By Lara Takenaga and Aidan Gardiner
“Go back to where you came from.”
These seven words are seared into the minds of countless Americans — a reminder that they haven’t always been welcome in the country where they were born or naturalized because of their appearance, language or religion.
For many, the pain of past encounters throbbed again after President Trump attacked four Democratic congresswomen of color in a series of tweets this week.
“Why don’t they go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came,” he wrote in one.
When we asked readers if they had been told to “go back,” some 16,000 responses flooded in on our website, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.
Readers recounted the insults they’ve heard as African-Americans, Asian-Americans, Native Americans and Jewish Americans. Many recalled first becoming aware of their “otherness” as young children and said that slurs have followed them into adulthood. Their stories span decades, with notable upticks after 9/11 and Mr. Trump’s election. And several readers expressed regret after telling others to “go back.”
We chose 67 of the most representative stories to feature here, lightly edited and condensed. If you’ve been told to “go back,” please share your experience in the comments.
The first time
I was 12 the first time I heard that. My mom and I were at Costco and it was Christmas Eve. We went there to pick up a ham. By the time we made it to the register, the lines were huge. At some point, a middle-aged white woman tried cutting in line. My mom stopped her, and when she did, the woman said, “Get out of line and go back to Mexico.” When we wouldn’t respond, she got louder and louder.
I had never felt so small or so angry in my life. Even though I’d seen racism on TV and in the movies, that was the first time I ever experienced it in real life.
— Justin Vazquez, Irvine, Calif.
I am American. I was born and raised in Texas. I call this state my home and have never known any other. I am also Muslim and South Asian.
I vividly remember the first time a boy yelled at me to “go home.” I was in middle school and getting used to my first official locker. I had a top locker, which I was excited about, but had not quite mastered it. One afternoon, rushing to change out books between classes, I accidentally dropped one of my textbooks on the foot of a boy whose locker was below mine. I recall turning to him and his friends and saying, “I’m so sorry!”
He stood up — much taller and bigger than I was at 13 — and screamed into my face: “What is wrong with you? GO HOME, YOU DIRTY … ” I won’t repeat his words, but they are seared into my memory.
It was the first time I felt someone’s hatred of me so viscerally. I felt confused, scared, angry and alone. He was the first of many — usually men, usually white, usually angry — who have yelled at me to “go home.”
Now, as a professional adult, it is usually not a slur screamed through an open car window or someone shoving me down a middle school hallway — it is the subtle and not-so-subtle, “Where are you really from?” and, “Are you sure you’re Muslim? You don’t seem like the others,” comments masked as questions.
No matter how many American flags I put on my lawn, how diligently I pursue the American dream that my parents came here for or how hard I try to be the model citizen, it seems I am the perennial “other” — that I have to constantly prove my allegiance to my country and that I am (no really! I am!) American.
— Sakina Rasheed Foster, Dallas
When I was in seventh grade, I commented to some classmates that I didn’t like cheeseburgers. One of them, a white girl, turned to me and said, “You’re not American, go back to Mexico!”
Everyone in the group laughed, and I joined in, trying to disguise my shock.
I’ll never forget that instance, and how “othered” it made me feel. Never mind that I was born in Albuquerque, and am not of Mexican descent.
Up until that moment, I thought my classmates saw me as one of them, an equal. I realized after that day that my Spanish surname and the color of my skin made me an outsider in the eyes of my white classmates.
— Margot Luna, Washington, D.C.
New tensions after 9/11
I’ve been called a terrorist and Osama bin Laden’s son. I’ve been told to go on my jihad. I’ve been called a member of Al Qaeda and the Taliban. These all came during high school. I was born here, yet others told me I didn’t belong.
I always tried to shrug off the comments. At times, I’d even try to educate the people who called me these names to tell them why it’s incorrect to categorize me as that. I’m a first-generation American and my parents emigrated to the United States from Iran in the 1970s.
— Keian Razipour, Los Angeles
I immigrated to the United States from Panama in 2002 at just 8 years old. My mother enlisted in the Army, so my first experience of America was living and attending school at a military base in North Carolina six months after 9/11.
Faced with hypernationalism, hyperpatriotism and being “othered” by my peers for my language and cultural barriers, I was told to “go back” to my country on an almost daily basis. I was called an “alien,” “beaner” and “wetback,” words that I had no cultural context for.
I wished for nothing more in those first months than to be able to go back home to Panama — but this was my home now. My mother was fighting alongside their fathers. Didn’t that mean we belonged here, too?
— Paola Salas Paredes, Washington, D.C.
I had just started a doctorate program in August 2001. Soon after 9/11, I was talking about the attacks with some of my fellow graduate students. We had a disagreement about what the American response should be. My response was clearly not bellicose enough — my classmates thought we should immediately obliterate the entire Middle East.
These same classmates told me I should “love it or leave it” with respect to the United States. I asked them where I should go — back to Texas (where I grew up)? They said no, where your parents came from. I asked them if I should go back to New York (where my parents were from). They said no, where my “people” are from (three of my four grandparents emigrated from Poland and Russia).
I’d experienced anti-Semitism growing up, but never anything like that. I had never been called un-American, and never been told that this wasn’t my home. I didn’t realize at the time that this was just the beginning, and that this “with us or against us” mentality would metastasize into what we are seeing today.
— Rachel Walker, Keller, Tex.
Growing up as an Asian-American
The worst experience was when I was a young child, playing on my driveway, and heard several thwacks and felt a cold sticky substance running down the back of my neck. I had been egged, and our house had been hit with vegetables. Someone shouted from a distance, “Go back to China, chink!”
— Kenneth Hung, New York City
I immigrated to the U.S. from the Philippines in the early 1970s with my parents, and we became U.S. citizens soon after our arrival. We lived in a very diverse neighborhood in the Near West Side of Chicago right next to the local university’s medical schools.
One unfortunate day, my mother took my 8-year-old brother and 12-year-old me to a neighborhood that was predominantly white. While my brother and I patiently waited in the car for my mom, a group of kids from that neighborhood came up to the car and started throwing stones at the car while yelling, “Go back home, you chinks!”
Thinking this was just a case of mistaken identity, I tried to explain to them that we were not Chinese, but was pelted with rocks. My mother ran out to yell at these kids to stop, and soon a white adult from the neighborhood came running out. Just when I thought sanity would ensue, the white adult, in support of the rock-throwing kids, told my mother to get the hell out of their neighborhood and to go back home.
My mother drove us out of there in tears, as she wiped the tears from my face.
I had never experienced such outward hatred and bigotry before and I was wondering to myself why were they so angry. My innocent 8-year-old brother broke our silent drive home by saying, “Those must’ve been Sox fans!”
My mom and I could only smile through our tears at the wonderful innocence. From that day on, my brother and I became very aware of our ethnic identities and the power of ignorance and hated.
— Gerry Granada, Chicago
My parents used to own a small diner in Santa Monica, Calif., when I was young. A customer didn’t like his order and got the ketchup bottle and sprayed it all over the wall of the store and yelled, “Go back to your country!”
It was the first time I was made to feel like an “other,” through my parent’s experience.
— Brian Kim, Hayward, Calif.
As a kid in elementary school, people found out that I’m Vietnamese and would tell me to go back to my communist country because I must be a communist.
Hearing that from students and teachers as an American citizen and as a young child was hurtful and incredibly frustrating because my family had fought in Vietnam against communism. I had family members that never came home from that war — but that didn’t make a difference.
— Hannah Tong, Winona, Minn.
When my younger sister and I were in elementary school, we were told by an older student to “go back to China” after we refused to tell him whether we knew Yao Ming (so, two racist slurs for the price of one!).
We were both born in America to immigrant parents; our father came from Japan, our mother from Taiwan. We had never even been to China. We grew up in a predominantly white suburb of Chicago, and though I knew we were Asian, it had never occurred to me until then that we might be seen as different or strange in the only home we had ever known.
— Natalie Yang, Chicago
The people who said ‘go back’ — and regret it
Unfortunately, I do not want to admit this, but I have told people, people who are Americans, to go back to their country (which does not make much sense other than the fact that they look different from the majority) and I feel horrible for it.
While I do regret these actions, I felt emboldened at the time because of the current political climate.
— Richard Nahas, Omaha
Several years ago in Los Angeles, a guy cut me off in a parking lot. That escalated into yelling out of windows and, to my utter shame, I yelled for this Arab-looking man to go back home.
I was ashamed then and more so now and have never repeated this epithet.
But to say this is not who we are as Americans is not entirely true. This is who we are on our worst day. I would give a lot to be able to apologize to this man.
— Matthew Sunderland, Joshua Tree, Calif.
One day while shopping in Home Depot, a lovely dark-skinned man of obvious Asian origin commented to me how very hot he found it in my Florida hometown ever since moving from New York.
Without thinking, I said, “So why don’t you go back to where you came from?” meaning, fully and honestly, to New York, not the country he’d emigrated from.
“I mean, to stay cooler,” I quickly added, seeing the look of insult that swept over him.
Both of us remained silent as he led me to my aisle. For me, I realized every word I utter has impact.
— teZa Lord, St. Augustine, Fla.
African-Americans’ constant battle for equality
I’ve been told to “go back to Africa” repeatedly. At this point, I don’t really feel anything about it because I’m accustomed to people’s ignorance. I’m a black American and my family has been here since the 1600s. I usually just respond with that fact and people get uncomfortable. The funny thing is that one of my nonblack ancestors is actually Robert E. Lee.
— Whitney Lee, Washington, D.C.
Decades later, I still remember how much it hurt.
I was usually the only little black girl in class. I was teased about my nappy hair and my wide nose. My dark skin was called dirty. Many times, I was told to go back to Africa although I’ve never been.
And it wasn’t just mean kids. Even teachers would sometimes ask me where I was from with a look of disdain.
I rarely stood up for myself. I would just shrink inward in unwarranted shame. It wasn’t until the era of black pride that I finally found my voice. I’m black and I’m proud of my African ancestry and look forward to one day going to Africa for the first time!
— Pat St.Claire, Atlanta
I was about 13 when a white classmate overheard me complaining to friends about the Vietnam War. He looked at me and said, “If you don’t like it here, why don’t you go back to Africa?”
I was too shocked to respond. I had never considered Africa to be my homeland. My family has roots in northeastern Louisiana dating back to slavery. To me, my ancestral home was Oak Grove, La.
It wasn’t until much later, after many other such negative interactions, that I understood how, to many whites, African-Americans are not considered to be real Americans, equally deserving of the rights and privileges of citizenship.
— Michael Hornsby, Albany
I was on a summer league basketball team in 1990. We played a game in Squirrel Hill, the same neighborhood as the Tree of Life shooting.
We beat the all-white team with a late flurry of baskets. In the team and their fans: anger. We were called “N-s.” Our lone white player was an “N- lover.” We were “monkeys” and told to go back to Africa.
In 1990 and in western Pennsylvania, we all had experienced racism and disrespect on that level except our white player. He quit the team. Embarrassment? Shame? We don’t know because none of us ever saw him again.
— Allen Malik Easton, Pittsburgh
The ignorance fueling racist comments
I was in high school and my brothers were in elementary school. We were riding the school bus in the morning to school. Some kid threw a crumpled-up piece of paper and yelled, “Go back to where you came from! You didn’t win in Iraq and you aren’t going to win here!”
What this redneck didn’t know was that we are from India, not Iraq. He had thought that my Sikh brothers and I were Muslim.
— Reetu Height, Nashville
I’m Peruvian-American born in Flushing Hospital, and yes, I’ve been told to go back to “Taliban.”
— Chris La Rosa, Queens
I am a black woman of biracial ancestry. My mother is a white Jewish woman and my father is black. My facial characteristics are racially ambiguous, and I am often misidentified as Latina, specifically Puerto Rican, Dominican or Cuban.
Several months ago, at a gas station in Jacksonville, Fla., an older white man approached me as I pumped gas into my car.
“How many houses did you clean to buy that convertible?!” he yelled.
Startled, scared and angry, I chose to ignore him because, well, it is a “conceal carry” state.
As I attempted to quickly place the nozzle back onto the pump station, he walked closer to me and with venom in his voice said, “You should take your ass back to Mexico!”
— Chevara Orrin, Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
My family suffered at the hands of plantation owners in Hawaii and during the internment camps of World War II. Even when our countrymen thought of us as traitors, we fought for them in the 442nd.
My mother, sister and myself have been told numerous times to “go home.” My family has fought, died and worked for a more perfect union for generations. Seeing the president and his apologists share this idiocy is infuriating and hurtful.
— Joel Higa, Chicago
During my first semester in college, my friends and I were walking to dinner when two guys told us to “go back to China.” This was 2015, at a highly selective private school in an urban city, so it was incredibly shocking to hear those words on campus.
I envisioned college as a place where people were past making racist remarks, but it only confirmed to me that society still saw Asians as perpetual foreigners.
To be honest, at the time I was still a green card holder, but I had spent my entire childhood in the U.S. The country that I’m “from” is Canada.
— Stephanie Yuan, Washington, D.C.
Abuse in the Trump era
I was walking my two boys out of their middle school. In the school’s driveway, as several students and parents were walking out, a minivan pulled out to my side and a middle schooler yelled at me and my boys to go back to my own country. She was driving with her mother and was barely 13 years old.
I was dumbfounded and surprised. There was hate in her and her voice and expression. I did not catch the minivan’s license plate number but did catch a Trump sticker on the back. This was right after Trump got elected.
I felt hurt, as this was the first time I was confronted with racism in my face.
— Yogesh Lund, Austin, Tex.
I am the U.S.-born white parent of a child adopted from Vietnam. He is a naturalized U.S. citizen.
In early February 2017, just a few weeks after the “Muslim ban” went into effect, someone put a sign on our front lawn. It was a Trump/Pence sign from the 2016 election. The side facing our front door had been papered over with “Ban Them All” written on it.
It was devastating. It took my breath away to see such hatred directed at a child, to know the intent was for my sixth grader to see that message when he opened the door to go to school.
We called our town’s police, but we had to make follow-up calls to try to convince them to classify it as a hate crime. I posted a picture of the sign on a local Facebook page, and this spurred an outpouring of support.
Two days later, our lawn was decorated with dozens of signs saying things like “You belong here” and “We’re glad you’re here.” I believe love will always trump hate, but two years later, my family is still reeling from this hateful act.
— Bonnie Gardner, Vienna, Va.
I had a new employee whom I was instructed to train in 2017 where I was employed in Kansas. He was from the South and I am originally from California.
Upon introductions, he immediately spun around and told me to go back to the country where I came from and get the “HELL” out of America. This was after Trump was elected and he was bragging about being a Trump fan. I never talk politics at work so I let his comments go.
It was very unnerving trying to train someone whose viewpoint was that I was an unwelcome immigrant from California.
— Mayjo LaPlante, Topeka, Kan.
I mentioned to my friend, whom I’ve known for 50 years, that during my recent visit to Australia, how impressed I was with the national health care system in comparison to the dismal state of ours.
I was devastated when she suggested I move to another country since, “You don’t seem happy with this one.” I responded that “I’ve been a proud and patriotic American citizen since I was naturalized at age 10,” that this is “my country as much as it is yours,” that I care deeply it and that critiquing and participating in protests against certain government policies is patriotic.
I reminded her that protests against the Vietnam War helped end it sooner and saved American and Vietnamese lives. She didn’t respond.
We’ve had a deep chasm in our relationship since she voted for Trump, whom I consider a racist and abhorrent individual who lacks character and decency.
I love my friend, but I now suspect she’s a white nationalist. As painful as it may be, I’m considering whether it’s time to address my concerns with her and see where the chips fall.
— Nadia McGeough, McLean, Va.
Reacting and responding
About five years ago, I was watching the Fourth of July parade in Bristol, R.I., when a woman who was upset because I was unintentionally blocking her view, shouted, “Go back to your country!”
Even though I wasn’t an American citizen, I had lived legally here for more than 15 years, married to an American citizen with an American daughter. I was very upset and felt humiliated, but I said back to her: “Are you a Native American? If not, you should go back, too!”
— Rogeria Christmas, Bristol, R.I.
I was told to go back one beautiful, sunny afternoon in Brooklyn. I turned around to make sure it was indeed what I had thought I heard as I walked past a woman, someone mumbling, “Go back to Egypt.”
When I turned back and looked at the deliverer of the message, she looked at me directly and repeated it. I was in a sassy mood and retorted, “I’m going to take you with me.” She quickly turned around and avoided further conversation, and I smirked my way down that Brooklyn block and laughed it off with my friend who was with me.
— Rokshana Ali, Queens
Changing to blend in
From my experience here in Tennessee, I have learned that I am no longer allowed to wear my head scarf in public because of constant harassment and physical assault.
I used to work in West Town Mall at a local phone store, and I was harassed and followed to my car multiple times by racist people telling me to go back to my country.
There was even a time I was grocery shopping and was screamed at and chanted at in the middle of Walmart, “RATS GO BACK TO IRAQ.”
It was so hurtful as a child to know people didn’t know me and already hated me. And it has affected my mental health as well.
— Yasmeen Hamed, Knoxville, Tenn.
This happened a couple of years after Sept. 11. I was walking out of the old Barnes & Noble on Austin Street in Forest Hills with my husband, who was carrying our granddaughter on his shoulders. An older white woman, who mistook my husband to be Iranian (he’s Central American and has a beard), started shouting at him to go back to Iran.
She then said our granddaughter should have burned in the towers instead of Americans.
I was blind with rage, but my husband remained calm, as it appeared our granddaughter was unaware of what the woman was saying and that it was directed at the two of them. This woman did not see me, as I was behind them. It took all of my willpower to not make a scene for my granddaughter’s sake.
The next day my husband shaved his beard so as to not appear too “Muslim.” My heart broke that day.
— Adele Chavarria, Brooklyn
When bystanders stay silent
One day, on a crowded subway train in New York City, an older couple wanted to get on the extremely crowded train car that I was in. They asked me (a visibly Muslim woman wearing a hijab) to move over, although there was no room for me to do that. I told them that I couldn’t move, and they responded by pushing me to the side and saying: “In this country, you’re not that important. Go back to where you came from.”
I felt offended about the assumption of where I am from, and totally taken aback by the fact that they felt they had more of a right to take up space than someone else did, no matter where I was from. Although others nearby heard what they said, no one spoke up and I felt incredibly vulnerable.
— Lama Ahmad, Dearborn, Mich.
The day the lockdown broke in Boston after the marathon bombing, I went with a friend who happens to be East Indian to celebrate (and breathe easier) at a bar in Boston.
An older white man who stood behind us was muttering insults somewhat under his breath. Finally, I turned around to face him, to which he replied, “Take your slanty eyes back to your country.”
I am Filipina-American, born in San Diego. My father served in the Navy. Though I grew up in New Orleans, I have no “accent.” Not Southern, not Asian, not even Bostonian. Not that that would matter, but I mention it only to highlight that the only quality that signaled “not from here” to this man was the color of my skin and my facial features.
He would not relent, and out of sheer disbelief and anger at his taunts, I stood up on my bar stool, now the tallest person in the room, and shouted at the top of my lungs (I was a junior varsity cheerleader): “WHAT DID YOU SAY? Say it again! Say it again because everyone in this room is going to hear you now.”
I was shaking and afraid. The room buzz went down, then back up again. No patron intervened the way someone always does when there’s a punch thrown. Soon, the manager of the bar, a white woman, came out and asked me to wait in the back room. The bartender, a black male who had witnessed the incident and knew the man taunting us, came back as well. I explained what happened and she offered to give us a gift certificate or to comp our dinner. I was appalled. I did not want a free meal, nor did I want to be pulled aside for my calling a bigot out.
I left that day, not celebrating freedom after the city’s siege. I left feeling imprisoned in my skin in my home country — a born citizen who will never truly belong.
— Annaliza Nieve, Newbury, Mass.
I was born in the States but raised mostly in South Korea until I moved here in the early 2000s. About five years ago, I sat next to an elderly man on a bench in the subway. He immediately recoiled and started complaining about how I shouldn’t be sitting there, though I didn’t realize this at first because I was listening to music.
When I finally realized he was speaking to me (or about me), I immediately felt afraid. I did not want to engage him, so I stood up and began walking away. He yelled to my back: “You don’t even speak English, do you? Go back to your [expletive] country!” It was a pretty busy platform, but everyone averted their eyes and pretended they couldn’t hear anything. No one said a thing.
I waited for my train burning in shame, thinking about all the things I could have said to him. I’ve had quite a few encounters like this over the years and it’s always the same: I’m stunned into silence, and the slow burn of anger lingers for a long time.
— Seine Kim, Brooklyn
Dealing with slurs at work
When I was a reporter for the CBS TV affiliate in Fresno, a viewer called asking who was “the spic on the air?”
I said: “You are talking to him. How can I help you?”
Other times, the message was, “Go back to your country.”
— Pablo Espinoza, Elk Grove, Calif.
I am a physician. I worked on a patient in serious condition. In the morning, he was much improved and woke up. The first thing he said when he woke up was that he wanted a white physician and I should go back to my country (expletives excluded).
A Latino patient next to him defended me and told him, “If that doctor went to sleep instead of taking care of you, you would not have woken up today. Be thankful.”
I knew I saved his life and that was important to me, not his prejudice.
— Sridhar Chilimuri, White Plains, N.Y.
One day at summer camp, a bully who pretty much did whatever he wanted at camp was bullying a little girl over her ice cream. She was crying and before I realized the implications of what I was about to do, I yelled out, “Hey, leave her alone.”
He looked at me and said, “Shut up, spic, go back to where you came from.”
This was the first time I was ever called a “spic” and suggested that I did not belong here because I was not American.
I felt isolated, alone and scared because the bully was now moving toward me and I was surrounded by other kids who were his friends, and I was now going to be the recipient of his wrath. Luckily for me, camp counselors saw what was about to transpire and broke up the confrontation.
In my first year as a firefighter, I was the only person of Hispanic heritage in the department. One person asked if I was an affirmative-action hire. Another said, “Why couldn’t a white guy get the job?”
The thought that I had gone through the testing process and passed on my own merit was more than they could comprehend. Then someone said, “Why don’t you go back to where you came from?”
Those same feelings I felt as a 10-year-old boy came rushing back. Again I felt isolated and alone, but the counselors were not there to save me. I looked back at him and said very calmly, “I was born in Stamford, Conn.”
— Rey Rodriguez, Danbury, Conn.
Children of refugees on ‘American-ness’
As the first-generation daughter of Vietnamese refugees, throughout my entire life I have been told to go back to where I came from. Every single time, those words wound me to my core. My parents fought and sacrificed endlessly to scratch out a life of opportunities for my sisters and me.
Just because my eyes are slanted does not mean I am any less deserving of being here. Just because I am a woman of two languages and two cultures does not mean I am any less American. Just because I see the flaws in our government does not mean I am not patriotic.
In fact, all those things make me inherently more American. This country was built on the backs of immigrants, shaped by hundreds of cultures and molded by the voices of dissent for equality.
— Christina Tran, Greenville, S.C.
Growing up in Chicago in the Uptown neighborhood, I’ve been discriminated against since I was 5 years old. My parents were Cambodian refugees who arrived to the U.S. in 1981. I was born four years later.
The one that I remembered clearly was in Uptown. I was helping a friend parallel park her car. I stuck my head out the window to help her when all of a sudden a white man walking by told me to go back to where I came from.
I was stunned but not fazed because this racism wasn’t my first encounter. People always question my American-ness because I’m Cambodian-American and I don’t look white.
— Phirany Lim, San Francisco
When you’re told to ‘speak English’
I was born in Philadelphia to Palestinian immigrant parents. I’ve been told on numerous occasions to go “back to Palestine” (or “back to Pakistan,” an unsurprising error racists seem to make).
Once while shopping and chatting with my mother in Arabic on the phone, I heard a man tell me that “We speak English in America. Like it or leave.” I hung up the phone, turned to him and said, “I beg your pardon?” and watched his shock. He hurried away.
But I didn’t feel victorious. I felt humiliated. As he’d wanted me to.
— Susan B. Muaddi Darraj, Phoenix, Md.
I went to the post office to mail a package. There were many steps going up to the entrance door. I was holding my 4-year-old daughter’s hand. We counted in English on our way up. We mailed the package. On the way back down we counted in Spanish. Suddenly, an older woman said, “This is America; talk to your daughter in English or go back to Mexico.”
I don’t think she realized I spoke English because she was very caught off guard when I replied: “As a U.S. citizen I know that because I live in America, I can speak in any language I please.”
This is just one of five instances since Donald Trump was elected president. In my entire 34 years previously, I’d only ever been told such a thing one time.
It makes me feel like I belong nowhere. I’m a U.S. citizen born to an immigrant parent who later became a naturalized citizen. However, I feel like I will never be American enough because I’ll never be white. Regardless of my accomplishments or strife, I’ll just never be good enough.
— Sandra Benitez, Sunnyside, Wash.
Some years ago, I was in a bar with a friend chatting in Arabic. I went up to get a few more drinks, and some guy thought I had cut in front of him and said, “Don’t you know we have lines in this country?”
I was taken aback and asked, “Excuse me?” He responded, “If you don’t like it, why don’t you go back to your country, and have fun drinking over there.”
As a rule, I don’t ever try to explain my humanity to someone — it’s a degrading experience in and of itself. So I ignored him, got my beers and went back to my table. My best revenge is enjoying my time with my sister at our local bar.
— Randa Tawil, Seattle
Feeling like the ‘other’
I am Iranian-America, a dual citizen by birth. My mom’s name is Sally Ann and my father’s is Hossein. I come off as pretty American with my heavy Californian accent, but in high school I overheard my first boyfriend’s father telling him to stop dating that sand n****r and that she should go back to her terrorist-ridden country.
It doesn’t matter how white you come off for some people.
— Beatrice Maneshi, grew up in Chico, Calif., and now lives in Amsterdam
Busing home one afternoon from the University of Colorado Denver where I was working on my master’s program, I sat next to an older white man who seemed friendly enough until he asked about my heritage. I told him my family is from Mexico.
Without skipping a beat, he began to insist that I had to go back to Mexico, even though I told him I was born in the U.S. He did not stop and went on spewing racist vitriol until I got off the bus.
It’s been hard to feel any type of love and pride in this country. My entire life has been filled with people asking me where I’m from and then going on to tell me that maybe I shouldn’t tell people I’m of Mexican ancestry.
“You’re too tall to be Mexican.”
“You’re too smart to be Mexican.”
But I’m never just wonderfully American enough.
— Annalouiza Armendariz, Denver
A couple months before the 2016 election when I was in a grocery store aisle, a man told me to go back to where I came from. I was reaching for chips and smiled at this man before he told me that.
I looked to my 2-year-old daughter in shock.
He just stood there and looked at me. I told him that I was born here. I walked away as fast as I could.
In that man’s eye, I could never be “American” because of the color of my skin.
All I could think about is how am I going to explain this to my kids. How do I prepare them for that? It is nauseating that the president of the United States agrees.
— Melissa Brawley, Temple City, Calif.
I am from Puerto Rico, born and raised. When I was around 12 years old, my family and I traveled to Chicago as a stop on our way to my brother’s college graduation from the University of Notre Dame.
I was taking the hotel elevator alone to meet my mom at breakfast. A man in the elevator asked if I was visiting the city and where I was visiting from.
When I told him I was visiting from Puerto Rico, he immediately got quiet and before stepping out, he turned around and said to me, “You should gather all the Puerto Ricans that are here and take them back with you when you return to Puerto Rico.”
I had no response because honestly, I had no idea what had just happened!
That trip was one of the first times visiting the mainland and I had never experienced racism so bluntly, let alone as a 12-year-old. My parents were outraged and that’s when I started to understand the complexity of what that moment meant.
I am different from other people. The unfortunate part is that some people see that as me being less than.
— Maria Morales, Philadelphia
The scourge of anti-Semitism
I was told to go back to Israel at the foot of the Washington Monument. I heard two older women talking about dirty Jewish men trying to sneak into the women’s bathroom. When I told them I was Jewish, they started shouting at me that I should go back to Israel. I finally just left the area.
It shocked me, but more than anything I felt sorry for their families. They were older women who probably had grandchildren, and I worried about what those children were being taught.
— Lisa McClure, Boston
I grew up in Centereach, N.Y., then went to M.I.T. and finally Harvard Medical School. I am now a neurosurgeon.
Yet, a patient told me, “Why don’t you go home? To Israel?”
When I told her I was American, and my home was here, I faced an incredulous stare.
The white coat, Ivy League degrees and seven years of residency and fellowship garnered no kinship to these countrymen, who viewed me only through an anti-Semitic lens, declaring me an outsider.
— Joshua Aronson, Hanover, N.H.
Veterans speak out
I am of Native American and Latino heritage and have been told to go back where I came from many times, even in a cemetery on Memorial Day — I am a Vietnam vet.
When it happens, it makes me extremely sad that we still go through this after all we have done and suffered.
— Frank Sosa, Santa Cruz, Calif.
The first time was in 1988 while waiting in line for the White House Easter Egg Roll. I was so taken aback. I had two little kids with me. No one defended me. I am an Asian veteran from Hawaii.
More recently, my church was serving a free lunch to seniors, and one woman said those words to me. I told her that I was a veteran, my great-uncle was a senator, and I didn’t appreciate her comment. She apologized.
— Debbie Seret, Reston, Va.
I am a retired service member and a fifth-generation American. I still meet people who think anyone who can speak Spanish is a new arrival. When I’m not in uniform, I’m just another Mexican.
— Aaron Gonzalez, Nampa, Idaho
Targeted by trolls
As an Asian-American law professor who speaks on constitutional issues in the local and national media, I get that response in cowardly anonymous comments and emails. It still feels as raw as hearing it in the locker room in middle school.
— Joseph Thai, Oklahoma City
Almost every time I’ve gotten into a political disagreement on Facebook or other social media, I’ve immediately been told to “go back” from where I came.
It doesn’t matter that I’m multigenerational American. It doesn’t matter that I come from a long history of veterans and social activists who have worked to make our nation safer and stronger. It doesn’t matter that I have contributed in large and small ways to the United States.
All that matters to them is that my surname is in Spanish. To them that makes “go home” a winning argument.
— Eddie Torres, San Antonio
Adopted children struggle to integrate
I was adopted from Quito, Ecuador, when I was 4 months old. I became a citizen along with my adoption and am now 26 years old.
I was once vacationing in Maine with my Irish-American family and we were in a rural area, helping a family friend move. As we were leaving dinner and I was walking to the car ahead of my parents, a man shouted out of a car window, “Go back to where you came from you stupid [expletive]!”
I was only 13 and it was my first experience with the uncomfortable realization that although we live in a country known for being a melting pot, I was different. I was in a state of shock and it made me feel embarrassed, naked, attacked.
What is so crazy about the statement “Go back to where you came from” is that I identify with being from the United States and Boston. This is my home. If I were to “go back” to Ecuador, I have absolutely no knowledge of the language or culture.
— Isabel Flynn, Boston
I am an American citizen. My parents are white, and they adopted me from South Korea. As a child, I was often told to “go back to [random, incorrect Asian country].”
As an international adoptee, I did not choose to come here, and with my family being white, I already felt like the odd duck.
The schoolyard taunts still haunt me. What’s worse is that most of my family played it down to “misunderstanding,” and that all the bullies needed was education. My bullies didn’t care about the truth. They wanted me ostracized and saw me as an outsider because of my race.
— Rachel Jones, Montgomery, Ala.
I was adopted from Russia at a young age. Once, I took the Greyhound bus and Border Patrol came through.
They asked me where I was born.
I said Russia.
They asked me to get off the bus.
Everything was taken care of and I was able to go back on, and then I had someone comfort me. But I also had someone tell me to go back to my “communist land.”
I get this a lot since I’m more left leaning. I get told that I’m just trying to bring the Soviet Union here. When people talk about immigration, they think because I’m white passing (I’m actually Eastern European and Middle Eastern) that I empathize with them.
I feel hurt all the time. I want to love America, but it continually makes me sad that we are so willing to attack those who come for better lives. I feel like a stranger in this country. I feel trapped here.
— Allison Smith, Walla Walla, Wash.
Overlooked U.S. territories
The day after Trump got elected, I was eating breakfast with my mom at a fast food place and we were speaking in Spanish when a group of teenage boys and a few adult men started chanting, “Build that wall” and “Go back to Mexico” at us.
We’re Puerto Rican — United States citizens since birth. I got up to say something, but my mom stopped me. She looked afraid and told me not to provoke them. We left shortly after. The look on my mom’s face broke my heart and made my blood boil at the same time.
— Carla Pena, Washington, D.C.
One day, while trying to get on the PATH train at the World Trade Center, I was pushed aside and I said very assertively in my Caribbean accent: “Don’t be rude! Say, ‘excuse me’!”
The man who pushed me told me to go back to my country. I was amused so I laughed and then retorted, “Guess what — I am in my country! I’m from the United States Virgin Islands! This country bought my country in 1917, so you’re pretty much stuck with my people!”
He didn’t say anything more. I hope that if anything came of this encounter, he did some research on the U.S. Virgin Islands.
— Enid Francis, Jersey City
The people you don’t expect it from
I’m a 75-year-old physical therapist. I was born in Argentina and have been an American citizen since 1990.
A couple of months ago, I was applying for a job at a home health agency in Miami and while filling out hundreds of pages of information, I commented to the secretary supervising the documentation how much easier this process was in Europe, and in particular in Norway, where I had just visited a few clinics.
The manager, who had overheard the conversation, all of the sudden said, “If you don’t like this country, go back to yours.” That was the end of my interview, needless to say.
He was an American citizen born in Cuba.
— Ricardo Grinbank, Miami
When I was making a right turn, a man on the street who was upset at me for whatever reason told me go to back to my country.
The perplexing thing is that I’m Chinese-American and he was African-American. Both of us arrived in this country in one way or another, and both of us are from minority groups. The comment upset me and I yelled back that I’m an American and this is my country, too.
— Janny Kum, Los Angeles
The first Americans
I have been told to “go back to my country” by racist and aggressive white people when I am actually American. Furthermore, I was not only born here, but I am also Native American and white on my mom’s side.
In our family lineage, we have had family members fight in every war since the Civil War to this day. We are Americans — farmers, military service members, business owners and teachers.
I also had the pleasure of having the Ku Klux Klan burn a cross in my front yard in Massachusetts while threatening to kill us. They told us to “go home to our country.”
They did this because my little brother, who was 6 years old at the time, made friends with a boy at school who was the son of one of the K.K.K. members.
— Yuki Tanaka, New York City
Once in university in upstate New York, I was told to go back to where I come from. I am Kanien’kehá:ka (Mohawk). I just said, I am. My family goes back 40,000 years here. You’re the squatter on stolen land.
— Bree Herne, Boston
But where are you really from?
Often, the comment is more subtle: “You speak really good English!” or “Your English is better than mine! Where are you from?”
After saying that I was born in Chicago, the interrogation continues with “Where are you really from?” or “Where are your parents from?” or “Where are your grandparents from?” Even if well-meaning, the implication and assumption in these comments are the same: “You’re not a real American.”
I used to answer the questions or comments and quickly identify my ethnic background as Japanese, but now I make the interrogator work for the answer.
My parents and mother’s family were incarcerated during World War II. Thus, the policy consequences of these assumptions are far greater and long lasting than hurt feelings.
— Sono Fujii, Evanston, Ill.
My husband and I have been told several times to go back to our country. We are originally from Puerto Rico, which is a territory of the United States, making us American citizens. It makes me livid every time I hear it.
I have gotten better with ignoring the comments, but I used to go into history lessons, or I would snap back and say I would leave when they left as well.
Sometimes people will not believe you’re American and ask you where you’re really from. If I’m not in the mood I’ll say: “You got me! I’m from Mexico.” That answer is the one they usually believe.
— Jennilee Garcia, Atlanta
Design and illustration by Shannon Lin. Produced by JuliAnna Patino and Andrew Sondern. Video by Nilo Tabrizy, Yousur Al-Hlou and Will Lloyd. Isabella Grullón Paz, Lela Moore and Kasia Pilat contributed reporting.
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Lara Takenaga is a staff editor for the Reader Center. @LaraTakenaga
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