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Winter of 1995 at a Go-Mart in Sissonville, West Virginia.
Summer of 1996, on the side of the road in Nashville, Tennessee.
Fall of 1999, at Oktoberfest in Oglebay State Park in Wheeling, West Virginia.
I can tell you the when, where and how of every single time I’ve been accosted by the phrase, “Go back to where you came from.” The drunk men gulping openly from their 40s at the gas station in Sissonville. The leering cowboy in Wheeling who first asked what tribe I was from, and then, on being told that I was “not that kind of Indian,” spat hate in my face. The drive-by slurs screamed out an open car window in Nashville.
Each time, my body switched into an uncontrolled state. My eyes blurred, my stomach went queasy, my temples pounded. I cataloged counterarguments in my mind, ways to prove my “American-ness”: my birth certificate, my passport, my memorization of every fact there is to know about the state of West Virginia. State bird: cardinal; state animal: black bear; state motto: Montani Semper Liberi; famous West Virginians: Jennifer Garner, Chuck Yeager, Steve Harvey, Henry Louis Gates. But the dryness in my mouth, the fear in my chest about what they might do if I talked back, prevented me from saying anything until the men were gone.
And then Monday morning, the phrase was the first headline on the New York Times’ website. “Trump Tells Freshmen Congresswomen to Go Back to the Countries They Came From.”
And even though the phrase was not directed at me, my body went blurry once again, my mouth went dry, my mind began to catalog the counterarguments.
“So interesting to see ‘Progressive’ Democrat Congresswomen, who originally came from countries whose governments are a complete and total catastrophe, the worst, most corrupt and inept anywhere in the world (if they even have a functioning government at all), now loudly and viciously telling the people of the United States, the greatest and most powerful Nation on earth, how our government is to be run,” he tweeted in response, no doubt, to the congresswomen’s consistent, vocal dissent regarding Trump’s policies on immigration, Iran and climate change.
I am certain that Reps. Talib, Omar, Pressley and Ocasio-Cortez have all been the recipients of this slur more than once in their lives. On Twitter, thousands of people are detailing their experiences with this phrase. They, too, remember each time it has been hurled at them. I do not know if their bodies and minds have gone blurry the way that mine does, but I am certain that we understand the message behind the words the same way: You do not belong here. You are not welcome here.
Even if you were born here.
Which, by the way, three of the congresswomen were.
Google the words “dissent” and “democracy,” and you’ll end up with 16 million hits on sites ranging from the Harvard Kennedy School to Human Rights Watch. We are told that dissent can be profoundly patriotic, yet when black, Latinx and Muslim-American politicians dissent, they are shunted to the margins, excoriated by politicians and civilians alike. When Colin Kaepernick kneels during the national anthem to protest continued police brutality, he is effectively blacklisted by NFL owners who count the president among their friends.
Which raises the question: For whom is dissent acceptable? When Joe Biden criticizes the president, Trump’s response is to question Biden’s mental capacity, not his citizenship status. The very clear message of this moment seems to be, if you are black or brown in America, be supportive, be silent or get out.
In his book, “Go Back to Where You Came From," the writer Sasha Polakow-Surlansky examines the rise of the far right in Europe, and their use of xenophobia to mobilize white working-class voters. Polakow-Surlansky writes, “The greatest threat to liberal democracies does not come from immigrants and refugees but from the backlash against them by those on the inside who exploit fear of outsiders to chip away at the values and institutions that make our societies liberal.”
This is not a national issue; it is an international one. As the number of refugees has climbed to the highest number on record — over 70.8 million forcibly displaced people worldwide — the response in many countries has been to build walls and fences, to draw sharp lines around the identities of those who are perceived to belong and those who need to “go back." Even though it is often the actions of these same countries that have contributed to the spike in climate and conflict refugees.
This strategy of othering is dangerous and damaging. It implies that you can only be “from here” if you are white, or if you are brown and silent. It explicitly links nationalism with whiteness, and plays to a xenophobic sentiment that is at its highest level in the United States since the year after Sept. 11, 2001. Xenophobic sentiment that has resulted in death threats for Congresswoman Omar. Xenophobic sentiment that has resulted in death itself for men like Srinivas Kuchibhotla.
Since the 2016 election, the number of hate crimes in the U.S. has increased every single year. Our president’s attitude towards those he considers outsiders is not just rhetoric; it is gasoline. And virtually no members of his political party have found the moral courage needed to dampen the flames. Instead they weakly attempt to argue that it is “not racist” to tell people to “go back to where they came from."
My mouth is still dry. My eyes still feel blurry. Still, I write these words in response to President Trump, and in response to every other politician who feels entitled to proclaim who belongs, and who does not: Congresswomen Tlaib, Omar, Pressley and Ocasio-Cortez are from here.
I am from here.
And none of us are going anywhere.
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