When I was in elementary school — maybe kindergarten or first grade — I was at a park near our house with my sister and probably some cousins and family friends.
We were all just minding our own business when two boys from my school, one was in my grade and his brother was a year older, started in on us. These two young white boys saw a bunch of Asian faces and decided to tease us by pulling the sides of their eyes tight. One of them also held up a pinky saying it was “the middle finger in Chinese.”
I don’t remember how everyone else reacted but I distinctly remember yelling back at them, “We’re not even Chinese. We’re Cambodian!”
I wasn’t hurt or offended. I just thought they were stupid for not knowing there are more countries in Asia than just China. To me, their playground racism was more of a reflection of their ignorance rather than anything disparaging against us.
This exchange stands out in my mind because it was the most overtly racist moment I’ve ever experienced that was directed specifically toward me (at this point anyway, but with the way things are going and following this column, that may change).
And with President Donald Trump’s recent tweets telling four congresswomen of color to “go back” to where they came from, that memory crept back to the forefront of my mind. The four lawmakers in question are Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.) and Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) — also known as “the Squad.” Three squad members were born in the United States and the fourth member, Omar, came to this country as a refugee from Somalia. She fled a war-torn country and became a naturalized citizen.
State Rep. My-Linh Thai of the 41st Legislative District said what Trump said hurt at first.
“I am aware that the statement was not directed at me personally, but it was directed at me collectively,” she said. “But after that initial feeling, what followed was really a sense of sadness. The president of the United States of America is not competent enough to understand the consequences of his words. I’m sorry for him. I’m sorry for us.”
Following Trump’s tweets about the Squad, I talked to most of the people of color in our office and while none of them had ever been told to “go back,” they have all had experiences with racism and microaggressions.
Two of my coworkers said people have asked “what they are” and another one of my coworkers, who is of Cuban descent, said she was asked if she was an anchor baby. Personally, I had no words for that last one.
There are a lot of nicknames for this country, including the land of opportunity. To me, this means the United States is a place where people can come to start over and achieve dreams they may not be able to elsewhere. There are no requirements on what the people who immigrate to the United States should look like (although, I want to note that on the flip side, this country’s Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 had very specific requirements at one point on who was not allowed here).
“Being the subject of discrimination is not new, nor has it ended,” Thai said. “We can either be numb and accepting, or recognize the long ugly history of our country and love this country enough to set out and change its course. For me, I am aware that where I stand now is on shoulders of giants — those who have made so many sacrifices and have poured their love for this land and its people.”
Both Thai — who immigrated to the United States as a refugee from Vietnam and can still “vividly recall” when she and her family took the oath to become U.S. citizens — and Omar started over here. They became naturalized and loved where they live enough to run for public office to do what Thai said and work to change the course. In my mind, you don’t run for office if you hate where you live. In theory, most people who run for office are individuals who want to see things improved in the place where they live.
So when I saw the video of people chanting “Send her back” at a Trump rally just days after he posted that “go back” tweet, I was horrified. Because having one person telling you to “go back to where you came from” is one thing (though particularly troubling when it’s the president of your country). It’s a whole other thing when you have a crowd basically demanding for your removal — the term “mob mentality” comes to my mind. Because that’s what “send her back” implies. Omar would have no choice in the matter if she was “sent” back.
Personally, this was one of the fears I had following the 2016 presidential election. I was scared and worried about the trickle effect of how Trump’s election to office would empower others to act and treat others who are different (read: people of color, LGBTQ+, women) as less than them. And in the last three years, we’ve seen it — many times.
But as sad as that video was for me to watch, it was particularly heartening to see another video a few days later of Omar arriving at the airport in her home state of Minnesota to a crowd of people cheering her on and chanting “Welcome home Ilhan.”
While I’ve never personally been told to “go back to where I came from” (just so you know, as a born-and-bred Pacific Northwest girl, I am where I’m from), I have had the “Where are you from? No, where are you really from?” question. Whenever I get asked this, I like to get very specific, telling the questioner the city I live in as well as the city where my parents live. I know in most cases they’re really asking what my ethnicity is, but I like to make them work for it.
As an American woman who was born in Canada to Indian parents, state Rep. Vandana Slatter of the 48th Legislative District is also familiar with the “awkward, sometimes deeply jarring feeling people experience with the question.” She said she thinks about her son answering the question.
“I want him to know that our resilience as a democracy and our grit as Americans is strengthened by the plurality of our people,” she said. “I represent all people in my district — all cultures, all ethnicities, all walks of life, all colors.”
Slatter noted that more than 100 languages are spoken in our local school districts and that immigrants “enrich our community and our economy by working hard, starting businesses and creating jobs.”
“In suggesting that four American congresswomen of color ‘go back to where they came from,’ the current occupant of the White House is showing his true colors,” she said. “That kind of speech is racist, divisive, born out of fear and above all, profoundly un-American. Cultural and ethnic diversity are American values. As Americans who are committed to the future of this great nation, we must give tools to the next generation to build bridges that unite us, not walls that divide us.”
Windows and Mirrors is a bimonthly column focused on telling the stories of people whose voices are not often heard. If you have something you want to say, contact editor Samantha Pak at firstname.lastname@example.org.