Last semester we watched a Youtube video in class by famous street artist Banksy. Professor S didn’t tell us anything about the video other than it was an example of communicating cultural understandings. I’ve linked the clip above so I suggest watching it now before I spoil everything.
The video opens with several men in traditional Arab dress aiming a very large gun (Rocket launcher? Any gun nuts reading who can confirm or correct?) into the sky. As I saw the scene unfolding, my heart began to palpitate. I knew from previous experience that there were videos online of military attacks by forces in Afghanistan, Iraq, and other places. My initial thought was “If I see an American plane fall from the sky, then I’m going to lose it.” I literally braced myself.
The men launch the rocket and begin to chant “Allah Akbar.” I stopped breathing as I saw the rocket make contact with whatever they were shooting at. The camera began to get jerky as everyone ran for cover from the now rapidly descending object. The thing hit the ground. The camera refocused. As the dust cleared, I saw . . . DUMBO!!!! You know the cute, little, big-eared, flying elephant from the Disney movie of the same name.
I immediately sighed in relief and laughed with the rest of my class. The laughter got louder as one of the men jumped on Dumbo continuing to yell “Allah Akbar.” The other man and a little boy came up to inspect the target. When the boy saw Dumbo was dead, he kicked the older man in the shin. I was laughing, but I was still trying to catch my breath after my previous tension.
The video surprised me, but my reaction surprised me even more. Given that I have had several family members and friends in conflict areas, I think my initial gut reaction was fairly normal. I didn’t, however, expect the prejudice thoughts that came with it.
When Professor S asked what we thought the artist was trying to communicate, I am ashamed to say that my first thought was Islamist extremist attacks on US culture. I have lived in many countries. I have friends from over seven different religions. I study cross-cultural communications in hopes of building a career in social change. How could I have still shown such prejudice to a simple Youtube clip?
I quickly pushed that first thought out of my mind as I realized how simpleminded it was. I then looked at a few more of the artists works as the class talked. The piece did exactly as any art piece should do; it made me think?
I had just started to think that the video was actually commenting on and criticizing US prejudices when my teacher gave her answer. She said (paraphrase) that the piece was challenging cultural stereotypes by pulling them to such extremes as to invoke laughter. That comedy/laughter was the way we begin to come to grips with stereotypes that scare us or make us feel intense feelings. When we laugh at something, we can begin to understand it and change it.
It made perfect sense to me. Since 9-11 and my brother’s deployment to Iraq, I had been wary not of Muslims in general but of the Middle East. I naturally began to associate the region with conflict. Where I had once hoped to travel in the region, I now felt too scared to venture beyond select areas with higher security. I never realized how much these ideas affected my views on the culture itself.
Once I realized this, I was able to begin to change my perspective. Exposure has been the greatest gift traveling has given me. I love Mississippi, but the exposure to other cultures and ways of life is very limited in-state. We are often closed to even other cultures within America. Exposure, whether it’s on the internet or through travel, can help change society’s perspective. Most importantly exposure to the extremes of our own internal prejudices can often help us to overcome them.
So tell me,
Do you have a secret prejudice?
Have you ever had to adjust to a different culture?