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Why do young people ignore the stereotypes on 'Jersey Shore'?

Letter to the Editor, New York Daily News, December 17, 2009

The first thing we do, let's kill all the "guidos" - not the people, of course; I'm talking about the awful anti-Italian stereotype peddled on "Jersey Shore."

Outraged by MTV's lurid depiction of Italian-Americans, I borrowed a page from President Obama (and William Shakespeare) to share a teachable moment with my undergraduate critical thinking class.

"What's in a slur?" I asked.

The ensuing discussion yielded specific examples of ethnic intolerance. Most of the students denounced Don Imus' racial tirade against the Rutgers women's basketball team. They found Jesse Jackson's anti-Semitic "hymietown" rant equally repugnant.

Yet many of the selfsame students could not understand why Italian-Americans are affronted by "Jersey Shore."

Such a response revealed how popular culture has so thoroughly desensitized young minds. Some of my students were actually surprised to learn that "guido" is not a "lifestyle choice" - as MTV disingenuously maintains - but an unvarnished ethnic slur.

Coarsened by the ubiquitous media imagery of Italo-Americans as goombas, godfathers and guidos, an entire generation has no knowledge of the prejudice endured by a people: The 1891 mass lynching of Italians in New Orleans; the World War II internment wherein 600,000 loyal Italian-Americans were officially branded "enemy aliens"; the venomous trial of Sacco and Vanzetti; the know-nothing bigotry confronting the children of Columbus in the coal mines of Utah, West Virginia and Pennsylvania; or the sub-rosa discrimination that still plagues Italian-American professionals in business, politics and academia.

On his Fox News program, "Geraldo at Large," Geraldo Rivera gave "Sopranos" mob-star Vincent Curatola, of all people, free rein to ridicule Italian-Americans for daring to confront the bigots in our midst.

Is it any wonder, then, that most of my students could identify Tony Soprano but not Tony Zinni, former President Bill Clinton's CENTCOM chief?

And none had heard of planetary scientist Carolyn Porco, Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano or Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi.

CIA Director Leon Panetta also remained a mystery - as did Supreme Court Justices Antonin Scalia and Samuel Alito.

Our lesson ultimately ended on a cautionary note when I quoted a man whose name nearly everyone recognized, Steven Spielberg.

"We are in a race against time for the conscious minds of young people," said the director of "Jaws," "Jurassic Park" and "Schindler's List." For youths need to learn "the dangers of stereotyping, the dangers of discrimination, the dangers of racial and religious hatred and vengeful rage."

Iaconis is an adjunct professor of critical thinking at Briarcliffe College.

 
 
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