Nov 18, 2016
From the age of 2 to 18 years old, Arkansas was my home. Growing up in an upper-middle-class family, in a community where everyone looked like me and professed the same faith, I never feared the cops--who gave polite waves--or of hiding my (straight) identity. That sameness, endorsed by the people in charge locally, statewide and nationally, afforded me the ability to simply focus on what I wanted to do after high school and dream big. Looking back, I now see this wasn’t the case for all Arkansans.
After college, I moved to San Francisco, where I worked on behalf of undocumented workers. Away from their families, with little safety net, my clients were taken advantage of by being taken advantage of by (mostly) white American employers who stole wages from them. In northern Somalia, where I lived next, I educated students who wanted nothing more than to get a good education and a good paying job. As a citizen of a country that saw terroristic activity, my students’ families faced impossible visa requirements to schools and work abroad. As a result, they took to traveling “illegally” across many borders – too often dying in the process to get somewhere they hoped would be better.
While in the Middle East, where I worked with the most incredible journalists from around the globe, I found – as always – a warm reception. Regardless of our religious or cultural differences, it was easy to find common ground. After awhile I stopped being astounded with their abilities to discern between the American government and me, the American – something I’ve yet to see happen on a wide scale basis in my own country. As the first Arkansan anyone met, I did my best to endear people to my state.
It’s beautiful, I would say. “It’s so green, with lots of places to hike and be outside.”
But how do they treat brown people? They would ask in response, drawing on what little they had heard about the South – usually little more than the notion that the region was full of racist people carrying guns. I can’t tell you the number of times I heard jokes about getting lynched or shot if they visited me there.
“No,” I would insist. “It’s not like that. They’ll really nice. People may vote against your best interests, but they’re really friendly in person. Do you see the difference?”
For the first time in over a decade, I spent Election Day this year in Arkansas. Waking up the day after, I was humbled by the results. We, as white people, had just elected a man who built his campaign through assigning blame to every single group but his own, a man whose victory was welcomed by current and former heads of the Ku Klux Klan. The whole day, I moved numbly from one errand to the next. It seemed the whole world was on fire, and yet no one in my hometown seemed bothered. And why would they? Their physical safety was not at risk – a reality that would have been the same irrespective of who won: Hillary Clinton, Evan McMullan or Mickey Mouse.
With each interaction, I wondered whether this person smiling at me, helping me, making my day just a little bit better had in fact voted against people I cared deeply about. The hair stylist who leaned toward neutral ground when discussing the flaws of both main candidates; the restaurant host who kindly – and hugely outside of her job description – carried part of my large order out to my truck. Did she just vote to endanger my 4-year- old godson, who inherited his mother’s Malaysian heritage and Muslim faith? Did she just vote in favor of placing bulls-eye targets on my colleagues, journalists who went into the profession not for the money (certainly not for the money), but because of their interest in serving others?
There is an inscription in downtown historic Little Rock that reads: “When we know where we have been, we can choose whether to go there again.” Now, I expect not everyone has seen it – I happened across it just last weekend – but I have to assume that whoever commissioned it did so with the belief that learning from our past in order to make better decisions in the future is a valued and shared sentiment among other Arkansans. Yet, for a state that prides itself on its Southern hospitality, it’s horrifying that Arkansans continue to endorse initiatives and politicians that do anything but that. Praying for others is not enough. Being outwardly kind is not enough.
If this is the direction that Arkansans have chosen – one that rewards xenophobia and fear – then I will no longer differentiate between how we Arkansans behave in public versus how we behave privately.