(RNS) — Over the past few days, the president of the United States has publicly announced his racism through a series of tweets targeting four women of color who are first-term members of Congress: Reps. Rashida Tlaib, Ayanna Pressley, Ilhan Omar and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
Besides being a textbook example of racist rhetoric, President Trump’s suggestion that the four women “go back to where you came from” called on white nationalist talking points. You don’t have to be a scholar of religion and race to know this, though that’s what I am. The more relevant expertise I bring to this moment is that I have been targeted by both white supremacists and white nationalists my whole life.
I can’t recall how many times I’ve been told to go back to where I came from. What I do know is that the frequency of these calls has increased in recent years, in part because of what scholars are calling the Trump Effect: the emboldening of people to act and speak on their racist feelings.
I believe part of the uptick also has to do with a logic that is resonating with this same base, the same logic Trump used in his tweets this week: If you are critical of inequities in the U.S., that must mean you’re unhappy here. And if you’re unhappy here, why not go somewhere else.
In other words, go back to where you came from.
Although I’m not surprised to hear Trump openly spew racism, there is something deeply disconcerting to hear such dehumanizing rhetoric coming from the American president. Given the power and influence of his office, what he says does more than just normalize racism in our society – it also sanctions hate.
My parents immigrated to the U.S. from Punjab in the 1970s. My three brothers and I were born and raised in San Antonio, and from the reactions we got at the time, my brothers and I were pretty certain we were the only brown-skinned kids with turbans in all of South Texas.
It didn’t take long for us to realize that we looked different from the people around us: our neighbors, the kids in school, people at the grocery store. At the same time, we learned to be proud of our unique Sikh background and tradition.
I realize now that having to answer people’s questions about why we looked the way we did pushed us to learn more deeply about our identity. The more I learned, the more it made sense to me. And the more it made sense, the more I came to appreciate and cherish my Sikh heritage.
We encountered racism fairly often. I was 12 the first time someone told me to go back to where I came from. We were playing one of our rival soccer teams in Austin — the Riverside Rangers. One of the opposing players pushed me after a play and called me a “sand nigger” and told me to “go back to wherever you came from.”
I was about to push him back when my teammate Levi jumped between us and got in the guy’s face. I felt totally fine standing up for myself, yet I’ll never forget how grateful I felt to Levi for having my back.
The first time a crowd of people yelled at me to “go back” also happened on the soccer field. I was a senior in high school when the terrorist attacks of 9/11 happened, so I got a lot of racist backlash, especially from rival crowds during soccer games.
I had learned by then not to take racism personally. I had learned that racism had less to do with me than it did with those who were feeling it. But it was still hard to remember that when people I had always thought of as my own – fellow Texans – were letting me know that I really wasn’t one of them.
I felt an urge to explain that Texas was the only home I knew, and there really wasn’t anywhere for me to “go back to.” I wanted to explain to the parents yelling that they were being terrible role model for all the kids around them.
But I was in the middle of a playoff soccer game. I had to focus on what was most important. Besides, soccer had always been my refuge, the one place where, because I was decently good, people cared less about how I looked or where my family came from.
After the game, my coach pulled me aside and asked how I felt. I tried brushing it off but eventually confessed to him how disempowering it felt to just take it without responding at all. He told me that sometimes the most powerful thing someone can do is to be graceful and principled in the face of hate. I’ll never forget that lesson.
I moved to New York City when I turned 24, and I had devoted myself to dealing with the kinds of racism I endured growing up in Texas. I began to notice a correlation between hate speech and hate violence, and in 2012 I wrote an essay for Newsweek titled: “The Rise of Hate Crimes Can Be Directly Tied to Hateful Speech.”
Seven years later, experts are finding a similar trend: The vitriolic discourse of our current political climate is contributing heavily to the sharp uptick in hate groups and hate violence all across the United States.
While I continue to see divisive rhetoric as a serious threat to our dignity, I also find it comical now when people tell me to “go back” to where I came from, mostly because it’s so uncreative and cliché. In part because I enjoy the looks on people’s faces when I ask them what they have against Texans.
Last year, a tweet of mine along these lines went viral: “My mom just joined Twitter and saw all the racist messages where people tell me to ‘go home’ and ‘go back to where I came from.’ She wanted me to thank you all. She really wants me to move back to Texas.”
I understand that humor is a mechanism that my brothers and I have developed to deal with the racism we endure. At the same time, it gives me a way of regaining my own agency when people try to take it from me.
Rather than feeling disempowered like I did as a boy playing soccer in high school, I get to reclaim power by undercutting racism with humor. At least on a personal, emotional level, it’s my way of standing up against hate, connecting with folks and, in my own small way, evening the playing field.