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Where I came from

Dear Editor,

It hurts to love a place when it’s clear that it doesn’t always love you back.

Growing up in Warren, I can remember strangers leaning out of their pickup truck windows to yell “go back to where you came from” at me. It happened a lot. They’d turn their heads to see my reaction and I’d look up and see them smiling. I couldn’t tell if they really got joy from letting me know that they thought I didn’t belong there, or if it was mostly just a joke between the people in the car. My mom remembers another time when she, my sister and I were walking home and a neighbor kid ran out onto his porch to yell the same words at all three of us. At the time, we coped by laughing at the stupidity of the whole thing. We couldn’t go back to where we came from, because we were already there. My neighbor and I came from the same place.

My family lived near the top of the hill on Cornplanter Avenue until I was 18 years old. I had a wonderful childhood in a close-knit community of teachers, mentors, and friends that helped to shape who I am. I walked to and from school at South Street Elementary, Beaty Warren Middle and Warren Area High School, and spent my summers riding my bike, building forts in the woods and jumping into the water from the boulders at the Kinzua dam. I’ve lived in Pittsburgh for over a decade, but each summer I get my friends together to make the 3-hour drive up the Allegheny River to explore where I fell in love with the outdoors. Warren was (and I hope still is) a great place to grow up.

My family stood out, though. Both of my grandmas had accents that told people they were from somewhere else – one was from Vega Baja, Puerto Rico, while the other was from Doncaster, England. They both met their husbands who were serving in the US military before moving to northwestern PA. My mom is white (she grew up in Youngsville) and my dad is Japanese (he was adopted but grew up in Warren). Because of the way I look, people questioned where I came from. They saw the shape of my eyes, the color of my hair, and the complexion of my skin, and mentally drew a dotted line to a foreign homeland that wasn’t mine. They would ask where I was from, but they weren’t satisfied with Warren as my answer. I’m proud of my mixed-culture heritage, but I’m American.

My sister recently posted on Facebook about the crowd at the Presidential rally in North Carolina, fired up by the same phrase that we both heard yelled at us as kids. Our friends from Warren commented with shock and disgust, assuring us that those words and actions do not reflect their values. They couldn’t believe that things like this happened to my family and they hadn’t noticed. Back then we didn’t talk about the racism, and that silence hid the problem.

It is shocking that an entire stadium full of people would enthusiastically chant a phrase usually used by racists to bully and intimidate non-white people. Did they really believe what they were saying, or did they overlook the racism in their words because they were caught up in politics and the energy of the crowd? I’ve seen other classmates from Warren post memes defending the chant and mocking people who speak out about racism. The ‘funny part’ is how we get upset too easily and need to learn how to take a joke. We blow things out of proportion and take words out of context. We make everything about race. We’re snowflakes. We’re making it up.

The words and actions of the people at the rally allowed the underlying prejudices to surface in public. Some people reacted with pause, introspection, and soul-searching, but others immediately began deflecting the conversation by questioning if, when and how often we should (or more often shouldn’t) talk about race and racism.

They say we hate America when we ask ourselves and others to admit that racism continues to do harm today. The reality is that while it may feel awkward to address, speaking out about racism and the truth of our experiences is not done out of hatred or disloyalty. American ideals require us to be honest about injustices and inequalities, to speak out when we see them committed, and to work to be a better version of ourselves. As a teenager, I became an Eagle Scout, which gave me a deep respect for our country, and the values, responsibilities, and bond we share as citizens. When I speak out about racism, it’s in defense of the values that I learned with Troop 1 at Trinity Memorial Episcopal Church.

I believe that it’s a patriotic act to stay, fight for, and believe in our country, even when there are people who will demand that I leave.

I have faith that my hometown and my country can own up to hard truths. That we can admit that racism exists and that we need to talk about it. I’m proud of where we came from, but we can’t go back to letting silence hide the problem.

Sincerely,

Taiji Nelson,

Pittsburgh

(WAHS class of 2006)

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