From 'Go Back To Your Country' To A Vice President-Elect Who Shares My Grandmother's Name

Reshma Shamasunder, left, as a teenager with her mother and sister during a visit to India. (Courtesy Reshma Shamasunder)

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By Reshma Shamasunder

The burly man took a step towards my mother and knocked the plate out of her hand before hissing, "Go back to your country."

Setting: 1980s Antelope Valley at a local Sizzler, where we were enjoying the weekend buffet.

Reshma, right, in a family photo when she was about six years old. (Courtesy of Reshma Shamasunder)

As shaken as we were, this act of racism was hardly an isolated incident for my Indian American family when I was growing up in the Palmdale-Lancaster area, at the northern edge of Los Angeles County.

There was the kid who used to regularly trip me when I was 13, as I climbed onto the bus to school, while muttering "dothead" under his breath. The white patient who refused to be treated by my Indian immigrant father, an oncologist. The list goes on.

I didn't name it as racism at the time, but the people I grew up around made it clear that they didn't think of me as an American, although I was born here. I always felt uncomfortable about our Indian food and traditions. I felt they marked me as different from my primarily white classmates, who were quick to judge and comment.

I heaved a sigh of relief when we moved to the San Fernando Valley before my junior year in high school and, eventually, when I went to UCLA as an undergraduate student. Of course, I continued to experience the kind of casual racism most Asian Americans and Brown folks get used to, like...

"No, where are you really from?" when I've already explained that I'm from L.A.

Or, "I'm never going to be able to say your name. I'm not even going to try. Can I just call you Rachel?" (No, you cannot.)

Some white people may not see it, but garden-variety racism is pretty ubiquitous, even in Los Angeles, and Black people and people of color learn to expect it. It signals to us that we must constantly prove that we are American enough to white America. Even those of us who were born here.

After college and living abroad for a few years, I became an immigrant rights advocate in the early 2000s. As the child of immigrants, I was familiar with the racism many immigrants experience. And as I came to better understand the realities of our country as an adult, I also saw the struggles faced by limited-English-proficient immigrants, who experience poverty and exploitative working conditions, and who lack access to critical programs and services.

Reshma speaking at a California Immigrant Policy Center conference in 2014, during the time she served as executive director. (Courtesy Reshma Shamasunder)

From 2003 to 2015, I served as executive director of the California Immigrant Policy Center and contributed to important policy reforms for immigrant communities, including driver's licenses for all Californians regardless of immigration status, the disentanglement of immigration and law enforcement, and health care for all children regardless of status.

During those years, I also became a parent to three daughters who learned about my work and participated in activism from a young age. When they were little, we openly discussed race, racism, and our role in fighting for a more just future.

Reshma with her two eldest daughters at the Women's March in Los Angeles, January 2017. (Courtesy Reshma Shamasunder)

And I was grateful that their experience growing up in suburban Los Angeles was characterized by much less explicit racism than what I faced as a kid in the Mojave Desert.

'GO BACK TO YOUR COUNTRY' (AGAIN)

Before 2016, I didn't believe our country was capable of installing a president who would openly wink and nod at white supremacy and support policies that would have a devastating impact on immigrants and communities of color, and so many other vulnerable communities. But I was wrong, and I wept in disbelief when Donald Trump was elected.

With Trump's rise, the implicit racism that had always existed under the radar turned into public vitriol toward Black people, communities of color, immigrants, and many others. I watched in horror as racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, and other egregious types of attacks became a regular occurrence on television and social media.

It was as if Trump's angry rhetoric gave Americans the license to berate, insult, and mock members of our communities who already struggled in the face of inequitable policies and systems.

Reshma's two eldest daughters on Election Day 2012, visiting the polling place where their mother voted for then-President Barack Obama. (Courtesy Reshma Shamasunder)

The day after the 2016 election, my then 13- and 10-year-old daughters were walking our dog on the quiet main street adjacent to our house. We've lived in our neighborhood since 2005, and have always felt comfortable visiting the park across the street or heading out for a jog.

That afternoon, as my two kids walked down the sidewalk, a truck drove past them, and a man inside shouted obscenities out the window at them — and then, "Go back to your country!" Exactly what the man who attacked my mother had said decades ago.

My daughters rushed home crying, scared and confused. It was just the beginning. In the years since, classmates have hurled racial epithets at my middle daughter. My kids became worried about what Trump's policies meant for my husband, their father, who is an immigrant, as well as other immigrant family members and loved ones.


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My eldest daughters, who are now teenagers, have expressed deep concern that the progress our country has made over generations in areas such as civil rights, environmental justice, racial justice, and gender equality would be turned backwards just as they and their peers are nearing adulthood.

And I've worried for them and the other children of our country, more than half now children of color, about what struggles they have to endure in a climate of growing hatred.

Reshma's middle and youngest daughter at a Black Lives Matter protest in summer of 2020. (Courtesy Reshma Shamasunder)

In my work as an immigrant rights advocate, I've watched despondently as the president advanced policies that deeply hurt immigrant communities. I've been heartened by the energy, commitment, and strategic sensibility of the immigrant rights movement, but the pain inflicted upon immigrants and their families has been unconscionable.

Recently, ahead of this year's election, Trump supporters and Black Lives Matter activists started gathering weekly across the street from each other at an intersection near our home, close to where my mom lives, with the Trump supporters sometimes making racist statements. My kids witnessed this, and they felt all of this very personally.

A VICE PRESIDENT WITH MY GRANDMOTHER'S NAME

On the night of the 2020 election and for many nights after, we sat glued to our televisions. On the morning of Saturday, Nov. 7, when the Associated Press, CNN and other outlets called the election in favor of Joe Biden as president-elect, I was drinking my coffee outside. My daughters came running out yelling, "Come inside, come inside, Biden won, Biden won!"

My youngest daughter stuck Biden-Harris signs around the house, and the elder two took to social media to express their joy. I took a long, deep breath.

I am hopeful. Yes, I was deeply saddened that almost half of our country voted to continue the cruelty of the past four years. I know there is much work to be done to repair the harm of the current administration, and I am not certain that the incoming administration will be able to create the change we need.

Democratic vice presidential running mate, U.S. Senator Kamala Harris, speaks during the first press conference with Joe Biden in Wilmington, Del. on Aug. 12. (Olivier Douliery/AFP via Getty Images)

But this moment remains historic for my family — for the first time, a Black and South Asian woman is to become the vice president of the United States.

I've seen family photos shared on social media of Kamala Harris and her family members wearing saris, photos that look like my childhood photos. She openly discusses her Black, Indian, and immigrant heritage as the child of a mother from India and a father from Jamaica; describes her experiences with racial discrimination; and offers a vision for a more inclusive America.

We celebrated the night that Biden and Harris won the election. We cheered when Kamala Harris — who shares a first name with my grandmother and niece — walked onto the stage and spoke so passionately. We popped open the champagne and apple cider, my family reveling in the moment, even as we understood the damage of the past four years may stay with us for a very long time.

All of this is personal for me. My parents came to this country in the 1970s, among the first wave of South Asian immigrants who were able to migrate after civil rights advocates in the 1960s fought for a change to our country's racist immigration laws at the time. As the first generation, they faced the discrimination and uncertainty that inevitably comes with changing demographics.

Nearly 50 years later, my children — three young American women of Indian descent — are on the cusp of adulthood at a time when generational transformations in our country have brought us to a moment of reckoning.

Change may arrive slowly, but right now for the first time in a long time, I feel like it's possible.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Reshma Shamasunder was raised in the L.A. area. She works as an independent consultant for nonprofits and philanthropy and is the proud mother of three daughters.

Reshma previously served as Vice President of Program Strategy at Asian Americans Advancing Justice - Los Angeles, and as Deputy Director of Programs at the National Immigration Law Center. She was Executive Director of the California Immigrant Policy Center (CIPC) from 2003-2015 and continues to serve on the board. Under her leadership, CIPC helped spearhead groundbreaking campaigns in California, including placing limits on cooperation between local law enforcement and immigration authorities, expanding health and human service programs for immigrant communities, and winning driver's licenses for all Californians.

Reshma holds dual bachelor's degrees from UCLA and a master's in city planning from MIT.