Ilhan Omar came to visit the students at school last week.
(This should be the end of this essay. A member of Congress visiting a school in their district is entirely not a big deal.)
Some people got really unhappy.
I’m kinda sick of talking and hearing about it, honestly, especially since about five minutes after Ilhan’s much-debated comments were first reported, everyone sat down on one of three sides of the argument and have been shouting the exact same things at each other since.
In the two weeks since we announced the visit, I’ve become overly familiar with those sides, since they’ve all set up camp on some part of my school’s physical or digital space.
Side One: Representative Omar is critical of Israel’s human rights record and concerned with the wave of Islamophobia in the US following 9/11. Comments made about these things were misconstrued or misunderstood. Oh, and she apologized about the damage done and looked to learn from the situation.
Side Two: Omar, knowingly or not, used anti-semitic tropes. This was an awful thing, unbefitting of a representative of Congress. The damage was done and she hasn’t done enough to fix it. Also, the “some people did something” thing was pretty messed up.
Side Three: Ilhan hates Jews, America, and Gay People. Oh, and white people. She is recruiting people in her district for ISIS, and is inspiring Muslim extremists around the world to commit acts of violence.
I’m a strong Side-One-er, but can hear from Side Two that there’s some trust that needs to be rebuilt. I understand how racist tropes can be used to be awful or to excuse awfulness.
Also, let’s be clear here, anti-semitism is killing people. Anti-semitism is dangerous and is exactly as pervasive as Jewish people have been saying for years (I am, embarrassingly, one of those who didn’t fully believe them until Charlottesville).
But, also, the most immediate danger is coming from White Supremacists. They are committing terrorist acts against Jewish people with startling frequency, and many of those out hating on Ilhan are pretty quiet when it comes to mass shootings at Synagogues and the rise of Radical White Nationalism.
The fact that standing against White Supremacy and violent racism has become a partisan issue is maybe the grossest thing about our country right now, and it’s not like the left isn’t quick to “what about” it’s own racist crap instead of dealing with it.
I’m really sick of each team only calling out the other team’s racism. I say team purposefully, because it’s so much about winning, and it is so much a game to those who are playing it.
And so, what kills me about a whole lot of the Side Three phone callers and email writers is that they almost definitely know that Omar isn’t anti-semitic.
What they also know, why they are increasingly obsessed with her, is that she is young, muslim, a person of color, and a refugee. Also, she is gaining power, influence, and allies. She scares the shit out of them, but they know if they say those things out loud people will call them racist (for being racist).
So, they are delighted to have a flimsy excuse to call Omar a racist instead, telling us we should be “ashamed” to bring an anti-semite to our school, but, almost always, falling quickly back to some worry about Sharia law or the Somali community.
Their fear and distrust of Islamic people make it easy for so many of them to believe the worst about what Omar says or thinks or is secretly trying to do. The stories they tell themselves and each other about Omar would be funny if they weren’t so disgusting.
And oh man, even if the justification is mostly fake (and the week was a distressing education on how often these hate-mongers will either knowingly push out totally false information or believe nonsense without fact-checking it), their anger is really really real.
Protests were announced widely, even being promoted on Laura Loomer’s page (who also listed our school’s address and phone number, which may as well have been posted with a metaphorical neon arrow pointing to it that said “harass these people!”).
In the last week, our school fielded a few hundred calls, one calling whoever answered the phone a “cunt” and telling us we needed Jesus. After Omar retweeted a little “thank you” I tweeted about the visit, I spent the weekend blocking accounts that were sending me videos of executions, memes comparing Omar to Hitler, suggestions that she be deported, or arrested, or executed. Comments to the local organizer of the protests encouraged her to “Make [Omar] cry!” On one community thread someone who said they “stood with Ilhan” were told they should do so in front of the same firing squad.
The protests never really happened. One local organizer posted, early in the day, “We are here out front of the school! Press present!” It took us a while to find her and her friend standing around the corner of the parking lot (they did, to their credit, bring a dog). At one point, a local news crew drove past, but kept driving.
Still, I barely slept the night before and barely breathed the day of, not out of worry for Representative Omar, who is a fully-grown adult who has no-doubt seen worse, but for our kids, especially our kids of color and Muslim kids, about the awful crap they may be hearing or seeing because assholes decided to asshole at us.
In October, I wrote a piece about the polarization of the world, and how our classrooms can be a sanctuary from the hate, fear, and outrage factory that our national conversation has become. I could copy and paste that article here, because, yes, it is still that.
These voices, the email and twitter warriors, the Facebook commenters and conspiracy theory shouters, don’t feel fringe, at least, not in the way that they are ignored or dismissed. They seem more like the fuel pushing a movement.
Even if they are on the margins, they’ve been loud. So loud. They were so worried, so angry, that Ilhan Omar would be speaking to students.
And you know what? They had every reason to worry. They would have hated it.
She was all the things that most terrify and anger them about her. She was authentic, funny, and brilliant. She was inspiring and energizing. She was insightful and honest and joyful and warm.
She started by talking about her story, generally, being a young child in the middle of a Civil War, her family fleeing for their safety and living for years in a Refugee camp in Kenya. She talked about moving to the United States, only knowing the words “hello” and “shut-up,” and how not having access to the language was challenging. She studied hard and learned by watching TV with subtitles on. She talked about low expectations teachers had for her, and how she proved them wrong, about how students bullied her, put gum in her hijab, how she learned to fight back until she learned how to much more powerful it was to speak.
She talked about how many people had to ask her to run before she finally did; winning a state race to be the first Somali person in Minnesota to hold office, then the crazy run for Congress after Keith Ellison announced three days before the end of filing that he wouldn’t be running for re-election.
She told them that making the world better wasn’t something that had to wait until the future. She told them that being involved citizens is crucial. She also talked for a long time about the power of conversation, about the need to understand people who disagree with you, that conversations that make you feel a little uncomfortable are one of the best ways to grow and learn about the world.
I’ve been in a few buildings where government officials have visited. Omar’s visit was, above all else, completely normal. She was a member of Congress telling a group of students to believe in themselves, work hard, and care about what happens in the world.
Maybe the thing that scares people most about Ilhan is that no matter how hard they try to cast her as apart from “us,” as much as they filled my twitter mentions with pictures meant to scare me about everything different about her, that she’s right about the power of conversation.
She’s right that the more people hear her and get to know her, the more they let her challenge their fears and ignorance.
The scariest thing about Omar, perhaps, is that inspiring and wonderful though she may be, there is nothing not normal about Ilhan Omar representing Minnesota’s 5th district, representing the best of Minnesota, the promise of America, and beauty of being American.