History, stereotyping examined in new AANM Web exhibit

DEARBORN — Where did stereotypes about Arab Americans originate? What effects do they have on us as individuals and as a nation? How can they be defused?

These are just a few of the significant questions explored in Reclaiming Identity: Dismantling Arab Stereotypes, the Arab American National Museum’s new Web-exclusive multimedia exhibition at www.arabstereotypes.org.

Curated by Evelyn Alsultany, the exhibit employs research, vintage and contemporary images, film clips and video interviews with scholars and experts to trace the history of stereotypes and give viewers the tools to identify and understand them. Viewers are asked to record their reactions and responses to what they have learned in the site’s blog, which is continually updated with new information.

Reclaiming Identity goes on to position the history of Arab representations in the United States in the context of that of other minority groups, and offers direct contrasts between stereotypical representations of Arabs and the lived experiences of Arab Americans from the early 1900s to the present.

“Our goal in creating the site is to highlight the discrepancy between images of Arabs — from exotic sheiks and harem girls to threatening terrorists — and who Arabs and Arab Americans truly are in their diversity as human beings,” said Alsultany, an assistant professor in the Program in American Culture at the University of Michigan.

Her research focuses on representations of Arab and Muslim Americans in the U.S. mainstream media post-9/11.

Visitors to the site can become familiar with Orientalism — a term defined by the late scholar Edward Said to refer to the distorted lens through which Arabs are commonly seen as exotic or dangerous in the West.

In addition to viewing Orientalist images from U.S. popular culture over the last century, visitors also will have the opportunity to gain an understanding of Othering — the process by which societies exclude groups from rights — by seeing how this has historically impacted a range of ethnic groups from African Americans to Native Americans.

The exhibit was made possible by the Nathan Cummings Foundation, Ford Foundation, the Kresge Foundation and Arts of Citizenship at the University of Michigan.

The AANM documents, preserves, celebrates and educates the public on the history, life, culture and contributions of Arab Americans. It serves as a resource to enhance knowledge and understanding about Arab Americans and their presence in this country.

The AANM is a project of the Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services, a Dearborn-based nonprofit human services and cultural organization.

For more information, go to www.arabamericanmuseum.org and www.accesscommunity.org.

The AANM is an affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.