“Go back to your country.”
This phrase has been shlepped around with alarming regularity. It’s been said to Muslims, to immigrants and their descendants, and—ironically—to Native Water Protectors at Standing Rock.
It’s not a new phrase, though. It’s been tried and true for centuries by white supremacists, including people who don’t know that they’re white supremacists.
Until this past week as I was reading yet more headlines about minorities around the nation being told Go back, I had forgotten that I’d been told this myself. In true Freudian fashion, I’d blocked these incidents from my memory.
How does erasure like this happen?
Unlike my black and brown friends, I wasn’t raised to deal with racism. Thanks to school, I was raised to believe that racism had been obliterated by a speech by Martin Luther King, Jr., whom we learned about from a worksheet. I thought that prejudice was historical, even though I saw my White relatives all but ignore my mother at family gatherings. Meanwhile, I heard my blonde cousins cooed over by aunts and uncles while my brother and I were passed over as if invisible. One uncle had not attended my parents’ wedding. He was “busy.”
My mother fumed about this to my father, trotting out the speech about how prejudiced his relatives were and how they couldn’t stand her because she was “a Jap.” It didn’t help that she wasn’t exactly a model of political correctness, let alone anti-racist parenting. My dad, mild and non-confrontational, was as incapable of speaking up to his family about their racism as most White people are about confronting their own racism today.
We let things go. That’s how sh*t happens.
Most of the time, I didn’t know that I was on the receiving end of racism, other than the flash of shame and rage that coursed through my body when Japan or my Japanese-ness was the butt of a joke. For example, there was this playground ritual:
“Look at me, Harumi,” kids would say. “Are my eyes like yours?”
Depending on how much sleep I’ve had, my eyes can be weirdly big. Bigger than pretty much anyone who has ever asked me that question.
There were also the long decades of being ridiculed for my name, mocked for eating raw fish, and taunted for excelling at math (never mind that I was also one of the fastest readers in my class). When Charlie’s Angels (2000) and Grey’s Anatomy came out, I was told that I looked “just like” Lucy Liu and Sandra Oh. Not that I totally minded the comparison; it was the first time anyone had likened me to public figures, and they’re both intelligent, gorgeous women. I would have been delighted if I actually resembled them. But getting lumped with all Asians took the shine off the supposed compliment. Rather, I felt diminished and invisible.
“Thanks,” I’d say, trying to be polite. “But I don’t really look like them.”
“You just can’t see it,” they’d say. “Just take a compliment when you get one.” And so I would be schooled in etiquette by someone who had just insulted me.
On days when I had more spunk, I’d skip the fake gratitude. “Maybe you think I look like them because they’re the only Asian women actors we know,” I’d say. “All Asians don’t look alike.”
“Are you calling me racist?” they’d squeak. I’d purse my lips.
I know now that these everyday insults are called microaggressions. Often, the perpetrator thinks that they’re delivering a compliment, like when strangers praise me for my skill in speaking English without an accent. As a kid, I didn’t know anyone else who had these kinds of experiences. I was often the only student of color in class, and the only other multi-ethnic person I knew was my brother. It got to the point where I feared that strangers would think that my (White) father, whom I didn’t resemble until adulthood, had abducted us from our Japanese mother. While in the check-out line at the supermarket, I used to make a point of saying “HEY, DADDY” loudly enough for anyone around to hear.
“Nothing.” I’d pretend to be engrossed in my shoes.
In our current landscape of mushrooming teriyaki joints, sushi fanaticism, and anime conventions, my experiences could seem anachronistic, even trite. Get over it, people say. That was ages ago. It’s not like you were beaten up.
In 1991, Rodney King was beaten on television. I was ten. I was decades away from understanding how King’s experiences demonstrated the systemic oppression of black and brown people, and back then I certainly couldn’t make the connection to my family’s experiences with racism and xenophobia. But that same year on December 7th, I was confronted by an older white man who was the day’s substitute for my fifth grade class. He began teaching about the historical importance of the day. Somehow (my name?), he discovered that I had Japanese heritage.
He approached my desk. “It’s your fault Pearl Harbor happened. Men died because of you and your people.”
My people? My people included a White grandfather who manned a U.S. Navy submarine in the Pacific. My Japanese relatives were pacifists who struggled to align their hatred of war with their loyalty to the emperor. They spent World War II hiding in the countryside south of Hiroshima to avoid the carpet bombing that razed their homes and lives in Tokyo.
“I wasn’t born yet.” It was all I could think of saying.
“Go back to Japan,” he said. “Go back to where you came from. We don’t want people like you here.”
That was the first time. I lay awake that night, fantasizing about what I could have said to that man or what I would say if it happened again. It did. The next few times I was told to go back to the where I came from, I was prepared.
“I’m not going back to Pendleton. There isn’t much going on in Eastern Oregon,” I’d say. Or, “Sure. I’d love to live in England.”
It became a way for me to experiment with how to screw with bullies. Frankly, I thought they sounded dumb. I had the same blue passport as them. I’d be willing to bet that I knew as much, if not considerably more, about U.S. history than them even as a teenager. My ancestors included two U.S. presidents—Boston Puritans, no less—and they’d also invented the argyle pattern. ARGYLE.
How much Whiter you get?
But I still can’t picture who else has said those words to me, other than that substitute teacher. I suspect that my brain did this to protect me from those who pained me and, instead, spotlight my self-empowered, cheeky responses.
By the time that a White relative said those words to my mother, I was in my late twenties and teaching at a progressive high school where we examine the history of xenophobia and racism in the United States. I was still putting up with the occasional casually racist comments of well-meaning colleagues and friends. (Them: “What Japanese writers could we add to the curriculum?” Me: “I don’t know any more Japanese writers than you do.” Or my favorite: “Why don’t you find a nice Japanese boy to marry?”) But I could no longer brush off overt racism, especially to my mother, who had supported me through thick and thin.
My parents were in the midst of a ghastly divorce. One day when my mother stopped by our old house to talk to my dad, her sister-in-law (my aunt and godmother) also happened to be there. Within minutes, my aunt slung abusive descriptors at my mother, whom she hadn’t seen or spoken to in years.
And then this: “GO BACK TO JAPAN.”
My father was silent. (I learned later that he was stunned into speechlessness. But it was his silence that pained my mother the most. For her, it epitomized the racist attitudes of his family and his decades of failure to stand up for her to them that contributed to their crumbling marriage. Soon after, I cut off all ties with his family. I didn’t speak voluntarily or regularly to him for years until he was willing to talk about it in the office of a therapist.)
After her initial shock, my mother looked my aunt in the eye. “Well, you look a lot older,” she said, then left the house. She cried when she got home, but when she told us the story, her eyes had steel. “I don’t like making fun of people for their age,” she said. “They can’t help it. But that woman was always vain.”
I was proud of my mother. She had countered racism with a well-deserved quip. Initially, I felt envious that she had had the presence of mind to say something so clever in the moment. Later, I realized that she’d had decades of preparation by living in a society that saw her as an outsider and therefore inferior, even though she’d lived in the States since Gerald Ford was president. Every so often, she’s still ignored at clothing store counters and restaurants while White patrons are served. Sometimes, she lets it go. Other times, she’ll speak up: “Excuse me. Are you not helping me out because I’m Asian?”
No wonder I loved learning about the history of self-empowered resistance of people of color to racism: everyday resistance to slavery in Antebellum South, enslaved people freeing themselves through escape, the lunch counter sit-ins and other forms of protest during the Civil Rights Movement and the multitude of anti-oppression movements today. Looking back on my schooling, I can see now that my favorite writers and figures from history were almost exclusively black: Toni Morrison, Frederick Douglass, Rita Dove, Sojourner Truth, Benjamin Banneker, Harriet Tubman, George Washington Williams, Natasha Trethewey, Langston Hughes, Alice Walker, August Wilson, and W.E.B. Du Bois, among others. Having only been taught about the miseries of Asian American history (the Chinese Exclusion Act, railroaders, “yellow peril,” and Japanese incarceration), I clung to the heroes of another color who had stood up to racism through wit, wisdom, bravery, and blood.
Through them, I began to understand how the hectoring that I’d experienced because of my heritage was actually bullying, a microcosm of systemic oppression. It’s worth noting that racism and xenophobia don’t just hurt people of color. They make White people numb and unable to act, like my father, and even indifferent to the sufferings of others.
Nowadays, my mother says she doesn’t understand why I care so much about social justice and why I’m trying to center my career around the work.
Frankly, she started it.