Islamophobia is real in small town Nebraska.
On Monday, August 19th, 2019 I drove 343 miles for five hours to the small town of Mullen, located in the beautiful Sandhills of Nebraska, where there is one of the top golf courses in the entire world. The drive was peaceful and I was looking forward to speaking to the students and staff there. Two staff members from Mullen had seen me speak in March when I was the keynote speaker at a conference sponsored by the Nebraska Association of School Boards at Grand Island, Nebraska. They felt that my presentation about The Secret Kindness Agents was needed in their town. However, I was a little uneasy about this trip because I had seen two news stories about bigotry in this part of the state just that week. A racist sign in Ord, Nebraska read “Make America White Again” and a Custer County Supervisor said immigrants are not welcome here in Nebraska, including Muslims, whom he described as “them people with them towels over their head”, a reference to Somali refugees. As a brown Muslim immigrant, I didn’t exactly feel welcome in this part of the state.
I arrived in Mullen at 2:00 pm and called the school to let them know I had arrived. They asked me to arrive a little early at the school because the superintendent had a few questions about my presentation to staff that afternoon. The superintendent told me that he had advertised me coming in case community members wanted to come. He then said that a couple of people had googled me and that it’s a conservative community, and so I should leave out any “LGBTQ stuff” from my presentation. As an openly queer woman, I was immediately on alert. And I thought of the LGBTQ students in this town and wondered how safe they were.
My presentation went on without incident, although there were no questions from the staff at the end and no one stayed to talk afterwards, which I am not used to. One staff member, while putting away chairs, asked if I would eat a pork sandwich for lunch the next day, which struck me as odd, but I brushed it off. Later, this would make sense. I started to leave the building and was called back to speak with Pastor Bob, who had been in the presentation. He asked me questions about what I would speak about the next day with the students. Again, this struck me as odd, but would make sense later.
When I got back to my motel room, I called my husband and told him I was on edge, that it felt uncomfortable to be there, but that I thought I might just be hyper-vigilant and oversensitive based on what I had been seeing on social media. He reassured me and I settled down for the night.
At 9:30 pm, I received a Facebook message from a friend. She had seen some posts on Facebook about me from someone named Deb Cox, who lives in Mullen. Deb and her friends were angry that a “professed Muslim” was coming to “brainwash” their children, and that my talk about The Secret Kindness Agents was “deceit wrapped in kindness” and the work of Satan/the devil. People said that people like me are “trained to kill us” and that I am a “wolf in sheep’s clothing.” Parents were threatening to keep their children home, and threatening to show up the next day to protest my presence there.
My friend was disturbed that over 95 people were agreeing with Deb and that several had shared her posts. She wondered if I would like to see what was being posted so that I would know what I was going into the next day. I said yes. And this is what I saw. For the many screenshots taken by a dear friend, click here: Islamophobic posts. For a short snapshot of the beginning of each post that each had hundreds of comments underneath, here are those screenshots.
For anyone who has heard of Chris Kyle, this comment on the last screenshot is a terrifying suggestion; it implies that this parent show up and do what Chris Kyle bragged about doing — killing innocent Muslims. This comment appeared on a share of Deb Cox’s post by Mullen parent Steven Dent. As soon as I saw it, I ran to the bathroom and threw up several times. I called my husband, panicking, unable to say much other than “I want to go home. Please. I want to go home.” We realized I could not do that. There is one motel in the town, and everyone must know where I was staying. My name is on my license plate on my car, facing my motel room door, and I stayed up all night, running to the window every time I heard something, worried a lynch mob of Chris Kyle fans was coming for me.
I want to emphasize here that my fears were and are NOT unfounded. I kept thinking of the recent shootings in El Paso Texas, Gilroy California, and Christchurch New Zealand, where the killers specifically targeted both Muslims and Immigrants.
As I tossed and turned, alternating between absolute fear and strong fury, I made up my mind not to speak with the students the next day. Not because I didn’t want to, but because I did not feel safe. At all. I messaged my husband and asked him to prepare our children for what they would see the next day on Facebook and I worried about them being upset by it all. I had several panic attacks and did not get any sleep at all.
And then at about 4:30 am, I received an email from the superintendent:
I decided, after reading this, that I would ask their advice the next morning about whether or not they could keep me safe. I had come for the youth, I had made the district a promise, and I didn’t want to go without making sure I was doing the right thing. When I walked into the school, the staff member who had given my name to the superintendent embraced me with tears in her eyes and said she was so sorry for bringing me to the town. I assured her it was not her fault. I admitted my fear and anxiety about the day. The superintendent assured me that he would do everything he could to keep me safe, and he introduced me to the sheriff. He, too, had lost sleep after finding out what was happening, and he told me about a student named Molly who had seen the Facebook posts and was worried about me. I agreed to stay and speak to the high school students that morning and the elementary students in the afternoon. As we talked, someone saw that Deb Cox had arrived at the school. I hid in the office while Chris and the sheriff escorted her down to the gym where I was to speak. I felt myself shaking. I wasn’t sure if my legs would hold me up. I thought about what I was doing there. I thought about the students who needed to see someone like me, whether it was to dismantle the stereotypes they might have about Muslims/brown people/immigrants/queer people/Africans or to provide validation and strength to the few students there who shared some of my identities. I took a deep breath. I didn’t want hate to win. I decided to fight this bigotry with love and with kindness and to model for the youth what compassion can look like in this complicated world. I spoke at the high school in the morning and the elementary school in the afternoon. Deb and her friends showed up to both, but I was surrounded by staff and they didn’t try to come and speak with me. The students and staff were very kind, and the fifth graders asked for a picture, wrote thoughtful cards for me, and most even asked for a hug. I met Molly and her friend Madison, who were both so welcoming and warm. A school board member came to meet me and thanked me for coming, as did several teachers and support staff. Mullen Public Schools was kind enough to post a wonderful supportive message after I spoke, and I got some very positive feedback about my presentation.
I drove the five hours home constantly looking in the rearview mirror, wondering if Deb, Steven, Monty, or their friends were going to follow me and cause me harm. I worried about lynch mobs. I worried about getting home to my children safely. I also had a lot of time to think on that drive. I believe that one of the reasons for this type of hatred and bigotry is the result of absent narratives and the perpetuation of single narratives in the curriculum, and that a multicultural curriculum which includes world religions classes and positive representations of historically underrepresented groups is CRUCIAL in every district, because I feel very much that my safety, the safety of LGBTQIA students, students of color, religious minorities and other students who are different should be a priority. The danger of a single story is that a stereotype becomes the only story that people know, as Chimamanda Adichie says in her phenomenal TED Talk. I’m glad I was there to add another story to who Muslim immigrant queer women are, but what if I hadn’t been there? And why should I put my life at risk when there is a simpler solution? Sure, it might create controversy and make folks uncomfortable, but diversifying curriculum saves lives. We owe it to our children to do better. If they are brave enough to show up every single day in all their beautiful uniqueness, then who are we as adults to shy away from doing what’s right?
I am not sure what will come of this, but I always try look for the positive in every situation. I hope that the silver lining here is that Americans look at our own reflections and see the bigotry that has always existed here, and that we have to do something about it. It should not take the existence of someone like me in a homogenous place to hold the mirror up to it. The posts have since been deleted, but the trauma I underwent remains. It has to mean something for me to be able to heal.
I am thankful to organizations like Stand For Schools who advocate for all students and who publicly support me and my work. I hope that more organizations take their lead.
Going into the new semester, I am reminded of how important our work is. I know I will have students who might share the sentiments of the bigots. None of this is new, and this is nowhere near the first time I have faced bigotry of this kind, and I know it won’t be the last, but knowing I have such a strong force of fierce and loving friends and family makes it easier to go out into the world and do the work that is so psychologically and physically risky for someone in my social location. It takes a lot of emotional energy to teach what I teach in that way that I do — even to simply exist in the spaces that I do — and my colleagues of color/Muslim colleagues/immigrant colleagues/LGBTQ colleagues know what this feels like. But.
I am committed to equity and social justice.
Because I’m committed to kindness.
Because I’m a Muslim.
Not in spite of it.