SBS 301 Cultural Diversity/Prof. Koptiuch Fall 2009 Personal Memory Ethnographies
There Are Others Just Like You
This is what was said and done behind my back and in front of my face. I just narrated a small part of what I had experienced throughout my early years growing up in America. It was the summer of 1987 when my family had just migrated to America from Palestine. It must have been in August, remembering those hot and humid summers in Michigan. My uncle and cousins had picked us up from the airport and it was the first time I met them. They welcomed me with their smiles and comfort. I couldn’t speak English at that time and their Arabic speaking was not very good. As kids, we made our own way of communicating through playing with each other. My first week in America was like the first time I learned how to a ride a bike; I never forgot it since that day. Well, learning the alphabet was not one of those things that were easy for me to learn. I had a hard time learning how to speak English at first but as time went by the teachers at the International School stuck by my side and helped me thoroughly.
I grew up in the city of Flint, Michigan where I lived among diversified cultures. Including blacks, Caucasians, Indians, Pakistanis, Arabs and Jews. I had friends from all different races. I was never brought up to differentiate according to race or color. So, that's why even though I am of Arab descent, I always felt I was like everyone else. I was blind sided and lacked the knowledge of racism and ethnic stereotypes in Flint. This was the case up until I moved to the suburbs of Flushing, which was approximately twenty minutes out of the city, but mind you a different world. I remember asking my parents, “Why do we have to move?” My mother replied, “For better schools and a safe environment to raise you in.” It was my first day of school at Flushing elementary, sixth grade. I was as nervous as any student would be transferring to a new school. As I started walking on campus, I felt eyes wandering towards me as though they were talking about how I should not be here. At first, I thought to myself “Am I not dressed right? Do I have something on my face?” I quickly realized that was not the case, it was my color and ethnicity that had drawn the other student’s attention.
“ Why don’t you leave and go back to where you came from! This school is not for people like you. You don’t look, dress, or talk like the rest of us. “If I was him, I would think twice about attending our school because we are all white and it’s obvious he’s not. Who does this kid think he is? He invades our school, thinking were going to let him hang out with us? He must be out of his mind to think we’re going to welcome him. This sand nigger doesn’t belong here and I’m going to make his life a living hell. My friends and I do not illegally migrate to wherever he’s from and attend his school, so he shouldn’t come here either. It really makes me furious when I encounter illegals that corrupt our schools. He’s a terrorist and we all hate them in America. My dad always says “never trust anyone but your own kind,” and that’s what I’m going to do. Just looking at him allows me to hate him more and more. Now, I understand why my Uncle Tom is overseas kicking these people’s asses. He’s making sure that they stop invading our country and from allowing them to enter into America permanently. Uncle Tom hates the fact they have the right to live in our country and thinks they should all stay out of our way.” I felt confused because I had never been put in this position before at school. At my other school, there were so many different types of ethnicities, everyone was treated the same. At this new school, it was bad enough that I was looked down upon because of the color of my skin and my dark features. But surely enough the cruel kids did not stop there. I was not only ridiculed for my looks, but I was also verbally abused in ways I couldn't have imagined. I was called “sand nigger”, “camel jockey”, “terrorist,”etc, whether at gym, lunch in class. I felt as small as an ant. I went from having confidence and being true to myself and who I am to letting these kids bring me down with their racist and stereotypical comments. I thought it couldn't get any worse than this. But, yet again I was wrong. While I was in class, one student was picking on me and told me, “Why don't you leave and go back to where you came from!” It's one thing to call me names, but it's another thing to make me feel as though I don't belong in this society and that I am an outcast. I felt angry at the world, at the kids and at myself. I had so much pride that I did not show my anger and hurt. For the first time I thought to myself, “I am different” and “I am not white”.
I was raised to be quiet and respectful and never dared to yell at my teachers or get into trouble with others kids as I saw was happening with the other kids. As more time went by, I started adjusting to the American lifestyle. I quickly recognized that it was not going to be easy because the kids got used to me not associating with them. One time this kid told me to never speak to him or his friends because I was different than them. I was 8 years old when the classmate told me this. It was not one of those situations I just put past me and forgot about it. It has been stuck in the back of my head for many years till now. As I got older I would always hesitate to try to fit in with different people. I had learned to give my self a limit with people. So I knew I would not be rejected because of the color of my skin or my Arabic accent. I was around 16 years old when it dawned upon me what standards I had set for myself. If people did not see me for who I am as an individual, then those people did not exist in my life. This was all because while growing up in America and going to high school, I saw children being tortured for being different than the rest of the children. It was not because of the color of their skin or their accent but because they looked different than the so called “cool kids”. That made me see that life is not fair in general.
The bitterness and harshness of this society made me struggle and wonder about my identity at such an early age. I then realized, my life in America will never allow me to think or act the same as I did naively in Palestine. Whenever I run into someone new or familiar, I will always have in the back of my head “What do they really think about me?” This doesn't mean my childhood made me weaker; these experiences made me much stronger at an older age. As of now I portray myself to be an Arab-American because I want people to know even though I come from a different culture, it doesn't mean I am not an American as well. Now that I have kids of my own, I always try to give them the knowledge to be a better person and not to judge a person by their color, race, or accent. I have many reasons why I think I have experienced different aspects of racism; from the color of my skin to what my culture represents in this day and time. When people see an Arab, they quickly rush to judge what the media has labeled us by. One label is “terrorist”, living in a third world country. People living in America are not all at fault because of what the media reveals. It is up to the people to conclude whether it is true or false. Arabs are always stereotyped to be Muslims; and not your ordinary Muslim but a radical one with lots of hate for Americans. People don’t understand that there are more Arab Christians living in America than Muslims. That’s not what the media projects onto the television .I have always put blame on the media for many things besides this issue. Like how they are quick to point out a crime committed by a black male and avoid pointing fingers at the whites. Before blacks are given a right to prove their innocence they are presumed guilty of their crime.
When I first moved to America as a child, I only saw things through a kid's perspective and thought that everything was going to be ok. Little did I know that I was going to be faced with racism at a young age. To be young and be judged differently than the rest of the kids tends to have a bitter taste that can never be forgotten. I can never forget how I got picked on for being an Arab in middle school and high school. Being a kid in the United States and going through the education system, any kid can tell you it’s a horrifying process. But imagine being much more different than the goofy or nerdy kid. Names like Aladdin or Camel were always names that they used to call me. When I hear those words nowadays I look behind me to see if someone is calling me.
In the early 1990’s at the time I was in high school, my country, Palestine, was always on the news due to the ancient conflict with the Arabs and Jews. With that going on and seeing bombs go off and innocent people dying on both sides, it constantly brought up the subject of me being from there. So my classmates concluded that I was a terrorist. From newspapers to T-shirts, there was always hate toward the Arabs, which allowed the kids as well as the public to hate us. Being able to experience both worlds and having a chance to move back to Palestine as a teen for one year was the best thing that happened to my life. It helped me in so many ways to find my self, not alone and not different. Because I lived there I was able to understand where I came from and who our people really are: humble, loving, honest and respectful with very high morals and a great value for tradition and family. Looking back and skimming over my childhood years and thinking about all the things I went through, I can honestly say I did pretty well for myself. I learned we are all different in our unique way and no one is perfect in any aspect towards race, gender, or ethnicity.
Return to Personal Memory Ethnographies homepage