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Reporter's Notebook: What It Was Like As A Muslim To Cover The Election

NPR reporter Asma Khalid during a live broadcast. She covered demographics and the 2016 campaign.
Ariel Zambelich
NPR reporter Asma Khalid during a live broadcast. She covered demographics and the 2016 campaign.

Editor's note: There is language in this piece that some will find offensive.

Sometime in early 2016 between a Trump rally in New Hampshire, where a burly man shouted something at me about being Muslim, and a series of particularly vitriolic tweets that included some combination of "raghead," "terrorist," "bitch" and "jihadi," I went into my editor's office and wept.

I cried for the first (but not the last) time this campaign season.

Through tears, I told her that if I had known my sheer existence — just the idea of being Muslim — would be a debatable issue in the 2016 election, I would never have signed up to do this job.

To friends and family, I looked like a masochist. But I was too invested to quit.

I was hired by NPR to cover the intersection of demographics and politics. My job required crisscrossing the country to talk to all kinds of voters. I attended rallies and town halls for nearly every candidate on both sides of the aisle, and I met people in their homes, churches and diners.

I am also visibly, identifiably Muslim. I wear a headscarf. So I stand out. And during this campaign, that Muslim identity became the first (and sometimes only) thing people saw, for good or for bad.

"Don't be a martyr"

Sometimes I met voters who questioned the 3-D nature of my life, people who viscerally hated the idea of me.

One night an old journalist friend called me and said, "Look, don't be a martyr."

It was a strange comment to me, since the harassment seemed more like a nuisance than a legitimate threat. And I knew if I was ever legitimately concerned, I had two options: I could ask for a producer to travel with me, or I wouldn't wear a headscarf. (And a couple of times I didn't.) Without a hijab, I'm incognito, light-skinned enough that I can pass as some sort of generic ethnic curiosity.

For many journalists, the 2016 campaign was the story of a lifetime. And it was indeed the story of a lifetime for me, too, but a story with real-life repercussions.

And I hung on, because the story of Donald Trump's America is not some foreign story of a faraway place; it's my homeland.

Hoosier roots

I'm from Indiana. We grew up in a mostly Democratic county. But my town was predominantly white and fairly conservative, a place where the Ten Commandments are engraved in marbleoutside the old County Courthouse.

I loved our childhood — summers playing basketball, winters sledding. We weren't outsiders — I sold Girl Scout cookies, was captain of the tennis team.

We were part of the club — or so we thought.

And while some folks might not have liked Muslims in the abstract — most folks liked our family. Maybe we were the exception to the rule.

One of the benefits of growing up as a brown girl in an overwhelmingly white town is that you get accustomed to making white folks feel comfortable with you at a young age. It wasn't intentional; it was merely a mode of survival. I suppose it's something you learn inadvertently when your sister is called a "nigger" before she even knew what the word meant.

And that skill set was perhaps the most valuable tool I brought to this election.
So, for example, whenever the Pledge of Allegiance was recited at a GOP event, regardless of whether I was balancing a laptop on my knees, a notebook in one hand and a microphone in the other, I instinctively stood up.

I noticed — sometimes — my fellow journalists didn't stand; they would finish the email they were writing. But I also knew I couldn't afford to give the people in the room any more reason to doubt me.

Later, with some of these same voters, I would share stories about how the pledge was recited every week in my school. And they would trust me a little bit more than before.

I watched their eyes widen, as they heard me discuss corn, Hoosier basketball and steel mills. And slowly, within about 15 minutes, the suspicion would evaporate and we would discuss presidential politics.

Sure, it was often tiresome to spend so much effort destroying the preconceptions, but it was also a strangely amusing challenge.

"Do you think he's racist?"

At times, it seemed I was an ambassador on this solo goodwill U.S.A. tour.

No doubt, for many folks, particularly Trump voters, I was the first Muslim they had ever met. Maybe that's why I got so many curious reactions.

Sometimes they were negative — furtive glances as I walked through an Ohio pumpkin patch to interview people, or the way a middle-aged man physically recoiled when I said "hello."

Trump supporters loved to ask me "Do you think he's racist?" At his rallies, it was a question I pretended I couldn't hear through my headphones over the din of the music. But it's a question I've often thought was overly simplistic. Did they want affirmation, or was it a proxy for whether they could trust me?

Donald Trump did not create the fear of Muslims; he merely tapped into it.

Other times, the reactions were just inexplicable — the GOP leader in Ohio who brought me local maple syrup as a gift for the road and then asked for a hug, or the couple at a Trump event in Florida who invited me to spend the weekend on their boat.

Maybe it was cathartic for them, I don't know.

These strange moments kept happening throughout my travels. So when I met Joy at a county GOP dinner in Colorado Springs, and she gave me her phone number and invited me to her house for tea, I took her up on the offer. She had wanted to chat casually, and I had some time to spare between afternoon interviews.

She told me I was the first journalist she had ever invited to her house. She asked me about my childhood in Indiana; she told me about hers in neighboring Kentucky. She asked me why and how I had become a reporter; she told me about her years as a math teacher.

And then she asked me what I thought about the election. And, as a journalist, I deflected. Sitting there at her kitchen counter, eating her homemade chocolate-chip cookies, I realized I was also likely the first Muslim who had ever been in her home.

So when is the "million-man Muslim march"?

But one woman's curiosity can sometimes be another man's threat.

Way before Trump entered the race, and GOP primary voters' consciousness, I was in New Hampshire working on a story to gauge reaction to the news that Mitt Romney might run for president again.

I met James at the Red Barn Diner in Manchester. He was seated at the counter by himself, eating BBQ roast and mashed potatoes, and sporting a camouflage jacket.

NPR's Asma Khalid chats with a student at Elon University in North Carolina.
NPR's Asma Khalid chats with a student at Elon University in North Carolina.

James said he was retired from the Army.

He didn't know who he was voting for yet. He said he liked Romney but thought he had been too "soft" on President Obama. He also liked Rand Paul, but he wasn't sure.

And then suddenly he turned to me and asked in an accusatory tone what I thought of Charlie Hebdo.

I must have had this confused look on my face — because I was wondering how on Earth we got from Romney to France. But I sputtered something about being a journalist, and that I don't think killing journalists is a good idea.

He then went further. He asked me: When are all of you Muslims going to have your "million-man Muslim march" to condemn terrorism? He said intently, almost friendly — it was what we "needed to do."

Donald Trump did not create the fear of Muslims; he merely tapped into it.

In that moment with James, I said nothing. I wanted to point out that Muslims have been condemning terrorism for years, but it's my job to hear what voters say, not argue with them.

And so I probably smiled awkwardly like I do sometimes — and tried to pivot back to Mitt Romney. I quickly finished the interview. I'd had enough for one day.

On the drive home, the more I thought about James, the more frustrated I became. The world is gray and nuanced, and so often my friends got the benefit of being composite people: Floridian, Catholic, scientist.

But often when voters saw me, all they saw was Muslim. They didn't see Hoosier, tennis fiend, fashion-obsessed journo.

"Risk mitigation"

As the campaign dragged on, comments like James' became fairly routine.

And that's to say nothing of social media — Twitter, with its dark anonymity, was especially hostile. (I never retweeted or acknowledged the worst messages, because, frankly, my mom reads my Twitter feed.)

Multiple times this campaign season, I deleted the Twitter app off my phone, only to return a day later, because, for a journalist, being off social media is unsustainable.

All year long, my single job was to tell the stories of voters. ... I always tried to understand their fears. But, so many times, this empathy felt like a one-way street."

I had become so accustomed during the campaign to the idea that Muslims were seen as un-American that on the day Trump announced his temporary Muslim ban, I didn't even realize it was news.

Initially, I skimmed the email and dumped it into a "Trump" folder in my inbox.

Then I met Jared at a Trump volunteer training in South Florida. He was the tech guy, running the audiovisuals. He had this intensity about him. And he warned me with a serious laugh that if I misquoted him in any way, he would make sure to get back to me and let me know.

I interviewed Jared and, as I was about to leave, he stopped me. He wanted to tell me one more thing: basically why the temporary Muslim ban was actually good for Muslims like me.

Jared wanted me to know that he knew all about Islam. He told me he had spent a year and a half in Egypt, even spoke some Arabic.

"I'm not just some dude," he said.

I didn't tell him I have a master's degree in Islamic studies from Cambridge. I let him go on.

"I know that there are certain things that it's their mission," Jared said of Muslims. "True believers — it's their mission."

Their mission? To "come here" and do "heinous things."

And, he added, if they're allowed to continue to come into the U.S. and commit violent acts — and this is where it gets really bad for me — the U.S. could move toward internment camps.

A Muslim ban, in his view, was just "risk mitigation."

If there were more attacks by Muslims in the U.S., he said, "All the horrible Nazi-esque things that people are talking about would happen. You know who would demand it? The entire country."

He continued, "If I think my head's going to get cut off, I would be in a defensive mode, wouldn't you?"

Jared seemed to suggest that I was one of the safe ones. How he decided that, I don't know. Maybe it was my Prada sunglasses or my Tory Burch shoes.

His logic struck me in contradictory ways — one, that I was a good American and so should support a Muslim ban to protect my fellow Muslim citizens from internment camps, but, two, that I was a bad Muslim because I didn't believe in killing people.

I felt humiliated — and said nothing. I couldn't. It wasn't my job. But what I would have said is: "I pray; I fast; I don't steal; I try not to lie — these are all the basic universal morals that I always thought made for a true believer. And I don't believe in killing people. So, does that make me a bad Muslim?"

When empathy is a one-way street

All year long, my single job was to tell the stories of voters. I met a Trump-supporting mom who had lost her son in Afghanistan, an evangelical wife who worried that race relations had gotten worse because of President Obama, a former military man afraid of Muslim terrorists.

I always tried to understand their fears. But, so many times, this empathy felt like a one-way street.

About a month before the election, I went to Columbus, Ohio. I was particularly curious to hear from white, working-class families — the types of folks who had once voted Democrat but were increasingly swayed by Trump's message.

So I decided to tag along for an evening of door-knocking with the group Working America — they're affiliated with the AFL-CIO and had endorsed Hillary Clinton.

Door-knocking is always slightly awkward for radio reporters. We have giant microphones, and we ask strangers to allow us to record them talking to a canvasser. But I've done enough of these that I've learned when to lean in and when to turn off my mic.

And, undoubtedly, you meet some characters when you're knocking on strangers' doors. There was the woman whose house was completely decked out in orange and black for Halloween. And there was the man who told me he could see Satan in Obama's eyes.

But, generally, I believed if you're kind to people, they would return the kindness.

That is not what happened on a crisp fall evening in Ohio.

The young canvasser I was following knocked on a door, and Christina opened the door. She politely explained that "people maintaining their guns" was her main priority this election. She continued to answer the canvasser's questions as her mother came to the porch, saw me and started yelling.

"You need to get off of my property," she said with a scowl.

"Mom," Christina said with exasperation. But her mother repeated herself more clearly and furiously.

"This is my property, and she needs to get off," the woman said — glaring squarely at me. Never mind that there were two of us. And I was not the one asking questions; I was the silent one off to the side.

"Mom, they came here to talk to me," Christina explained. And, eventually, her mom relented and went inside.

As her mother slammed the door behind her, Christina apologized: "Sorry, she's not in the best of moods today."

The canvasser went back to her list of questions, but I could hardly pay attention, because, inside, Christina's mom was still yelling, and I could hear her in the background.

"There's a Muslim on my front porch. It's ... ridiculous," she shrieked.

If I had been alone, this is the point where I would have just said "thanks" and walked away, but I was following a canvasser, and she had more questions to ask, so we stayed.

And, again, I did nothing. Because I could do nothing. I had a badge around my neck and a microphone in my hand, so to prove my own humanness seemed like the inappropriate thing to do as a journalist in that moment.

At times like this, it was hard to swallow that I felt like some of my own people hated me.

And they are my people. I know them, even if they don't know it. I was born in the Midwest, grew up in the Midwest, went to college in the Midwest. This neighborhood, where we were door-knocking even looked like the neighborhood where I had lived as a kid.

Maybe it was naive, but my Hoosier upbringing taught me that you could win people over — if only they got to know you.

This woman had reminded me of people I had known all throughout my life. But they never yelled at me to get off their porch.

And on this chilly October evening in Columbus, I realized there are people who just don't want to know you, who think they know everything about you before you open your mouth.

Looking for America

I got to see America this year like I had never seen her before — traveling to main streets in Iowa, diners in New Hampshire, living rooms in Ohio, county GOP meetings in Colorado, casinos in Nevada, churches in Florida, and so many, many more places across our fascinating country.

And for that I'll always be grateful.

But I also felt unwelcome in my homeland for the first time. It's something I had never known before.

Everywhere I went, I tried to understand voters' frustrations and empathize with their concerns.

But the reality is — empathy isn't always reciprocated.

Editor's note:The author chose to use only first names of people mentioned because the intent of the piece is not to publicly shame anyone.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: December 6, 2016 at 11:00 PM CST
A previous caption incorrectly referred to Elon University as Elon College.
Asma Khalid is a White House correspondent for NPR. She also co-hosts The NPR Politics Podcast.