Minnesotans targeted by 'go back' taunts say the sting never leaves

When President Trump tweeted that four congresswomen of color should “go back” to other countries, we asked our readers and listeners if they had ever been told the same.

Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez,Ayanna Pressley,Rashida Tlaib,Ilhan Omar
From left, Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., and Rep. Ayanna Pressley, D-Mass., respond to remarks by President Trump after his call for the four Democratic congresswomen to go back to their "broken" countries, during a news conference at the Capitol in Washington on Monday.
J. Scott Applewhite | AP Photo

President Trump’s racist tweets targeting four congresswomen of color, including Rep. Ilhan Omar, have ignited painful memories among Minnesotans who were subjected to racial taunts both as children and adults in the state.

Haaris Pasha, a Minneapolis native, was first told to “go back” to where he came from when he was a middle schooler in Apple Valley nearly two decades ago.

Alla Hassan, a Sudanese-American who arrived in the U.S. at the age of 7, heard the term as an elementary school student in Rochester, Minn., in the early 2000s.

Remi Eichten, who describes herself as a biracial black woman, was first told to “go back to Georgia or Africa” at age 13 by a white woman she offered to assist at the Roseville Mall.

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Pasha, Hassan and Eichten are among dozens of people who responded to a question we posed to our readers and listeners: If you've ever been told to “go back” to your country, how did that affect your feelings about what it means to be American?

Many remember responding with initial confusion, followed by a sense that they did not belong in their own country.

“There was a kid on a bike who said to me, ‘Get out of here, get out of here,’” said Hassan, who now lives in St. Paul. “I turned around. He was looking right at me in the eyes and he said, ‘Go back to where you came from.’”

Hassan was born to Sudanese parents and had never been to Sudan at the time. She was born in Saudi Arabia and immigrated to the U.S at age 7. On that day, when the kid on the bike told her to go back to her country, Hassan struggled to make sense of his message.

Then she interpreted the sentiment the way any 7-year-old would. “I was born in Saudi Arabia. I never lived in Sudan,” she thought to herself. “But then I am walking home — in Rochester. Does he mean go back home because that’s where I’m going?”

Since that day, Hassan said, she never felt the same about the United States. That is, she felt like she no longer belonged in America — even when America is the only place she calls home.

Then last weekend, the president’s tweets — which called for Reps. Ilhan Omar, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib and Ayanna Pressley to “go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came” — reopened old wounds for Hassan.

“It was really painful to hear that," she said. “I remember that kid when I was in fifth grade saying ‘go back to your country’ directly to me. But now, this is on a different scale where the president of the free world is saying this. So now, it’s impacting everybody.”

For Pasha, it was in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, when he was in seventh grade, that he was first told to “go back” to his country, even though he was born in Minneapolis. It happened, he said, one day after one of his classmates saw Pasha with his Pakistani grandmother, who wears the traditional headscarf of Muslim women.

At school, the boy approached Pasha and asked where he was from, but Pasha didn’t respond to him.

So, the boy labeled Pasha as Saudi. “You’re from Arabia,” he told Pasha. “You should go back to Arabia. You guys don’t belong in this country.”

Last weekend, when Pasha heard of the president’s tweets, he thought of young Americans of color who have to stomach the hateful remarks towards people of color and their parents.

“Without any provocation, without anything that we’ve ever done, this guy is saying ‘go back to your own country’ to all brown people, not just to Muslims,” Pasha said. “I just think about what’s going on to the seventh grader today — in a place where you’re already feeling like you’re left out.”

Though the “go back” controversy has dominated the news in the past several days, the term is as old as America itself, said Erika Lee, professor of history at the University of Minnesota and the author of the forthcoming book “America for Americans: A History of Xenophobia in the U.S.

So, is “go back to your country” racist rhetoric?

“It’s absolutely part of a much longer history of xenophobia and racism and demonstrates the ways in which they work together,” she said.

Lee continued that it’s not a coincidence that the president has targeted a Somali-American, an African-American, a Latina American and a Palestinian-American — three of whom were born in the U.S. — for the “go back” to your country remark.

The message between the lines, she said, is that these congresswomen are not white and therefore don’t belong in the U.S. — an age-old phenomenon that has rendered the poor, immigrants of color, African-Americans and Native Americans outsiders.

In his book, “Making Foreigners: Immigration and citizenship Law in American, 1600—2000,” Kunal M. Parker notes that when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the mid-19th century that blacks could not obtain U.S. citizenship, some states in the South “formally labeled free blacks from other states aliens” and denied them the right to inherit property.

In addition, the American Colonization Society, an organization that was founded in 1817 to end slavery, repatriated free blacks to Africa, where they apparently “belonged” once they were no longer enslaved.

Likewise, religious minorities, immigrants of color and Europeans who were presumed nonwhite at the time — the Irish, Italians and Jews — were subjected to exclusionary laws that excluded them from the privileges of American citizenship, owning property or entering the U.S.

In “Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern American,” Mae Ngai demonstrates how the United States also pushed out Mexican-Americans and Mexican immigrants during the late 1920s and early 1930s when the Great Depression crippled the U.S. economy.

“As economic insecurities among Euro-Americans inflamed racial hostility toward Mexicans, efforts to deport and repatriate the latter to Mexico grew,” Ngai writes in the book. “The movement did not distinguish between legal immigrants, illegal immigrants and American citizens.”

The racist effort that deems Americans of color outsiders, who could be sent, when necessary, back to where they “belong,” exists today in many forms and shapes — and “go back to your country” is one of them, Lee said.

Mohammad Zafar, a former U.S. Marine who was born in Pakistan, said he’s been frequently told to go back to his country. But when the president of the United States says that, Zafar said, it’s more dangerous.

“At the end of the day, it does cause fear and it does cause trauma,” he said. “He’s on a world stage and, unfortunately, he’s doing that.”

But that should not worry those who are targeted by the president’s racist remarks, he said. “For me, it just makes me even stronger.” Zafar said. “He’s damaging a lot, but we can repair the damage.”

For Hassan, the president’s “go back” to where you belong remark is terrifying. “What happens when people tell you ‘go home?’” she asks. “It doesn’t just stop at words. It can become actions where people are threatening your livelihood so that they make sure you’re no longer here.”

Here is a sampling of other responses we received from our readers and listeners:

Preeti Mathur

About 20 years ago, I had an encounter which shook me up. But I am so grateful to our friend Wayne who stood up for me. I was having a perfectly reasonable conversation with a well-dressed, distinguished older man at a bar in a high-end hotel after a corporate event. He was asking me where I was born and how I spoke English. I love interacting with people and always playing a cultural ambassador role, I started telling him all about myself and about India where I was born. Suddenly and totally out of the blue, he turned nasty. He told me, “You all are the same — you come here to make money. What would [you] do if the U.S. went to war with India? Where would your alliances be? Go back! " At that point, Wayne, a tall and burly person, stood up and said, "What did you tell her, you [expletive]?" This seemed to unnerve the man; he stood up and wanted to shake hands with Wayne. I am not sure what happened after that because my husband whisked me away. Unfortunately, Wayne passed away, but I will always be grateful to him for coming to my aid. I find it ironical that this incident happened soon after an event where my husband was given an award for his many technical contributions to his company.

Dawn Bjoraker

A few days after the 9/11 attacks, I was at a grocery store in the Maplewood-St. Paul area with my daughter who was in third grade at the time. I headed down the pasta aisle and noticed a man on one side of the aisle and his shopping cart on the other side. I wasn't in a rush so I started looking at spaghetti sauce on the shelf. A person came up behind me and said, "Excuse me," which then prompted me to approach this man. I walked up to him and said, "Excuse me." He looked at me and then asked, "What, can't you get through?" I simply replied, "No". He then went off on a profanity-ridden tirade and told me, "You should go back to your country you [expletive] foreigner. If you stayed in your country, we wouldn't be going through this." While this was taking place, a couple of more people came into the aisle. Not one spoke up in defense of me. My daughter was scared, and I did everything I could to get away from him. He followed me with his shopping cart and continued his tirade until I exited the aisle. I paid for my items, got into my car and lost it. With tears streaming down my face, my daughter put her hand on my lap and said, "He doesn't know any better, mom."

Here's the thing, though: I am nothing but indigenous to this land. I am an American Indian, a Sicangu Lakota from the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota. I was attacked based on appearances alone. This needs to stop. Telling people to love it or leave it, or verbally and/or physically attack them based on appearances is not what we are about. It is in our differences we bear our commonality. Speak up.

Nicole Muehlhausen Young

The first time I was told this was in second grade. I was one of only a handful — and by handful, I mean countable on one hand — of minority students in the Stillwater school district. I've continually received it through present day — I'm 34. It's been interesting to see how this has become an issue for my husband, who is white and has never received these sorts of comments naturally, who now gets comments about me being a “mail order bride.” He's never experienced racism before and has now been thrust into it. I will forever be grateful for the freedoms I've been given as an American. (I was adopted as an infant and can't imagine life elsewhere.) But current times make me ashamed.

Tourt Dara

It might be the third year that I was in the USA. A bunch of kids said “Ching Chong!” They thought that I was Chinese. And I did not respond ... just smile! ... But it was hurtful inside. My family and I ran away from bad government, now they told us to go back. I started to think that the USA is not perfect place as I expected, but at least I have freedom to criticize the government without persecution. I am grateful [that] the USA opened their arms for my family and I to have a new [life] here. ... Minnesota is fully home now. I hope the USA still opens their arms for others like my family and me.

Correction (July 18, 2019): An earlier version of this story misstated Alla Hassan’s age when she immigrated to the U.S. It has been updated.