“Go back to where you came from”

Anyone who isn’t white or who has an ethnic-sounding name has heard this phrase at least once in their lives.

During one of his many, daily Twitter tantrums, U.S. President Donald Trump recently attacked four Democratic congresswomen of colour who were slamming his administration’s horrendous anti-immigrant policies. Unwilling to handle the criticism, he tweeted out: “Why don’t they go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came.”

Instead of responding to the legitimate concerns of four democratically elected officials who were outraged over the filthy and unhygienic conditions of the immigrant detention centres they had recently visited, Trump resorted to “othering.” They had no right to criticize, his statement implied, because they didn’t really belong there.

The tweet dripped with racism. Even though three of them (Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ayanna Pressley and Rashida Tlaib) were born in the U.S. and the fourth, Ilhan Omar, has been a citizen for more than two decades — longer than Trump’s own wife — the inferred message was that they weren’t “real” Americans. Only white people can be American.

“Go back to where you came from…” is nothing new. It comes from a place of white privilege and of white nationalism. Considering he’s not the brightest, Trump may or may not have known that three of these women are U.S.-born and the fourth is a naturalized citizen, but that was never really the point of his tweet, was it?

Author Toni Morrison once wrote, “In this country American means white. Everybody else has to hyphenate.” As a woman of colour and the descendant of slaves, she knew exactly what she was talking about. The U.S. Declaration of Independence may say that all men are created equal, but let’s face it… some men are more equal than others.

“Go back to where you came from” means that you don’t really belong here, the way white Americans do. It means your acceptance into the fold is conditional, your allegiance only partial, your loyalty always under suspicion.

The more polite, socially acceptable version of “Go back to where you came from” is “Where are you from?” And if you look ethnic or have an ethnic name and you say “Halifax” or “Detroit” or some other North American city, the next question is always, “No, where are you really from?” The latter doesn’t always imply malice; sometimes it denotes nothing more than sincere interest in someone’s ethnic make-up and background, but the question almost inevitably serves to draw a line, a hierarchy between the person asking and the person expected to respond.

Tlaib and Omar are the first two Muslim women to be elected to Congress. Omar was born in Somalia and lived for years in a refugee camp before coming to the U.S. at the age of 10. She’s also the first woman to wear a hijab while serving in Congress. Pressley is the first black woman from Massachusetts to serve in Congress. Ocasio-Cortez’s family is from Puerto Rico and has Spanish, Indigenous, Black and European heritage. Tlaib is the first Palestinian-American to be elected to Congress.

All four of these women are progressive, determined and more eloquent than the current president could ever hope to be. They also more faithfully and accurately reflect the constituents they serve and the America that stares back at them in 2019 than the overwhelmingly homogenous group of rich white men who occupy Congress. And yet to many people, these women are the outsiders, the ones who don’t really belong, the ones who somehow managed to sneak in as the gates to political power were slamming shut.

Trump’s tweets were justifiably condemned in the U.S. and around the world. Here in Canada, our own Prime Minister took the time to distance himself from those remarks. “I think Canadians and indeed people around the world know exactly what I think about those particular comments,” he said. “That is not how we do things in Canada. A Canadian is a Canadian is a Canadian.”

A commendable statement and one I appreciate from my country’s Prime Minister, but anyone paying any real attention to current Quebec and Canadian politics and social justice issues knows it’s simply not true.

Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council who was in Montreal last week to meet with Trudeau as part of an EU Summit, tweeted: “I feel at home in Montreal for many reasons. Also, because I didn’t hear anyone shouting SEND HIM BACK.”

Imagine my surprise that no one had told a white dude to go back to where he came from. What were the (extremely low) odds that something like that would happen?

Tusk’s tweet immediately went viral. The last time I looked, it had over 30,000 likes. Why? Because it’s a comforting tweet that paints us in a flattering light that conveniently sidesteps a few inconvenient truths.

The truth is, anyone who isn’t white or who has an ethnic-sounding name has heard “Go back to where you came from” at least once in their lives. Most of us have heard it repeatedly. Even a country as diverse and as multicultural as Canada hasn’t prevented that from happening and probably never will. The claim that this country is post-national, as Trudeau once alluded to, doesn’t make it so. There are streaks of white nationalism and tribalism that continue to look upon the different as suspect.

Closer to home, I’ve recently heard and read every variation of “Go back to where you came from” on online threads discussing Bill 21. Women who wear the hijab and are challenging the legislation are constantly being treated as annoying, ungrateful interlopers, trouble-making half-citizens, false Quebecers.

“We voted for it,” the posts come fast and furious. It’s always clear that the “we” does not include them — not while they refuse to toe the line, anyway… Dissent is particularly scrutinized and seen as betrayal when it comes from those not forming the majority.

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been told to go back to where I came from in response to my tweets or my columns criticizing Quebec politics. Because my last name reveals my Greek heritage and because I write and work primarily in English, some folks believe I should have somehow abdicated the right to publicly question and criticize how things are done here. Ethnic journalists across Canada will tell you that it’s not that much different for them. Even a country as diverse and as immigration friendly as ours can’t prevent a majority from thinking their say carries just a little more weight than the folks whose ancestors got here a tad later.

So, no… “Go back to where you came from” is not innocuous or something said in the heat of the moment. It communicates something about how some people feel about your place in this society and where you fall on that hierarchy — how your value is quantified. Tone is set at the top, so when the leader of a country decides it’s okay to say something like that, he’s making it okay for others to do so as well. That’s where it ceases to be merely offensive racism and becomes downright dangerous. ■