In 1973, actor Marlon Brando refused to accept his Best Actor Academy Award for his performance in "The Godfather" due to “the treatment of American Indians ... by the film industry.” It is difficult to cite who is to blame for negative media images, but the vilification of minorities in media has a long history. Two groups that are particularly demonized today are Black and Muslim men (Muslims being generically “Middle Eastern,” a brown complexion with dark features). Mainstream media depicts Black and Muslim men as dangerous, violent, angry, sinister, and threatening. All of us, whether we recognize it or not, have been conditioned to see others through such stereotypes.
Passing judgement based on race is one aspect of racism that Trayvon Martin’s murder has highlighted. We perceive Black and Muslim men to be violent. We have criminalized them to the point that “prototypical” clothing has become a trigger for suspicion; wearing a hoodie or clothing with Arabic writing are threatening. In the case of Martin’s murder, what he wore criminalized him, his clothing conjured an image of a menacing “thug.” Recent attempts to give Martin a negative image that expand his racial stereotype include reports about his suspensions from school. Plenty of my friends in high school were suspended multiple times. None of them were dangerous. But their Blackness and their Brownness made our authority figures perceive them as such.
We do not fully know what happened the night Trayvon Martin was killed. But we know that George Zimmerman called the police and reported Martin as a “real suspicious guy.” In other words, he was Black. The same happens to Muslim men. When my brother was 10, a White neighbor almost called the police to report that my brother was trying to set his car on fire. In reality, my brother was reaching for his basketball; it rolled under the neighbor’s car. The neighbor jumped to drastic conclusions about his actions because he is Muslim, male, and brown.
Martin’s Blackness and my brother’s Brownness were enough to make them suspicious.
This is the heart of the race problem in our country. We all suffer from this conditioning. Negative racial perception is so deeply entrenched and institutionalized that it consumes us. Some recognize and actively resist these perceptions. Others are privileged to never recognize that it exists. Unawareness is as problematic as both overt and covert racist action.
Muslim and Black communities actively challenge these stereotypes. A brilliant short video created by Howard University students features young, Black, male college students wearing hoodies who ask the question, “Do I look suspicious?” They implore their audience to rethink their assumptions. Tamara Abdul Hadi, an Arab-Canadian photojournalist, has undertaken a project to photograph Arab men in order to challenge stereotypes. We are on the defensive. Like Brando in 1973, we cannot name a specific party responsible for vilifying images. However we must take stances to combat these prevalent images of young men of color.