japanese Americans would betray the United States just like Japanese bombers had. For countless Americans, their negative and hostile feelings were intensified because violence was involved, and they felt vulnerable. The government responded to its citizens’ mass hysteria by relocating over 110,000 Japanese Americans, many of whom had never even been to Japan, to spartan internment camps. This one instance shows that stereotypes cannot thrive in an environment where they are unpopular and held by an insignificant number of people. Stereotypes such as those against Japanese Americans after the attacks on Pearl Harbor were able to survive because they became a part of the collective consciousness of the society, and were seemingly justified because of a traumatic event. The exact same thing occurred with American Muslims after the September 11th, 2001 terrorist attacks. In each scenario, the United States went to war with itself as citizens refused to accept their diverse neighbors, and not just with its foreign enemies. People were very strongly emotionally attached to these occurrences, and so such prejudices remained persistent even when there was evidence contradicting their irrational beliefs to be seen (Moore 2).
Marjane Satrapi has been quoted as saying, “In Iran we have a government that is completely out of its mind. In one way, they’re completely crazy. On the other hand, the United States is just making s*** in the whole world” (Macnab 3). She is a prime example as to why, despite her perceived intentions, stereotypes cannot be eliminated completely. Satrapi attempts to rid negative generalizations of Iranians, and yet, probably due to feelings of animosity towards the United States, she cannot prevent herself from publicly stereotyping another country. Despite evidence of charity and diplomacy on many counts in the past and present, she chooses to believe that America is a constant instigator of trouble. And so, with those three sentences, Satrapi completely contradicts herself by attempting to eradicate one stereotype while simultaneously fueling another.

Even though she attempts to eliminate negative stereotypes about Iranians in her novel Persepolis, and is somewhat successful in doing so, words from Marjane Satrapi herself prove that these generalizations can never be completely dispelled. These sorts of labels are a part of human nature and are nurtured through environmental factors, including family members, peers, social groups, the government, and media. They are oftentimes closely intertwined with emotions and apparent in large quantities of people, and so they cannot be abolished even when there is clear evidence against them. Even though it seems like a chivalrous goal to take the first steps in exterminating them forever, it is clear that stereotypes will never leave the minds of man.

Works Cited

Bruno, Greg. "State Sponsors: Iran." CFR.org. The Council on Foreign Relations, 07 Oct. 2010. Web. 07 May 2011. <http://www.cfr.org/iran/state-sponsors-iran/p9362>.

Chossudovsky, Michel. "Who Is Osama Bin Laden?" GlobalResearch.ca. Centre for Research on Globalization, 12 Sept. 2001. Web. 07 May 2011. <http://www.globalresearch.ca/index.php?context=va>.

Macnab, Geoffrey. "Marjane Satrapi: Of Madness and Mullahs" Independent.co.uk. The Independent, 27 July 2006. Web. 07 May 2011. <http://www.independent.co.uk/news/people/profiles/marjane-satrapi-of-madness-and-mullahs-409478.html>.

Moore, James R. "Shattering Stereotypes: A Lesson Plan for Improving Student Attitudes and Behavior toward Minority Groups." Social Studies 97.1 (2006): 35. MasterFILE Premier. EBSCO. Web. 08 May 2011.

Satrapi, Marjane. Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood. New York: Pantheon, 2003. Print.

"Why Do We Stereotype?" UND.edu. Web. 07 May 2011. <http://www2.und.edu/dept/undncate/ESPB_Program_Reports/elementary_ed/ESPB_Elementary_Education_Documents/student_work_samples/Standard50015.3/50015.3b/15.3bMCTeachingMeets2.pdf>.

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