On Being Told to Go Back

by Melanie Edwards on April 12, 2011 · 15 comments

in life, Parenting

Multicultural Woman
When we moved to Florida from Puerto Rico, I was eight years old and already one month into third grade. I left behind the private Catholic school that had just begun to accept girls as students that year and came to a standard public school in the city of Orlando. My first day at this new school, I experienced what I believe to be my first encounter with racism.

It was during PE class and we were playing volleyball. I am not sure exactly how it happened or what caused it, but what I remember is that out of nowhere this little boy on the other side of the net screamed out to me, “Why don’t you just go back to Africa?” I remember clearly staring at him and wondering, “Why is he telling me to go to Africa? I’m from Puerto Rico!” It wouldn’t be until many years later that I would fully understand the meaning of what was said to me.

People often say things like “It’s hard to believe that in a year like 2011, we still have discrimination,” and ask my husband and I questions such as “Do you really feel discriminated against?” We’ve had discussions with friends explaining just how prevalent discrimination still is, even in 2011.

Reading The Headshake on Latinaish got me thinking about the various times either my husband or I have gotten looks. It tends to happen more when we’re together, than when I’m alone. Normally we get looks when we’re out and about shopping. It’s because they think we might steal something. Here’s how the scenario usually plays out.

As we enter a store, a sales clerk will typically greet us, though this isn’t always the case. We will begin to browse and will get the customary, “Can I help you with anything?” line. After we politely say, “No, thank you. We’re just looking,” the clerk doesn’t really ever leave. The majority of the time we are followed around, the clerk always keeping a few feet of distance between us. As we look around at other customers, though, they are not being watched so closely. Interestingly, this used to happen a lot more when my husband had his hair in dreads.

Now, I used to work in retail, particularly in shoe stores. I was given the training materials that say the best way to avoid theft was to greet each and every customer, alerting them to the fact that you are aware of their presence in the store. I also had to deal on several occasions with managers that would ask me to follow certain customers around the store – solely based on their appearance as they entered the store. So, I am all too familiar with the practice.

I don’t claim to have lived a hard life full of discrimination. By all means, that is definitely not true. I lived a rather sheltered life of living in the suburbs with a middle-class way of life. Compared to my husband’s youth, I have nothing to complain about, really. He has endured way more discrimination than I have. Yet, even with the sheltered youth I had, I was still greeted to the United States with a “why don’t you go back” attitude, literally.

What does this mean for my kids? They are both biracial, multicultural, and with different shades of brown. As I look around my daughter’s preK classroom, she is the only one with dark skin and one of two Latina girls in her class. There is another little girl whose mom is from China and the rest of the kids are White. While I know this is a reflection of the neighborhood we live in, I have to wonder how often she will be the “token” girl as she grows up. How will she be treated? Will she ever have to deal with someone telling her to “go back” even though there’s nowhere for her to go back to?

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{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

shelley April 12, 2011 at 3:26 pm

Oh Melanie, I read this and a bunch of emotions just come right back to me. I was told the exact same thing many times. Rejection hurts. All I have to say is I know I am loved and wanted by a God who purposely created everyone different because it is beautiful. I hope my children will grow up to get to know and love everyone for who they are and not what they look like or where they come from.

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Chantilly Patiño April 12, 2011 at 3:29 pm

Great post Melanie! It is so hard for many to grasp and we’ve struggled a lot with that in my family who simply don’t believe that racism is really a problem anymore. When I talk about what my husband has been through, my family looks at me as though I’m a liar or being a drama queen. I’ve witnessed it, I don’t exaggerate and it is a problem! It’s so frustrating and sometimes I’m probably not the kindest because I am beyond tired of having to “prove” my case to everyone! I can only imagine what a lifetime of this must feel like and you have every right to speak out against it! Love your post amiga!!!

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Multiracial Heritage April 13, 2011 at 2:25 am

I was told to “go back to Africa” when I was elementary school a couple of times by White and Latino students, and also in High school by a Biracial (Black and White) boy who was did not acknowledge his Black heritage. I was also called White B*tch when I was 3 years old and when I was in high school. And I was told by a boy in my Kindergarten class that he “didn’t like Black girls”. Personally I have experienced discrimination and racism from various racial/ethnic groups, either because I am Black, White, and Latino. Unfortunately racist individuals are not smart enough to know that many of us who are Multiracial with Black ancestry have never been to Africa, so therefore how can we go back? Racism unfortunately will always exist in the minds of some people, but we who reject such ignorance can be much more powerful than them. I have used my experience to attempt to help others.

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Angelica Perez April 13, 2011 at 4:29 am

Melanie, this phrase brings back so many memories and feelings. I do remember a time in my life when this phrase (“Bo back”) was used by people around me. I believe it was used at least once with me, although I was actually born in this country (the irony).

Regarding being profiled and followed around at stores, this is “the” one issue that I absolutely very little patience or tolerance for. I did not experience this in my own neighborhood (because I was light skin, I guess), but I have experienced this in high-end stores, where they expect you to “look” a certain way. People discriminate not only based on your ethnic looks, but also on how “well-dressed” or how “rich-looking” you present yourself. Often times, you come into an expensive store and if you’re dressed with casual clothing and sneakers, you do get that look of “why are you here…what could you possibly want or purchase here.” Those people can kiss my behind. I refuse to give up my love for comfort and being myself, for their approval.

Great conversation…

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Latinaish April 13, 2011 at 1:20 pm

I hope that discrimination becomes less and less in the United States as the older generation dies off and a younger generation takes their place. Our generation I think is more tolerant, (and not just tolerant but APPRECIATIVE), of diversity. Interracial marriages continue to become increasingly common. Ojalá one day in the near future, no one will bat an eyelash upon encountering someone of a different skin color/ethnicity/race/religion/sexuality as themselves.

Great post. {Abrazos!}

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Norma823 April 13, 2011 at 6:20 pm

I aslo has a sheltered background and when I went to boarding school in Vermont I was treated terribly…never having gone through this teatment made me stronger.

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Dayngr April 14, 2011 at 2:44 am

Living in Miami, I can’t even imagine what that must be like. Here, there are all types of hair and all shades of skin and my kids don’t even recognize the difference – even though they are the lightest kids in the class. I think it’s beautiful that they don’t have clue and I think they’ll be all the better for it.

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Carlos Lopez May 15, 2011 at 2:53 am

Como la gente esta mezclandose mas ojala en el futuro habra menos descriminacion. Me gusto tu post. Siento que puedo relacionarme un poco a tus experiencias aunque tengo menos tiempo en los Estados Unidos.

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Amanda M May 25, 2011 at 1:53 pm

This is really tough to grapple with.  I used to wear hijab (and took it off because the stress of wearing it got to be too much) and there were many, many times people told me to go home. I was born in the US and it was my great grandparents who immigrated here.  When in a store  clerks wouldn’t even talk to me or ask if I needed help.  Very hurtful and very sad!

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modernmami May 26, 2011 at 1:43 am

I’m sorry you’ve had to deal with that. You’re right that it’s very sad.
It’s amazing how hurtful people can be and not even know they are doing so.

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Me and the Mexican June 4, 2011 at 10:47 am

Sometimes my heart aches when I imagine the prejudices our children may face.  It’s sad the things that can be passed on to children via the parents.  I constantly try and talk to my son (here and there, nothing overwhelming) about how wonderful he is and how handsome all of his features are etc…  I’ve explained how others like to make people sad or feel bad because they do not understand about people looking different or different cultures.  He usually ask me why and the answers vary.  All we can do is prepare and educate.  OUR CHILDREN will help break this sad cycle.
Thanks for sharing with us all….

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modernmami June 8, 2011 at 1:54 am

Yes, I too get sad when I think about what my children might face growing
up. You’re right, though, we need to prepare them and educate them on what
may be.

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IlinaP August 28, 2012 at 12:39 pm

OMG, this could be my life.

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modernmami August 28, 2012 at 12:56 pm

It’s so sad, right? But, good to know there are others that relate.

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