Sawsan Morrar, a multimedia journalist at the University of California at Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism, was chosen as a 2017 White House Correspondents’ Association Scholar.
Those who tune in to watch this year’s White House Correspondents’ Association dinner on Saturday will hear my name called as I take the stage to accept a journalism scholarship. They won’t see my portfolio of work, and they will likely forget my name. But they’re sure to notice and remember one thing about me: my headscarf.
Some may call it symbolic that a Muslim American journalist will be recognized at the annual dinner the same year that President Trump declined to attend. Trump is breaking from a long tradition of presidents meeting with the award recipients.
And as I prepare to attend, I know some at the event may not perceive me as a fellow reporter who, like them, relishes the thought of meeting journalists I admire. Muslims don’t have the luxury of being a fusion of their achievements, interests and uniqueness. Rather, in the eyes of others, we are only Muslim.
I’ve faced this challenge before. After doing some pre-reporting over the phone, I encounter surprise when I meet my subjects in person — Who is she, they wonder? Where is the reporter? Often an interview subject, government official or employer will grow cool once it becomes clear I am a Muslim.
On hearing that I will attend the dinner, a seasoned journalist asked what I think about Trump — not because I am a reporter, but because I am a Muslim who has made the conscious decision to wear my faith. Another journalist asked me whether the frequency of my negative experiences in the field has increased since Trump took office.
Just last month, while traveling to Malaysia on assignment, I was asked to board an empty plane only to be met by three Department of Homeland Security agents on the jet bridge. They took me through an inconspicuous, concrete stairway and asked me repeatedly who was funding my trip and why. Was it so hard to believe that a Muslim woman wearing a headscarf was sent to report on climate change?
Microaggressions happen so often to me that I simply dismiss them and put them behind me. Many Muslims argue that the racism we experience is so commonplace that we sometimes stop identifying it as such.
Still, while the vilifying of Muslims long predates Trump, the recent rise in Islamophobia has contributed to increased accounts of profiling. Research shows that mentioning being Muslim on a résumé drastically reduced one’s chances of being called for an interview. One study found that up to 80 percent of media coverage about Muslims is negative. This makes my job all the more difficult.
When I am on the job, I am a journalist first. I am objective, I am inquisitive, and I am meticulously professional — maybe too professional, because I know I have more to lose if I make a mistake.
I made the decision to go to the White House correspondents’ dinner before I knew Trump would abstain. It is something I debated, especially given his attempts to ban travel from several Muslim countries, his infamous “Islam hates us” comment and his viral tweet calling the media the “enemy of the American people.” But I realized I shouldn’t let all that deter me from attending an event that honors the freedom of the press.
I do hope that when I am called on stage at the dinner, I will be recognized for my achievements in journalism and not used to portray some striking juxtaposition between the Trump administration and the Muslim community. And I won’t be alone. The night’s host will be comedian Hasan Minhaj, also an American-born Muslim and, coincidentally, a former college classmate of mine.
Yes, we are Muslim, but we are professionals invited to represent the work we are passionate about.