Sia Her remembers being told to go back to her country as a young Hmong-American refugee growing up in California. She knew she was from somewhere else, but that her family could not return.
It has been many years since Her heard those insults. In her personal life now, however, she still occasionally observes racist remarks — and that they pass without objection from others.
“There have been enough times in my own personal experiences when family members, community members and friends have been silent and I can understand why they’re silent,” said Her, executive director of the Council on Asian Pacific Minnesotans. “And that’s premised upon their belief that what’s happening is grounded in institutional racism or … in a culture that they alone can’t change.”
Conversations about racism — confronting it and reflecting on what it takes for members of minority groups to be fully accepted as Americans — are flaring again this week after after President Donald Trump called for a group of women of color in Congress to “go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came,” noting that they were originally from countries with catastrophic governments.
His comments were directed at U.S. Reps. Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts, Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Rashida Tlaib of Michigan — all born in the U.S. — and Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, who came as a refugee from Somalia decades ago and, like the others, is an American citizen.
Trump kept up the attack on Omar at a Wednesday night rally in North Carolina, and the crowd responded with chants of “Send her back!”
Critics have used the hashtag #SilenceisCompliance to protest that most Republican lawmakers are not speaking out against the president’s words; former Minnesota Supreme Court Justice Alan Page tweeted, “At some point neutrality and/or silence equals agreement.”
On Tuesday, the Democratic-controlled House voted to condemn Trump’s comments; all but a handful of GOP lawmakers sided with the president.
Consultant Dave Ellis, who specializes in hosting authentic conversations and has worked with the cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul, noted that “go back to your country” was directed at blacks during the civil rights era. Having conversations on race is difficult because of the fractured relationships in this country now, he said.
“We’ve dug in on our party lines, on our personal lines, on our religion lines, on just about any line that we can have and we believe that we’re absolutely right,” he said. And when people do talk about race, “We have people who agree with us [in the room], but we don’t have people who disagree with us.”
Questions of who belongs
Keith Mayes, a professor of African American and African Studies at the University of Minnesota, said it’s the 400th anniversary of black people coming to this country, and that many people of Latin and Asian heritage have been in America longer than whites. He noted that Trump’s wife, Melania, is also an immigrant, like Omar.
“It’s very interesting that white immigrants go unnoticed and unrecognized and remain invisible in the conversation, but he can actually use a black immigrant to say that they don’t belong,” Mayes said.
Justin Terrell, executive director of the Council for Minnesotans of African Heritage said, “The only people who really have the right to say, ‘Go back to where you came from’ are the Native American folks.”
He added: “There are folks that are clutching the dead ideas about America being strictly for white people, and it’s not surprising to see them fighting back in a moment when our nation is growing browner.”
About one in 12 Minnesotans is foreign-born, according to the state demographer’s office, and 51% are naturalized U.S. citizens. The minority population is growing faster than that of whites.
Marissa Luna, who is Mexican-American, said that sometimes she’s the only one in a group who pushes back on a racist comment.
“It doesn’t have to be in an attacking way, but it’s really just like if we all keep saying, ‘That’s not OK,’ then hopefully we can get everyone on the same idea that that’s not the right thing to be doing,” said Luna, deputy director of Alliance for a Better Minnesota, an organization that generally backs Democratic candidates and causes.
She thinks it’s important for elected leaders to stand up in such situations.
“Regular folks can see that and I think be empowered to stand up when we see it in our day-to-day conversations and our own communities,” Luna said.
Patricia Conde-Brooks immigrated from Colombia 44 years ago and has been an American citizen for nearly three decades. Yet she and family members have been told to go back to their country, or even Mexico. She said it’s the most overtly racist climate she’s seen in America.
She’s used to living in the “borderlands” — neither part of her original country anymore, nor seen as American enough — so the president’s words are “hurtful and it triggers a lot of emotion and anger in me,” said Conde-Brooks, executive director for campus inclusion and community at the University of St. Thomas.
She said she loves this country because it allows her the freedom to challenge it.
But “I feel like we have racial fatigue … I want to keep [being] inspired, I want to keep fighting and advocating, but there’s some days when you’re sort of tired,” said Conde-Brooks.
Terrell said the repeated debate among people in power “about who matters in this country is very harmful.”
“It’s just really hard when it seems to be like there’s a lack of knowledge, a lack of understanding, of how important black folks and black immigrants are in our nation,” he said.
But he questioned the value of confronting every racially charged comment.
“Do we need everybody to sit around the dinner table and debate with their racist uncle? I’ll be honest — I don’t know if that’s a good use of time,” Terrell said.
Theresa Dorsey Meis, who is white, said she once listened as another white woman described how she had told an immigrant at the grocery store to speak English and go back to where she came from.
“I’ve tried very hard to calmly tell people that I am disappointed in their behavior when they say things like that and that perhaps they should think about the consequences of their words,” said Meis, of St. Cloud.
Mayes said Trump’s comments give people a license to speak out racist views.
“We definitely need to hear more from white people who do not believe these kinds of sentiments,” said Mayes. “They cannot sit on the sidelines.”