This week the current head of the US administration told four congresswomen who were women of color, three of which were born in the US, to “go back where they came from” (if you want to find out more about that, Google will get you to lots of articles–or hold on, and I’ll be linking a few throughout this article). This article is an analysis of this statement using tools from the communication field, including the way the phrase is a verbal expression of the nonverbal communication category territoriality.
I will also look at how this statement invokes for the conservative Christians defending it all of the god terms and devil terms and halo and horns effects I’ve been discussing in past articles, including this most relevant latest one. I will also provide practical resources for how to respond healthily to people’s attempts to evade this statement’s poisonous nature.
This analysis is a little long, but as I said, there are resources at the end, and nuance is key to fight these battles well and to fully understand how this all works; thanks for your patience! 🙂
Context Is King
So yes, context is everything when interpreting “go back where you came from” statements. When delivered to women of color who are progressive and speaking up to try to fix things in the country that 3 of 4 were born in, the intimation is deeply obvious—that these female progressive representatives are not *really* American. That they don’t belong in the US.
All week I’ve been reading things that talk about this verbal act as deeply racist. As sexist. As xenophobic. As nativist. I believe it is all of those things. It is also deeply, embeddedly partisan. And I believe it is that intersectional combination of things that makes the statement so effective—and so incredibly obvious that it is at its base incredibly territorial.
And sadly, I believe white Evangelicalism has a base territorialism of its own that has made it all too easy to absorb a partisan political identity on top of its theological identity. This makes it too easy for white Evangelicals to defend these statements.
(Again, as before, I don’t by and large see most POC Evangelicals defending these statements, so I refer to white Evangelicals as a cultural group. As I explained in the last article, I see some white Evangelicals speaking out against these types of remarks and very much hope more will join those of us decrying them.)
On Those Who Are Defending the Statement
The thing is that a lot of the white Evangelicals—and other conservative Christians—I know and grew up with are out there are out there trying to excuse these “go back to your own country” statements from the current head of the administration as specifically *not* being racist—or, if it is, to still defend or excuse the man who said it.
(I mean, sure, I have a bridge in Brooklyn to sell you if you believe that it’s not racist. It’s so discriminatory that the New York Times quickly collected 16,000 stories of people of color being told to “go back where they came from.” And even though the phrase has a long rhetorical history in the US, it is actually illegal to use in workplaces according to current government law.)
But here’s the beauty of the rhetorical targeting of this statement toward partisanship in all its also-bare, also-extremely discriminatory glory: all of those people can convince themselves that, well, it was wrong to say, but that it wasn’t actually discriminatory.
Because, see, as I discussed last week, to self-identifying Republicans these days, these women are already the enemy. But to many, in their minds, it’s not because of their skin color. No, it’s because they are Democrats–and that means they are socialists. (I talked about socialist and liberal as a devil term here and here.)
Why It Matters that It Was Territorial
To those people defending the statement, I say now: whether or not you believe it was a deeply racist statement (and it was!!!! It really was!!!), you do need to understand that it was deeply territorial. The goal was to suggest that citizens who were hired to represent the people of these United States ought not to do their Constitutionally mandated jobs—and, in fact, not exercise their rights to disagree with the current head of the administration.
In other words, even though these types of words go back almost to the founding of this country, these words were also an attempt at the kind of tyranny the founders of this country set up checks and balances to prevent (even while they themselves had blind spots several thousand miles wide in the areas of discrimination).
It’s Also Super Racist, Sexist, Etc.
The idea that women of color, most of whom were actually born here, ought to go back to some other place and fix those countries, is also incredibly racist—especially emerging, as it has been, from the mouths of many who have been telling migrants with darker skin tones that they ought to be going back and fixing their own “fixer-upper” countries.
As I described before, the outsourcing of problems to other places would very much fit into the god terms/devil terms rhetoric I’ll be unwrapping in a bit.
The combination of these two kinds of rhetoric–one about disagreement not belonging here and another about certain kinds and skin tones of migrants not belonging here–makes it extremely clear that the viewpoint being espoused is ultimately an unhealthy nationalist one.
In other words, that all marginalized people and those who are those allies, who actually want our government to represent their views toward fixing the problems in this country, ought to just go somewhere else, essentially leaving powerful white men alone with those who enable them.
Again, this makes for a deeply territorial statement—and one, despite its long history, that stands against the “checks and balances” ideals this country was founded on. And that makes this rhetoric line up with other fascistic rhetorics and rhetorics of petty dictators the world over.
That’s not a good thing. If you defend it, you sound an awful lot like you’re mirroring Nazi rhetorical techniques, and for good reason.
The Importance of the Word “Back”
And the framing of it IS racist. See, as a progressive who is advocating for the rights of marginalized and vulnerable populations, I’ve been told to move away, too—so the attempts at ostracism apply to me as well.
But as a white person the key word “back” is never included when the phrase is directed at me. I’m told to go away, sure—“why don’t you just *go* to Canada (or the UK or Europe) then?” But I’m never told to go back.
(Which in a way is funny, because I have lived in two of those three places, have visited all of them, and my ancestors came from two of those three places. If they wanted to tell me to go back, it would *almost* be dimly appropriate. Still deeply overlooking all immigration difficulties I may face, mind you. After all, I don’t actually have any type of job or passport in any of those places. But still, much more reasonable of a suggestion than telling these female US representatives to go back to another country they may have never been to.)
The Disturbing Ironies Run Deep
The point of all of this, of course, is that it’s racist to paint these women as enemies and interlopers to this territory that my ancestors—well, I believe the appropriate word is “stole” or “colonized”—by committing genocide, and then built up as a country based on the forced labor of enslaved people of color.
The Incredibly Strong and Harmful Irresponsibility of Doubling Down on the Initial Statement
Furthermore, the suggestion is deeply irresponsible, and the fact that the opportunity to apologize was followed up by the fact that it couldn’t be wrong because others agreed with it, and then the same rhetoric was used to stoke mob-like chanting at a rally? Yup, that’s exactly the kind of behavior fascists literally enact in order to demonize their opposition.
It is in no way a shock to me that it’s been followed up by death threats to those people. And the rhetoric seems strongly responsible for those death threats. It also seems deeply responsible for all of the ways such a powerful voice offering and doubling down and encouraging such racist rhetoric hurts all the people who will take the cue toward other racist words and behavior.
Not at All Unexpected
Again, it is a question of territoriality. The current head of the administration does not see himself, this statement confirmed once and for all (as though it was at all in doubt) as president of *all* of the people here, even though that was what he was hired to be.
This is not new. He has felt this way—and expressed it very openly, both verbally and nonverbally, since the beginning of his campaign and long before (this is just an extension of the birtherism controversy—but there are many others, as this article shows).
How Conservative Christians Have Been Drawn In to Defending
My argument here is that conservative white Evangelicals and others who refuse to denounce this rhetoric, even if they see themselves as against racism, have bought into this rhetoric specifically because they have bought into the partisan demonization of liberals and “socialists” I’ve been talking about on this site.
These conservative Christians may not believe themselves to be innately racist. But they ARE unapologetically partisan—and they have no problem with people demonizing their political opponents, to the point where they expect the same in return.
The kind of poisonous rhetoric they’ve been listening to for decades from peops on conservative talk radio and entertainment news networks for decades has laid the groundwork for this.
How I Know
I know—I grew up with this, and as I’ve discussed before on this blog, it took me a lot of development to get to the point where I was comfortable claiming the term “progressive” or “liberal” as a result.
White Evangelical-Centrism Has Made It Seem More Normal To Espouse This Toxic Crap
And as I’ve pointed out before and am building on now, I believe that a kind of long-term theological white Evangelical-centrism in which progressive Christian perspectives is seen as a threat only adds to these conflations between political and theological progressivism being somehow threats who need to be silenced at the very least.
This position has led to deep political disgusts with these “opponents” that makes it feel natural to try to get them “off the American lawn” and into “taking their negativity somewhere else.”
How “Christian Nice” Has Played a Role
The kind of unhealthy views of “negativity” and emotion I talked about last week make this kind of thing even more likely. See, if you’re so uncomfortable with people raising uncomfortable issues that you think people should just ignore them? That’s a situation absolutely ripe for both authoritarian dismissal of people trying to raise issues in order to fix them AND for fascistic rhetoric to take hold.
How “God Terms” and “Devil Terms,” “Halo and Horns Effects” Played a Part
So yes, because they have come to believe that the “Republican side” is a god term—in other words, something to be defended at all costs—and that the “Democratic side” is a devil term to be fought at all costs, they find it incredibly easy to excuse this statement as not racist.
I mean, the more reasonable folks in this defender group would say, it’s pretty nasty and distasteful partisanship.
But, they may argue, these women are not only women or people with darker skin tones—they are Democrats. There’s a longstanding history of partisanship in the US, reaching out from the beginning, is there not?
And, you know, some “good policies” (mostly around abortion, but also to head off the country’s feared decline into “socialism”) and conservative judges (to help with abortion, mostly).
The Fusing of White Evangelicalism and Political Partisanship
Deep sigh. There *is* a longstanding history of partisanship. And with that partisanship some folks have grown to see their side as associated with halo effects—that is, because someone is a Republican they are seen to do very little wrong, which is the base of defending that person as a god term.
And the other side is seen to be through the vision of the horns effect—in other words, because they are Democrats (and/or progressive theologically), they are to be fought at all costs.
And as I described before, in a single-issue world, anyone, however harmful in other areas (such as inciting death threats against female representatives), who is seen to be narrowly pro-life (and, as a bonus, is fighting that dim specter of socialism) is automatically excused from any major charge against them.
How All of This Comes Back to Territoriality
Let’s face it: war—which is what happens when you see your side as good and to be defended at all costs and the other side as bad and to be fought at all costs—is all about territoriality.
I mean, the basic premise of war is that it’s high time to push the “enemy” off this land. Right??? (I know this: I grew up playing Risk ad nauseum with someone who thought this way.)
NOT OKAY THINKING!
Sigh. Lord, no. This thinking is remarkably not okay. It’s definitely part of a strain of American thinking from the beginning of the country. It’s a zero-sum impulse that’s really common to us as humans and animals. But that doesn’t automatically make it okay–nor does it make it appropriate.
Goes Against Basic Christian Theological Premises
Nor does it make it at all in consonance with basic Christian principles. See, I grew up being asked to follow a man who told me to “love my neighbor as myself” which explicitly included my enemy.
I grew up being taught Scriptures that taught me to take care of the “least of these” and “welcome the stranger” and bring down the powerful to raise up the oppressed by doing justice and loving mercy. I grew up learning, albeit in a vague way, that human social identities weren’t supposed to be used to hurt others. And that we needed to call that out when we saw it happening.
Putting It Out There Why I Have Issues with This Statement
If you haven’t already figured it out, I believe this “go back to their countries” statement is wholeheartedly, blatantly wrong. I wholeheartedly believe my white Evangelical peops are being led astray from their stated core Christian beliefs in trying to defend it.
My training in communication and rhetorical analysis leads me to believe it *is* discriminatory—sexist and racist and xenophobic and partisan and nativist and, yes, descriptively fascist because it is all of those things at once.
And from a Christian perspective, I believe those things are not loving of either neighbor nor enemy. Nor are they just or merciful or kind to the least of these and those who defend them.
Why I See This Phrase as Deeply Wrong as an American
This statement unjustly takes a group of people who were actually hired to represent Americans, by Americans, and scapegoats them as the “enemies of America” who belong somewhere else rather than trying to draw attention to the problems in this country they want to help solve.
It strategically does so in a slippery way where many supportive audiences of the current administration could read it in a lot of different ways that would encourage them to defend against alternative explanations of the statement. But that just makes it more poisonous.
Being Practical about What We Can Do
So yes, enough analysis. To action!
It is so key that all of we who seek to fight such statements recognize that those who defend them won’t be easily persuaded of these things.
That doesn’t mean we ought not counter them, of course. On the contrary, as I’ve explained before, we need to raise our voices loudly to break through the spiral of silence about these things. It’s key that alternative views be raised, and raised loudly in these days.
It’s key that the racist context of these statements be raised and explained openly. That the death threats and rally cries and other appalling statements that emerge from them be thoroughly decried and drawn attention to and fought. This is key.
Recognizing Feasibilities of Persuasion
But it’s incredibly key to note that because, as I’ve explained before, the press and expertise have also been demonized for conservatives, the point is rarely to try to persuade those of opposing camps.
The point instead of persuasion is to draw attention to the incommensurability of these approaches (in other words, the ways in which the values are so differing that agreement is unlikely to happen), to draw attention to our alternative views as extremely valid in at least as equal a way as those of those defending the statements, and to not let this sh*t go unchallenged, as a recent meme we sent out on our FB page said.
Resources to Help in Speaking Up about This and Other Topics and Dealing with the Conflict
So…you’re probably looking for some resources to help you do that. Here goes:
- This week’s memes and links over at our Assertive Spirituality Facebook page will be addressing this issue. Hang out over there if you want some conversation starters and ammunition.
- Wanting some further knowledge about how to deal with conflict when you speak up? Sign up for our email newsletter in the top bar of this site or when you comment on this or other articles, and confirm your email address, and we’ll send you our “Assertive Spirituality Guide to Online Trolls” in the resulting final welcome email. It’s designed to help with conflict both online and off. (You can unsubscribe at any time, but we hope you’ll stick around.)
- Follow the links in the above article to learn more both from this blog and other sources about the context of everything I just talked about. The more you know, the easier it is to have the agency to understand and speak up about what’s going on–not just with talking points, but with a fuller understanding of the issues at hand
One Final Word
The idea is to avoid being silently complicit in letting this stuff go on. It is absolutely time to stand up, as we can where we are with what we’ve got to make a healthier world for us all, friends. Go team #AssertiveSpirituality! We can do this thing.