A few months ago, my 10-year-old daughter came home from school and said, “Mom, today at school, a girl told me to go back where I came from. She also told me that they are a certain type of family here, and I just don’t fit in. I am not like them. What did she mean that I should ‘go back where I came from’?”
I stood looking into my daughter’s deep brown eyes searching for words. This girl had been giving her a hard time all year, and I was having a hard time making sense of it. My thoughts cycled as I tried to figure out what to say.
What DID she mean by this? Does she know that my daughter was born in this very same town a short 10 years ago the last time we were stationed here? Does she mean that my daughter should go back to the hospital right down the road from the school where she took her first breath? Is that where she came from? Or does she mean that she should go back to wherever we were last stationed?
I had a gut feeling I knew what she meant, though, and the thought was much more disturbing. I also know that she learned this from an adult in her life. She wasn’t born thinking this way.
When she said, “Go back to where you came from,” she meant, “Go back to Mexico.”
Which is more merciful? To warn my daughter of the evil in the world so she can be prepared? Or to shield her from the knowledge that some people think she is worth less than them because her skin is dark?
I grew up in Phoenix, Arizona. It is the fifth most populous city in America. From Phoenix, a person can reach the border between Arizona and Mexico in less than three hours. I won’t be so brazen to say I didn’t notice race as a child, but I grew up surrounded by a lot of ethnicities and cultures. As a teenager, I dated three boys. They were all Hispanic — not because I planned it this way, but simply because I was surrounded by people who were of Hispanic heritage so that is who I ended up dating.
Shortly after graduating college, I married the third boy, the one I call my high school sweetheart. I never really thought about what it meant to me, a white girl, to marry a Mexican-American man.
We’ve led a charmed life. The Air Force has jetted our lives all over the globe. We’ve made amazing friends. I’ve watched my husband’s professional goals become a reality. We have three miraculous children.
But my idea that we live in a world where racism isn’t a problem came to an abrupt halt when my daughter came home reporting what a classmate had told her.
I tried to talk myself out of this.
Could a 10-year-old girl really have these thoughts and say these things? Am I overreacting? But what else could she mean? We carefully chose this private school primarily because we believe in the core values it teaches. We assumed the rest of the families in attendance believed in these precepts as well.
As much as we try to set an example of acceptance and peace and mercy in our home, we can’t protect our children from those whose parents choose to speak differently in their own home.
My husband is a part of the 1 percent who has served this nation that protects that child’s right to tell my daughter to “go back where she came from.”
I realized I haven’t noticed systemic racism in America because it has never affected me. It has been affecting people around me — some who I love dearly —but I have been blind to it. I hadn’t even considered that my children might face difficulties because of their ethnicity.
My first reaction was to minimize what this classmate had said to my daughter. This doesn’t really happen, does it? People don’t say these kinds of things, do they?
But they do.
The first change I am making to be better at noticing others’ struggles is to listen to people who say they have been discriminated against. And I mean really listen. Listen to understand instead of listening to respond.
By pretending their experiences are some sort of abstract rare occurrence or that the discrimination is somehow imagined or nonexistent, I am devaluing their experiences and discrediting their feelings. It is time for me to open up my eyes and ears and try to understand.
I needed to start with my daughter. I couldn’t sweep this under the rug or write it off as childish talk.
She stood waiting. I stood unable to respond. I have actively avoided talking about race my entire life, and here was my sweet child showing me that I was wrong to tiptoe around the subject.
It is a luxury to be able to pretend race doesn’t exist — a luxury I have always had because I am White.
The truth is that in order for me to teach my children that it is wrong to judge someone by the color of his or her skin, they must know the dangers involved in characterizing people not on their character but on their melanin.
For them to see that it is sad to miss out on the richness of humanity because of provincial attitudes, they must know the history of sadness and evil that has come with people feeling threatened by differing belief systems.
And in order for them to understand that loving as we are called to love means appreciating and learning from differences, I must also make sure they understand the opposite. They must learn to love without conditions.
I thought being blind to color was the answer to love. But the true answer to love is to actively try and understand. This is being aware of the differences and appreciating, respecting, and learning from them in order to make the world a place in which we can be proud.
If we want better, we have to do better.
I decided to tell my daughter the truth. I don’t know what her classmate meant. Not for certain. She might have meant she just doesn’t want you sharing her school, or she might have learned that people of different ethnicities should not be in America. Either way it is unkind and unnecessary. She probably heard it from an adult in her life or on the news that immigrants should “go back where they came from.” However, in life, we cannot control what others do. We can only choose how we respond.
I met with her teacher and school officials. They were caring, responsive, and amazing. I explained to my daughter that the next time something happens, she should get a teacher immediately. She should also not be afraid to stand up for herself. No one should be forced to sit silently while someone is telling them that they are not worthy or less than enough.
There is a fine line that we must walk as parents while we try to teach our children the importance of self-worth and confidence while also teaching them to be humble servant leaders.
My sweet daughter, you are enough. The girl who told you to ‘go back where you came from’ is also enough.
Every single person is infinitely valuable. As parents, let’s do what we can to teach the next generation that they are beautiful and that they belong to each other.