Trump's racist tweets and the tired injunction to 'go back where you came from'

From left, Rep. Ayanna Pressley, D-Mass.; Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn.; Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y.; and Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., respond to remarks by President Donald Trump after his call for the four congresswomen to go back to their "broken" countries, during a news conference at the Capitol in Washington, D.C., July 15, 2019. All are American citizens and three of the four were born in the U.S. (Photo by J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

If someone — say, Donald J. Trump — suggested that I go back to where I came from, it would be complicated to comply. I was born in Japan, in a small city called Tachikawa, in metro Tokyo. Back then, it was a U.S. Air Force base.

So where would I go? To Tachikawa, a place to which I’ve never returned? I’ve lived in Seattle for all but the first few months of my life. I’ve been driven near my birthplace only once, by a Japanese uncle, who gestured toward it and uttered, “Tachikawa.” I wouldn’t know anyone. I couldn’t speak but a few words of the language.

This is a situation many people are forced to confront, especially children of undocumented immigrants, many of whom have been deported to a place they’ve never known. My life deviates from that example because, having technically been born on U.S. soil, even though the soil no longer is American (the airfield was returned to Japan in 1977), I’ve always been a U.S. citizen.

I also held Japanese citizenship until I was forced to renounce it about the time Tachikawa Airfield was returned to Japan. A teenager at the time, I was afraid of my renunciation, which was required for reentry into the U.S. after my first trip back to Japan. It felt to me like giving up an appendage, a part of myself that I’d never recover.

If you are nonwhite in this country, you almost certainly have a “go back” moment. As Phillip Yu, the Korean American behind the Angry Asian Man blog and persona, recently tweeted, “There's nothing more American than being told to ‘go back to your country.’ "

Four Democratic congresswomen of color — Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan — recently experienced a “go back” moment of American-sized proportions when Trump implored the women, in a tweet, to “go back” to “the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came.”

Trump’s doubling down on his comments, and the Republican leadership’s virtually silent acquiescence, have set the true stakes for the 2020 elections. It’s hardly a coincidence that this racial tempest flares in the heat of the immigration and border debates. I’d even toss anti-abortion stances in with a Southern border militarized against brown people as part of the rigor mortis of American white supremacy, a Trump-led Hail Mary against rapidly shifting racial demographics in this country the rest of us have treated as inevitable.

After the N-word for Black folks, and epithets such as “Jap” for people like me, the most stabbing racist insult is “go back where you came from.” Its first cousin is: “Where are you from?” Its distant cousin: “No, where are you really from?” These comments are thinly veiled othering and erasure, a most certain and intentional signal of not being welcomed.

Because of its history with today’s weaponized anti-immigration tools — mass raids and forced removals, family separation and concentration camps — the Japanese American community has felt a lot of relevancy in these challenging times.

Clarence Moriwaki, the driving force behind the Bainbridge Island Japanese American Exclusion Memorial, has been a leading voice for the #NeverAgainIsNow movement through his popular talks for Humanities Washington about the World War II Japanese incarceration. He’d been on a high after keynoting the Lights for Liberty vigil against mass detention held Friday in Olympia.

Clarence Moriwaki
Clarence Moriwaki. (Photo by Glenn Nelson)

Then the Trump tweets landed.

Moriwaki was transported back to his third day of kindergarten in Moses Lake, where he was born and raised. On the way to recess, a white classmate, who had bullied him since the first day, said, “Go back to Japan, you stupid damn Jap!" Moriwaki was hurled into a bookcase, and shattered glass cut his arms and body. The only explanation he received from the boy was delivered matter-of-factly: "My uncle was killed by the Japs and I hate all Japs."

Kaneko Moriwaki, Clarence’s mother, was surprised when her third son was brought home from school far earlier than expected. A counselor explained the incident and she distracted Clarence with his favorite treats while drawing a bath to clean his wounds. “Mom, what’s a Jap?” he asked, amid the bubbles. She turned away to hide her tears, then explained the word was meant to hurt but should be dismissed.

An immigrant to the U.S., Kaneko Moriwaki was in Japan during World War II. Practicing the kind of stoic endurance known in her culture as gaman, she’d internalized the incident with her son until months before her death.

“Before she died, she told me that it was one of the saddest days of her life,” Clarence Moriwaki recalled Tuesday during a phone conversation.

His first “go back” memory is one that Moriwaki does not enjoy recounting, but it was conjured by a man he believes “is trying to bring back the hate.” Trump’s tactics are in such stark contrast to Moriwaki’s work on the memorial, which aims to be a place of healing and offer an accurate reflection of a dark period in U.S. history so it is not repeated.

Go back where? Because of my mixed-race background, I have a kind of malleable look that has prompted people to suggest I return to a lot of places I’d be honored and thrilled to visit — Cuba, Mexico, the Philippines, China, my “tepee,” my “igloo.” I have never been ordered back to a Scandinavian country because of my last name.

But I have received an unambiguous solution to the “go back” contradiction I offered earlier: “If you love Japan so much,” a reader once wrote, “we’re happy to send you back in a pine box.” Pasted on the note was a picture of a coffin.

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About the Authors & Contributors

Glenn Nelson

Glenn Nelson

Glenn Nelson is a Japanese American columnist covering race and equity in the Pacific Northwest.