Go Back to Where You Came From, or Casual Racism

In big cities, warmer weather often seems to correlate to an increase in crime and in Maine, I am starting to wonder if warmer weather correlates to an increase in random and casual racism. Looking back on my years in Maine, it seems that spring and summer is the peak season for casual racist experiences. Maybe we just need a year-round chill in the weather so that people can stay chill.

My week started with me giving a keynote address on racism and having a conversation with young immigrant women about the racism they encounter living in Maine. Then a few days ago, I had my own experience that reminded of just how powerful words are and how, when they are wielded as a weapon, they can cut as deeply as the sharpest knife.

Several days ago, I was walking along Portland’s waterfront en route to the ferry terminal so that I could head back home after running a few errands. I walked past two older white men on a bench who appeared down on their luck and most likely homeless. I didn’t formulate any judgments about them personally at first; however, as I walked past them one of them yelled out “Go back to to your own country!” Given that I was the only person of color on the sidewalk at that time, it was clear that I was recipient of the comment.

Let the judgments begin, I thought…

In that moment, just a few feet away from their bench, I stopped and started to turn back around to actually give the gent on the bench a piece of my mind as I toyed with the idea of just slapping the man. I realize that even saying this sounds over the top but sometimes you get sick and tired of being sick and tired. And, let me just be honest: I am tired of white people thinking they have the right to say whatever thoughts come to mind without regard for my humanity. Or the humanity of anyone they deem to be “less than.” The man’s words weren’t as jarring as being called a nigger but make no mistake: In choosing to say those words, his implication was that I don’t belong here (even though I was born and raised in this country and descend from enslaved Africans) and his desire was to intimidate me into leaving “his” country.

Last night I found myself in a work-related conversation with a representative from a group that works with African immigrants in New Hampshire, and she shared that one of the most common comments their program participants hear is “Go back to where you came from.”

America is a nation built on the stolen land of indigenous people and built with the labor of enslaved people; those stolen people were my ancestors and if a white American feels that this is their home, well it’s my home too. America is a country of immigrants and newcomers of all hues and stripes. Unless said people have a far darker hue and then, no matter what our background, we are are seen as outsiders by much of white America, perhaps even most of it.

I have lived 43 years in this body called Black and female, and I recognize that racism is one of the many illness that America the nation suffers from. While it never gets easier to deal with racism, there is a place where, for self preservation, you just don’t allow every incident to touch your inner spirit. That man on the bench annoyed me and while I wanted to say something, I decided to walk away and trust that the ugliness he chose to dole out will be repaid to him a thousandfold. I believe that what we put into the universe does come back to us in one form or another and if hate is what we hold in our hearts, we will have to face that at some point in our lives.

As an adult, I have the ability to manage dealing with hate. What concerns me is the impact of racism and bigotry on developing minds. I know that last year when my daughter first heard that ugly word of nigger, the experience affected for months quite intensely, to the point she feared going into any part of Portland. Even now her anxiety around young white men comes up. What about young people whose families have braved things that Americans can’t even begin to imagine who are hearing words of “Go back” on a regular basis? How do you make a home in a place that is legally your home yet people insist that you don’t belong? How do you find peace when the simple act of walking down the street and dodging the stares and the comments is simply another act of warfare being done against your person?

We know now that verbal abuse harms children and yet too few of us will do anything against the casual racism that is meted out against people who are different than us.

Racism is abuse and yet we expect the people who are most affected by racism to save the collective us from racism; it’s not unlike asking abused spouses/partners/children to fix abusive behavior against them. Just another toxic byproduct of America’s longstanding and deeply ingrained racism and white supremacy; it is interwoven into the fabric of almost everything and it help give more weight and power to racism and racist acts.

We can do better. So let’s, shall we?
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2 thoughts on “Go Back to Where You Came From, or Casual Racism”

  1. Please share with your daughter that there are a great many whites, myself included, who do not feel the way those racist young fools do. Racism is all too prevalent in our society and sadly throughout the world. However there are many who desparately fight these enculturated feelings every day. We’ll get there, we’ll get there.

  2. With varying degrees of benefit, I have lived many years under this nation’s severest form of racism–other than slavery and its immediate aftermath–as I lived under Jim Crow. Lately, I’ve been thinking about how I felt as a child–to be thrust, unprepared, into a world where I was treated differently simply because of the color of my skin.

    My earliest view of whites has not changed over the years, although my general view has undergone a series of modifications as I came into contact with them on a personal, and a not-so-personal, basis. As a child, whites remained on the periphery of my day-to-day existence, as I had no white friends, and I only interacted with them in stores, or while walking on the streets, so complete was the bubble of isolation that kept the two worlds–white and black–apart.

    Those interactions, as infrequent as they were, weren’t free of racist reminders of our inferior station in this strange world, a world where people were divided on the basis of their skin color alone.

    At the time, whites didn’t seem real to me. I didn’t see them as real people. Real people were black people, or, as we were known then, “Colored people.” In short order, however, Negro would supersede Colored, which was preferable, and more polite. Since that time, I have had many interactions with whites, but my view of them has remained the same. I still don’t see them as real people, merely as pretend people, not unlike mannequins. I don’t mean to insult anyone, but to communicate how I felt then as a result of entering a world characterized by the restrictions it imposed on blacks, while whites luxuriated in the riches of various freedoms.

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