There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
Dave McKenna’s “Wrestling With Stereotypes” (Cheap Seats, 4/25) interprets the cancellation of a professional wrestling match at Chantilly High School in Fairfax County as a case of “political correctness” run amok. He is especially critical of the role of Anas Shallal, a Northern Virginia representative of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, the chair of Fairfax schools’ Human Relations Advisory Committee, and a member of its Diversity Committee. Let’s try framing the incident a little differently.
The wrestling match featured wrestlers who affect ethnic and minority personas as their professional identities: the “Iron Sheik,” “Wiseguy Jimmy Cicero,” and the “Midget Match” with “Little Louis vs. King Sleasy.” Organizing the event was meant to be a real-life learning experience for a marketing class; profits were to finance a trip for several students to a marketing conference in California.
McKenna’s defense of the match was essentially that wrestling is an accepted form of cultural vulgarity. It has always employed cultural stereotyping, and it has always featured midgets, therefore it’s OK. Sorry, we’re not convinced. By that logic, Hollywood would never have ended the Stepin Fetchit stereotyping of African-Americans.
The request that Chantilly cancel the match was prompted by the glaring contradiction between the “cartoonish stereotyping” of the wrestling world and the Fairfax school system’s institutional commitment to intercultural understanding and respect. Fairfax is spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to train its entire leadership to appreciate and manage the cultural diversity now found within the school system. This admirable program aims at top-down transformation: school board members, administrators, principals, faculty, and students. It was in his capacity as chair of the Human Relations Committee that Shallal intervened in this matter.
The schools cannot teach students to respect other cultures and minorities if they also sponsor activities that reduce ethnicity and minorities to buffoonery. The “official” message is undermined, and students are taught that stereotyping is merely “harmless entertainment” and “doesn’t really matter.”
There is a real-life ethical lesson in this for students, and it is not one of sullen acquiescence to “political correctness.” The lesson is that people’s identities are to be taken seriously, whether the context is school, marketing, business, or corporation. Call it a lesson in “civic virtue” or “character education.”
There is also a more pragmatic lesson. This is an era of multimillion-dollar lawsuits for racial, religious, and gender discrimination in the workplaceDenny’s, Texaco, Fanny Mae, Circuit City, United Airlines, and others. ADC’s legal department receives a constant flow of complaints from Arab-Americans who experience discrimination on the job. In 1994 alone, the federal government received at least 90,000 complaints of employment discrimination based on race, ethnicity, and gender. That’s why “diversity management” training is a growth industry in the corporate world.
If students absorb the right lesson, they just might know better than to take flippant, scornful, and hurtful attitudes toward minorities into their workplace behavior. And they just might not ruin their careers by getting their employers into million-
Anas Shallal, by the way, puts his money behind his educational commitments. He personally contributed $1,000 for the students’ trip to the marketing conference, so they would not lose out as a result of his actions.
Director of Education and Outreach
American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee