For many South Asian immigrant youth, at least those around my age, Hasan Minhaj’s Netflix stand-up comedy film Homecoming King felt like a breath of fresh air and a scream into the megaphone that many of us have longed for. In a brutally honest and raw form, Minhaj used storytelling and satire to highlight the emotions and experiences that many of us face in school, our homes, and communities. The parts of us that feel weird, lonely, and buried were amplified and transformed into a collective roar of “this is who we are, and it cannot be ignored.”
In one portion of the film, Minhaj recalls an experience of racism and his father’s quiet “head down” response as being a form of payment to the “American Dream Tax.” I think this idea of dealing with the hardships and discrimination and racism as a price of admission to the United States is something that many children of immigrants were implicitly raised on; even if we weren’t told directly that this was something we had to do ourselves, we saw our parents do it enough that we understood it to be true and normal.
I saw my mom’s natural curls turn straight through harsh chemical treatments after comments about how hair translated into professionalism in her office. I heard my father introduce himself on work calls as Nathan instead of his lengthy name of Muruganathan, which conveys a rich history of family lineage and heritage, because it was easier for those whose tongues could manage Indianapolis but not anything that sounded remotely ethnic.
Much of my early experience of being a South Asian kid was centered around wanting to be American, more specifically, being white. I was told through shows and movies that people who looked like me could amount to nothing but a head-in-the-book side character with a social awkwardness that seemed omnipresent—whether it was a 13-year-old female or a 30-something male. Rather than that unappealing image, I much preferred and drifted towards the white characters who were captains of their sports teams, homecoming queens, pursuing passions in unique and interesting fields, and making friends with just about anyone. In fact, in high school I became the captain of both the sports teams I was on and was also crowned homecoming queen, but I still felt like an exception to the rule. No one told me that there is nothing inherently “white” about all those plot lines. Instead, they added up to this societally constructed invisible wall that served as a barrier—reinforcing stereotypes, halting many of us from establishing our own identities, or making us feel like "imposters" in some of the identities we pursued that didn't match prevailing narratives.
Lunchtime was another horrific battleground. I would carefully pull out the lunch that my mom had woken up early before work to prepare, anticipating the inevitable drift of the spicy aroma to spread beyond myself. I braced for a stray comment on the “gross smell” and dreamt of the day I unpacked my lunchbox to mac & cheese. Now as a college student, I long for my mom’s aromatic, spice-filled, made-with-love meals. As kids, regardless of whether we personally find value in something, we long for validation and appreciation from others. When that validation is not given and the specialness is trampled upon, you start questioning if it is even worth cherishing in the first place. It starts with a lunch but can quickly transform into a larger problem of built-up insecurities and confidence issues towards oneself—an added layer to the identity crises that kids already go through in growing up.
For so long I didn’t know what it meant to appreciate and value myself as a whole person, one who was constructed by both my experiences of growing up in the United States and deeply intrinsic ethnic heritage. It wasn’t until I grew up that I realized I could even ask for anything different than what I had experienced. Microaggressions and racism should not be a given. Feeling like you are an outsider in any community you are a part of is not normal.
After speaking about his father, Homecoming King’s Minhaj then says, “I was born here, so I actually have the audacity of equality.”
To me, the audacity of equality means having diverse and unique plotlines of people who look like us and come from backgrounds like us that span from Sharpay in High School Musical to Simon in Love, Simon. The audacity of equality means being able to comfortably walk into a workplace with natural hair or cultural clothing without judgement. The audacity of equality means learning deeply about Asian or Asian American history beyond the occasional lesson that intersects with topics of war or colonization.
These are relatively easy beginning stages of what the audacity of equality can be. Many South Asian youth are starting to finally find a foothold to discuss what a world without those visible and invisible barriers and harms could look like. Much of this shift is due to the overwhelming growth in tough conversations across various issues affecting other communities.
Minhaj’s line and the concept of the audacity of equality has stuck with me this past year as the nation has awakened to social justice in large part due to the Black Lives Matter movement and the heightened awareness of violence and structural discrimination disproportionately impacting the Black community. I’ve realized that the audacity of equality demands that we not only move forward, advocate, and demand equality in the ways each of us are most directly affected, but that we also pursue these goals in solidarity with other communities of color.
Recently, I participated in an event hosted by America’s Promise Alliance, Diverse Experiences, Shared Power, where Asian American and Pacific Islander youth and adults came together to discuss AAPI youth leadership, heritage and community, and lack of representation in the K-12 education sector. One portion of our conversation centered on solidarity amongst Asian Americans and other communities of color in the United States. My fellow panelist James Kwon pointed out that “there is a long history of solidarity between the AAPI community and other communities of color” and Jasmine Nguyen acknowledged that “people are hurting and as part of the larger community of being people or being Americans, you should not want to see your fellow Americans suffer.” We are all in this together and we have been for quite a long time; now it’s time to not only demand systemic change from our leaders but also show up collectively and work towards this transformational justice across all fronts. As our moderator, Chi Kim, stated, “your joy is my joy, your hurt is my hurt, and your humanity is my humanity.”
At the end of the day, my experiences fall under a shared umbrella of oppression and harmful constructs of deeply racist systems. Having the “audacity of equality” entails demanding it for all, and for our collective humanity.