It took a while before I felt it: the awareness of being gazed at as a foreign object, American-born yet an alien all the same. I didn’t feel it when my blond neighbor Chris, a third-grade classmate, slipped me a note telling me how much he liked me. But, as he concluded in the blue ink scrawled across the page’s lines, his mom wouldn’t allow him to “date” a seven-year-old black girl like me.
I didn’t feel it when a new middle school teacher passed me over, despite enthusiastically raising my hand first to volunteer for a project, and chose my two white girl friends who stood next to me to assist her.
These were mere footnotes. Things to bookmark in my life’s files, but not to obsess over in a childhood with more pressing matters – creeks to be played in, school honors to be earned, and boys (not named Chris) to crush on. I was not surprised by these stark incidents. I grew up in a south that still had the Confederate symbol on its state flag and a house that regularly received brochures offering to enroll me in a bussing program to integrate the increasingly white, outer core suburban schools.
The moment I felt “othered”, at around 18, was more mundane than that. I walked out of my school gym and watched several eyes turn to stare at me, this black girl in a sea of white faces at an elite private college. I looked to see what I had on. Was there something stuck on me? On my shoe? My hair? After several occurrences like this, where I wasn’t talked to, or engaged with, but glared at, I surmised that it was my blackness that was the foreign object.
But it is through the mundane, in the things unsaid, the slights we think we imagine, that we realize that the world doesn’t allow us black and brown girls and boys to just be. The glares then transform to vitriol against us black and brown women and men, when being born and raised in America can still lend itself to commands to go back to the countries we came from, where only God knows where that may be. In the midst of Donald Trump commanding Ice raids to prompt widespread deportations, he was preaching what he practiced, telling a group of women of color, most of whom are American-born, that this country also didn’t belong to them.
So when congresswoman Ayanna Pressley spoke of “the occupant in the White House …” in remarks confronting his attacks on her and congressional colleagues Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, all vocal critics of his white nationalist immigration policies – her statement wasn’t tinged with surprise or disappointment. It wasn’t rife with the naive shock of people who claim this isn’t the America they know. It was rooted in the resolve of someone who probably once saw the same turned, glaring faces I did. The resolve of someone who knew his racist distractions would not keep her from attending to her own pressing matters – healthcare to be fought for and human rights to protect – and other crises facing the country.
Ayanna Pressley, Massachusetts
A firebrand but nevertheless perhaps the most moderate member of "The Squad", Pressley became the first black congresswoman to represent Massachusetts when she defeated a 20-year incumbent (and fellow progressive) to win an area once represented by John F Kennedy. Pressley has adopted the humanitarian crisis on the southern border and the harsh conditions of detained migrants as focal issues. She has spoken about her father being incarcerated and how she is a rape survivor. "The people closest to the pain should be closest to the power," is a favourite mantra. Pressley vowed they "would not be silenced".
Ilhan Omar, Minnesota
Omar is the first Somali-American member of Congress, and the first (along with Tlaib) of two Muslim women ever elected. She wears a hijab, obliging a change of rules about headgear in Congress. She is the only member of the Squad to be born outside the US, arriving more than 20 years ago as part of a refugee resettlement programme, becoming a US citizen in 2000 at the age of 17. Omar campaigns for universal healthcare, a $15 minimum wage, and student loan forgiveness. Omar has been a vocal critic of Israel's treatment of Palestinians, calling its government the "apartheid Israeli regime".
Rashida Tlaib, Michigan
Tlaib is the first of 14 children born to Palestinian immigrant parents and the first in her family to graduate from high school as well as college. She served in the Michigan state legislature, where she was known for causing controversy. A year before her 2018 election, she was expelled from a political rally in Michigan for asking the then-Republican presidential nominee Trump if he'd ever read the constitution. Immediately following her election to congress, Tlaib told a group of fellow progressives: "We're gonna go in there and we're going to impeach the motherfucker".
The best known of the four, Ocasio-Cortez became the youngest woman elected to Congress when she defeated a 10-term Democratic incumbent to win New York's 14th congressional district last November. Born in the Bronx, Ocasio-Cortez is a member of the Democratic Socialists of America, the group that acts as an ideological nursery for young progressives. One of her first legislative proposals - the Green New Deal resolution to combat global heating and poverty - forced 2020 candidates to prioritise the climate crisis.
Edward Helmore New York
Donald Trump hopes his apoplectic tweeting will detract from America’s domestic and foreign policy disasters, which created the very “catastrophe” in the regions he castigated in his verbal diarrhea. He hopes it will detract from the impassioned congressional testimony of Representative Ocasio-Cortez – delivered just three days before Trump’s verbal assaults – about women at southern border camps being forced to drink toilet water and children being inexplicably separated from older siblings.
These disasters are evident in the congresswomen’s own homelands, from Trump’s bungling of hurricane relief in Puerto Rico to America’s increasing military occupation in Africa, and specifically in Somalia, where American air strikes have been increasingly killing civilians since Trump became president. These failures are evident in America’s failed interventions in the Middle East and undermining of Palestinian rights. He hopes, too, that while accusing migrants of being involved in human traffic rings and crime, that the attention steers away from his own associations with Jeffrey Epstein, an alleged sex trafficker.
There are white Americans who think the country only belongs to them; that it is their birthright and theirs alone. For some, people of color are barely citizens. They want to keep us constantly teetering on the edge of citizenship that is not constitutionally provided but, rather, temporarily licensed, revocable upon any mention of the country’s white supremacist practices at home and abroad.
But that “peculiar sensation” of knowing America has never been entirely for us has also been a gift. It has given the marginalized, and our allies, a sense of shared struggle. What scares people like Trump is that “the Squad”, as the freshmen progressive congresswomen have become known, is increasing in number. The louder he gets, the easier it will be for them to recruit team-mates in this struggle for justice and basic human dignity. We may never escape that peculiarity of being othered in America, but the Squad is bound to become so deep that it won’t even matter.