I could explain how I’m a born-and-raised Jersey girl who spent childhood summers on the Jersey Shore eating boardwalk ice cream and who graduated from the same New Jersey high school as my mother to show that, contrary to what you think about my head scarf, I’m as American as they come. But the truth is, President Trump’s comments are the most American thing I know.
Trump supposedly shocked the country with his blatantly racist call to have our ethnically diverse freshmen congresswomen, Ayanna Pressley, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib, and Ilhan Omar, “go back” to their countries. He doubled down the next day, singling out Omar, the only non–U.S.–born representative in the group and one of the first Muslim congresswomen in history, by mischaracterizing her as an al-Qaeda supporter and ostracizing her Somali origin as being “a failed government and failed state.” Rep. Omar has become a litmus test for the nation’s social consciousness, culminating in Trump's supporters violently chanting, “Send her back" at a rally.
What they really mean when they say, “Send her back,” is to take away the impossible triumph of what was once merely a fantasy for Muslim and immigrant girls in America.
Growing up in a predominantly white suburb doesn’t disqualify one from having their “Americanness” undermined—quite the contrary—and now all the brown kids bullied in school know that neither does ascending to the House of Representatives. September 11 happened when I was a child, so navigating an intense anti–Muslim political climate is not new to me. The only people I ever saw on television that looked like me were oppressed victims or senseless terrorists on the news. Unremarkably, my peers and anyone I interacted with have always reflected that. Despite being born here, Trump’s comments are the same violent and racist taunts I’ve heard from bullies all my life: “We’re superior because we’re white, and you don’t belong here.”
I couldn’t tell you the first time I was told to “go back” to my own country, or count how many variations of that phrase I still receive in my inbox daily. I can’t remember the first time I was called a terrorist. I can’t remember the first time I watched my parents get harassed for speaking Arabic or my dad for having an accent when he spoke English. Was it the first time a customer in his electronics store told him to “go back to Africa”? Or was it when a white man cut him in line at a T-Mobile shop and berated him because this was "his country" and he deserved to be served before my father? I can’t remember the first time I wrapped my head scarf a different way before leaving the house when there was another Muslim in the news. Maybe it was right after a woman fatally pushed a Hindu man onto the New York subway tracks of an oncoming train for “[putting] down the Twin Towers.” The first time I was asked if I speak English? Forget it.
To be honest, I couldn’t have imagined an America in which I’d watch not one, but two Muslim congresswomen be sworn into office in my 20s, let alone that they’d be elected among a fleet of other racially and religiously diverse women. When Trump started talking about a Muslim ban in 2015, he was conjuring a policy that reflected the vocal sentiments of the only America I have ever known. It’s the same one where we’re now openly caging refugee children like animals and calling their parents “murderers and rapists.” It’s where the president himself can say that immigrants come from “shithole countries.” In the height of attention on police brutality against black bodies, he gave a speech to law enforcement officials encouraging them to be rougher with arrests. This is the same man who said that because of his power, he can “grab [women] by the pussy.” In spite of even more elementary shortcomings to hold executive office, like spelling al-Qaeda as “Alcaida” in his talking points about Omar, nothing has been enough to get rid of him. That’s because he says he wants to “make America great again,” but this has always been America.
What I can remember is sitting in a classroom the year after I started trying to hide my religion from my classmates during the height of George W. Bush’s War on Terror, while learning about the Holocaust. My Jewish teachers posed a question to our middle school class about one of the biggest demonstrations of white supremacy in history that stumped us: How could we as a humanity let it happen? The closest answer we could land on is that evil prevails when good men do nothing.
So what happens when all the good men and women are enraged on Twitter, sparking hashtags, and conjuring up viral headlines—and, still, nothing? It’s not enough to impeach a man who should have never been considered fit to hold the executive office in the first place. For many of us, this has always been America, and the controversy around Omar just brought it onto a national stage it never had before. This moment demands that we take a hard look at our reflection and decide if this is still the America we will continue to accept.
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