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Samra Habib is the author of We Have Always Been Here: A Queer Muslim Memoir.

A particular Toni Morrison quote springs to mind as the world continues to engage with Donald Trump’s latest cruelty.

“The function, the very serious function of racism, is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being. Somebody says you have no language and you spend 20 years proving that you do. Somebody says your head isn’t shaped properly so you have scientists working on the fact that it is. Somebody says you have no art, so you dredge that up. Somebody says you have no kingdoms, so you dredge that up. None of this is necessary. There will always be one more thing.”

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Through a tweet aimed at four freshmen Democrats – Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib and Ayanna Pressley – the U.S. President mused: “Why don’t they go back and help fix the totally broken and crime-infested places from which they came.”

All four racialized women are U.S. citizens, and with the exception of Ms. Omar, were born in the United States.

Although the tweet is consistent with his specific brand of racism and xenophobia – a Muslim ban, you’ll recall, was a top priority for him after he was elected – Mr. Trump somehow lowered the bar on how you can counter criticism from your opponents, and it is worrying what kind of precedent this will set for other people in power. But focusing on the women he views as extreme can also be seen as an attempt to distract from the larger issues.

So we must not lose sight of these facts, as his tweets draw the ire of a stunned audience: U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) began raids last weekend in an effort to round up about 2,000 undocumented immigrants ordered by the courts to be removed from the country. Mr. Trump’s Labor Secretary Alex Acosta resigned last week, as criticism grew over a 2008 plea deal he gave to convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein. Both stories were dominating the news before Mr. Trump unleashed his latest racist tirade.

And while we watch the more explicit outbursts of racism in the United States, Canadians risk being distracted from what’s happening here in our own country. We are not immune to people being singled out because of their race and religion.

Random ID checks by immigration officers in the past week in Toronto have alarmed migrant advocates. The number of hate crimes in Canada reached an all-time high in 2017, largely driven by incidents against Muslim, Jewish and black people, according to Statistics Canada.

Then there’s the other noxious way in which we are distracted: Racism and xenophobia slowly chip away at one’s self-confidence and sense of self-worth. When you are made to feel like you don’t belong enough times, it adds an additional layer of weight of fear, self-doubt and paranoia as you try to make your way through your daily life interactions: as police officers walk by you, as you pray at your mosque, while you are in meetings, and as you take public transit.

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“Go back to where you came from” is a phrase as intensely familiar to immigrants as the open blue sky. It was directed at me as I walked down the hallway of my school when I came to Canada at the age of 10, as I strolled home on a beautiful spring day wearing a hijab as a teen. Instead of enjoying the lovely breeze, my mind would wander to scary thoughts, such as whether or not I would be attacked. Its impact, as potent as being called a Paki, has been ingrained on my psyche and tints the lens through which I see the world today.

Targeting people based on their race has real consequences on their livelihood, their ability to contribute to the public discourse and their sense of connection to their immediate surroundings, resulting in a lack of social cohesion. In a study conducted by the University of Arizona, 18.2 per cent of black participants reported emotional stress from perceived racism while 9.8 per cent reported physical stress. The numbers were significantly lower among white participants of the study; 3.5 per cent reported emotional stress, while 1.6 per cent reported physical stress.

Racism disempowers the people it’s directed at; it’s a distraction, as Toni Morrison said, a soul-sucking threat to our collective progress. And there is simply too much work to be done, too many policies to change and too many laws to be challenged to afford to sacrifice any person who is forced instead to spend any amount of time or energy defending their right to belong.

Sometimes I wonder what it might be like to not get distracted by the racism and microaggressions I experience. Would I be bolder and braver? Would it increase my sense of belonging? How does it feel to go about your daily life without carrying all these experiences?

I wonder if even these four powerful women, feeling obliged to respond to the remarks at a news conference, on social media, and likely for longer than the life of this controversy on its own, felt that way too.

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