Kai Wright: Hey everybody, we've got a special treat just for our podcast subscribers. My friend, Khalil Gibran Muhammad is a professor of history, race, and politics at Harvard University. I met him when he was the head of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, which is this hugely important center here in New York, part of the New York Public Library, and he was convening all of these remarkable events and conversations there that I just loved.
Anyway, now he's doing something similar on a podcast. He's got this cool new show called, Some of My Best Friends Are... You can probably guess from the name what it's all about. I talked with him recently about the show, and I'm going to share that conversation with you and also share an episode of his show that I really just loved. Frankly, I think it would've made a great episode of our show. Check it out.
Kai: Khalil, thanks for coming on the show.
Khalil Gibran Muhammad: Hey, Kai, it's great to be here.
Kai: You've got this wonderful new podcast, Some of My Best Friends Are..., which is a great tease for what the show is about. I love that sort of trailer, Some of My Best Friends Are... It's you and it's journalist, Ben Austen, in these intimate conversations about, I guess, the lived experience of race and racism in America. First off, who is Ben Austen to you?
Khalil: Yes, Ben Austen is my best bud, we've known each other for 35 years.
Khalil: 35 years, yes. We met when I was 14. He's a year older than me, but we were both freshmen in high school, and we met at a job, actually. I was like the Doogie Howser of early computing and so I needed some help.
Kai: I love it.
Khalil: Yes, I was selling computers to University of Chicago faculty and a whole bunch of other people who were making the shift from word processors to IBM PC compatibles. Ben and I got to know each other both at work and we ended up being tennis players together. We played high school tennis and we've been best friends ever since.
Kai: We have to say for the purpose of this conversation, Ben is white.
Khalil: Yes, Ben is white, he's Jewish. He's born and raised in Chicago, in Hyde Park where we grew up. Important to say also that he is a professional journalist. His qualifications for this show and conversations aren't just who he is in our relationship, but he spent a lot of time thinking and writing about these issues.
Kai: Right. The point is, it's the two of you, you as a Black person and him as a white Jewish person talking across these racial lines about stuff. Has that always been part of your dynamic and your friendships since you were 14 years old? Have you guys always been sitting around where you kids sitting around, talking about race and racism?
Khalil: [laughs] Actually, just the opposite, to be honest with you. We both grew into our own individual political consciousness and then made professional choices that bring us to this moment. The thing that the show is built on is trust and authenticity. That's rare, because you can ask people, "Have you had a Black friend?" if it's a white person, or if it's a white person, "Have you had an Asian friend?"
People have these experiences, generally speaking, but they usually burn out. People grow apart and they don't last. For us, part of it is like it is going on for decades and we grew closer. We grew closer not just out of the lived experiences of being a Black and a white guy in an integrated middle-class community in Chicago, but we actually chose careers that made our work even more relevant to our personal relationship.
Kai: Listening to the show, I've heard you guys joke about the way each of you performed racial identity as teenagers. I think about that a lot myself, it's part of growing up in America, right? Learning your relationship [unintelligible 00:04:05] right?
Khalil: That's right.
Kai: I guess it's interesting to hear you guys acknowledge it to each other though and not make it a thing.
Khalil: [laughs] Yes. I'll be honest, too. It wasn't really until doing this show that we really leaned into those differences. I was listening to Culture Club, Phil Collins, and Madonna, I had Steve Winwood in my little cassette in my Hyundai, my little three-door Hyundai that I was driving around back then. Ben was listening to Boogie Down Productions, he was wearing a gold chain. He was definitely cooler than me. He's a tall, good-looking guy, I'm short and a little bit nerdy back in the day. I got all of my girlfriends through him and his girlfriend who were like, "Yes, we're just cool people."
Khalil: Yes, it totally inverts. I think today I'm cooler, actually, but back in the day, he would've won the cool contest.
Kai: I don't know, Khalil, maybe he's still cool.
Khalil: Well, if you listen to the show, he certainly tries to portray that by teasing me as the Harvard professor. [chuckles]
Kai: Why'd you want to make this show now? You are a Harvard professor, you are a busy and quite accomplished guy. I can't imagine you need more work. Why was this important for you right now?
Khalil: I think that, for me in particular, I have spent the last 10 years of my career searching for different ways to communicate why the history of this nation need serious reckoning and attention. It started with being a assistant professor, writing a book at Indiana University, and getting a job at the Schomburg Center which was totally unexpected and unplanned. It thrust me into the position of leading this nearly century-old cultural institution, where all of a sudden, I was at the center of not only this historic Black community, the capital of Black America, and holding this space that was a town hall.
It was the Black public's fear. I recognized that in that space, there was a lot of opportunity to increase people's awareness and understanding to bridge the gap between scholarship and public knowledge. This to me, this opportunity to do a podcast with my best friend was an opportunity to take all those lessons from running the Schomburg Center and being very publicly facing and saying this is another way to do that kind of work but to do it with a journalist, to do it with someone who's authentic and someone who has both lived experiences knowledge as well as learned experience.
Kai: In the conversation, you end your episode saying, "I love you" to each other, which feels intentional.
Khalil: No, it is intentional but it's not a prop. Meaning that we were doing that already, to be honest with you. We intentionally carried it into the show because we are two dudes, we both happen to be cis men married to women. We wanted some way to model that part of our authenticity is also our vulnerability, which is our emotional connection to each other. There's a lot of bros on YouTube and doing podcasts, and we thought this was a way to bring our full selves to this work.
Kai: Well, in the context of the kind of conversations you're having too is where it struck me. You don't hear love, sadly. You don't hear love often talked about when people are talking across racial lines about race.
Khalil: Yes, and that's the thing. We wanted to invite listeners into both, like here's a conversation you are probably not having yourself but you should be having. If you've had a relationship with someone who you thought was your best friend or who would you claimed as a best friend but you couldn't actually have the full gamut of conversations and love this person fully, then you're not being authentic. You're not taking the risks that are required for us actually to do the individual things we can do to lean into a better country.
Kai: We're going to share an episode of your podcast with our podcast listeners that I'm particularly interested in, and in part because you beat me to the punch on booking this one.
Khalil: [laughs] It won't happen that often, Kai. Your show is amazing. Don't worry, don't worry at all. If it just happened this time, then it's just a fluke. [chuckles]
Kai: [chuckles] Well, you saved me the work.
Kai: It's you and Ben talking with author Jay Caspian Kang about his new book, The Loneliest Americans. First off, quickly, what's that book about and why'd you guys want to talk with him?
Khalil: Yes, the book is about Jay iconic classically questioning this label, this category of Asian American. The first thing the reader needs to know is we're talking about a heterogeneous population that is huge, not only in the billions, but represents people who actually were born here generations ago and those who just arrived more recently or who are like himself, the children of immigrants. He wanted to complicate the way that we're moving into a greater recognition of this population, they're the fastest growing demographic, and then things like huge stratification.
We talk about the Black-white disparities, but within communities of Asian descent from Laotians to Vietnamese to Cambodians, all the way to Japanese, Korean, and Chinese Americans are huge economic disparities that are greater than, say, within the Black community or between whites and Blacks. That's just the context, I think, for why Jay wrote this book.
The book, it's very much personal. It is about the choices he made, it's about how he came of age. He talks about identifying himself along the lines of understanding Black people. In other words, he says, "I came to understand who I was as an Asian guy because of my proximity to Blackness and not so much because of what I thought about white people or what they thought about me."
Kai: I've always enjoyed reading Jay Caspian Kang's work because you get to follow along as he's publicly been wrestling with this and wrestling with his own racial and ethnic identities for some time. One of the big points here is that he's also come to think that the broader category we throw around of people of color is not real. I'll confess that I have the same feeling often, even though I do casually use it often myself. I wonder how that idea hit you.
Khalil: Yes. I appreciate the nuance. He tells this great story about how he understood a friend of his, a childhood friend, as a Black guy who was low income and treated with much more disdain and ostracized and stigmatized for his poverty. He says like, "That's a Black experience. That's what it means to be stigmatized as a person of color." I take issue with Jay in this way. I would say that people of color should not be simply reserved for people experiencing the worst kind of racial stigma and oppression in society, which I think that's what he collapses into. He wants to escape from that term because he thinks it ought to be reserved for people who are really suffering.
I don't know where I'm going to land on this 'people of color' term. I tend to be a big tank guy anyway, so I don't usually get my feathers ruffled over this kind of term. I know the gesture is a meaningful one towards solidarity, but I think for Jay, he wants people to be more accountable to what solidarity actually means and not for it to be just performative. I think that's what's really bothering him. We haven't resolved this tension in our language. I think we are in that moment, but of course, if we've got John McWhorter in our head like I do sometimes, it's like, well, do we really want to talk about this, or do we want to talk about all the shit that people put up with?
Kai: Well, John McWhorter is a conversation for another show.
Khalil: [laughs] I'm sorry.
Kai: We will put up getting that or maybe I'll just wait for your episode on it, but for now, dear listener, I invite you to listen to this coming episode of Khalil and Ben talking with Jay Caspian Kang about all of this stuff, and see what you think for yourself. Give it a listen.
Khalil: All right, so I'm going to lead us off with the first question. Is that good?
Jay Caspian Kang: Right. Go ahead.
Khalil: You good, Jay? You ready? All right. What happens when a white guy, a Black guy, and an Asian guy get together and talk about identity?
Jay: [laughs] I don't know. Maybe the white guy is very quiet usually.
Khalil: All right, that's good. That's good.
Khalil: I'm Khalil Gibran Muhammed.
Ben Austen: I'm Ben Austen. We're two best friends.
Khalil: One Black-
Ben: -one white.
Khalil: I'm a historian-
Ben: -and I'm a journalist.
Khalil: This is Some of My Best Friends Are...
Ben: In this show, we wrestled with the challenges-
Khalil: -and the absurdities-
Ben: -of a deeply divided and unequal country.
Khalil: In this episode, we deepen our understanding of that divide by talking with Jay Caspian Kang about his new book, The Loneliest Americans.
Ben: Khalil, we've been thinking for a while, how do we do an episode of this show of Some of My Best Friends Are… that is about the Asian American experience?
Khalil: Yes. We have talked about this a lot. I'm like, "Why don't we talk about all our Asian American best friends?"
Ben: Yes, and I was worried that that was going to be like, "Man, we sound like that, the joke of the show's title." You were like, "Yes, but that's okay." Then Jay Caspian Kang's book came out, The Loneliest Americans.
Khalil: That's right. Yes. I remember you were like, "Dude, we should talk about this."
Ben: Yes, because I've been following his work for more than a decade. I remember he used to write for this website called Grantland, which I also wrote for. He worked for VICE News as a civil rights reporter. He wrote for The New York Times Magazine.
Khalil: Which we've both written for, but I'm [unintelligible 00:14:32]. Yes. [laughs]
Ben: Oh, okay, that's true. Yes. He writes this newsletter now for The New York Times, which is so smart and funny, and offbeat at the same time.
Khalil: Right. It's part of the race-related series, right?
Ben: Yes. This was like, it seems so connected to what we're doing, and also controversial in a way. This book, The Loneliest Americans, takes a stance that has actually like he's got some backlash on. We got him on the show. He joined us from his home in Northern California.
Khalil: Yes, so let's get into it.
Ben: Just generally for listeners, the book is about the identity of Asian people in America. I'm careful to not say Asian American because you talk about how that identity doesn't exist. You challenge that sense. We want to invite you on the show because we read this book, and it felt so much in dialogue with this show, which is called Some of My Best Friends Are… and it's about race and all these ways, and also with our lives, because the show is really about we're wrestling with these stories, too.
Khalil: Well, we are the white-Black binary embodied.
Ben: In this sense, you write about this white-Black binary, and that the white part embodying assimilation and upward mobility and the Black part a sense of either victimization and racial struggle. That there wasn't really a place for you personally, and also not a place for most Asians in America. Certainly, my parents were never like, "How's it going navigating space?" or, "How does it feel to be in these classrooms, or what's going on in there?" Man, thinking about your book and thinking about-- We went back to our high school yearbook after reading your book because--
Khalil: Yes, Jay, I brought it out just for you man. It looks like a chessboard. It's like Black-white, Black-white, Black-white. That's it.
Jay: Right. Wow.
Ben: There's like one white kid on each page, every girl has the exact same [crosstalk].
Khalil: No, that's not true.
Jay: I'm seeing five Black kids per page at least.
Khalil: Yes, way more. Way more.
Ben: That's not the case.
Jay: [crosstalk] kid right in the middle of [crosstalk]
Khalil: Exactly. More particularly, I mean to Ben's larger point, because your book inspired so much of our own thinking about seeing ourselves across this vast spectrum of how we understand whiteness and Blackness, I literally went back and counted how many students could I identify as part of an Asian diaspora, and I couldn't get to two hands.
Jay: Oh, wow. How big was the school?
Ben: Almost 2,000.
Khalil: I'm pretty sure our class was about 500.
Ben: It was about 500.
Khalil: Yes, 500.
Ben: I thought maybe we could first start about the three of us all growing up, mostly in the 1980s. Thinking about how we all learned that that binary existed like this is sort of the main racial divide, and you have to fit somewhere in.
Jay: Right. I'd split my childhood between Cambridge, Massachusetts, Chapel Hill, North Carolina, two university towns. In Cambridge, after a few years, for a year, we moved out to the suburbs. I think I was in first or second grade, and that's one of my first clear memories, is that watching the kids get off the METCO bus. When we had moved to the suburbs, it's just Black kids probably from Roxbury, South Boston.
Khalil: You got to tell us a little something about METCO because it's this dream experiment that people brag about.
Jay: They brag about it, wow. METCO was the Boston area busing program. It was seen as this great beacon of progressive thought, and there was a huge infrastructure thing where they would bus kids 30, 40 minutes out into the suburbs. It was basically the peak of school integration goodwill. One of the first memories I have from my childhood period is just standing at the bus circle and watching the METCO bus rolling, and every kid who got off the bus was Black, and there are no Black kids at the rest of the school. Maybe there's one or two, but almost none.
I don't think that I was really aware that I was much different than the white kids because I'd lived in that town. I didn't take that bus. The differentiator of race in that instance was whether or not you took the bus. That was the first time I actually realized that there was any difference in standing in the bus circle there, because it was so stark. It was just those kids ride that bus, I don't ride that bus, and so I must be part of this group.
Ben: Then you move from Cambridge Massachusetts to the south to Chapel Hill, I believe, North Carolina. What was that school like?
Jay: My schooling was very similar to yours. There weren't that many Asian kids around and the school had a lot of Black students and a lot of white students. There's this really interesting class element to it too where I was in this very odd program back then, and it was like 18 of us. I hate people say this, but it's like some accelerated program. We had three Black kids in that class and one of their fathers is the most famous miss doctor in the area. You know like on local news when the doctor comes on?
Khalil: You're right. Yes, like Sanjay Gupta?
Khalil: The local [unintelligible 00:20:09].
Jay: In the Piedmont area, he was sort of the Sanjay Gupta. The other girl in our class, her father was an educator, the mother I think worked in STEM, and then we have one kid who was from the poor Black neighborhood in Chapel Hill. It was interesting how that was even differentiated even for us in fifth grade.
Khalil: You mean, you understood these Black kids were different from each other?
Jay: Right. It was more ingrained in us to think of it that way than it would be to think of it as being totally separated. It made for a very confusing experience that I tried to write about in the book where it's just like, how do you sort all this, especially when you're in a situation where you have to differentiate?
Khalil: It's an interesting point about how you're also navigating the absurdities of racial stereotypes that you can see Black people are also trying to traverse challenge, avoid. You tell this great story about Dwayne, a friend of yours who you befriended. Was that also in Chapel Hill?
Jay: Yes, it's the same kid who was in that class who lives in that neighborhood.
Khalil: Okay, so we're talking about Dwayne. Yes, he's the poor kid. You make the point about Dwayne as the poor kid in the community being representative of the absurdity of this notion of people of color all being the same.
Jay: Yes. Someone had told me that we were both people of color, and I just look at them like they're crazy because there was such separation between me and Dwayne. In the book, I illustrated through this anecdote where our little games or some of our little games were played in Dwayne's neighborhood. If you can imagine how, this is still the south. Chapel Hill's a progressive town, but it's still the South. The way in which people would talk about going to those games, "Lock your car, make sure that we get in and out as quickly as possible," all this sort of stuff.
Khalil: It's kind of anti-Black, everyone's a criminal rhetoric.
Jay: As a kid, you absorb that. We're playing and Dwayne walks over the field, he sees me and says hello. There's another moment where I just understand that seeing him in that environment, you see like, "Oh, what they're talking about when they say lock your cars and get out of there as quickly as possible is Dwayne." The idea at that moment that like, "You and Dwayne are both people of color." [laughs]
Like "What are you talking about?" I don't know, I've thought about that moment so much throughout my life because in some ways, I felt like I was betraying him because I was acting so awkward and that it was shocking to me. I was probably 12 years old, something like that, and I'm having these thoughts about my friend. It's tough to talk about even now.
The reality of it is that I think if you said that Deirdre and I, who was a woman whose father was a famous doctor, if you had said, "Deirdre and you are people of color," I would have been sure, but Dwayne and I cannot be people of color together. I think that that's a very complicated thing, that I think that those types of distinctions are very uncomfortable, but in my life, at least, they're much more felt. They seemed much more real to me in terms like 'people of color'.
Khalil: You struggle with the term people of color throughout most of the book. I've been thinking, is there a moment when you really come to terms with who you are? Because that seems to me to be a question at the heart of this book, "Who am I?"
Jay: Right, that's true. Well, I think it was a series of moments and I think what's interesting about the series of moments, and maybe this is not typical for Asian people, but certainly is true for me, was that none of the moments had anything to do with white people. Of course, in some ways, it had to do with white people, but it was not about differentiating myself from white people or having white people differentiate themselves from me. Every single one of these moments involve Black people, it involved either differentiating myself from Black people or having Black people differentiate themselves from me.
Jay: I think that that actually has informed basically all of my thinking and I just went through a lot of phases. When I was 16, 17, maybe 15, I wore Timberland's and listened to Wu-Tang and Nazz.
Khalil: Oh, snap, you're getting close to Ben, you're pushing up on the white guy in this conversation. You're pushing up on that guy.
Jay: Right, I was going to ask. I was like, "Maybe Ben can identify with me." [chuckles]
Khalil: He has some stories to tell.
Ben: I'm more KRS-One, I'm a little bit older.
Jay: Right. I feel like people about our age and a little bit older are much more familiar with this than young people today because I think it's been drummed out of the culture, but there's periods where a lot of Asian kids, a lot of Jewish kids, I think would put on this affect when they're teenagers, right? Sometimes, I think it's, look, I don't know if it's even an affect. It's just like you're developing and this is a path that you chose, you chose this type of identification. I definitely went through all of that. You swing back and forth, but what was interesting to me at the time, or now that I think about is I don't know. I don't know, Ben, why did you-- Ben, I'm actually much more curious about it.
Khalil: Thank you, Jay. Thank you, because he's literally the white guy in this conversation being silent, like you said at the beginning of this episode.
Jay: Right, Ben, what was that like for you? What was your experience with that?
Ben: The what is in terms of identity or--
Jay: Right. No, like in high school, did you listen to rap and talk with [unintelligible 00:25:57]?
Ben: Yes, I listen to rap. Like Khalil now joked because he was more like Phil Collins, and I was more like KRS-One.
Khalil: Why are you talking about me? You got to talk about yourself.
Ben: No, I'm embracing it. The dominant culture which I've felt a part of, I was saturated by this world and I connected to it in a lot of ways. Khalil had been asking me after reading this book about being Jewish in that world, and I was thinking about that in my head, and there wasn't an alternative white dominant culture that I felt that I was vacillating between. Like between say, white and Black and then a third thing, Jewish. It didn't exist in any numbers in our community.
Khalil: I could think of a whole lot of corny white dudes who you could follow behind.
Ben: Exactly, that doesn't mean that it's common.
Jay: Did you feel like not totally white at the time either? In North Carolina, my friends are mostly Jewish, there weren't that many of them. I think about it, this is like the '80s and '90s. They weren't exactly white back then either.
Ben: That's a great question. What's funny about that, I would say that I didn't think that at all in high school, and then when I went to college and I was amidst this all-white culture, I was like, "Man, I'm not really like all these white people," and I didn't think in those terms beforehand. I thought I was just this thing that existed in this space. Then being in an all-white space, essentially a college and people who didn't grow up in communities and neighborhoods like I did, I was like, "Man, I'm not like these white people." That had less to do with being Jewish than with just coming from a certain neighborhood.
Khalil: Well, what I can tell you, Jay, in clearer terms, is that this dude was Black cool in high school. He carried himself in the way that had swagger. He wore a gold chain. To this day, I've never owned a gold chain.
Ben: I'm going to get you one for your birthday.
Khalil: He had his Girbaud jeans, I was still wearing [unintelligible 00:28:13] Guess jeans.
Ben: Who didn't wear Girbaud jeans? Come on.
Khalil: Well, I had like one pair.
Ben: Come on, you did own Girbaud jeans.
Khalil: If I showed you pictures of him back then, you would totally get it.
Jay: Oh, yes. Many of my friends like to wear like that. It's an interesting thing because I feel like there's a lot of shame. It's not like people are going to cancel you, get mad at you if you did that, but certainly--
Ben: Unless you actually put on Black face, then you're done.
Jay: Right. It's thought of as very gauche now, and I don't know, do you get that? Do you think it's gauche now? Or do you reflect back on it and think about like, "Hey, no, I was right"? [laughs]
Ben: No, no, I don't feel it because I don't feel like I was pretending to be something I wasn't either. I think I was aware of the cultures around me and also engaged in it. The menu of options were there and I picked from those menu items. Of the six items, I picked five of them, and one of them, as Khalil said, it might have been white kid on the math team and I didn't pick that one. When we come back after the break, we're going to talk to Jay about choices he made to focus his reporting on Black Lives Matter protests and the choices Asians in America can make about their future.
Ben: You write a lot about your reporting on the Black Lives Matter protests, which is something that I also did a lot of reporting on here in Chicago after the killing of Laquan McDonald, and I got deep into this here. What drew you to that reporting and what did you learn about yourself by covering this racial justice moment?
Jay: Since I was in high school or college, I thought that I still feel this way, I'm very drawn to protest movements, especially street protests. It's the thing that I feel most passionately about. During Ferguson and for the four years after, that was basically my job.
Ben: Yes, you were their "civil rights reporter" for VICE News.
Jay: Right. I did some stuff for The Times, and then my job for VICE was just go and see what's happening. As a result, I went to tons of these protests. Baton Rouge, Minneapolis, Baltimore, St. Louis.
Khalil: Alton Sterling, Freddie Gray. You write a lot about Philando Castile.
Jay: Philando Castile, right. At first I was just like, "Well." At a lot of them I'd be like, "I'm the only Asian person here. What's going on here?"
Ben: You count the faces, right?
Jay: Right, I would just count.
Khalil: One more thing before you say that. I learned for the first time that Asian people, at least you, give the nod. I was like, "Holy shit, there's an Asian nod?" Isn't that what you said?
Jay: Right, yes. I think I've protested my 2016, definitely. Last summer there was much more Asian people out for George Floyd, but prior to that, I would see very few. People can argue with me or whatever, but I was at all of these, and I was looking, and I didn't see many. It really did form a lot of my thinking over the last five years. It's just like, what is the public face of what people say Asian American identity is within the press? They say, "It's a radical political identity, we're allies, we're fellow people of color." I'll be like, "Where are you? Why are you not showing up? Where are all of you?"
It made me realize that the people who say those things are saying them in earnest. I bet a lot of them did go to a lot of those protests, but it's a very small population. The vast majority of Asian America are people who are either recent immigrants or people who are apolitical. I don't know, I think it's difficult to make the argument that the people who do think of Asian American identity as this progressive people of color thing or in any way the majority, they just happen to be the people who get to talk and define that thing. That realization has been the most formative for my political place, at least, which is just maybe we don't have to think about this stuff, maybe it's more important to show up.
Within the space of the protest, all these things will be resolved. You can make connections, you can talk to people, you can organize with people, and that if you show up, 99% of the people there are not going to worry about your relative privilege or where you fit on a racial hierarchy scale at all. They're happy you showed up. I think that that's the message I've tried to put in the book because I think a lot of Asian Americans like myself, who went to good schools and are upwardly mobile, I think they just need to hear it. Don't worry about it, jut show up.
Khalil: Jay, this is really fascinating. I teach at Harvard and I see these kids. Many of them were born here, some of them are new to the country, but to your point about feeling uncomfortable with this notion of a share people of color identity is a very real thing. I think your book does a good job of that. I think it would be helpful for me, though, to understand how before 1965 for those immigrants as compared to the kids we're talking about that I teach or yourself or the people you want to show up at these protests, how should we understand this difference between before 1965 and after 1965?
Jay: In 1960s census, there's something like 800,000 people who are called Asians in this country. Many of them have been here for generations, and the reason why there's not more is because there's exclusion laws. It's basically impossible to immigrate from Asia to the United States. You had this community, a lot of them have been interned by the time the '60s rolled around. It's a small community, they have direct links back to a lot of the campaigns of racial terror that were inflicted upon Chinese people. All this stuff happened. Then what you have in 1965, you have the Hart–Celler Immigration Act, and now you have more than 20 million Asian people in America.
Khalil: The fastest growing population [crosstalk]
Jay: Yes, right, fast growing population. People from all sorts of countries coming in. The boundaries of what Asian America is expand every single day. You have populations that people don't even know about. Like Hmong population or you have Laotian populations. If you ask people on the street, "What's Asian? What does Asian American mean?" most are going to just say Chinese, Japanese, or whatever, maybe sometimes Korean. The boundaries have expanded just drastically since then. One of the questions that I ask is just, the history that those people prior to 1965 defined themselves through, internment, exclusion, does it really have that much relevance to the people who came post-1965? Do the stories from the past have any relevance to the masses of people who come afterwards? How do they think about themselves in America?
I think they think about themselves in America very differently. I think they're much more like my parents who are just like, "Put your head down, work, don't think about it, you're in America now, try and fit in, and try and be successful. These are the ways that you can be successful. We can't help you all that much because we have no social capital here." What's strange is that there's now this disconnect where the way that Asian American history is told or Asian American identity is formed is very much based on things like the Chinese Exclusion Act.
You saw when the women got killed in the spa in Atlanta, everybody's doing threads about Asian American history. It's about internment, stuff like that. My thought is always just, that stuff is bad. [chuckles] It was a regime of white terror against Asian people. Does that really have a full-on connection with people who have no lineage to that at all? I think that's the point that I try and make in the book, which is just this is a pretty formless group of people at this point, and that they can really be anything, but the thing that they're not really is a fully-formed people in any way.
Khalil: Right, they're not cohesive. I think to your point, the assimilationist imperatives of post-'65 immigrants, the ones who are coming today, I agree with you, creates this huge knowledge vacuum. I think part of what you're writing about in this book is what that means for justice.
Ben: I'll say the book is fascinating and the storytelling is amazing. Your mom on trips taking out the phone book and looking for Korean names, and then actually calling those people, and then getting together with them.
Jay: Yes. They were just asking, "Hey, are you all right here?" It was definitely a cringe moment for me and my sister.
Jay: Like, "What are you doing?" Now that I'm older, I understand it much better. She must have felt very unsettled when my dad dragged us all out to the barrens of the West every summer being like--
Khalil: This is Wyoming, right?
Jay: Wyoming, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota. These were our only vacations. We didn't go to normal vacations.
Ben: Man, I love your parents, but can we talk about you as a parent? You also open and close the book writing about your daughter. Your daughter is biracial. Your wife is white and, I'll also make a plug, half-Jewish. Also, my children are biracial. It is such an interesting opening up to identity because you don't share a certain kind of identity with the person who is closest to you in the world. There's a lot of reflection that that causes maybe early on because later you're just like, "I'm just trying to deal with being a parent," but early on, where you are, you're deep in it thinking these thoughts like, "Will my child have an experience that is different than mine?"
Jay: That's the emotional core of the book. It's a rumination on why did this happen to me and other Asian people? Then what's the future going to look like now that people are on this path of assimilation or if they are on this path of assimilation? Who are the people who are not on the path of assimilation and what are their lives going to look like? For my daughter, I think about it, we live here in the East Bay and there's a ton of half-Asian kids running around. She goes to a school where there are way more half-Asian kids Asian kids period in any school I ever went to, and there are a lot of Asian kids, too.
I remember the teacher at some point, this is I think during Pride Week or something like that, said to me, she's like, "I just want to raise a bunch of allies. I want these kids to be allies." In my head, it kind of fucked me up because I was like, "Ally?" [laughs] I was like, "I am not white." If somebody had told me, "You need to be an ally," I'd be like, "Listen, I'm not white. Let me tell you."
Ben: You need to ally with me.
Jay: Right. My childhood was not great [laughs] because I am not white, but then I think about it just like, "Maybe she's right." I'm sure, Ben, you had these thoughts, too. Is the stuff that I write, is the stuff that I think about, I talked about in myself, is it going to be relatable to her? Is she going to think about this in the same way?
Ben: Yes, it's interesting. You have such a contrarian persona online. Maybe that is inherently part of you, but it's so forward on everything you post. That, as you said, is like this emotional core and rawness and openness. It has none of that.
Jay: Thank you.
Khalil: I was thinking, though, that your dilemma which you're so expressive about because you're like, "I don't want my daughter to be entitled, I don't want to raise a spoiled kid," these are your words, right? It seems to me, like Ben and I have talked about this on the show a lot, but we as parents do make a choice. We make a choice about what we teach our kids about the world we live in. I'm wondering, just as a final reflection, are you teaching your daughter the things that you're writing about? That seems to me to be a very different reality for her than what happened to you when your parents didn't talk to you about these things.
Jay: Well, she's about to turn five, and so it's right about the time when these conversations start. Yes, I think so. I think that I would like her to be aware of it in a way now. If she turns into your stereotypical, bleeding-heart liberal Berkeley kid, I'd be overjoyed.
Jay: I'd be so happy. Here in Berkeley, we have a huge homeless population. Like does not understand why people live in tents. Those conversations are starting. I had a friend come over at some point, I probably shouldn't tell that story, but it's a little funny but she had a friend come-
Khalil: You're like a little funny.
Jay: -in the middle of the pandemic, and no one had been in our house in a long time. One of the first people that had been in our house is one of my friends who's Black. He walks in and she says, "He's Black." I was like, "Whoa."
Jay: It wasn't because she had not been around Black people before, but I think that she had been learning at school because they learned about Civil Rights Movement, everything like that. I think that it had been this moment where she was starting to differentiate people. When we lived in New York, we lived in Crown Heights. She goes to preschool, everything like that where like 30%, 40% of the kids in her class are Black. It's not like she had not been around Black people before, but it was this moment where something had clicked in her head. Yes, we had a talk then too, but it's [unintelligible 00:43:49]. [laughs]
Khalil: Jay, that's such a beautiful story because for me, as a parent, my kids are older. My wife and I committed very early on to teaching them, but even we make mistakes. By that I mean we didn't talk about Asians. We talked about Black, white. The consequences of that, my youngest daughter was born in Indiana, we're living in a community with a large population of Asian students, many of whom were immigrant students. One day, babysitter has our four-year-old kid on the bus, the campus bus, which was not a common experience for her, but she's on a campus bus. She turns to her babysitter and says, "Why are there so many Asian people on this bus?"
Khalil: That's an invitation to parenting and to having a conversation. We're just so grateful for you spending time with us today, and we're going to count you among our best friends, Jay. Thanks for spending time with us.
Ben: Yes, Jay. This is amazing, Jay. Thank you so much.
Jay: Oh, good. No, this is great.
Ben: I think talking to him, I appreciate it so much, his openness with us and how experiences from his childhood, he's still processing them, and I feel the same way. I feel the same way about my past. I'm still wrestling with different ideas and thinking about.
Khalil: You're definitely still wrestling with.
Ben: No doubt.
Khalil: We talk about that some more.
Ben: I also think if the book was only his personal individual experiences, it wouldn't work. He is just one person, but he tells the story about himself, and it is a kind of coming of age story, and a coming of age story racially, but also an intellectual coming of age story because he tells a story of thinking he cakes all this personal stuff, and history, and research, and other flashpoint moments that are really important for an Asian community in the United States.
Khalil: I think that works, but I think the word I would use would not be intellectual, I think it would be political. One of the things that stuck out to me is when he talked about both in the book and a little bit in our conversation, that who is really speaking for the people working in low wage, retail, nail salons, laundering, restaurants today, who's really speaking for them? What he's basically saying is in my community, not a whole lot of us.
Ben: Yes. He's saying their politics don't align necessarily, but we have to find this common ground. To me, that was a really powerful part of the book.
Khalil: That is an especially powerful part of the book because that's so much about what you and I are really committed to. We're committed to the work that we do individually and the show collectively because these issues that we face should be all of ours to tackle.
Ben: Yes. Jay opens the book by saying he's not going to provide all the answers, but he really is going to engage with a lot of these questions, and he totally succeeds in that. I am deeply immersed in this topic now from reading the book and thinking about it a lot and wrestling with these questions. I definitely recommend people to dive into this book as well.
Khalil: Yes, and the truth is that, probably for the first time in many ways, I am much more sensitive to and aware of many more communities that I need to care as much about as I care about my own. I think that's a value to the book.
Ben: Yes, that's a powerful point.
Khalil: All right, man. Love you.
Ben: Love you, too.
Khalil: Some of My Best Friends Are... is a production of Pushkin industries. This show is written and hosted by me, Khalil Gibran Muhammed, and my best friend, Ben Austen.
Ben: It's produced by Cher Vincent and edited by Karen Shakerdge. Our engineer is Martin Gonzalez. Our associate editor is Keisha Williams. Our associate producer is Lucy Sullivan, and our showrunner is Sachar Mathias.
Khalil: Our executive producers are Leital Molad and Mia Lobel.
Ben: Special thanks to Jay Caspian Kang. He's our newest best friend. You should check out his book, The Loneliest Americans, and also subscribe to his New York Times newsletter.
Khalil: At Pushkin, thanks to Heather Fain, Carly Migliori, Jon Schnaars, and Jacob Weisberg.
Ben: Our theme song, Lil Lillie, is by fellow Chicagoan, Avery R. Young, from his amazing album, Tubman. You will definitely want to check out more of his music at his website, averyryoung.com.
Khalil: You can find Pushkin on all social platforms @pushkinpods and you can sign up for our newsletter at pushkin.fm. To find more Pushkin podcasts, listen on the iHeartRadio app, Apple Podcasts, or wherever you like to listen.
Ben: If you love Some of My Best Friends Are... and any of the other shows from Pushkin Industries, consider subscribing to Pushkin+.
Khalil: Pushkin+ is a podcast subscription that offers bonus content and uninterrupted listening for $4.99 a month.
Ben: Look for Pushkin+ on Apple Podcast subscription.
Ben: I just want to say, Khalil, you just proved that argument about somebody who's connected to Harvard will bring it up in the first 15 minutes of the conversation, because I work now in Cambridge.
Khalil: Whatever. I didn't actually say Harvard.
Ben: No, that's even worse. [crosstalk]
Khalil: See, it's what little you know about Cambridge has more than just Harvard. How about that?
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