Chipping Away at Stereotypes

Around the middle of last year, I heard author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie share the conception of stereotypes. Through her own experience, Adichie explained that single stories, stories that only voice one incomplete perspective, are in fact the root of ignorance. The TED Talk revealed that one sided narratives are the reason we often find ourselves conjuring cardstock images of dry plains, golden-maned lions, and masses of starving yet nameless people when we deign to think about the “country” of Africa. Beyond this, Adichie explained how she was personally influenced by this mentality as Western literature convinced her that the characters of her imagination must “[be] white and blue-eyed, [play] in the snow, and [eat] apples.” Never mind that Adichie lived in Nigeria (no snow) and ate mangoes instead of apples. Because she had only been exposed to one example of a character, Western literature convinced her that all characters should look and sound a certain way. By sharing her narrative, Adichie illustrated the consequence of the single story. Although I admired Adichie’s story-telling ability, I felt a lack of connection to her experience. I believed, at the time, that as an American, I had never contributed to this mentality. However, a recent trip to Israel revealed that I too was not immune to the single story perpetuated by Western media.

In the days leading up to my trip, it became clear that both my family and I had fallen victim to the one sided narrative. The constant coverage of atrocities in Israel had scared us into believing that the journey to investigate our culture would come at a high price. However, what we found on our trip succinctly shattered every misconception we had about the Middle East.

Walking out of the gate at Tel Aviv, my brother held on firmly to my dad’s hand, his backpack strapped on tight, as if preparing for battle. Expecting gun shots to ring in the air, we were surprised to find a calm silence pervading the airport. We were greeted by a friendly twenty-some-year-old who led us to our baggage while he nonchalantly made conversation. Topics included the Cavs’ winning streak, life as a law student, and his interest in moving to Miami once he passed the Bar Exams. We had miraculously made it through an entire conversation with an Israeli without any mention of bomb sirens or extremist propaganda.

Getting into the cab, we peered out the window looking at the city skyline dotted with high rises. The driver recognized our surprise that neither camels nor deserts surrounded us. He laughed in response to our incredulity and went on to compare the threat of ISIS in the Middle East to our fear that Donald Trump would one day gain access to the Oval Office. His joke left me and my family stunned as we found ourselves uncomfortable hearing a joke about ISIS especially since Islamic extremists have become the “He-who-must-not-be-named” of our generation. However, we exited the cab with a new perspective and a quelled fear of our imminent doom.

When we continued to voice our astonishment to Israelis, the most poignant response I heard was “I guess we’re not what you think.” And that is exactly true. Israel was nothing like I imagined it would be, but that brought both the good and the bad. This meant that I, like the Westerners Adichie spoke of, had fallen to the monster of the single story. I too had been surprised to find that boys frolicking around the falafel stand played tag, wore the same shoes as my brother, and used their iPhones to tell their moms they would be late for dinner. I expected bomb shelters and dangers at every turn, yet I was dumbfounded to find aspects of Israel that reminded me of home.

The perspective I gained in Israel was not that conflict doesn’t exist, because it does, but that the Middle East will lose its identity if we continue to accept the one-sided narrative. This mentality derives from our limited window into distant countries, and that window is provided by journalists. Despite this, when journalists are tasked with reporting a compelling story, they will forgo Israel’s history for sake of reporting the conflict. If this perpetuates, we will forget that Israel has one of the best philharmonics on the planet or that it’s making constant technological advances that will soon appear even in our Western lives. Israel will suffer from this mentality as we will grow to regard all conflict-ridden countries as the same and in doing so, will disregard what it is that makes all countries unique.

Logging on to CNN to check the goings on of the Middle East feels like you’re doing the right thing. Maybe it even feels like you are somehow helping to curb the global crisis because you are witnessing the rhetoric. However, what is even better than consuming deregulated news is cracking open a copy of Khalil Gibran’s The Prophet or learning that the boy who washed up on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea didn’t just wear blue pants and a red shirt but was named Alan Kurdi and was three. These small changes are easy to make and can have a huge impact because we are simply regarding people as people, not cutout figures. When we defeat the single story, we chip away at the ignorance that enables extremism in the first place. Suddenly, Israel doesn’t feel so far away, and it can even become conceivable that an entire continent can exist without camels.