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(Mis)Perceptions of Arabs and Arab Americans: How can Social Studies Teachers Disrupt the Stereotypes?



A social issue that has leapt onto the front page of newspapers and Facebook news feeds in recent years is the stereotypical depiction of Arabs and Arab Americans. In short, within the United States, Arabs are viewed as terrorists and extremists (Altwaiji, 2014; Gerhauser, 2014; Klepper, 2014). The voice of the moderate Arab is silenced within media portrayals and general discourse in favor of the minority of Arabs who advocate for and commit terrorist acts (el-Aswad, 2013). Arab American communities, in turn, have often faced discrimination (El-Haj, 2006; Merskin, 2004; Wingfield, 2006) or been largely omitted from discussions of American society (Eraqi, 2015b; Naber, 2000; M. Suleiman, 2000). On the international stage, the face of the Arab is that of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and Al-Qaeda. The stereotype of the Arab as terrorist is not limited to news headlines. Morgan (2012) and others argue that an array of popular cultural outlets, including Western media (Elbih, 2015), video games (Šisler, 2008), and political discourse (Merskin, 2004; Nimer, 2007) perpetuate this depiction. Unfortunately, research suggests that social studies curricular materials do little to combat this image. For example, in a recent study of five secondary U.S. history textbooks, Eraqi (2015b) found that Arabs and Arab Americans were either omitted or primarily “mentioned during times of tension, violence and conflict” (p. 71). Recent analysis of world history (Hantzopoulos, Zakharia, Shirazi, Bajaj, & Ghaffar-Kucher, 2015; Morgan & Walker, 2008) and other social studies textbooks (Morgan, 2008) has found similar results, suggesting that the social studies curriculum too often reinforces common misrepresentations, presenting stereotypical portrayals of Arabs as violent and ignoring the inherent linguistic, religious, social, and cultural diversity found in the Arab world. In the face of this pervasive caricature—the Arab as terrorist—an important question arises: How should social studies teachers address public portrayals of Arabs and Arab Americans? The question cuts across disciplines within the social studies, encompassing a range of topics including the role of government, foreign policy, media studies, terrorism, race, gender, and equality. In this chapter we begin by asking the deceptively simple question: Who are Arabs? We then present a global education framework, which we employ to offer suggestions for social studies teachers regarding practices and resources that can contribute to the disruption of stereotypical portrayals of Arabs and add depth to classroom instruction and dialogue.