Ethnic stereotyping in the media

Writer and CSUS professor

The American motion picture industry once again is reverting to its old bad habits: putting out offensive ethnic stereotypes. The recent depiction of Mexicans in The Mexican has its beginnings way back in the ’50s and beyond. I guess there are still some folks in Hollywood who continue to have a visceral need to see their neighbor to the south as a backward, peasant society.

Over the years, after viewing hundreds of American films, I have often asked myself where the need for negative stereotyping comes from. To this day I cannot quite explain it, except to say that it apparently is an ingrained cultural trait set way back when this country was founded. No one, except perhaps Americans of English stock, has escaped ridicule and contempt through negative portrayals. The Irish, among the first victims, thought they would never overcome it. In America, they were loathed and ridiculed until newer groups arrived: Italians, Poles, Russians, Arabs, Chinese, Japanese, Swedes and many others have all been victims of negative stereotyping from time to time. In more recent decades, it seems, Mexicans and Hispanics in general have been the targets of this mean-spirited practice.

Another question I often ask myself is why Americans of Hispanic backgrounds seldom, if ever, use negative stereotyping of their own in works of art. After all, it is easy to do, and does not require any special talent. What goes around comes around, right? Well, my answer is that Hispanics, particularly Mexican-Americans, have not developed this need—yet. As I look back to my own film viewing, I cannot remember any negative stereotyping of “Anglo-Americans” in Mexican films. American characters, for the most part, are favorably depicted. And the same holds true for Hispanic literature, including Mexican-American literature. As I look at my own writings, I can say I have never felt the need to depict “Anglo-Americans” other than as individuals.

However, just as other ethnic groups in America have assimilated the national need for stereotyping, so can Mexican-Americans and Hispanics. Cultures can change under constant bombardment of negative images. Prejudice can and does beget prejudice. Cultural wars can and do develop within the confines of a society. (Let’s not forget this country’s past inter-ethnic squabbles.)

The question is, do we really want this? Perhaps it would be naive to think that this boorish habit would end without some conflict. It’s not beyond the realm of possibility that stereotypers, stung by some of their own poison, would move to a better place culturally.