Common Racial Stereotypes in Movies and Television

Portrayals of Blacks, Latinos, Native Americans, Asians, and Arab Americans

The United States is now more diverse than it ever has been, but from watching movies and television programs it’s easy to overlook that development, given the prevalence of racial stereotypes in Hollywood.

Characters of color remain underrepresented in mainstream movies and TV shows, and those actors who land roles are often asked to play stereotypes—from maids and immigrants to thugs and prostitutes. This overview breaks down how blacks, Hispanics, Native Americans, Arab Americans and Asian Americans continue to face stereotypes on both the big and small screen.

Arab Stereotypes in Film and Television

Disney's Aladdin. JD Hancock/

Americans of Arab and Middle Eastern heritage have long faced stereotypes in Hollywood. In classic cinema, Arabs were often depicted as belly dancers, harem girls and oil sheiks. Old stereotypes about Arabs continue to upset the Middle Eastern community in the U.S.
A Coca-Cola commercial featured during the 2013 Super Bowl featured Arabs riding on camels through the desert in hopes of beating other groups to a bottle of giant Coke. This led Arab American advocacy groups to decry the advertisement for stereotyping Arabs as “camel jockeys.”

In addition to this stereotype Arabs have been depicted as anti-American villains even before the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The 1994 film “True Lies” featured Arabs as terrorists, leading to protests of the movie by Arab groups nationwide.

Movies such as Disney’s 1992 hit “Aladdin” also faced protests from Arab groups for depicting Middle Easterners as a barbaric and backwards people.

Native American Stereotypes in Hollywood

Native Americans are a diverse racial group with diverse customs and cultural experiences. In Hollywood, however, American Indians are typically characterized with a broad brush.  

When Native Americans aren’t being depicted as silent, stoic types in film and television shows, they’re depicted as bloodthirsty warriors out to spill the white man’s blood and harm white women.

When Native Americans are characterized more favorably in film and television usually they’re portrayed as medicine men who guide whites through difficulties.

American Indian women are frequently depicted one-dimensionally—as beautiful maidens or princesses or as "squaws."

These narrow Hollywood stereotypes have made Native American women vulnerable to sexual harassment and sexual assault in real life, feminist groups argue.

Stereotypes Blacks Face on the Silver Screen

Blacks face both positive and negative stereotypes in Hollywood. When African Americans are portrayed as good on the silver screen, it’s usually as a “Magical Negro” type like Michael Clarke Duncan’s character in “The Green Mile.” Such characters are typically wise black men with no concerns of their own or desire to improve their status in life. Instead, these characters function to help white characters overcome adversity.

The mammy stereotype and the black best friend stereotype are similar to the “Magical Negro.” Mammies traditionally took care of white families, valuing the lives of their white employers (or owners during slavery) more than their own. The number of television programs and films featuring blacks as selfless maids perpetuates this stereotype.

While the black best friend isn’t a maid or nanny, she typically functions to help her white friend, normally the protagonist of the show, transcend difficult circumstances. These stereotypes are arguably as positive as it gets for black characters in Hollywood.

When African Americans aren’t playing second fiddle to whites as maids, best friends and “Magical Negroes,” they’re depicted as thugs or brash women with no tact.

Hispanic Stereotypes in Hollywood

Latinos may be the largest minority group in the United States, but Hollywood has consistently portrayed Hispanics very narrowly. Viewers of American television shows and films, for example, are far more likely to see Latinos play maids and gardeners than lawyers and doctors.

Furthermore, Hispanic men and women have both been sexualized in Hollywood. Latino men have long been stereotyped as “Latin Lovers,” while Latinas have been characterized as exotic, sensual vamps.

Both the male and female version of the “Latin Lover” are stereotyped as having fiery temperaments. When these stereotypes aren’t at play, Hispanics are portrayed as being new immigrants with thick accents and no social standing in the U.S. or as gang-bangers and criminals.

Asian American Stereotypes in Film and Television

Like Latinos and Arab Americans, Asian Americans are frequently portrayed as foreigners in Hollywood films and television shows. Though Asian Americans have lived in the U.S. for generations, there is no shortage of Asians speaking broken English and practicing “mysterious” customs on both the small and big screen. In addition, stereotypes of Asian Americans are gender specific.

Asian women are often portrayed as “dragon ladies,” or as domineering women who are sexually attractive but immoral and therefore bad news for the white men who fall for them. In war films, Asian women are most often portrayed as prostitutes or other sex workers.

Asian American men, meanwhile, are consistently depicted as geeks, math whizzes, techies and a host of other characters viewed as non-masculine. About the only time Asian men are portrayed as physically threatening is when they’re depicted as martial artists.

But Asian actors say the kung fu stereotype has hurt them also because after it rose in popularity, all Asian actors were expected to follow in Bruce Lee’s footsteps.