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  • Genine Babakian

Here in My Backyard, My Friends Are Told to Get Out

Go back to where you came from.

Speak English. You’re in America now.

You don’t belong here.

We read about these rants against people who look “different,” and by that, I mean people who are not white and/or who speak English with a foreign accent. In fact, the New York Times collected 16,000 such responses last week from readers who shared their stories about being told they don’t belong.

The stories they share are hauntingly similar:

  • A mother and her children being chased out of a Chicago neighborhood by kids hurling rocks and racial insults;

  • A woman targeted by a “RATS GO BACK TO IRAQ” chant while grocery shopping in Knoxville, TN;

  • A father in Austin, Texas subjected to racial epithets from a passing motorist while walking his boys out of school;

  • A 12-year-old in a hotel elevator in Philadelphia, PA, being told – by an adult – to take all the Puerto Ricans back home with her.

They are from Sunnyside, Washington and Topeka, Kansas. From Danbury, Connecticut and Winona, Minnesota. From Atlanta, Los Angeles, Boston, Chicago, Washington D.C. and every major city in America. And they are also from my hometown.

I’m not sure why that should surprise me, other than the fact that I live in what I consider to be a progressive, welcoming community. But in the past two weeks, I was shocked by the personal stories two different friends shared with me. One, a woman of color who was born in this country, was harassed at her gym by a man who pointed to Donald Trump on the television screen. Another is a friend who has lived in this country for over ten years and is happily on the path to citizenship. She was berated by a woman on a train for speaking with a friend in her native language. “You’re in America now,” the woman screamed at them before leaving the train. “You need to speak English or go home.”

My friends – like so many of the readers who shared their stories with the New York Times – were shocked into silence by these random acts of cruelty. Few of them could find the words to respond. And I wondered, in that moment, what I would have done had I witnessed such a scene. Would I be ready to speak up? I had better prepare myself, because the hate speech unleashed by the White House does not appear to be going away.

I’d like to imagine a future with reason restored, a country in which hate speech is not promoted by the highest office in the land. And I’d like to imagine a time when there are consequences for the perpetrators of such random cruelty. I’d like to imagine them exposed – as Hazel Bryan was in the iconic 1957 photo from Little Rock, Arkansas – and desperately trying to make amends.

On that fateful day in September 1957, 15-year-old Hazel was not the only member of an angry mob surrounding Elizabeth Eckford – one of the Little Rock Nine who was attempting to integrate Little Rock Central High School that morning. But she was the one whose hatred was captured the most clearly, and she has never lived it down. In spite of efforts – often controversial – to apologize and make amends – that was her moment of fame. Or infamy, in this case.

I’ve been thinking a lot about that photograph of Elizabeth Eckford and Hazel Bryan these days, as I wonder why anyone would want to be immortalized as a hatemonger. But enough about them. It’s time for the spectator to step up. As Elie Wiesel said, “What hurts the victim most is not the cruelty of the oppressor, but the silence of the bystander.”

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