Over the past week, I’ve been brooding like many of you over President Trump’s racist comments about “the squad’ – referring to four women of color in Congress. What has been particularly frightening was that Trump used that all too common phrase many of us who have lived in America, but are perpetually perceived as foreigners, have ungraciously received: “Go back to the country you came from.”
For me, it has brought back vivid memories of my childhood and what prompted me to pursue a career in nonprofit advocacy, philanthropy, and public service.
Back in those days, my mom worked in a local flea market in Savannah, Ga., and often had to tolerate such behavior. In those days, there were few Asian immigrants in Georgia. We felt vulnerable and alone, so we remained quiet. It hardly mattered that we were naturalized citizens: We were not Americans in the eyes of some. We could never lighten our skin or change our “distinct” features like dark hair and dark eyes, and we definitely couldn’t mask our strong “accents.”
Trump’s tweets and the chanting at his North Carolina rally last week — where supporters said, “Send her back” when he referred to the Somali-born Congresswoman Ilhan Omar of Minnesota — reminded me of what I sought and never found during my entire childhood — a sense of belonging.
Those experiences profoundly shaped who I am today and what I sought to do in my career, which was to ultimately advocate for the civil and human rights of communities of color. When I led Obama’s White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, I often spoke about this notion that Asian-Americans are perceived as perpetual foreigners that has led to discrimination and harassment. And that for several centuries, through laws and brutal force, white Americans, mostly male, have defined what “American” means, which didn’t include me, or many of you.
Now that I hold a leadership role in philanthropy, I’m struck by what I don’t hear from foundation leaders. I’ve been reading one op-ed after another by journalists, intellectuals, lawyers, and others, providing their rebuke, disdain, and incredulousness at what President Trump has said and what Republican leaders have not said. These are compelling and appropriate. We are in dangerous territory with a president who readily mimics crass, everyday behavior of bigots; and we are in very dangerous territory when leaders of our country, no matter their party affiliation, condone this behavior with their silence.