Nebraska, we need to figure out whether we want our state to be a welcoming place that treats people from diverse backgrounds equitably, or a place that lives up to its tourist slogan, “Nebraska: Honestly, it’s not for everyone.” If we want to live in a state that caters only to the racial and religious majority, then we appear to be on the right path, and we can continue to suffer from brain drain. If we want to build an environment that welcomes, nourishes, and derives benefits from the diversity of America, it’s time to step up. If you are a member of the racial or religious majority, it starts with becoming a better ally. This is particularly necessary for community leaders of the state–by which I mean everyone from elected officials to faith leaders to media to people leading public institutions.
A case in point: Ferial Pearson has made the Omaha area her home for many years. She teaches at UNO and regularly speaks to audiences around the state about her favorite topic: kindness. Specifically, she speaks to groups about how to notice the difficulties faced by people with various disadvantages, and the need for people with more advantages to act as allies to those without. She often uses her own story as a Muslim woman from Kenya, who sometimes walks with a cane and is married to a white atheist, as a springboard into discussions about the messy, complicated, and beautiful diversity of the United States.
Unfortunately, she does this at her own peril.
For the second time in four months, Pearson is facing a frightening and unacceptable barrage of hate because she brought her message of inclusion to communities in Nebraska that simply do not want to hear it.
I want to detail what brought Pearson to Platteview High School in January 2020 and what kind of reaction she has faced so that we can start looking closely at what kind of state we have become and whose responsibility it is to fix this.
I. An Invitation to Help a School
In October 2019, the Director of Learning at Platteview Senior High School–located just south of Omaha–emailed an educational consultant in Omaha that they were looking for a speaker to come to the school and talk with students to help them in “understanding differences (gender, ethnic, cultural, views), [and] supporting them or ignoring them but not making light or fun of those differences (even on social media).” The educational consultant recommended Ferial Pearson, so the Director of Learning emailed Pearson to ask her if she could help the students gain “a deeper understanding for the differences of our students and by deepening the understanding hopefully that will increase their empathy.”
Let’s be upfront about the empathy and diversity problem under discussion here. The most recent data about Platteview Senior High School (from 2018-2019) shows that of its 404 students, 23 are hispanic, 15 are of two or more races, one is Asian, and zero are black. What was being requested was someone who would help an overwhelmingly white student body learn to consider the viewpoints and needs of others.
Indeed, the principal of Platteview Senior High School, Ron Alexander, concurred. He also emailed Pearson, explaining, “we lack in terms of overall diversity in our school” and that “isolated pockets” of the school community have “an inexperienced, shallow view of appreciating differences and being accepting of others.” (Seeing Red has not received a response to our request for comment from Mr. Alexander as of posting time.)
In other words, the racism at Platteview had gotten so out of hand among at least an obnoxious minority of students that the administration needed help getting it under control. Alexander wanted Pearson to help “increase our social awareness, sensitivity and empathy of our student body.” He asked Pearson to lead an assembly that would precede additional group discussions.
A week later, Alexander messaged Pearson for the title of her talk. She suggested “Power and Identity” and he replied with a thumbs up.
In December, Pearson met with the Platteview guidance counselor for two hours to work on the presentation, including going over the talk and sharing a handout titled “Power and Privilege” to be used in the small groups after the assembly.
So far so good, right? A small but growing school district sees that some of its students are racist–though they don’t use that term–and tries to actively tackle the issue, as they should.
But sometime between Pearson meeting with the guidance counselor and the assembly in January, something took a downward turn. When Pearson arrived at the school on January 8 and headed into the assembly, she says the principal informed her that the students could use something with “shock value.” The guidance counselor informed her that some parents had expressed concern about her speaking to the students. Pearson asked what had been communicated to the parents about the talk, but the counselor said she did not know.
With this warning hanging over her, Pearson began her presentation to an assembly of high schoolers with a known racist contingency whose parents had contacted the school “concerned” that a Muslim woman was going to speak about kindness and diversity. We at Seeing Red Nebraska have created a transcript of her talk from a recording of it made by a student. You can read the entire transcript here for yourself, but here is our analysis.
II. An Assembly Lacking Discipline
From the beginning the assembly sounded largely disengaged. The students seemed not tuned in to the moves she made early on to connect with them. The group was chatty, distracted, and distracting to a degree that other high schools may not have permitted without an administrator pausing the presentation to insist the students show a guest speaker attention and respect. This did not happen, though, and Pearson was left to manage the audience herself.
Pearson introduced herself and described her personal background, using the term “whiteman” (pronounced as a compound word, like “Whitman” but with a long i) to describe her husband. The term was an attempt to lightheardedly acknowledge racial difference to the crowd and set an unintimidating tone, but the chatty murmur of the assembly sounded like the students were not listening attentively or generously enough to connect. Pearson then started to walk the group through different kinds of biases that might impact the power one has in society. She started off with ageism against teenagers in a smart attempt to get the students to identify with the problem of profiling. From there she moved to faithism, asking the students to identify which faith identities have the most and least social acceptance in midwestern America in 2020.
When Pearson asked what privileges are extended to Christian people, a boy responded, “They get to go to the one true afterlife.” Pearson tried to both acknowledge the rudeness of the comment and de-escalate as the assembly got loud and unfocused: “They get to go to the one true afterlife? So are you saying I am damned to hell because I’m Muslim? Ouch. Oh wait, maybe most of my friends are there. Thank you. I think he was being sarcastic, right? Yeah. He was being sarcastic. I like your humor. Alright, let’s come back, y’all. Let’s come back.”
Some of the kids listened and engaged her, commenting that Christmas Break and an abundance of Christian churches make worship pretty easy for Christians in Nebraska.
Pearson moved on to ableism and the difficulties faced by people with disabilities. After productive examples from some students as their peers chatted around them, Pearson offered as an example the conversations surrounding mass shootings. Many people cast blame on “mental illness,” which adds to the stigma of mental health problems. Then she called on a boy who seemed to have been waiting to make a joke:
Student: They don’t let us play games with people.
Pearson: They don’t let you play games with people – like what kind of games?
Student: Fortnight, Minecraft
Pearson – What does that have to do with disabilities, sir?
Pearson: I’ll wait.
Student: I withdraw my comment.
Pearson: You withdraw your comment, okay.
With no school employees intervening to control the room, Pearson tried to move the discussion along, and soon turned to sexism, which elicited a general commotion from the crowd. Several students who resented the very topic dominated the conversation. When Pearson asked for examples of sexism, one offered the fact that men are expected to pay for the first date. Pearson responded to him, and another student said that this was “getting controversial” and it needed to stop. Pearson began talking about the “pink tax“–that is, the upcharge on items that are marketed to women–and a student said “That is not a thing” and another said “So buy a men’s razor!” When she addressed how the expectation of makeup and clothing impacts women in time and money, students interjected comments about how women can simply stop doing those things. Throughout all of this she repeatedly asked the students to simmer down so she could hear them and they could have an orderly discussion. No school employee intervened to assist.
A boy commented, “Men work more hours on average and in more intense conditions than women do.” “Do they?” asked Pearson. Students shouted “yeah!” When Pearson described the unpaid, invisible labor often required of women, several male students in the audience booed her.
Pearson moved on to representation in government, which was met with similar disorderly comments. She eventually turned to the topic of the “trans panic defense” and “gay panic defense”–that a person can get away with harming a gay or trans person by claiming to have been alarmed by them. “What bill is this? I’d like to know.” said one student. “Good,” said another. The disruptions and distractions made it difficult for her to build off of comments and develop a picture of some people needing to bear in mind the special vulnerabilities of other people.
When Pearson got to racism she was running out of time and the room was all but lost. She pointed out that Platteview Senior High School does not have any teachers of color. “There is a reason for that and it’s called racism,” she said, summarizing what might have been a more nuanced discussion in normal circumstances. Some students laughed and made comments that this is not racism. Pearson concluded by making a last plea. She asked the students to consider the point of view and needs of people who lack privilege, giving an example of scoping out a restaurant to make sure it is accessible, and to listen sympathetically to people who describe difficulties they have faced.
As a teacher and a parent listening to the recording, what I wanted to hear the whole time was an authority figure in the school to call a timeout and instruct the students that they must show respect to a guest speaker and voice any disagreement appropriately. Instead, the “isolated pockets” that caused the school to invite Pearson to begin with were successful in disrupting the talk and making it clear to their peers that they are allowed to dominate these spaces as they see fit.
With no school employees controlling the disrespectful kids and with parents complaining ahead of time that a Muslim woman would be talking about diversity, a hazy picture emerges of a school whose leadership knows there is a serious social problem at the school but is ill equipped to handle it.
III. Afterward: “Fix What You’ve Done to These Very Innocent Kids.”
Unfortunately, this hazy picture came even more into focus after Pearson left. Students and parents began to barrage Pearson–and apparently the school district administrators–with furious complaints about how she victimized the students in the room. Many of the complaints claimed that she “ridiculed,” “hurt,” or “attacked children,” and needed to apologize to the school. One parent said she should be sued. Another called her “very hateful” and told her to “Fix what you’ve done to these very innocent kids.” At least one parent copied administrators at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, seemingly hoping that she would face employment consequences.
Pearson began posting these angry messages on her public Facebook page, initially blacking out the names of anyone she thought was a student, but eventually sharing a public Facebook post posted by a student. These posts, in turn, led parents to message her claiming that she was causing the school to be a target of violence, a story that seems to have taken on a life of its own in the gossip channels of the school. Parents sent her more messages, including these comments:
“People like you are the problem in today’s society.”
“No wonder you got all of those threats.”
“I suggest that you get your shit together before you try some BS like that again at any other school cuz it will result all the same because you’re the problem NOT US!”
“For you to be spewing hatred, which is exactly what you’re doing, is appalling.”
“You’re attacking children. You are insane.”
“You should be disgusted and ashamed. I feel so badly for your children. You are a terrible human being.”
Eventually, representatives of a small, national conservative student movement got involved, tweeting at Pearson in language imitating Donald Trump, including “Loser!” and “SAD!”
Through all of this, the school seemed to only minimally intervene. The most thorough communication to parents was this email sent by the principal:
The email characterizes the invitation to Pearson as asking her to “empower young people to be confident in who they are and the acceptance of others.” That is a skewed way of describing the original invitation, which acknowledged groups of students at the school who were doing such things as “making light” of gender, racial, and cultural differences on social media. The school had a racism problem, not a self confidence problem.
Alexander faults Pearson for “taking more time than expected” to talk about “isms”–the very problem she was invited to address. He acknowledges that Pearson emphasized that students should not be ashamed of privilege in her talk and concluded with a positive message. But then he bafflingly adds: “As a precaution that this does not happen again, the district will require any guest speaker to present their speech for prior approval.” As a precaution that what won’t happen again? Pearson did submit the topic, title, and content of her talk to the school ahead of time, and she stuck to message. The email from Alexander implies that Pearson had gone off script and embroiled the school in this conflict, pointing the finger at the queer Muslim woman who did what she was hired to do and kept her composure in an assembly dominated by disrespectful students.
Just as school administrators sat by and made it their guest’s problem as these students dominated the assembly, they are sitting by and pointing the finger at her in the angry aftermath.
Pearson has also received a number of messages from students and alumni expressing sympathy and sharing their own experiences as members of minority groups at the school. One stated that she simply did not believe the school was a safe space for people of color or LGBTQ people.
Pearson responded to this by trying to rise above it, encouraging people to respond with kindness. Two people did: one coordinated a batch of 40 Starbucks gift cards to be sent to the school for the staff, and another had a bouquet of roses delivered to the office.
So let’s be clear about what happened here. A school with very little racial diversity had a known problem with some students being racists. Administrators sought Ferial Pearson’s help in addressing this problem. She prepared a talk on what they wanted and informed school representatives of its title and content. Before she arrived on campus anger about her visit was already brewing, yet this queer Muslim woman of color walked into that assembly to do her job. The students in general acted noisy and disrespectful from the get-go, seemingly accustomed to low expectations for their behavior. As they continued to be disruptive and grew increasingly rude, not a single adult who worked at the school made them stop, confirming to these students that they they had the power to dominate a guest–and one of the few people of color in the room–as they saw fit. Afterward, their parents turned on the rage spigot, casting the brown woman as a villain who had hurt their children. When she reported what they were saying to her, the parents added the charge of endangering their children to the list of grievances they wanted her to pay for. Meanwhile, the educators in charge of the school did virtually nothing to abate this mob anger, only sending an email implying that indeed this woman had overstepped and created a controversy and they would be sure to prevent that from happening again.
IV. Let’s Listen to Ferial Pearson About How to Be Allies
Being an educator means you disabuse people of misinformation, not contribute to it.
Being an ally means that you do not throw a woman of color to the wolves when she experiences mob anger for doing what was necessary, valuable, and requested by you.
Being an ally and an educator means you inform your school community that there is a bigotry problem you take seriously, that this guest did what you hired her to do, that you expect students to treat guests with respect, and that you expect all members of your school community to stop their harassment of a guest in the school.
Yes, saying those things to that crowd might feel difficult. Nobody said the job was easy.
We have to stop outsourcing the problem of white nationalism to people like Ferial and expecting her to solve it with no backup. Our community leaders need to roll up their sleeves and do the work.
While Platteview parents were rage-messaging Ferial that she abused their children, she and her husband had to take security precautions to protect their family, knowing they live in a state where a school district’s administration thinks it’s okay to teach kids to treat someone like this.
I hope that the other community leaders she is interacting with–namely, the administration of UNO–does better, and shows her unequivocal support for doing the work that so many in our state seem willing to shirk and that is so vital for our state to thrive.