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Go back where you belong

Published October 16. 2010 09:00AM

When my sisters and I were young, our mother dressed us alike and we sang together. We even got to perform on the Horn and Hardart Children's Hour from Philadelphia. Our Dad went out and bought a black and white TV just so our family could watch us.

The Wells Sisters traveled to Philadelphia to sing the song "Go Back Where You Belong." It started out like this -

"If you don't like the way that we do things today in the good old USA,

If there's more liberty over the sea, you don't have to stay.

If you don't give a hoot for the flag we salute,

If you don't sing our nation's song,

If you can't be true to the red, white, and blue,

Then go back where you belong."

We were all dressed up in red, white, and blue costumes. We were excited to be singing on television. We felt important and special. It never entered our mind that the song we were singing might be offensive.

Here we were, three children of immigrant Italian maternal grandparents, singing about sending people back to their homeland. The irony of that didn't touch us. After all, we were young and naïve in the 1950s

If someone got on television today in 2010 and sang that song, there would be an uproar. People would accuse the singer of discrimination and insensitivity. Maybe there would be Letters to the Editor about the event.

Believe it or not, there are still some people living in America who think we should be shipping people back to their homelands. Funny thing, if everyone went back to his or her homeland, there wouldn't be anyone left in the United States. Probably not even the American Indian. Some anthropologists say that the American Indian came to this continent from Asia.

The United States of America has always been the shining beacon of hope for people from the rest of the world. People struggle to come here because here they can have a chance at a better life. The American Dream fills the hearts and minds of all immigrants.

How can some narrow-minded Americans say, "Send them back where they came from"? How can they teach their children bias and prejudice and hatred for people who are different? My theory is this - they are just plain scared and ignorant. Most people who are prejudiced have not taken the time to learn anything about the other person's culture.

When someone is blatantly prejudiced, they are usually also blatantly dumb. If they can't realize that each human being is worthy of respect and understanding, they lack the basic intelligence to figure that out. By painting everyone of one culture with the same brush, they are missing out on some possible friendships or opportunities for positive relationships.

During my time as a Community College professor, I taught a class on Multicultural Sensitivity. When it was over, I received a letter from one of my students. He had been a tough nut to crack in class. He used phrases like "white trash" and "jungle bunnies" and "dumb Polacks" and "gooks." His presence in the class gave me a good opportunity. I allowed him to use the terms and watched the rest of the class to see their responses. Many of his fellow classmates laughed when he used the racially motivated language. Gradually, throughout the course, fewer and fewer students laughed at him.

Soon, he began to feel uncomfortable with the response he was getting. One night, a woman in class actually said, "Cut out the trash talk." Quite a few of the students nodded their heads in agreement. I felt good about their reaction, because it meant that they were learning something in my class.

By the end of the course, the man had discontinued his negative talk. When he wrote me the letter a few weeks after the class was over, he was apologetic. In effect, he told me that the course had made him realize how destructive and dangerous negative comments like his could be.

One comment he made will stay with me forever. He said, "My grandparents came from Germany. They couldn't speak English when they got here. People made fun of their accents. I don't want to be the kind of person who might make my own grandparents ashamed."

"Go Back Where You Belong" might have been a cute, patriotic song in the 1950s, but today it sends the wrong message. America is the country it is today because of the immigrants. If they had stayed where they "belonged," our nation would be much different.


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