When “Going Back” Means Staying Put

All you Black folks, you must go. All you Mexicans, you must go. And all you poor folks, you must go. Muslims and gays, boy, we hate your ways. So all you bad folks, you must go. A Tribe Called Quest, “We the People”


I’ve always had a complicated relationship with the word American. I hit all the marks by definition—I was born in the United States, in the Heartland, no less; have lived here my entire life; and my career has centered on making America a country that lives up to its values of freedom, justice and dignity for all. I balk at the idea that there is just one type of American.

Yet, like many children of immigrants, there is a seed planted deep within me that sprouts hesitation when it comes to fully claiming to be an American. Watching the President tell “the squad” to “go back to their countries” reminded me why. 

My Brown skin can always be seen by others as inherently un-American. That reality haunts me. 

Thousands rallied in D.C. in 2017 at the March for Racial Justice to protest the racism of the Trump administration and celebrate Black women. (Stephen Melkisethian / Creative Commons)

It doesn’t matter where those women were born and brought up. Nor does it matter that they are all U.S. citizens, or that all of them chose to serve this country by becoming lawmakers, engaging an incredible base of supporters who before felt disengaged and disempowered by politics. They are Brown and Black women using their voice and elected power to shed light on the failings and atrocities of a white man in power—and that is what Trump and his supporters see as un-American.

The message is clear: In their America, to question a white man while being a Brown or Black woman is the ultimate act of treason.

There have been numerous times I’ve been told to “go back”—the most ironic being the time I was pregnant and visiting Indiana for work. On that trip, a man walked by me on the street and jeered, “go back to where you came from.” I was born in South Bend, Indiana, so I had indeed gone back to my birthplace. When I was 10, I was called a “sand n-word” while playing soccer on a neighborhood playground with friends, followed next by instructions to “go back to where the camels are.”

Moments like those are an unfortunate daily hazard for many people who look like me in this country. Trump’s comments are deeply painful not just for the hate they convey at face value, but how they speak to the balance of power when it comes to race and gender in America. They were a painful reminder that the structures, rules and narratives of our society are based on the assumption that “American” means “white.”

This is not a new idea, or just one (powerful) person’s racist opinion. Andre Perry brilliantly laid out the significance of this in a piece for Brookings. “Inserting nativist, xenophobic language has been the reliable prelude to codifying bigotry into law,” he wrote. It is the reason why the average white family has 10 times the wealth of Black families, and eight times the wealth of Latinx families. It is why Black women experience the highest infant mortality rates among any racial or ethnic group in the United States—which increase as their education levels go up. It is why this administration thinks nothing of locking Brown children in cages. It is why equal pay day for Black, Native and Latinx women comes after the same day for white women.

I could go on and on. To identify as an American always felt like I was wearing a jacket that was just not quite the right fit, an improper cut that squeezed at my armpits and made me uncomfortable. But America is my jacket to wear, so I want to take it to the tailor to make it right. This is why I connect so much to “the squad”—because I believe that they are trying to do the same thing.

I see myself in these women—who are staying put, right here, where they are, where they’re from, speaking truth to power and striving to make America great for everyone, including people like me. What is more American than that?

About

Jhumpa Bhattacharya is Vice President of Programs and Strategy at the Insight Center for Community Economic Development in Oakland