Boys pulled their eyelids back at a Multnomah County commissioner. Someone told a TriMet board member she spoke English well. Another leader was told to go back to his country of origin while at a gas station.
These are some of the comments some of Oregon’s minority leaders say they’ve heard during their careers and while being in the U.S. Although some don’t recall anyone directly telling them to go back to their country, many said they’ve felt classmates, strangers and other people around them have insinuated the phrase.
Last week, President Donald Trump tweeted that four progressive Democratic congresswomen should go back to where they came from after they spoke out about his immigration policies. Although the women were not named in Trump’s tweets, it’s widely believed that he referenced Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Rshadia Tlaib of Michigan, Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts and Ilhan Omar of Minnesota. Trump has not disputed those assertions.
Omar is the only one of the four who was not born in the U.S.
The federal government has deemed the phrase “go back to your country” and similar language is discriminatory in the workplace.
Here’s what some of Oregon’s minority leaders say they’ve heard.
Lori Stegmann, Multnomah County District 4 Commissioner
LC- The Oregonian
Three new members of the Multnomah Board of County Commissioners were sworn in Tuesday morning, including Lori Stegmann. For the first time, the all-female board will have people of color in the majority. Stephanie Yao Long/Staff LC- The Oregonian
The first time Lori Stegmann remembers experiencing racism was in kindergarten.
Stegmann, was born in Seoul, South Korea, and adopted by a white American family. She became a U.S. citizen when she was 4 years old.
“If I had not been adopted, I most likely wouldn’t have survived,” Stegmann said. “Coming to the U.S. quite literally saved my life. For many immigrants and refugees, that’s why they’re coming here.”
One day when she was in kindergarten, Stegmann’s mom braided her long, black hair into two braids, she recalled. She wore a new dress and shoes.
Children encircled her, taunted her and called her a Native American slur, she said.
Stegmann also remembered being a child on the playground when boys pulled their eyelids back to look like they were squinting.
“In their opinion, I didn’t belong,” Stegmann said. “I didn’t have a right to be here. I was different. I was less of a human being to them.”
When Stegmann changed her party from Republican to Democrat last year, she said many were supportive, but some were upset about the change and told her to go back to her country.
“I didn’t leave the party,” she said. “The party left me.”
Kayse Jama, founder and executive director of Unite Oregon
Noble Guyon/ The Oregonian
Kayse Jama, director of Unite Oregon, speaks at a rally calling for the impeachment of President Trump Saturday morning at Terry Schrunk Plaza in downtown Portland. - A peaceful rally calling for the impeachment of President Trump was led at Terry Schrunk Plaza in downtown Portland Saturday morning. The rally featured multiple speakers, including Oregon Democratic Rep. Earl Blumenauer. Noble Guyon/ The Oregonian
With a civil war going on in Somalia, Kayse Jama said he came to the U.S. in 1999 under asylum to regain his rights to freedom of speech and speak up.
After the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, Jama said he left his job as a program coordinator at Lutheran Community Services Northwest to become an organizer for those facing oppression and racism in the U.S. He realized that he wanted to help bring urban, poor and low-income communities together to work for justice under Unite Oregon.
“If I don’t speak up about the injustices in this country, I’d rather die,” Jama said.
Jama said he can’t even recall how many times people have told him to go back to his country while he’s been in the U.S.
He said at one point, he pulled up first into the same spot as someone else in a gas station when the two argued about who got there earlier. The man’s response was, “Well, why don’t you go back to your country?”
“I don’t really pay attention to it,” Jama said.
Jama said xenophobia and anti-immigrant rhetoric, in the same vein as what Trump tweeted, aren’t new in the U.S.
“It’s always under the surface,” Jama said. “It’s always been there.”
He said white males have come many times to Unite Oregon’s office to intimidate him and the staff. The hostility is aimed at him and his work, he said.
“I guess we don’t it brush off,” he said. “What we do is organize. That’s how we try to uplift the voices of our community and people of color,and we use our experience as a way to share and uplift their stories.”
Kathy Wai, TriMet board member
Kathy Wai, the youngest board member in TriMet's history, pictured in a Southeast Portland coffee shop November 14, 2018. Beth Nakamura/Staff
While 12-year-old Kathy Wai was shopping at a Safeway with her parents, she said a stranger interrogated her on where she was from.
The older white man asked: “Are you from here?” She told him she lived in Oregon, but that she had recently moved from California.
The man then asked questions about where she was from because he was puzzled about her move from California. He then told her that she spoke English well for being an immigrant.
“I felt like I was getting interrogated by some stranger,” she said. “I feel like that person wasn’t pleased that I lived in Portland.”
Most of what Wai said she’s experienced hasn’t been overt racism, but micro-aggressions.
Her parents have always taught her to be proud of her roots, but she said there’s often been a clash with her culture and identity in Oregon.
“Experiences like that make me question my place in this world and my place in Oregon,” Wai said.
Wai said she’s proud to see people of color stepping up to run for leadership positions and take stands on issues that impact them. Although she hasn’t received racial emails or been called names in public, Wai said she’s taken heat for talking too much about race or equity.
She said she was once called out by a community member when she was talking about naming a new school in the North Clackamas School District after a person of color. The school board recently agreed to name a new school after Adrienne Nelson, the first black justice on Oregon’s Supreme Court.
Wai said she received an email copied to other school board members who said she was being a bully, putting too much of an emphasis on race and how her rhetoric was divisive.
“For me, it hasn’t been direct racism and direct statements, but it has been things of that nature that signal to me some folks are really uncomfortable when we talk about race, who has power, who has privilege and who doesn’t,” she said.
Gale Castillo, interim executive director of the Hispanic Metropolitan Chamber
LC- Richard Read/The Oregonian
Gale Castillo, at Portland State University Board of Trustees meeting Sept. 10, 2015. Trustee bio: Castillo is the president and one of the founders of the Hispanic Metropolitan Chamber, the largest Hispanic Chamber in the Northwest with over 800 members. Castillo is also the co-owner of Cascade Centers, Inc., one of the largest privately held companies that provides Employee Assistance Program (EAP) service and staff development in the U.S. In addition to her work with the Chamber and Cascade Centers, Castillo previously worked as an assistant to former Oregon Gov. Neil Goldschmidt and as the state manager of the Oregon Economic Development Department's Job Training Administration. In the private sector, Castillo has worked for AT&T, Pacific Northwest Bell, and RESTOR Communications in management, marketing, and national sales positions. The recipient of many awards for service to her community, Castillo is the first in her family to graduate from college receiving a Bachelor of Arts, Linfield College and a Masters of Arts, Education, Portland State University. Castillo has also completed Harvard Kennedy School’s Executive Education Program. LC- Richard Read/The Oregonian
Gale Castillo said the portrayal of Latinos as criminals, gangbangers and undocumented individuals were part of the motivation for founding the Portland Hispanic Metropolitan Chamber.
In high school, Castillo said her son had to deal with that portrayal. He told his classmates he was Mexican American and someone asked him what gang he was in.
She said that he responded to that classmate, “You’ve known me since kindergarten, when have you ever seen me in a gang?”
“It’s a painful experience for young people and adults to be insulted by these stereotypes,” Castillo said.
At a casual get-together about a decade ago, Castillo introduced herself to a man who asked if her name was Pocahontas. About five years ago, she crossed the border with her husband from Canada to the U.S. The border agent asked her husband where he picked Castillo up.
“These messages are not new,” Castillo said.
Visit subscription.oregonlive.com/newsletters to get Oregonian/OregonLive journalism delivered to your email inbox