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…