For children of immigrants like me, ‘go back’ is a familiar racist taunt
I had just published a story on Sikhs who’d been attacked after being mistaken for Muslims, when the email popped into my inbox.
“Are you from Iran?” the stranger wrote. “If so, go back! God Bless America.”
By that point, two years ago, I had grown accustomed to the type of fan mail that questioned my loyalty to the country in which I was born, reduced my reporting to irrelevant writing by dismissing “my people” as the “scourge of the earth” or, in some cases, suggested that I shoot myself (“with a caliber no less than .45m”).
I have learned to laugh off the salvo of racist commentary that follows many of my stories on shootings, identity, culture or immigration — the same kinds of messages that fill the inboxes of many of my fellow reporters of color.
“On Muck Rack it states you are ‘A first-generation Iranian American’ … Like most L.A. Times reporters, you politicize what you write … Go back to Iran.”
From another disgruntled reader: “Iranians come to America for our money and to establish their culture, religion, language and way of life in America. Iranians don’t give a damn about America. Go back!”
I’m sure my parents would love it if I went back to where I came from: the suburbs of San Diego.
On Sunday, President Trump denounced “‘progressive’ Democrat Congresswomen who originally came from countries whose governments are a complete and total catastrophe.”
“Why don’t they go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came,” he added in a series of tweets.
He did not name the lawmakers, but he has recently disparaged several first-year House Democrats: Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Rep. Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, Rep. Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts and Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota.
All four are women of color, and all but one are U.S.-born. (Omar, a refugee from Somalia, was naturalized in 2000.)
On Sunday, they quickly fired back. Omar accused Trump of “stoking white nationalism.”
“THIS is what racism looks like,” Pressley replied.
“Detroit taught me how to fight for the communities you continue to degrade & attack,” Tlaib wrote.
“You are angry because you can’t conceive of an America that includes us,” Ocasio-Cortez said.
Ariela J. Gross, a law and history professor at the University of Southern California, said that because the United States has historically tied ideas of citizenship to whiteness, “it really isn’t that surprising that when someone is speaking out against a person of color that their kind of go-to is, ‘You must not really be truly American. Go back to where you came from.’”
“What’s the go-to move to question somebody’s loyalty and allegiance to the country? ‘Let’s see your birth certificate because I don’t know if you’re really an American,’” Gross said. “That’s something that Donald Trump did long before he became president.”
Being told to go back to your country is widely considered a racist taunt. But people’s hesitation to call Trump’s comments racist in the aftermath of his tweets, Gross said, rests in the notion that, more than pulling the so-called race card, calling someone racist is “the worst thing one could say.”
“To identify that, hey, this actually fits into a long tradition of racial ideology in this country … it can make it very hard to talk about and call out,” Gross said.
The discomfort of having to explain your patriotism or American identity doesn’t go away. But as a reporter, I have a certain professional obligation not to respond to that kind of attack. I’m fine with that. As a child of the internet, I’ve learned the importance of not feeding the trolls.
When I tweeted about the fact that many journalists of color — including my Latina colleagues who cover immigration — are no strangers to this type of rhetoric, more critics surfaced in my feed. Reading their replies left me shaking my head, but I’m able to shrug them off. I am secure in the knowledge of who I am: the proud daughter of Iranian immigrants. It does not make me any less American to be proud of both my Iranian heritage and my American identity.
Often, I remind myself that no matter what someone writes about me from behind the comfort of a screen, I don’t have it as bad as my parents did. They were Iranian immigrants — legal, for those keeping score — at the time of the Iran hostage crisis. They lived in Oklahoma before the Islamic Revolution raged through the streets of Iran and robbed them of the home they had hoped to return to.
“It was unfortunate that he said what he said,” my dad said of Trump’s tweets. “Whether he meant what he said as a racist person, or he was catering to his base, the outcome for the four women is the same. It is unfortunate that the president, who represents 327 million people, talks to different segments of the country differently.”
My parents sometimes regale me with the stories of their move to California — the fight with a shady mechanic, their run-in with the police officer in New Mexico who threatened to jail them if they didn’t leave within five minutes — and that’s all I need to put the little shop of horrors I call my inbox into perspective. Someone calling me a “Shah of Sunset” isn’t as bad as someone asking me in earnest whether people drink water in Iran (a real question my dad once responded to by joking that no, they only drink Pepsi).
We have made progress since then. Still, as a woman of color, I know that just by existing I will run into threats both online and in the real world because of who I am.
Once, a reader pointed out to me that “In America, we have a saying ‘These colors don’t run.’”
I agree. But to paraphrase “The Princess Bride”: I don’t think that means what you think it means.
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