Remembering Dr. Jack Shaheen: Pioneer who put media misrepresentation of Arabs on the map
By Will Youmans/Contributing Writer
Anyone who has written a word about Hollywood’s misrepresentations of Arabs owes a debt of gratitude to Dr. Jack Shaheen. His legacy is even more pronounced for the generations of media scholars whom he mentored and inspired.
When the professor, activist, and lecturer passed away July 10, 2017, Dr. Shaheen left behind a rich body of work that catalogued, analyzed, and criticized a history of Arab misrepresentation as old as the American media industry itself.
Over the years, the predominant stereotypes shifted from romantic seducer of helpless women, to the harem-owning brute, white-robed oil tycoon and terrorist. Dr. Shaheen watched it all and described this evolution at length in numerous articles, public lectures, and books.
For Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People, he devoted eight years to observing and tracking more than 200 televisual media programs: from movies to television shows, documentaries, and children’s shows. What he saw on commercial television alarmed him.
He wrote passionately about how the repetitious portrayal of a people as cruel and barbaric was not just inaccurate and demeaning, but it harmed especially Arab-American children. These images would make them feel ashamed about their Arab background. And those Americans with little exposure to Arab culture came to see them through a skewed lens of ignorance. The echoes in the hate crimes, Islamophobia, and discrimination still continue to worsen day by day.
There is no denying that Dr. Jack Shaheen was a trailblazer, and anyone charting a new course would face resistance. He began raising these issues in the 1970s, at a time when academia was just starting to address media representations of minority groups as a course of study. Though, as Dr. Shaheen told it many times, it was very slow to get mainstream America to embrace his work. He faced opposition as a researcher of Arab descent, writing about a matter so close to his identity.
In 2014, Dr. Shaheen told an audience at the Palestine Center about his momentous struggle to publish his first paper on the portrayals of Arabs — likely the first one in western social science. Though he would eventually write an influential book, The TV Arab, based on the article on which he spent three years trying to place it in an academic journal. He recalled receiving dozens of rejection letters. He liked to cite one from an editor who said that the article could not be published because then “someone else would write an article about their particular group.” While the editor flattered the writer by saying “it wouldn’t be nearly as well written as yours;” the implication was that an Arab voice could never stand on its own.
Dr. Shaheen was far too polite to call this what it was. There had been a robust double standard that denied the airing of Arab perspectives without being balanced off by pro-Israel speakers, though the reverse was rarely true. He started working on this issue when perceptions of Arabs were more politicized than ever. The oil embargo, airplane hijackings, and the Lebanese civil war had Americans on the edge, and far too many people resorted to simplifications to make sense of happenings.
His difficulties in getting his work published began once he was branded “the Arab professor.” Though he had a reputation as a fine academic before writing about Arab issues, his proposals for research funding faced rejection because it was seen not as academic, but as “propaganda.”
Rather than giving up and leaving the fight to the next generation of Arab-American faculty, the tireless professor pushed forward, writing for the public, authoring reports for advocacy organizations, and even consulting on Hollywood productions. He built his interest into a legitimate topic of study that many graduate students and researchers have pushed forward since then. And it was all advanced by Dr. Shaheen’s ceaseless intellectual energy.
One of his lasting legacies is his impact on a cadre of journalists, communication specialists, and professors who all read his writing, heard him speak, or interacted with him. They became more attentive to the problems he raised and more vigorous in trying to correct them.
I would like to think the representations of Arabs and Muslims in both news and fiction has become more nuanced thanks to Dr. Shaheen. I write this knowing he would be the first to say there is a lot of room for improvement.
One of the many ways Dr. Shaheen lives on is in all the lives he touched with the Jack G. Shaheen Mass Communications Scholarship Award that the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee gives out annually at its convention. I was one recipient, among many.
Most memorably, the letter informing me of the prize came with a kind, uplifting, hand-written note. I remember so vividly meeting him and his wonderful wife Bernice when I collected the award. Whenever I saw him, he always had a bright twinkle in his eye. It showed the enthusiasm he exuded each time we spoke. I will forever miss that.
–William Youmans is the author of the recently published An Unlikely Audience: Al Jazeera’s Struggle in America.