A Reader Asks Me About Stereotyping

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Gandolfini

Actor James Gandolfini

Dear Dr. Mautner,

Recently my social media was inundated with articles about the passing of Italian American actor James Gandolfini, most famous for his role as mob boss in the Sopranos. I can’t help but wonder why all the praise for someone who portrayed our people in such negative light? I feel badly about the death of a great actor and fellow human being, but am I wrong to feel disappointed in a public figure who used his talent to further the negative stereotype that does a disservice to us all?

Proud Italian American

 

Dear I-A,

Like you, my thoughts and prayers go out to the family, friends and colleagues of the beloved actor James Gandolfini. There is no question he was a brilliant talent who touched many people’s lives. He will be sorely missed by his loved ones, who are no doubt now on their own journey of grief and recovery.

I also commend you on your rightful sensitivity about the issue of the pervasive negative stereotyping of Italian Americans in the media. You impress me with your ability to separate the role of Tony Soprano, from the tragic death of a fellow human being. I, too, believe that actors—especially Italian American actors—should insist on more roles that highlight the disproportionately wonderful aspects of our heritage. As Italian Americans with family members who face the consequences of others’ unfair judgment and discrimination, each of us has a personal obligation to summon up the courage and energy to respectfully contact producers, directors, actors, pizzeria owners, automobile executives, and anyone in positions of power who either actively or passively keeps the negative Italian American bias alive. We must do what we can to raise consciousness and make our distaste for this kind of damaging message known; regardless of the response, or lack of response that we receive. Just raising awareness will have an effect, even if it is long in coming.

In a report I wrote when I served as Research Director for AIDA (American Italian Defense Association), I pointed out that stereotyping is destructive and often leads to a number of consequences for those stigmatized. Unfortunately my national survey found strong evidence of a lack of unity among Italian Americans themselves when it comes to combating stereotyping and defamation; ergo in many of the mobster shows and films, you will find actors, producers and directors of Italian heritage.

The landmark research of cognitive psychologist Albert Bandura showed that television has a powerful effect in shaping cultural attitudes. Because people live mostly routine daily lives, they get the majority of their information about the world around them from mass media sources. 

 Attitudes that foster stereotyping are far from harmless, and can have a dramatic effect on one’s life; in areas such as earnings, housing, criminal involvement, health, and life satisfaction itself. Belonging to a devalued social group puts one at risk for emotional distress, because an individual is more likely to internalize negative stereotypes of themselves. Children, unfortunately, are the most vulnerable. They are the ones who watch more hours of daily television than anyone else. Approximately 50% of Americans, no matter what age group, however, get their information about Italian Americans from TV, so you are correct to be concerned about the negative media images that have an effect on your family and mine.

The best recourse to negative stereotyping is to defend what you know is right in a firm, yet courteous way. You can write a letter, make a phone call, join an Italian American organization that has an anti-bias committee, write a letter to the editor of your local paper, or even simply correct negative stereotypes when you hear them tossed around casually in your everyday life. Teach those around you about the positive aspects of our cultural heritage and the many contributions Italian Americans have made to make the United States of America as great as it is.

If you would like to hear more about this topic, please tune in to THE ITALIAN ART OF LIVING WELL  this Monday, July 1st @ 7AM when my guest will be Dr. Manny Alfano, president and founder of The Italian American ONE VOICE Coalition.  

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