On December 15, 2018, at 10:22PM, I received a call and a voicemail from someone I didn’t know. The charming message left for me? “Hello, Karen. You fat, disgusting slob. Go back to your country. I hope your new year’s is great. You fat, disgusting slob. Goodbye.”
What to say?
With just the right amount of racism, misogyny and stereotyping, at first, I was scared. I remember sitting in my apartment, with the lights off thinking that no one should see I was at home – wondering who this person is? Was he close? Did he live in San Francisco? How does he know my name? How did he get my number? Does he know where I live? It completely freaked me out. I listened to the voicemail several times, wondering if I knew this person – perhaps he was someone I angered because I didn’t want to date him – I had no idea.
In the coming days, after a conversation with Verizon and a friend who works with AT&T, I got the caller’s name and some other pertinent information. An 18 year-old kid named Dominic, from Ohio, was the culprit, and after a bit of sleuthing on Facebook, I contacted Dominic’s dad. I left a voicemail at his dad’s work, sent his dad an email with a copy of the voicemail, and I called the Youngstown police – and I never heard back from anyone.
Although I wanted to tell the world what a bigot Dominic is by posting his voicemail on social media, as well as his phone number, I decided against that. Why lower myself to his level of behavior? Why add hate, to more hate? Anger, to more anger? I also thought, Well, what if it wasn’t Dominic? What if someone stole his phone and called me? I came to the conclusion, however, if that were the case, once his dad got hold of my email and a copy of the voicemail, he would have called me to clear his “good son’s,” name. No call and no response, most likely equals guilt and shame.
Honestly, Dominic isn’t worth that much effort anyway. He’s a dime-a-dozen-racist, as I call people like him. A follower, can’t think for himself, hasn’t left his tiny Ohio town – all those typically, racist tenets. I do wonder if he has made his parents proud by his actions. But, perhaps, he learned this behavior from them. We all know racism is learned, so, where else would Little Dominic learn such techniques for hatred, if not his dad picking up the phone in the middle of the night to call 50+ year old women, telling them to go back to their country. I will never know. I can also assume that I am not the only person Dominic has called to berate and spew hatred upon.
What I do know is that this call changed me. Just as all the other threats I have received in the past, from other callers and online.
I have had plenty of hatred come my way from the work I do as a theologian. I have written about this before, but, every time I have someone come at me, it’s unpleasant, to say the least. Simply because I advocate for Muslims and I work to bridge relationships between Christians and Muslims, I’ve been called a, “cockroach.”
Told I should, “… put a gun in my mouth and fire.”
Been called a, “… Muslim loving bitch.”
I should, “… watch my back.”
And, I am a, “… sorry excuse for a Christian.”
This, all from strangers. People I have never met in my life. People who don’t know me. Perhaps heard me speak and didn’t agree. Don’t know my story. Why I do this work. Have probably never talked to a Mexican or a Muslim in their lives. People who have such hatred for so many, that anyone is a good target, as long as they can exhaust their bigotry and intolerance from their sick minds, in any way possible. And, people who are Christian. Who call themselves faithful. Followers. Godly.
Almost worse, I had a family member look me in the face and call my work, “Muslim shit.” That is, perhaps, more painful than any of the other comments. Because it’s wounding. It’s personal. It’s invalidating. It’s deep.
Most who have joined me on my journey, find these comments horrific and completely unnecessary. I agree. I also find these comments and attitudes perplexing and sad. How miserable anyone must be with themselves, to say such things to another person, is beyond me. And I am glad for that. Because I know I will never be like that. I will never be like them.
Sadly, as we have seen recently, the sentiment of telling someone to go back to their country is now coming from top officials in the US government. A President telling four Congresswomen to leave if they don’t like it, is so unbelievably juvenile, misogynistic, racist, and dangerous. I have no words to articulate what I feel about this incident – except, that I can relate.
More, if the President of the United States says this, what’s stopping Little Dominic from continuing to call strangers in the middle of the night, because he has nothing better to do? Little Dominic is empowered now, more than ever. As are all the other Little Dominic’s. And that is scary.
All of us here, who are targets of this hate and racism, are reeling. Coming from places unexpected and uncalled for, we seem to be in this immense, vast portal of intolerance, that has no foreseen end. The vitriol is palpable. It is sickly grounded in “patriotism,” mixed with an uneasy sense of righteousness and an ideology that these attitudes are favorable in God’s eyes.
I keep hoping that God remains tolerant of humans messing up and that She continues to live inside of us – those that are trying to understand, and stay standing, for what is just and right. The amazing thing to me, is that God remains loving. To all of us. Even those who hate. Because, I know She must be ticked off. How can she not be angry at what’s happening around the world? This racism and intolerance is not just here in the USA, it’s everywhere. I don’t think there is a single human that is immune to what is sweeping our planet like a plague. It feels like a sickness. It feels mentally unwell and unstable. It feels as if we are unprepared for these massive changes on our planet and that we simply can’t deal. It feels scary. Uneasy. Yet to manifest into what it might be. On the cusp of something unimaginable.
I really don’t know how to feel about all of this. What I do know is that over the years, I have been threatened, simply for what I do and who I am. What is this? What does it mean? Not just for me, but for all people of color. This isn’t just about me. It is about all of us. Collectively. And let me just say this – the reality is, if someone is different in any other way than being white (or at least looking like you’re white), straight, male, and Christian – they are in danger.
Whether light or dark skinned, every person of color in the United States is scared right now. We wonder. We watch our backs. We are careful. We pay more attention. We carry ourselves differently. We are on guard. We are waiting.
As I ponder all of this, I am very aware that this phenomenon of telling someone to, “… go back to your country,” is not new in good ‘ol ‘Murica. Before Mexicans and Muslims, it was Africans, the Irish, Puerto Ricans, Italians – no one is immune to the decidedly outrageous concept of ownership of a whole land. This is obvious when we remember all the Little Dominic’s – they illustrate that we live in a world where people can’t live in peace, due to others believing they are superior because of their race, origin, heritage and culture. While I understand this on an academic, practical and inherent level, this still confuses me on an emotional level. Because, the reality is, none of us gets out of this thing called life, alive. In the end, we all have the same fate. So, why choose intolerance and cause so much harm, in this short time here, this blip on the earth’s clock – when one can simply live life by choosing to not hurt anyone with words and actions? Fundamentally, it’s quite simple. Yet, humans consistently illustrate that we are not capable of understanding this one true aspect of life here on earth.
I wish I had more answers, but as always, I only have more questions. To end, I feel like I can only offer this:
Go back to my country? Oh, gosh, I hate to embarrass you, but … I’m from San Francisco!
I have an idea, why don’t you come out here for a visit! I’ll treat you to the best burritos and tacos in the country! While we munch at my favorite Taqueria in the Mission, perhaps we could listen to some seriously great mariachi music too. All from some of the best, friendliest Latinos you could ever meet and get to know – in the city of my birth – one of the loveliest and most diverse cities in America.
Karen Leslie Hernandez is a theologian and interfaith activist. She has published with several media outlets including the Women’s United Nations Report Network, The Journal of Inter-Religious Dialogue/Studies, the Interfaith Observer, and she is the only Christian to have published an ongoing Op-Ed Column with OnIslam out of Cairo, Egypt. Some of her past gigs include designing and teaching an Interfaith Dialogue workshop with Meadville Lombard Theological School in Chicago, as well as spending three years working with United Religions Initiative, in several different positions. An Over-Achiever, Karen has not one, but two theological master’s degrees – one from Andover Newton Theological School, the other from Boston University School of Theology. She did her BA at Wellesley College, graduating with honors in her major, Peace and Justice Studies, where she wrote her thesis on Al Qaeda and their misuse religion for political gain. Karen currently lives in California, works at two faith based non-profits, teaches workshops throughout the Bay Area, is pursuing a Doctor of Ministry degree at Claremont School of Theology, and she is also a certified domestic violence advocate.