Sunlight is the best of disinfectants


Ferial Pearson, Ed.D

A photo of Ferial Pearson with the sun shining in the background.
Ferial Pearson, Ph.D. is an education professor at UNO and the founder of the Secret Kindness Agents Project. She has won several awards for her work in both education and social justice. Courtesy of Ferial Pearson.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are solely the author’s and not necessarily the author’s employer, organization, or other individuals.

Justice Louis Brandeis is said to have written that “Publicity is justly commended as a remedy for social and industrial diseases. Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants; electric light the most efficient policeman.” This was in reference to a statement in the 1888 book, “The American Commonwealth,” written by James Bryce:

“Public opinion is sort of atmosphere, fresh, keen, and full of sunlight, like that of the American cities, and this sunlight kills many of those noxious germs with are hatched where politicians congregate. That which, varying a once famous phrase, we may call the genius of universal publicity, has some disagreeable results, but the wholesome ones are greater and more numerous. Selfishness, injustice, cruelty, tricks, and jobs of all sorts shun the light; to expose them is to defeat them. No serious evils, no rankling sore in the body politic, can remain long concealed, and when disclosed, it is half destroyed.”

I am not new to bigotry, hate and violence. Growing up in Nairobi, Kenya, I knew about colonialism and its legacy. There were still “Whites Only” country clubs that found ways to exclude black Africans. I heard about Idi Amin and his treatment of Ugandan citizens of Indian descent. I had heard whispers of racism within my own hometown and even my extended family. When I left home at 19 to go to college in Minnesota, I thought America would be what it promised on TV: land of the free, home of the brave; a place where no one was hungry; where everyone had a place to live. I believed that if you worked hard enough, you would realize the American Dream and have the respect of the people around you.

I was naïve. I was wrong.

I have heard so often since the November 2016 presidential election that bigotry is back—I know that’s not true. It’s always been here, bubbling below the surface, whispered to those of us with marginalized identities in ways that don’t leave too much evidence, that can be denied with little to no consequence to the bigot. The only difference is that these days, people in power are doing it out loud and proud, still with very little accountability, thereby giving legitimacy to the bigotry and brazenness of the bigots.

I first moved to Omaha at the end of August 2001 to begin my first year of teaching at Omaha South High School. Two weeks later, I watched in horror as terrorists flew planes into the World Trade Center. One student asked me if I knew it was going to happen before it did. Another told me that America should just turn the Middle East into glass. A man tried to run me off the road while screaming racial slurs at me. A woman threw canned goods at me at the grocery store, sobbing, telling me to go back to where I came from. A parent tried to get me fired, claiming that I wasn’t qualified to teach in this country. That same year, a young gay man from Omaha died by suicide, and the Westboro Baptist Church held “God Hates Fags” signs outside the high school where he had gone, outside the church where his funeral was held and outside the cemetery where he was to be buried. I heard many homophobic mumbled agreements by adults and youth alike. I realized that my students were not reading literature by and about people of color, LGBTQIA people or people who were not from the United States or England. They couldn’t point to any countries in the Middle East on a map, even though we had been at war with those countries for as long as my students had been alive. I believed that if they had been taught, people like me might have been humanized for them, and those of my students who shared these identities would have felt validated and like their experiences mattered and were important.

When I tried to diversify what we taught in a global literature class, it was canceled after only a couple of years because “students need to read proper literature.” I have been called a “raghead” by a former classmate of my husband, a woman called me the “N” word outside my children’s elementary school and a man in a truck yelled “wetback” at me while driving past me outside the middle school. I’ve been told to go back where I come from more times than I can count. I was refused service at a gas station in a town close to Omaha. In 2017, a man running for the Omaha city council went to workshops by Mark Christian of the Global Faith Institute, a recognized hate group, and subsequently ran on an anti-Muslim, anti LGBT platform.

So, when I experienced a harrowing ordeal in Mullen, Nebraska just this past month, I wasn’t surprised. This time, though, I had proof. I was tired. I was angry. I was scared. By the time I got home, the news was already asking for interviews. However, I wasn’t emotionally ready for that, but I knew I had to write my story quickly so that the truth could be known. The fallout from my writing this piece on Medium and from the news stories that eventually came out ended up shedding even more light on the bigotry that still exists everywhere.

The Omaha World-Herald reporter was clearly biased on the phone while interviewing me, saying things like, “Don’t you think you’re being over dramatic?” and “Did you write the title of the Medium blog all by yourself? Don’t you think Islamophobia is a powerful word nowadays? You said you were afraid on the drive home. Are you taking poetic license by writing that or did that really happen?” He told me his takeaway was to stay off social media. In his article, he never quoted anything I said on the phone, didn’t name me until the 4th paragraph, didn’t use anything from my bio or the information about The Secret Kindness Agents that I sent him and spent a great deal of time trying to discredit everything I wrote in my Medium piece.

The Channel 3 news reporter didn’t tell me he had interviewed the sheriff, and so I never had a chance in that interview to respond to what the sheriff said—which was unfair and not good practice. Both men gave all the folks in Mullen a chance to respond to what I wrote and said, but never gave me the same courtesy. As a result, the comments underneath the articles posted online spewed ugly vitriol: “Remember 911,” accusations of having a bad attitude, of lying, of using this as a tactic to sell my book, of overblowing things, being overdramatic and more. Many comments were just as bad as the original Facebook posts by the Mullen resident and her dozens of friends that started this whole thing.

The sheriff said to the news that I was never in any danger and that people of Mullen are kind people. But, if I was never in any danger, why would the superintendent say to me that he understood if I was too scared to speak the next day? If I wasn’t in any danger, why would the sheriff have been asked to be there, and why did the superintendent assure me of his presence—all before I had even had a chance to bring up the social media posts with him?

These same folks are accusing me of putting a “black mark on the town.” I didn’t cause this controversy or this drama. The woman who spent three hours researching me and the 95-100 other folks from in and around Mullen who agreed with her disgust at having a Muslim woman speak to kids – on her public post – did. I have yet to hear any apology from her or the folks commenting on her thread but have received plenty of messages about making the town look bad. Victim-blaming and gaslighting are abusive behaviors. It also turns out that the sheriff was one of 380 to sign a letter supporting the border wall.

One of the scariest posts was one that brought up “American Sniper” Chris Kyle. Some made a defense of this by pointing out that the person was not even a Mullen resident, but the Christchurch shooter was in fact encouraged by people outside of New Zealand and was himself not even from New Zealand. That didn’t make him any less dangerous to the people he murdered in New Zealand. He has in turn inspired many copycats across the world. The man suggesting the Chris Kyle solution to my presence is also a sheriff and was involved in the shooting of an indigenous man in Oklahoma. This is also not very comforting news.

It was not “just a few” people being vitriolic and perpetuating dangerous rhetoric, as folks keep asserting. It was over 90 people. It didn’t matter that I am well qualified for my job with a doctorate in Educational Leadership and 19 years of teaching experience, have not committed any crimes, came to this country “legally” and have become an American citizen. I did everything right and still, I was treated with suspicion from the beginning, and continue to be, simply because of what the various parts of my identity are. That being said, I have referenced over and over again that the students and staff in Mullen were so kind, supportive and warm to me. I have received messages from them in the weeks since that have been wonderful. I believe I have friends in the Sandhills and would probably go back if invited. However, I would not go alone.

Folks have asked me, “Aren’t you supposed to be the kindness lady? Do you really think it’s kind to talk about all this? This isn’t polite. It’s not nice.” So, let me make this clear. Kindness is making bigots uncomfortable. Kindness is not the same as “Nebraska Nice.” It’s not the same as being polite. It’s not respectability politics. It’s not refusing to make waves. Kindness is doing what’s right in the face of what’s wrong. Kindness has ripple effects, and the youth are watching and being affected by it. I am grateful to the dozens and dozens of people who have done this for and with me in the past few weeks. It gives me – and those like me – the strength and courage to continue our work in the face of anything we might experience in the future.

I can’t help but think much of this could be avoided if educators cared more about the safety of people like me and less about the discomfort of bigots and the fear of “controversy.” We need to diversify our curriculum, offer world religions classes in every school, introduce our students to multiple perspectives, teach them to think critically and to have empathy for those different from them. The best medicine is prevention.

And, when we become aware of hatred, vitriol, bigotry, discrimination, we all need to speak up loudly because sunshine is indeed the best disinfectant.