My first crush in High School was a Jewish girl. She was in all my honors classes, a cutie, well read, athletic, sharp sense of humor and she had a beautiful energy. While I admired her I never got anywhere, mostly because I looked like this.
That caterpillar on my upper lip wasn’t exactly working for me. And despite having no chance with this young woman, I’d often think about how oddly compatible we were. We both had overprotective moms, we valued education, we didn’t eat pork, and we both thought the trinity was hogwash. Even our faiths were very similar so I felt like we could relate well. I related to most of my Jewish classmates, sharing the common experience of being tolerated but never fully embraced because of our faith. School was my introduction to Jews, and I liked what I saw.
There were also some cool Christian kids in school. I had some great Pinoy (Filipino) Catholic friends, a ton of Catholic Latino friends from Mexico, Peru, Guatemala, Colombia. And there were even some cool white Christians. I hung out with some WASPS from my neighborhood, I played AYSO and club soccer with them and we were mostly cool. I appreciate LA for its diversity. I grew up around people from all over the world from Central America to Vietnam but despite the enriching diversity, we still had our share of crazy racists, kinda like the presidential race. The racists are always out there and our challenge is how to deal with them and change their hearts.
My personal experience with racism in high school was that every once in a while, like twice a day, some dude would say “hey towel head!” or “hey camel jockey” and of course I’d immediately stoop down to the lowest common denominator, and without skipping a beat I’d respond from a place of anger something like this: “Yo man is that a zit on your forehead or did you move your pecker to see it better?” That would stop their comments for a while. In high school my greatest test from God was that my name rhymed with Camel Jockey, and today I ask for forgiveness for failing that test repeatedly. So there was one classmate who used to call me “Tarek Shawky Camel Jockey” relentlessly. Today I understand that each time someone makes an ignorant, hurtful comment, it’s an opportunity to connect and educate them, but back then I almost never did. There was this one kid who I would always respond to by targeting his biggest weakness, his masculinity. I’d say things like; “You thought you had a pubic hair until you peed out of it.” I liked that one, mostly because it hurt him. I could see it on his face and it made me realize there was some truth to the joke. There was one time I made one student cry. I don’t recall what I said to him but I remember his friends started repeating it and he couldn’t take it. He cracked like a raw egg, wtih real tears. I smiled inside. I’m not proud of that moment but at the time I remember thinking “sweet justice.”
I grew up in South Orange County behind that thick Orange curtain, the blackout curtain, literally “black out.” We had two black kids in my graduating class of 500, in public school. They had there clicks so I often hung out with the hardest Pinoy kid on campus.
That’s him in the front. He was small but had a big ego. He usually rocked a Malcom X cap. He had every color, every style, even the gold X, and almost every day he would wear one to school like a middle finger to the system. He hated the man. He wouldn’t take off his hat for the pledge of allegiance and if anyone said anything about it he’d get angry and get in their face. He gave me my first Malcolm biography, by Alex Haley. Along with many other students of color, we bonded because of our skin tones and appearances. We shared a certain unity as outsiders, and I appreciate the value of that now. For me unity means that I don’t stereotype or judge other faiths or ethnicities because I know them and because I understand that they are much more than the negative things people try to say about them. That’s why NewGround works. We dispel stereotypes by building real relationships and by bearing our souls thereby creating bonds that will change the face of Muslim/Jewish relations in LA, and hopefully the world.
In keeping with tonight’s theme of digging deep, I’m gonna Dig Deep, and take what I’ve learned from NewGround, and apply it to my High School self and imagine a better response to some of those personal attacks. If I knew then what I know, when someone said “hey camel jockey” I’d pause, take a breath, allow the adrenaline to subside, and respond with something like this: “ What I hear you saying is that you think I race camels? Where do you think I’m from exactly?” Curiosity instead of insults can make a world of difference. There’s this verse in the Quran [Fusilat 41:34]
“Good and bad deeds are not equal, repel evil with what is better, and you may find that he who once had animosity towards you may become a dearest friend.”