Wajahat Ali attends the world premiere screening of National Geographic's "America Inside Out With Katie Couric" at the Museum of Modern Art on Monday, April 9, 2018, in New York.
( Andy Kropa/Invision/AP
Melissa Harris-Perry: It's The Takeaway. I'm Melissa Harris-Perry:
Wajahat Ali: I'm an exhaustive dad, currently owned and dominated by too many dictators who rule my life with an iron fist while wearing their Huggies diapers.
Melissa Harris-Perry: That's Wajahat Ali back in 2019, delivering a TED Talk about why he thinks kids are still worth having even in a time of global unrest and climate crisis. The last time I saw Waj, we were in South Carolina. He was speaking to a room full of students, faculty, and community members at a university event. I was scheduled to speak later that afternoon, but I had arrived in time to hear him.
He's analytic, funny, self-deprecating, and poignant. He moved the crowd from laughter, to tears, to thoughtful, and I became an instant fan. It is truly my pleasure to welcome to The Takeaway Wajahat Ali, columnist for The Daily Beast, and author of Go Back to Where You Came From: And Other Helpful Recommendations On How to Become American. He's also co-host of the Democracy-ish podcast. Great to have you here, Waj. Thanks for coming.
Wajahat Ali: Thank you so much. That was an amazing introduction. I should Venmo you. Just tell me how much.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Listen, I actually want to start with your family. Part of the angst and pain of that TED Talk is that you're talking about the joy of having children and also talking about having just found out about the cancer diagnosis of your warrior princess youngest daughter. Can you tell me how she's now doing?
Wajahat Ali: The warrior princess, Nusayba is now six. In that clip, I had just found out that week during my TED Talk that our daughter, Nusayba, who at that time was about to turn three, was diagnosed with stage four cancer. Which meant that the cancer was all over her liver, and there was a spot found in her lung.
She thankfully is alive due to an anonymous liver donor who later revealed himself, Shawn Zahir, who gave a piece of his liver to my young daughter. Now she's a diva. She has her ears pierced, maybe has about two costume changes a day. Use me as a jungle gym. I give her all the candy she wants, very sweet, full of life. If you saw her now, you would not believe that this little girl who was on the verge of death, once was this close to fading away.
Anytime people say, "Oh, how can you have hope with all the horrible things that are happening in this world?" I'm like, "Every day I see Nusayba," and I know that once you turn the page, and you don't see the end sign, Melissa, that means the story is still being written.
Melissa Harris-Perry: That sense of hope in the context of truly troubling times collectively, personally, it also requires a public vulnerability that I'm not sure everyone feels so willing to have. Tell me about that willingness to be personally vulnerable by doing political and social analysis.
Wajahat Ali: People use the word vulnerable, and for me, that just means being honest, but honesty comes at a cost. Sharing a part of yourself and a part of that story, your daughter, suffering from cancer, do you share the story or do you not? We wrestled with that. The reason why I told her story, Melissa, and the reason why I tell the story of our communities, and the painful stories of loving a country that doesn't love you back, fighting for a country that oftentimes doesn't fight for people who look like you and me.
The pain, the heartbreak, being poor one time when my parents were in jail. People say, "Oh, you were vulnerable. Thank you." I'm like, "I was just being honest." That type of honesty I have seen as a result of sharing these stories is very empowering to so many people who suffer silently, who feel like my story doesn't matter, or who say, "What will people say?" "Oh, if I reveal this about myself, I will be seen as weak, and they will mock me."
What I've seen instead, Melissa, is instead of people mocking me, people say, "Thank you. I appreciate it. You articulated in words what I feel, but I cannot express. You have a platform and a privilege that so many of us don't, and you're airing some light and some truth out there, and I feel like I'm not being gaslit." If all it takes is a few people mocking me for a majority to feel like that, then I think the tradeoff is worth it.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Quick pause, then more with Wajahat Ali right after this.
We're back with Wajahat Ali talking about his book, Go Back To Where You Came From: And Other Helpful Recommendations on How to Become American. Talk to me about 9/11. You were young person in college, and how it shifted who you were in the world.
Wajahat Ali: Isn't it wild the bar's so low? If you talk to, oftentimes, people of color, they'll say, "Oh, my God, that movie made us look like we're humans. It humanized us." I'm like, "Wow, the bar is so low. What are we? Replicants or aliens?" Here's what goes to show you because we're not used to it. This is what happens when you, in the American narrative, Melissa, are seen as villains, the bad guys, the stereotypes. Once you're depicted as a fully realized three-dimensional human being, you're like, "Wow, that was so refreshing."
9/11 is a great example of what I call the baptism by fire for my generation. I was about to turn 21, a senior at UC Berkeley, and overnight you realize that this country, especially if you're a woman, a person of color, if you're poor, can turn on you on a dime. Overnight, those who were Muslimy, not just Muslims, Melissa, but Muslimy, we became the bad guy. The story and the narrative, and the lived experiences of 1.7 billion Muslims, all of a sudden, became fland, and overnight I was Osama, ISIS, Al-Qaeda.
I was not this brown skin, dorky, Muslim kid, born to Bay Area Pakistani immigrant parents who wore Husky pants, I became the villain. As you know, then you have to spend the rest of your life fighting this narrative, proving your civilization worth. You're American with an asterisk, everything is conditional, and you have to prove your moderation and your patriotism to a judge, jury, and executioner that always holds your loyalty as suspect.
Overnight, you realize, "Oh, this is what Black people are talking about. This is what Latinos are talking about. This is what the refugees are talking about." Tag, you're it, you become the Boogeyman.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Tell me about rage boy and moderate Muslim.
Wajahat Ali: Oh, yes, rage boy. I'm not making this up, but after 9/11, rage boy was a popular media term to describe the singular image that was used to describe 1.7 billion Muslims. You could google it. This is why they pay me the big money. If you google image rage boy, you'll see an image of a brown skin, angry man with his fist in the air who's bearded, usually standing in front of an American flag that is burning. Rage boy became the image, the singular story of this thing called Islam and Muslims.
You were either rage boy or the moderate Muslim, nothing in between. The moderate Muslim is this dangerous stereotype. It's like the model minority. This country only respected you and only loved you if you could prove that you were "moderate," the passive Black man, the good minority, the model immigrant, the moderate Muslim who fights ISIS and helps National Security and drinks alcohol and listens to Britney Spears and Taylor Swift and doesn't have an accent.
Then, and only then, we will accept you as being an American. It doesn't matter if you've been here for 40 years, if you work your butt off, if you've done everything right, nope. You will only be accepted, maybe with an asterisk, if you prove if you're a moderate. If you're not a moderate, then by default, you are rage boy.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Wajahat Ali is a columnist for The Daily Beast. He's co-host of the Democracy-ish podcast, and he's author of the book that is now out in paperback. Go Back To Where You Came From: And Other Helpful Recommendations on How to Become American. Waj, thank you so much for joining us today.
Wajahat Ali: Thank you so much. Any time. It's been a pleasure.
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