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Trump's Remarks Against Congresswomen Are Not The Only Example Of The 'Go Back' Taunt

Jul 20, 2019
Originally published on July 22, 2019 12:23 pm
Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

When President Trump tweeted that a group of progressive congresswomen should go back where they came from, it reverberated through many Americans with minority or immigrant backgrounds. We've heard in the last few days from people who have been taunted that way. Here's NPR's Tom Gjelten with their stories.

TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: It can happen to people who speak English imperfectly or with an accent, but it can also be their skin color that sets them apart or their dress or their last names - anything that suggests otherness. Abrar Omeish remembers an incident with a boy in her eighth-grade civics class in Fairfax, Va.

ABRAR OMEISH: He just, you know, turned around and asked me, well, where are you from? And you know, I explained that, you know, I was born and raised here. My dad grew up here. And he's like, no, no, no, no. Where are you from? And then I - you know, I said, well, my family came from Libya. He was like, well, why don't you go back there? Why are you here?

GJELTEN: In the case of Anjali Upadhaya in Midlothian, Va., there was a visit to the local grocery store with her mom when she was about 15.

ANJALI UPADHAYA: We had accidentally parked in a parents and children parking spot, but we didn't know it at the time. And it made a man very angry to the point where he followed us into the store, calling us racial slurs and telling us to go back to our country. This had never happened to me before. I was scared.

GJELTEN: Anjali's parents had immigrated to the United States from India, but she was born here.

UPADHAYA: For a second, you know, I - made me feel like, do I belong here? It kind of threw a little bit of turmoil into how I saw myself as an American citizen.

GJELTEN: Many of these go back home slights - the ones that linger, at least - came during adolescent years. For Zeenat Rahman, it was a bus ride when she was in high school in Morton Grove, Ill.

ZEENAT RAHMAN: And when I got on the bus, I was able to sit towards the back of the bus. But as we got closer to school, there was a stop where five or six Indian boys would get picked up. And by that time, there were no seats open to them, and so they would all stand in the middle of the aisle. And this is - every day would start the same thing, which - the white football players at the back of the bus would start hurling insults, saying, Gandhi, Hindu and go back to where you came from.

GJELTEN: As with others who'd been targeted with such taunts, this one challenged her idea of who she was.

RAHMAN: Even as a young person then, those insults didn't make sense to me, given that I was Muslim, I wasn't Hindu and that Gandhi is a revered faith leader. Yet I remember all these years later the feeling that I felt when they would say those things, and that was a feeling of shame. My identity was something to be ashamed of, and it was something that would never fit in.

GJELTEN: What these three women have in common is their minority background - an Arab American woman and two women of South Asian ancestry.

Ted Kniazewcyz from Camarillo, Calif., is also the child of an immigrant, but his dad was born in Poland. And when he hears stories of people who've been told to go back somewhere, he thinks how fortunate he was.

TED KNIAZEWCYZ: We had the benefit of being white. And all we had is kind of our last name, which is a mouthful and difficult to pronounce. That's the only thing that's really saying, like, hey, you are foreign. We're just Polish, so you just get the Polish jokes and things like that.

GJELTEN: In the current environment, he's learned what it means to have white privilege.

KNIAZEWCYZ: I am allowed to get in trouble, be a bad citizen. I'm allowed to do all of these things, and this is still my home.

GJELTEN: For the others, if these incidents have not left scars, they have left memories. And they recall how they learned to deal with them. Here's Anjali Upadhaya, who had the encounter in a grocery store with her mom.

UPADHAYA: Since we've been back to that grocery store - many times since then - when we go, we'll make a joke about it now. I talked to her last night on the phone, and we kind of joked about it a little bit. She laughed, I laughed - just as a coping mechanism for these things that happen. But it doesn't take away the sting at the end of the day.

GJELTEN: For Abrar Omeish, the incident in her eighth-grade civics class was just one of many. As a Muslim woman who wears a hijab, she has grown accustomed to hostile encounters. From an early age, she was always preparing for the next insult and how to respond.

OMEISH: What's the smartest, most compassionate thing I can say to someone who says, go back to your country? How do I respond to that? And so to this kid in particular, I said, well, why don't you go back to yours? We are a nation of immigrants, right? There was, somewhere down the line, a lineage of where he came from. And it disarmed him. If we're to better our society, we have to think of ways that almost hack the hate or reframe the conversation.

GJELTEN: Omeish is now running for a seat on her local school board and preparing for law school.

Tom Gjelten, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.