A cautious online presence for a PhD student?

When I was a Ph.D. student, I got “the talk” quite often from family members, telling me that my online presence was going to be “problematic”. Not because there were pictures of me doing drugs or anything. But because I was writing an opinion column for the Daily Tar Heel (the nation’s finest university paper), and apparently I was saying things I ought not to say. What will my fellow grad students, professors, future employers think if they see some of those articles, I was cautioned?

So I held back a little bit — just a very tiny little, mind you. I thought: as soon as I’m done with school, and I don’t have to worry about what the department chair thinks of me, then I can be totally uncensored. As soon as I don’t have to worry whether if something I wrote online affects whether my dissertation is accepted, whether I get a slot speaking at a conference.

But … that’s not the case! Because as soon as you get your degree, then you want a job … if you’re worried about how your online presence affects your dissertation, then won’t you worry about the impact on your job search? And once you have a job … maybe you’ll eventually want a better job. And on and on. At each stage, there will be people evaluating you and snooping around your online life. When I was in the PhD bubble, I seemed to think that if I could just finish up, I’d be free from all such concerns. But no … they stick around indefinitely. So are you going to stay quiet about things you care about forever? What if other people can learn by the things you write about, or identify with the same experiences? Especially if those experiences have to do with racism or injustice of some type … or just how to navigate a difficult process … are you really going to keep all that bottled up inside you because you fear what future employers and your PhD committee will think? Cause if that’s the case, you’re have to keep it bottled up forever — or at least until retirement — although I’m sure in retirement we can find yet someone else whose disapproval censors what we write online.

Also, as far as I know, those Daily Tar Heel articles never became an issue for anything I ever applied to. I even have some of my favorites posted on this website, and I never ever during a job application process had a lot of people clicking on those links (WordPress tells me if people do). Even if you went onto the page with all my articles on the Daily Tar Heel website … see, I wrote 24 articles in total and a lot of them were very trusting and humble and begging. You’d have to go through all of them to find the angry, vindictive one, and a busy hiring manager doesn’t have time for that.

Also, at this point, I have even more writings online! I have this website and blog; then I have the articles I wrote for WIRED magazine; plus the articles I wrote for the Daily Tar Heel, plus other miscellaneous webpages about this and that and the other. Buried in all this, you’d really need to search to sensitive topics I’ve written about. Most people don’t have time to do that, and I guess they see the nice surface veneer of everything, and would never think anything else is lurking underneath!

So the doomsday predictions never came true. And just to be clear — I was definitely not throwing around racial slurs or anything disgusting in what I was writing about. I was mostly writing about Islamaphobia. And people told me that would cause a problem. Well, you know what? My soul might have died and the respect I have for myself would have died had I not written those things. I’m not saying I was 100% right in everything I wrote. In some cases, I realize that I even think a little differently now. But the idea of having censored myself for fear of what future employers or my PhD colleagues would have thought — it just smacks too much of mercenarial overtones and lack of integrity.

Also, and here I rest my case: Once upon a time a woman at UNC Chapel Hill was enrolled in the Ph.D. program for epidemiology. While writing her dissertation or something, she took a short absence and went on the Bachelor TV show as a contestant! Like, she was wearing pretty and skimpy dresses, and talking about her boyfriend and dating status, in front of the entire nation. She got lots and lots of press. But now she has graduated and is a professor at Duke and has published tons of epidemiological articles and shows up in videos saying very complicated epidemiological things. So if she could go on the Bachelor as a PhD student and still pull through, why should the rest of us be worried?


Linda Holeman

Very early this year, before coronovirus upended things and before the Black Lives Matter protests, one of the big pieces of news and talk was that book, American Dirt. I know, seems forever ago! Hardly a blip now!

American Dirt was disliked for the way the White author had portrayed the Mexican characters, and I think even more so for the fact this book was elevated so much by the publishers and bookworld, above books written on the same topic by authors of Mexican origin.

There’s another book I want to challenge here on similar grounds: A book called The Moonlit Cage by Linda Holeman. This has been bothering me in the background for a year or two, since I came across it on Amazon. Now, I have not read this book. But in it, a young Muslim woman in Afghanistan is saved from oppression by a White British guy (eww) who is apparently the first man to show her kindness. Now, I am totally sure that it is possible to not know any nice men in a meaningful way if all you know are Muslim men; but — this is so obviously written by a White person, is it not? Her little fairytale dream of a sweet, lovely Muslim girl being saved a big, strong, handsome White man, that’s all it really is. In reality, do British do any saving, or are they more likely to be going around destroying? It’s completely racist, is it not? Why did she not write a book where all the White men were the mean ones, that’s completely in the realm of possibility, too. But no, it had to be the White man who did the saving.

And what really made me mad is this book has tons of good reviews, and apparently this author has sold millions of books. There you can see how public opinion is reinforced, and how worldviews are formed. It’s just so gross.

Finding a Syrian-Danish-American online

A long, long time ago — 2012 to be exact! — I read an article in the Huffington Post. It was a somewhat whiny article, I thought, and it was in response to some sort of uproar about Muslims in America happening at the time (though there have been so many uproars, I don’t even remember was the specific trigger was for this one.)

Any case, I thought the article was whiny, and then it also annoyed me on a whole different level. The author was female and Muslim and young, like me, and she claimed in the article that she was an immigrant with roots in Syria and Denmark. I seem to have a special affinity for getting annoyed at any American — especially a Muslim American — especially a female Muslim American — who claims roots of that sort.

So I searched for this girl online, as I’m oh, so good at doing, but unfortunately I didn’t find out a lot about her. Well, there was a lot of information, I suppose, like where she went to college, and something about her dad being really sweet, which I rolled my eyes at … but what I really wanted to know was all her history and all her feelings as related to Denmark. But I didn’t find anything out — I just found a video of her in which she further expounded on her article, in which she was three inches from the camera screen and speaking earnestly, and amongst the gobs of things that she said, she mentioned — rather flippantly, I thought — that her family comes from the Middle East and Europe. Again, I was so, so annoyed. And more annoyed at having no other information to go off of.

And mostly I assumed that her Syrian parents must have immigrated to Denmark; she must have lived in Denmark briefly as a child; and then she moved away to the United States, and she’s never been to Denmark since, and she has no more connection to the country other than some dreamy, begging sort of insistence that she really is Danish, something that she clings to so she can feel superior to all other Muslim Arab immigrants in the US, acting like she has some sort of direct link when probably she doesn’t know any Danish, doesn’t remember anything about Denmark, doesn’t have anything to do with Denmark, and just holds Denmark up as some flashy ornament to decorate herself that she never even had to pay for. Whew!

So I kept on thinking all that about her; every once in a while, I’d search her name and see if I could discover something else, but I never did. Considering that was back in 2012, I of course went through transitions, moves, and living as the years went by, and eventually, I forgot to search for this Muslim American with roots in Syria in Denmark, and at last, I even forgot her name. There came a few times within the last few years when I remembered her and felt curious, but try as I might, I couldn’t find her.

Now, it’s eight years later, and I find myself back to where I started in North Carolina. Maybe it’s because of staying home all the time for quarantine, but over these last weeks my curiosity grew over finding this person. Every time I searched for things like Danish Syrian American Muslim writer or Muslim American with Danish and Syrian background, the wrong things were coming up. The only other things I remembered were that I had first encountered her in an article she’d written for the Huffington Post, that she was a fresh college graduate in 2012, or soon-to-be, and that she’d called her dad sweet in the article. Finally, I started searching for things like Syrian-Danish-American female writer Huffington Post. Or for Syrian-Danish-American university student. Still nothing … and I feared that, now that it’s eight years later, this person’s assumed-to-be tenuous links with Denmark must be even more tenuous. Maybe she’s even erased all mention of Denmark from her online presence.

At long last, I went back to the detail about her dad being sweet, and I searched for Huffington Post muslim dads sweet. The third result was a HuffPost article somewhat cheesily titled I am not oppressed. It seemed promising; I clicked; and I found her. There is was. The female Muslim American who writes and has roots in Denmark and Syria.

Now that I knew her name, I could search for her outright. This lady has built her own media company since I last ‘met’ her eight years ago, and has articles about her on CNN and everywhere. She’s on all these 30 under 30 lists. I found her Twitter account, where not only was she followed by people I know (so close!) but in her profile description she has the word immigrant followed by a Danish flag. Ha! I found out her birthdate, the year she was born; and yes, I got confirmation that she had in fact been born in Denmark, back in 1991. I think back to what I was doing in 1991 — not too far from this girl’s very birthdate, in fact, and it makes me a little sad. Oh well. The whims of fate and destiny.

Seeing that Danish flag, of course I was all ready to think: aha! Still at it! Still clinging on to Denmark just because she wants to, like a hollow empty jug she’s lugging around. Well, I kept poking around the Internet, as I do, and eventually, after finding out how many brothers and sisters she had and all about her experiences after September 11, I discovered her mother. Her mother, who is a common housewife, is not so common: she started a whole initiative to help Syria and has a Wikipedia page. Her mother, in fact, has a TED Talk you can watch online (so does the daughter). And on the Wikipedia page, I found out that not only was the girl I’d been searching for all this time born in Denmark, but in fact, so was her mom. Her mom had not in fact immigrated from Syria at all, though I guess her mom’s parents did. The mom not only was born in Denmark, but grew up there, went to school there, I guess got married there, lived the first years of domestic bliss there, and gave birth to her oldest daughter there, before moving away. See, I had made some problematic assumptions of my own: it had never occurred to me that all this might be the case. I’m so used to thinking that Arab or Muslim parents in Europe or the US must be immigrants, what else could they be? So now I can see what she meant by always saying she was an immigrant to the US with roots in Syria and Denmark.

Compare: how different countries reported on the Oslo mosque shooting

This was the day after the attack, so August 11. I think I first read this article on the BBC: Norwegian shooting probed as terror attack.

I think what stands out in the article is if you scroll down to almost the bottom, and it starts talking about reactions from Norway’s Muslims:

The shooting has prompted debate over whether enough was being done to protect Norway’s Muslim population.

Mosque director Mr Mushtaq said the government needed to take action.

“For so many years, the secret police says the Muslims are the biggest risk for this country, but if you look at those last two major incidents of terrorist activities, it’s not Muslims who have done this,” he said.

Muslim organisation Islamic Council Norway described the attack as “the result of a long-lasting hate of Muslims that has been allowed to spread in Norway”.

It said authorities had not “taken this development seriously”.

Oh, that’s interesting, I thought, because I don’t remember the Scandinavian news sites mentioning anything like this.

Here you can see, if you scroll down to August 11, all the news stories about this from SVT, which is the Swedish state television. There’s this video clip of one of the Muslims in the mosque describing what happened; a round-up of the main points of the case; some statement or other from the prime minister; and then an interview with the 65-year-old in the mosque who took the attacker down. Nowhere in these articles and videos is there mention of the criticisms stated by the mosque director and by Islamic Council Norway. Not even any mention of such a thing in any point of the “round-up”.

So finally, I went over to the Norwegian equivalent of SVT, called NRK. I first ran into NRK back in 2011, when they were reporting the right-wing terror attack in Oslo. Any case, so what were they talking about this time?

They had some articles with updates about the case, and then they had this headline in a featured story: I think everything is well prepared for today. This article is talking about the police presence sent to mosques the day after the attack to guard the Eid prayers. They interview some police people talking about their “duty” to quote-unquote ‘serve and protect’, and then they interview Muslims. But there’s no quotes, like in the BBC article, criticizing anyone. Instead, it’s just: “oh, we’re feeling scared” “oh, I don’t really think there will be another attack” “oh, some people stayed home today” “oh, we feel safe and it’s nice to see the police here.”

Well, I just thought it was very interesting. Any case, I looked pretty carefully over the NRK site that day (August 11) to see if I could find mention of the accusations leveled by the Islamic Council Norway and the mosque director – even trying to link back to earlier articles – but there was nothing.

I went back just now, though, and scrolled through all the NRK stories on August 10 through August 12. The stories are listed chronologically, so you have to scroll back quite a ways, even today when it’s just August 16.

And after all, if you scroll far back enough, you find this article from August 10: The results of a long-term Islamophobia that has been allowed to spread in Norway. This article does not quote the mosque director at all, but it does report about the Islamic Council Norway’s statement in detail. And this article was already buried by August 11, I didn’t find it anywhere.

Later on August 13, there’s an article that reports on criticisms of the Norwegian police in poo-poo-ing right-wing threats. Well, they quote the criticisms from someone, and then they quote the police in denying all the criticisms.





“We fell in love in a hopeless place”

This was my third article for The Daily Tar Heel: “We fell in love in a hopeless place.”

If you go to my “writing” page, you will see that it’s one of my favorite articles that I wrote.

I wrote it during a pretty stressful time; and I wrote and re-wrote and crafted every word as carefully as I could.

And I always thought I must have succeeded in what I was trying to say, because afterwards, some people came up to me and told me in person they’d liked it; others wrote Facebook messages. Sometimes it was messages from strangers. It meant a lot. I was always very happy with that article.

I just re-read it for the first time in over a year, and now I’m not so sure! Is it too jumpy? I mean, I had a 500 word limit, so things had to be kept tight, but I seem to zig and zag from topic to topic without ceremony, and even though I wrote it, and it’s my own experience, I got a little confused – wait a second, what are you (am I) talking about!