I’ve been dying to write this piece since we rang in the New Year, but politicians and elitists keep making each week about them! Can’t they take a break from the drama for just one week so I can push this piece out?! My prayers have been answered. Alright, folks, a few weeks ago we spoke about snappy slogans and how they’re inspiringly uninspiring. This week, we’re going to talk about infamous catchphrases, specifically, “Go back to where you came from.”

Language is a powerful tool. I don’t think many people understand just how powerful a tool it is to formulate and even manipulate communication. In Layman’s Terms: 

  • Language is made up of sounds;
  • Sounds are combined to create words;
  • Meaning is applied to words (and sounds); and
  • Phrases are formed using these words and their respective meanings combined to create a broader picture.

Most times, the chain of words that create a phrase combines each word’s meaning to form clear and straightforward context; for example, Mary ate an apple. It’s clear that “Mary” is a proper noun, “ate” is derived from the verb “to eat” meaning “to consume,” “an” is an indefinite article and “apple” is the direct object that was eaten by Mary which is also a fruit. Together, these words create an active phrase that demonstrates an explicit action and an outcome: A + B = C. However, sometimes the context of a phrase has absolutely nothing to do with the meaning of the words used to create said phrase. Why is that? Why is “Go back to where you came from” offensive? Or similar phrases such as “If you don’t like it here, then leave,” or “Make America great again,” and so on. Because there exist multiple tiers to languages, and today we’re going to focus on two: the bone structure of a language (sounds, syllables, words, etc.) and the social context in which the language is spoken.

Once upon a time

Phrases and sentences on their own are just that: phrases and sentences. Think of a piano and pressing keys together to create music or a string of sound. Tonality and emotion are what add emphasis and can manipulate the meaning of a phrase. Now think of the intensity you add on a piano key or a “b” to a “b minor,” etc. In language, populism is one of the main vessels that can change the meaning of a word, a phrase, a sentence, or even a sound. The more a term or an expression is used with the meaning coined to it, the more popular and widely accepted it becomes. For example, and what a terrible example this is, that disgusting word, irregardless. I blame Mariah Carey and her song, A No No, for that word. She even used air quotes as though to taunt me with that stupid word. Anyway, so where did “Go back to where you came from” come from?

The term was first coined during World War I and World War II and directed at German Americans who were – for apparent reasons – stigmatized and discriminated against (Wikipedia, 2021). From here, we already know that this phrase was designed to be negative, harmful and discriminatory. In other words, the expression on its own carries a little (negative) connotation, but when you apply the social context, you can see that its meaning is emphasized by emotion and tone. As we fast forward through time – because as I always say, “Everything changes over time and space” – populism accepted this term as unfavourable and discriminatory. It became widely used to discriminate against marginalized people or people from different social backgrounds. Germans were suspected to be Nazis and told to go back to where they came from. Then, Russians were subject to this discrimination as they were all “communists” during the Cold War, and then Arabs were all “terrorists,” and now we’re at “all Chinese people carry viruses.” You can’t tell, but I’m rolling my eyes. Throughout this phrase’s history, however, Latino Americans have been at the forefront of this particular form of discrimination in the United States. In fact, “Go back to where you came from” and its variants is so offensive that the US federal government and court systems have deemed it to be a form of discrimination in the workplace, and is cited as such under the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Makes you wonder why President Trump thought it was a nonissue.

Reform education you reform society

Ignorance is stubborn and prejudice is hard

Adlai E. Stevenson

One of the reasons I started Sunday Preach is to help grow our empathy for one another. Many people have never left the country where they live, so they risk being naive, closed-minded or insensitive to what other people feel or go through. Just because you don’t see discrimination or perceive an action to be discriminatory, doesn’t mean that it isn’t. It’s OK to be ignorant of specific topics; you can’t possibly be expected to be educated and all-knowing. You’re certainly not a God after all. But it is essential to want to explore the elements that surround your comfort zone. You may think to yourself, “Personally, I wouldn’t be offended if someone told me to go back to where I came from,” and kudos to you if that’s the case. But the world doesn’t revolve around you, and a little empathy will open doors for you that you couldn’t possibly imagine. People are typically remembered by their actions and their character. You can be the smartest person in the world, but if you’re an asshole, no amount of smarts in the world will help you cultivate relationships. If you’re a jerk to people, people will be a jerk to you; if you’re good-hearted, people will reciprocate. Sure, there’ll always be that ONE person who is just pure evil but don’t let that dissuade you from becoming the best version of yourself. And becoming the best you starts with language. Understand the impact your words have on others and ask yourself how you can leveraging our most powerful conversational tool and be a positive influencer to better communication: language. 


Featured image from: https://dhcenter-unil-epfl.com/en/event/the-digital-turn-in-historical-sociolinguistics/

Go back to where you came from. (2021, February 03). Retrieved February 07, 2021, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Go_back_to_where_you_came_from#:~:text=The%20phrase%20was%20popularized%20during,suspicion%2C%20discrimination%2C%20and%20violence.

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