If you’ve been paying attention, you have seen many videos and news reports of people, on the street and in stores, yelling at, usually, Black people but also Asians, Latinos, Arabs or other “non-whites” that they should “go back where you came from, you _______!” The blank often includes an obnoxious epithet of one kind or another that I choose not to repeat. You know what I’m talking about.
For the past three years, we lived in, and loved, New York City and in the course of that time observed literally hundreds of ethnically diverse people everywhere. It is reported that over 200 languages are spoken by people in New York City and on any given walk, if you paid attention, you usually heard quite a few.
That mixing does not imply harmony, of course. One rainy night, a torrential downpour actually, we emerged unprepared from a Broadway show but miraculously caught a taxi near the theater. Traffic was a snarled mess even by New York City standards, with vehicles and soaked pedestrians fighting for space. Our taxi and another vehicle, likely an Uber-type, came close to each other. No contact was made, but the drivers glared at each other. Our driver lowered his window and began muttering epithets at the other, who appeared to return the insults. The words weren’t about driving but about ethnicity. It wasn’t clear who was what, but it was clear enough that they hated each other on sight.
A while back, after we moved to Washington DC, it occurred to me to conduct a little thought experiment about this “go back where you came from” business. Because I have other things to do, I was forced to use a shortcut for my research: Wikipedia, the modern source of all knowledge not found in Google. I found three articles particularly relevant to my quest: American Ancestry (https://bit.ly/353Ywx8), Native American Ancestry (https://bit.ly/2KLJ4io), and Americans (https://bit.ly/3oc8Omj). Woe to the serious researcher.
My concept is straightforward: if everyone “went back where they came from,” where would they go and what would be the consequences, especially for those people most prone to yell this message at others presumed to come from somewhere that is not here.
The astounding complexity of this task became immediately apparent in thinking about my own “origins” (not genetic origins in the sense of ancestry.com or 23andMe.com, although that path would have similarly complex implications). My maternal grandparents emigrated to the United States from Russia. My father’s lineage, I was told, was Dutch but there is no objective evidence remaining to support that belief. So, set me aside for a moment and let’s look at some data.
Wikipedia reports that 6.6 % of the US population (21,227,906) self-identifies as “American.” They reside mainly in southern and midwestern states, speak only English and claim to be mostly Christian (Protestants). They appear to be White.
Much of this is attributed to the length of time their ancestors have been in the United States, as these people tend to have English, Scotch-Irish or other British ancestries.
Nevertheless, according to the U.S. Census, “the vast majority of Americans and expatriates do not equate their nationality with ancestry, race or ethnicity, but with citizenship and allegiance.” I am reminded of the fictional Popeye the Sailor Man’s famous line, “”I yam what I yam and that’s all what I yam.” Apparently, many so-called “Americans” have taken Popeye to heart. They have managed to forget their real origins, somehow coming to believe that they are the true original “Americans” with some unique entitlement to the space between the oceans.
On the other hand, given the re-emergence of racism, white supremacy and related bigotries in American behavior, there is now reason to question whether the Census is asking the right questions. Donald Trump didn’t create racism; he simply re-legitimized its expression, with horrific results.
If you don’t get that, let me return briefly to my personal history. I recently came upon some photos I had scanned from my high school yearbook – Central High in Memphis, Tennessee, circa 1960. At the time Central was very well-regarded among public high schools, at least in the south. Here are two photos from that yearbook:
Add to this that my junior high school history teacher made explicitly clear to our class that, in addressing the U.S. Civil War, there was to be no discussion of slavery. The War Between the States, we were assured, was not about slavery at all but about “states’ rights.” The reality that those “rights” involved legitimizing the ownership of one group of people by their white “masters” was, well, not to be mentioned.
I am not informed about the content of pre-college curricula around the country. I cannot, therefore, say with confidence that the distortion of history, the removal of civics courses and related “education” moves have produced the generations of ignorance that led 74 million Americans to vote for the likes of Donald Trump in 2020.
But, returning to my main theme, I can say with some confidence that the “go back where you came from” insult is based on a fundamental failure to grasp reality. For example, the self-identification of “American” in the Census is a gross example of what may be one of the first instances of cultural appropriation in “American” history.
The earliest use of “American” to “identify an ancestral or cultural identity dates to the late 1500s, with the term signifying “the indigenous peoples discovered in the Western Hemisphere by Europeans.” The term was later extended to the white colonists from Europe. Skipping over the sordid history of early-comers’ resistance to newcomers from Ireland, Germany and other European countries, including many Catholics, the modern-day U.S. Census Bureau now defines “ancestry” as a reference to a person’s ethnic origin or descent, ‘roots,’ or heritage, or the place of birth of the person or the person’s parents or ancestors before their arrival in the United States.” That wide-open approach clears the path to ignoring reality by millions of people. They don’t have to think hard about it – “I’m American….You, on the other hand …..”
Among Census responders self-identifying their ancestry as something other than just “American,” the numbers are:
44.2 million — German
22.8 million English
4.5 million Norwegian
4.5 million Dutch
.6 million Finnish
33 million Irish (many more likely if survey had been done on St Patrick’s Day)
10.4 million French
15.6 million Italian
12.2 million Mexican
5.2 million Native American
10 million Spanish
46.7 million African American
5.8 million Puerto Rican
That collection totals 215.5 million people, roughly two-thirds of the US population. Add to that the 6.6 percent who are just “American” (21,227,906) and you get 236 million people. The rest (roughly 100 million) identify with some other origin, but don’t claim to be “American.”
Wikipedia quotes Professors Anthony Daniel Perez and Charles Hirschman in a 2009 publication for the proposition that
ethnicity is receding from the consciousness of many white Americans. Because national origins do not count for very much in contemporary America, many whites are content with a simplified Americanized racial identity. The loss of specific ancestral attachments among many white Americans also results from high patterns of intermarriage and ethnic blending among whites of different European stocks.
I wonder about that in light of developments since at least 2016 when Trump became president. It appears that the issues surrounding “otherness” have re-emerged with a vengeance since Trump became a political factor. That’s one reason for the imbalance of police force used against Black and Brown people here, as well as the “go back where you came from” carping that has emerged in video after video of (almost always) white people yelling at a person of color.
While non-Native Americans have occupied this land for a few hundred years, the fact remains that every one of the “white” people here came from, directly or through an ancestor, from somewhere else. It’s convenient, of course, to overlook that reality if you are one of those people who, with a sense of entitlement, has come to resent the presence of people who don’t look like you, talk like you or think like you.
The 2010 Census aligned U.S. responders this way:
Reading the descriptions of racial and ancestral categories used by the Census and other surveys will simply make you more confused. By way of example only,
People of European descent, or White Americans (also referred to as Caucasian Americans), constitute the majority of the 308 million people living in the United States, with 72.4% of the population in the 2010 United States Census. They are considered people who trace their ancestry to the original peoples of Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa. Of those reporting to be White American, 7,487,133 reported to be Multiracial; with largest combination being white and black. Additionally, there are 29,184,290 White Hispanics or Latinos. Non-Hispanic Whites are the majority in 45 states. There are five minority-majority states: California, Texas, New Mexico, Nevada, and Hawaii. In addition, the District of Columbia and the five inhabited U.S. territories have a non-white majority The state with the highest percentage of non-Hispanic White Americans is Maine.
Everyone clear on all that? No? Me neither.
I will spare you further agonizing over the details. The main point is, and I believe it’s conclusive, that if we all went back where we came from, there would be damn few people left in the space we now call the United States.
So what, you may say. That’s not going to happen. True enough. But it should give us pause in how we view “America” and who we really are. It is no exaggeration to say, “we are all immigrants.” Maybe not first removed, but the vast vast majority of people who think of themselves as “American” are, by history, transplanted foreigners who occupied land that actually “belonged” to no one (Native American populations often did not consider the idea of “property” to apply to the land – this was one of the ruses used to excuse white invaders’ taking their land: if they don’t “own” it, it’s there for anyone who wants to stake a claim to it. When the Native Americans resisted, they were killed or imprisoned, one way or another, in the service of “manifest destiny.”)
Still, the “so what” response must be reckoned with. Millions of people have simply lost, by one means other another, their connection to their historical roots, choosing to believe they are the original people who are entitled to everything they want by virtue of some supposed universal superiority. That fantasy is part of the root of the delusional thinking that divides the country politically and otherwise. A very long time will pass before it is resolved but it would help a lot if the educational system stopped reinforcing the illusion. The first step to resolving a problem is recognizing you have one.