"Go Back to Where You Came From" Reviewed by Bill Schwab
Wajahat Ali was under the mistaken impression that being born in the United States meant that he was an American. But after many occasions when White Americans told him to go back to his place of origin, he realized he apparently would never be a true U.S. citizen.
“Go Back to Where You Came From” is a comic political commentary of this award-winning playwright. Ali observes the pervasive racism that has become an accepted part of life in the United States and addresses this social ill with a mix of finely honed humor, family history, pop culture and incisive political and social criticism. His memoir offers sound advice for all those who find it difficult to overcome the high hurdle demanded by mainstream America: You must be White to belong.
Ali is the son of Pakistani Muslim immigrants. He was born in Fremont California and graduated from the University of California, Berkeley, with a Bachelor of Arts degree in English in 2002 and a law degree from the University of California, Davis in 2007.
He maintains that anyone who has never been a victim of racism in the U.S. lives a privileged life. Prejudice, hate, bigotry, and xenophobia are endemic in American culture, and he says the targets of this racism are American Indian, Alaska Native, Asian, Native Hawaiian, Pacific Islander, African-American, women, and others. His response to the angry outburst “Go back to where you came from” is this exasperated reply, “Go back to where?”
Ali uses knife-sharp comedy to accentuate some of his insightful observations.
“I went to an all-boys Jesuit Catholic High School in the Bay Area,” he recalls, “where I dominated the yearly religious studies classes to the point that Father Allender almost wept when reading out the highest grades in the class: Wajahat, the Muslim, followed by Kalyan, the Hindu. I carpooled with Brian, a Jew; Guarav, a Hindu; and Allen, a Christian son of Nigerian immigrants. My America was a United Colors of Benetton ad.”
Ali sees his classmates now as a mix of outsiders, longing to be insiders, with scant chance of ever scaling the well-fortified barriers.
Ali's autobiography deftly examines his deeply personal experience and also conveys and unpacks current data and research about racism. He derides typical platitudes of businesses who complain about the shortage of skilled workers when they whine, “We looked everywhere, and we just couldn't find anyone?” and “Well, it's just a meritocracy where anyone can make it if they work hard.”
“Go Back to Where You Came From” is a searing presentation and analysis of the “otherization” of non-Whites in the U.S. Some readers will find the narrative infuriating, some will find it false, and others will find it a frank, authentic observation of life in the USA in the 21st century.
In his final chapter, Ali proposes that the U.S. can create a more just, equitable society by embracing multiculturalism and by practicing greater compassion for the diverse population of the U.S. For Ali, this means “a community of service that looks out for each other and helps those in need.” The intelligent, observant author provides readers with a lot to contemplate in a book that both entertains and educates.
About the Author: Wajahat Ali sought a career with a law firm, but his applications were repeatedly rejected. He eventually changed career paths to become a writer and is a columnist at The Daily Beast and senior fellow at the Western States Center and Auburn Seminary. Ali has written for the New York Times, the Atlantic, and the Washington Post and appears frequently on CNN and MSNBC.