What It Was Like For A Muslim Reporter Covering Donald Trump In The 2016 Presidential Election NPR's Asma Khalid reflects on a year covering politics at a moment when being Muslim was seen as a political problem for some.

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

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Asma Khalid is a political reporter here at NPR. She grew up and went to college in Indiana. Her family was one of the few Muslim families in that area. As a kid, she says that didn't seem like a big deal.

ASMA KHALID, BYLINE: I grew up largely before 9-11, so it was a different time. There were a lot of kids in my high school who were really religious. A good number of my friends were very practicing Catholic or very practicing sort of Protestants - you could say Evangelical. Everybody had a faith, more or less, where I grew up, and being Muslim was just another faith.

CORNISH: But in the last year and a half, that hasn't been the case. As a political reporter, Asma covered the presidential campaign, and she also wears a headscarf. On Twitter, she dealt with constant abuse and religious epithets. And all around the country, as she spoke to voters and went to rallies, she noticed people treated her differently than the other reporters.

KHALID: For a lot of people, just based on how they responded to me, I could tell that often I was the very first Muslim they had met.

CORNISH: What made you think that?

KHALID: So sometimes their reactions were very fearful. There would be sort of the inability for people to engage right away - the first impressions. I would have to sort of get people to warm up. It took a while. And this, I guess, is maybe a talent that you learn from growing up in Indiana. You learn to make a lot of folks feel comfortable with you from a young age, and you could do that a lot on the campaign trail.

But other times, the reactions were openly hostile. You know, I went door to door with a canvas group, Working America. They're affiliated with the AFL-CIO. So they had supported Hillary Clinton, and they were in this white, working-class neighborhood in south Columbus. And we got to one house where we met this middle aged woman who opened the door. She started talking to the canvasser. And mind you - in all these interactions, I'm kind of the fly on the wall. I'm silent. And...

CORNISH: Right. I've done this beat, as well. But you're standing to the side with your microphone...

KHALID: You're standing to the side.

CORNISH: ...Aiming it at both the person at the door who's rung the doorbell...

KHALID: Totally.

CORNISH: ...And the person who opens up the door.

KHALID: Exactly.

CORNISH: And what happens next?

KHALID: And her mother comes outside.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: And you need to get off my property.


KHALID: And she started yelling at us. I shouldn't say even at us because it was directed towards me.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: I'm not going inside. This is my property, and she needs to get off.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Mom, they came here to talk to me.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Sorry, she's not in the best of moods today.

KHALID: In this moment, there were two of us. There was the canvasser, who was a young white woman, who was asking the questions, and me. And the woman who was actually answering the questions. She was very apologetic for her mother's behavior. She sort of hushed her mom back indoors. But as the canvassing interaction went on, I could hear her mother still in the background.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: Your family...

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: A Muslim on my back porch is even more ridiculous.


KHALID: And you heard her in the background saying, there's a Muslim on my property, and this is even more ridiculous. And she was just so upset.

CORNISH: So in that moment, you're silent. You're still on the job, right? You still have to make your deadline. You still have to finish your story. But over time, did you ever feel like you wanted to speak up or speak out or defend yourself?

KHALID: I think there's a lot of moments when afterwards you feel ashamed or humiliated because you don't actually stand up when people are sort of questioning your existence. I mean, in the interaction I mentioned, I had never really experienced, I guess, such visceral hatred. A lot of times when you engage with people, it's sort of subtle. People may be afraid to talk to you, but never such visceral anger, you know, to get off someone's property and yelling before I'd even open my mouth, before we had even engaged in a conversation.

And I think what made me feel really sad in that moment was that I was here to hear their stories. That's all I did all year - was try to hear from voters like that and try to understand their stories. And in that moment, you realize, like, the empathy that you are giving - constantly giving every day - it's not always reciprocated. And there are people who don't really want to get to know you. For some folks that you meet, you are only one thing, and that one thing, for some voters, is very scary.

CORNISH: So, as we mentioned in our introduction, you wear a headscarf. And did you ever think of not wearing it in order to do this work without being harassed?

KHALID: Definitely. And there are moments on the campaign trail this year where I did not wear a scarf, where I was out talking to voters. And I knew I saw a difference. I know that some of these voters may have reservations about a Muslim, and I want them to speak very openly with me. And if they see a headscarf right away, I don't know that they will trust me as much. And without a scarf, they'll feel more candid speaking about whatever they feel, including if they have negative opinions about Muslims.

CORNISH: Looking back now, do you think you were naive going into this process?

KHALID: Yeah, I think I was. I think I really was. I mean, there was a moment in early 2016 where I went into my editor's office, and I cried for the first time, but not the last time. And I told her if I had known what this job would entail, if I had known that the idea of being Muslim - you know, in some ways my very sheer existence in this country - would be up for debate in this election cycle, I don't know if I would have signed up for this job.

Being Muslim became a political problem for some voters, and it's really hard when that's not a debatable issue in your mind. You know, it's already been resolved (laughter). You know, there's nothing up for debate about your existence in this country, but for a lot of voters, that was an issue up for debate.

CORNISH: What, if any, experiences gave you faith, kept you going?

KHALID: I do think, as difficult as some of the voter moments may have been, those moments were also what gave me hope. I really enjoy fundamentally understanding why voters feel a certain way. At times, it sort of felt like I was on this solo goodwill USA tour. I was, in some ways - I don't know - unintentionally, maybe, an ambassador. I realized that I had - was the first person of my sort that anybody had met in sort of a very intimate way - sitting in their home, having lunch.

And oftentimes people I would meet in public settings - say, at a Trump volunteer training or at a GOP county meeting - they would invite me. One couple invited me to spend the weekend on their boat. Another woman invited me to spend the afternoon. She wanted me to meet her in-laws. It was not uncommon for people to ask for hugs at the end of interviews. These sort of grand gestures of kindness, I think, also did surprise me, in the sense that it felt like people really wanted to get to know the person in front of them. And maybe - and I don't know - it was because I didn't exactly mesh with the vision that they had or the vision that they had been told of what a Muslim woman ought to look like or behave like.

And I rarely took up the invitations to go to people's homes, often just because you're on a tight schedule between interviews. But I was in Colorado for a week, and a woman that I had met when the first days there - she invited me to come to her house. She wanted me to come over for tea and cookies. And so I went, and it was a really interesting experience. I mean, this woman is over 70 years old. She grew up in Kentucky. I grew up in Indiana. And she asked me about my life in Indiana, how I had become a reporter, why I'd become a reporter and what I thought about the election.

And she told me that I was the first journalist that she had ever invited into her home. And I never asked her, but I kind of got the hunch as I was eating, you know, chocolate chip cookies on her kitchen counter that I may have also been the first Muslim that she had ever invited to her house.

CORNISH: Asma Khalid, thank you so much for sharing your stories with us.

KHALID: You're welcome.

CORNISH: Asma Khalid covered demographics this political season.

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