Explaining the World to Ourselves

A reporter navigates religion, empathy, and American voters

Ryan Donnell

Asma Khalid (B.A. ’06, Journalism, Political Science) and I sit in an empty cafeteria at National Public Radio (NPR) headquarters in Washington, D.C. Our voices echo against the high ceiling. When she was a child in northern Indiana, Asma tells me, she read a biography of Nellie Bly, a journalist who, in the 1880s, went undercover to a mental health institution to reveal its inhumane conditions and later set a record for circling the Earth in 72 days, inspired by Jules Vernes’ Around the World in Eighty Days.

“I fell in love with her story and resolved that that is what I wanted to do,” Asma says. “I was fascinated with the power of journalism to essentially right a wrong and the way that storytelling could create this change in a way that sometimes political institutions can’t.”

Nellie Bly wasn’t Asma’s sole inspiration; she has always loved storytelling. Growing up, she would make up bedtime stories for her younger siblings and cousins.

 “Some people read books,” Asma says. “I would craft these elaborate stories and tell them.”

She worked for her high school newspaper, and at IU, she enrolled in the School of Journalism — now part of The Media School — and became involved in the Indiana Daily Student. She didn’t find herself in radio until graduate school, when she studied abroad at Cambridge and interned at the BBC during winter break.

“I'm eternally indebted to what I learned at IU,” Asma says. “One of the things that I think is remarkable about going to a large public institution is that you meet all different kinds of people. And now, I’m a political reporter and I focus on voters and I meet all different kinds of people. And I always tell people that where I grew up is ultimately the best preparation that I ever had to cover the 2016 campaign.”

Asma traverses the United States for NPR speaking to voters about what drives them to or away from the polls. Her interviewees reflect the full political spectrum of the country and its wide cultural, geographical, and racial diversity.

“Much of the story of the 2016 campaign was about the Midwest,” Asma says. “But it was also about race. Where I grew up embodied both of those things and who I am, to some degree.”

As a political correspondent for NPR, Khalid co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast and reports on politics, demographics, and economics.

Before I met her, I read and listened to a few of Asma’s NPR pieces, and I learned that she has encountered the good, the bad, and the ugly of America as a Muslim woman reporter who wears a head scarf. She has gone without her hijab a few times during moments of intensified anti-Muslim rhetoric in order to protect her own safety and when she gauged that it would be challenging for her to effectively report in some communities.

It seems Asma has assessed how her headscarf may make others feel for much of her life. She was in high school when she first decided to wear it.

“I distinctly remember running the idea past a cohort of my lunch school friends who were white kids,” she says.

She didn’t tell her parents, who may not have liked the idea because they didn’t want her to face discrimination. But Asma’s friends didn’t balk at the idea.

“They were all cool with it,” she says. “It’s hard for me to explain this now in a 2018 context. But this was a world pre-9/11. And I think that people didn’t know a lot about Islam. So, the only Muslim largely they knew was me. They knew my family, and there was one other girl who was Muslim in our grade. My parents had lived there for years and years.”

These were students she had known practically since elementary school, and that familiarity with her opened the door for acceptance.

To me, Asma’s experience in high school would be rarer in our current political climate. Asma frequently acknowledges that her various experiences — as a Wells Scholar at IU, as a journalist, as a Muslim — are unusual or privileged in many ways. Her family’s history of being Muslim in the United States, for instance, isn’t one often highlighted in media and modern history.

“Many people think of this population as being new to the United States,” Asma says. “My mother grew up in the U.S. My grandfather had immigrated here, and so he lived in Chicago in the early ‘60s. He befriended Albanians who had been here since the early 1900s as well as people who were leaving the Nation of Islam and entering mainstream Islam who were African American. And so, in many ways that was an indigenous American Islam, and I was raised with this experience of Islam being very distinctly American. As I got older, it was interesting to meet people who are non-Muslim who felt as if Muslims were at times a fifth column in the United States.”

A cross-stitched portrait of the NPR Politics Podcast co-hosts hangs in the organizaton's recording studio in Washington, D.C.

Asma recognizes that her family history — and her intertwined sense of religious and national identity — may have given her a much different experience in this country than that of recent Muslim immigrants. It’s the recognition, this acknowledgment of differing experiences and perspectives, that demonstrates Asma’s empathy for others. I notice it as she exudes humor and patience as I struggle with my brand-new audio recorder and confess to being a technophobe. I ask her how she empathizes with people who react to her as a Muslim reporter with hostility.

Asma nods, thinking for a moment.

“There’s a guy I interviewed after the election who voted for Trump,” she says. “He made some comment to me about how he realized in the aftermath that maybe he was somebody who just lacked empathy. He didn’t know how to do this. And I’m not trying to boast about my own personality, but I do think for some of us there’s an inclination to be empathetic or not be empathetic, and that, to some degree, is almost like a personality trait. I do think that when you are a minority in a small town, you learn to understand other people’s point of view. That’s often a mode of survival. It’s merely a way of existing and making friends that you, as a brown minority, end up being fluent in white culture.”

I understand what she means. I grew up black in a predominantly white county in Virginia. The way I spoke and dressed, the pop cultural references I learned, all stemmed from my efforts to navigate and thrive in a community that was majority white.

Asma tells me about upcoming projects. There’s one about a Russian-owned steel company seeking an exemption from the current administration’s steel tariffs. There’s a series about the 40 percent of Americans who don’t vote, what causes them to not vote, and what they want.

 “That type of journalism is about explaining the world to ourselves,” Asma says. “And explaining us to one another because we don’t really understand one another, and that was a big takeaway for me during 2016. Many of us live in compartmentalized silos. And so, it’s deeply important for us to have more explanatory journalism. I’m lucky I get to do that.”

Yet despite her interest in covering diverse communities, Asma is quick to point out that covering those communities doesn’t mean she sees herself as an expert on them. She tells me her NPR colleagues were surprised that she hadn’t heard of The Wiz, a musical based on The Wizard of Oz reimagined in an African-American cultural context with an all-black cast.

“I grew up in a town that was largely white,” Asma says. “So, I had to clarify to someone in the newsroom that really I wasn’t exposed to a lot of these things growing up. And now I think sometimes people see that ‘oh, well, you often tell stories about African-American voters not being engaged in the political system. Or you’ll go to Florida and tell the stories of Puerto Rican migrants who’ve moved here.’ What is important to me is to remind people that, no, I actually don’t know these cultures. I just think it’s very important for all of us to understand these stories. I think that’s the tremendous power that a journalist has. And one of the things that we can do is give a voice to people who are sometimes powerless. I think it’s a healthy reminder for all of us as journalists that we should go into communities that we’re not entirely familiar with.”

"... One of the things that [a journalist] can do is give a voice to people who are sometimes powerless."

I ask Asma what gives her hope about the future of journalism, particularly considering how the current political climate has undermined what good news should be. Asma says she appreciates NPR’s diversity.

“I think it’s an imperative to actually cover the news better,” Asma says. “We cannot cover communities and we cannot cover stories adequately if we do not have diverse newsrooms. I would argue that if you’re in the business of doing good news, you need to have diverse staff and you need diverse reporters. And so, when I look around the room now in our news organization, it’s just so much different than where it was 10 years ago when I first started. And that gives me a lot of hope.”

As I write this, the Unite the Right rally is gathering tomorrow not far from my home in Washington, D.C., carrying with it an ideology of white supremacy. I’m nervous about how the news will cover it, about how reporters may portray the counter-protestors, particularly those of color. I’m worried about old stereotypes, implicit biases.

But there will be journalists cut from the same cloth has Asma Khalid, and that gives me hope. A few days ago, I read an article about The Black Campaign School, which mentors African Americans interested in elected office. I was grateful to learn about the program and these candidates seeking to change communities and diversify politics. I was happy that someone decided this was a story worth telling. After I had finished the article, I read the byline. Of course, it was Asma Khalid.

Chad B. Anderson

Chad B. Anderson is a writer and editor living in Washington, D.C. Born and raised in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, he earned his B.A. in American studies and English from the University of Virginia and his M.F.A. in creative writing from Indiana University, where he served as fiction editor for Indiana Review. He has been a resident at the Ledig House International Writers' Colony, and his fiction is published in Salamander Review, Black Warrior Review, Nimrod International Journal, and Best American Short Stories 2017. He has also published nonfiction with The Hairsplitter and several articles and reports on higher education. Visit Anderson’s website at chadbanderson.com.