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Jordan Leffel

Is Television Teaching Us About Race and Religion in America?

There are countless amounts of variations in religions, races and ethnicities of people in American society today. In the past ten years, I have noticed a rise in the amounts of stereotypes that are portrayed by actors on television. I have had life experiences with many people of different backgrounds and I firmly believe that television has accurately depicted members of certain religious and racial groups in many instances.

I am a twenty-one year old white male grew up in a rich, not so racially diverse suburb of Chicago. I was born in Fresno, California in 1979, and moved to Salt Lake City, Utah in 1983. In 1985, my parents divorced and my younger sister and I moved to a suburb of Chicago to live with my mother. The suburb that I grew up in is a highly Jewish populated area. My family is not Jewish. We really are not religious at all, but if we had to be categorized, I would say that we are Christian. All throughout my childhood, I had been raised in front of the television like many other children of my era. The main focus of my discussion, is the fact that I had never realized how incorrectly television has portrayed racial and religious groups in America, until I left home for the first time for a long period.

When I graduated from high school, I decided that college would be the right step to take in my life. My parents always stressed an importance on education, so I attended the University of South Carolina. I chose this school because I wanted to join the Navy R.O.T.C. They offered a great scholarship opportunity to me, so I took it. When I got to school, I was shocked to see so many people who didn't look a thing like me. It seemed as if I had no one to relate to, and I really felt that I stuck out like a sore thumb. To make matters more difficult, I was paired up with an African-American roommate. I had experiences with other racial groups before, but I had never lived with someone who seemed to be so different than me. I had stereotypes in my mind of how Black people behave, but they were pretty much all based on television. I know that is pretty sad, but it's true. So anyway, my roommate and I looked at each other as if we were thinking the exact same things. I didn't know what to do, I didn't know what he would be offended by, and I think that he was pretty nervous about how he should treat me. Remember, this is South Carolina, if you have never been there before, I have two words--Confederate Flags. I knew that my new roommate had not lived with a white guy before, but we immediately put everything out on the table. He asked me who I was and what I liked, and I responded similarly. After about three months of living together, we became inseparable. I saw him for the human being that he was, and looked past his color. It was not until I had gone home that I realized that the stereotypes on television has actually warped my mind about how African Americans act. I bought into the rap-violence oriented mind-set that I thought all Black people encompassed. I was used to watching MTV, and HBO to learn about other races, but I now know that these outlets are very skewed. I look back and thank God that I was put into the situation that I was. That was one of the most meaningful experiences of my life. I ended up leaving school after first semester, but that had to do with my poor grades and partying.

Another example of how I noticed that television inaccurately portrays certain religious groups is the depictions of Jews in American society. Like I said earlier, I was raised in a highly Jewish populated area on the North Shore. All of my life in Chicago, I have been best friends with several Jewish kids. Two of the best friends I have are of Jewish background. Every time a Jewish character is played on a television show, I think about some of my friends, and how ridiculously obvious the stereotypes stick out. For example, I am not going to name the show, but a character who was supposed to be Jewish, fulfilled almost all of the categories what I have heard Jews put into. This person had a big nose, dark curly hair, and was a stingy banker. I asked my friend if he was offended by this huge generalization. He laughed at me, but I really never got my answer. If I was Jewish, I think that I would take offense to these types of misconceptions. I think that television shows should never be taken seriously, but I really believe that t.v. does shape the way a lot of people think and act towards each other.

Similar to the previous situation, I have an example of how television has shaped my perceptions of a category of people. I have a favorite television show that has aired everyday for the last several years. I won't mention the name, but it is a very popular animated series. Anyways, there is a character who is of Indian descent. A stereotype about Indian-American in this country is that they all work at convenient stores. On this program, an Indian-American with a heavy accent owns and operated a convenient store. I know that the stereotype of Indian-Americans is just that, but I think many people who watch this show, think that this character is n accurate description of this category of Indian-Americans today. Sure, this may just be a coincidence, but I think that this is too much of a coincidence to be unplanned.

Finally, the last example I can think of in which television inaccurately depicts a racial and/or religious group is on a very popular show that ran for approximately ten years and was then cancelled. Again, I'm not going to say what the show was, because it's irrelevant, but there was a character who was very obviously a stereotypical Italian. This character was shown constantly eating pasta, and was given a thick New York-ish accent to use. In my life, I have not been exposed to many Italian ways of living, but I know that not all Italians eat pasta constantly, and they don't all talk a certain way. However, this character always pops into my head when I meet a person who has the attributes of the stereotypical Italian-American. I can't really help it anymore. This image has been thrown in face for so long, that I have been almost trained to expect this type of behavior from all Italian Americans.

Television is a terrible source of finding out how certain cultures and people behave. Although I know this now, I don't think that kids growing up with these shows know the difference between television and real life. I love television, don't get me wrong, but are the t.v. programmers today thinking about the long-term effects they are having on their younger audience? Sure you say, “What about the parents?” Well, do the parents these days know the difference? I don't know. All I know is that the t.v. programs today are harboring images of classical stereotypes blatantly without regard for anyone.

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