“I just happen to be this person with this background in this moment in time to where I can be one of the first people to stand up there and say hey, can we take a moment to assess our relationship with this country?“
Have you heard of Hasan Minhaj?
Blank stares often meet me when I ask this question as I try to explain my excitement about his mere existence. With a gaping smile, and heart racing, I try to unpack the way I, this Nigerian-American girl born in Washington. D.C and raised in Baltimore, Maryland connected to this Indian-American born and raised in California.
Aside from being the guy with dark, silky smooth tresses, our modern day Uncle Jesse, some may recognize him for his provocative provocative performance at the 2017 White House Correspondent Dinner or the host of The Patriot Act on Netflix. But Hasan (if I may) is more than a comedian or political voice, he is an embodiment of identity politics which has been central to the conflict between America’s aspirational and real self. He is a South Asian Muslim who is also American.
Though I was acquainted with him as one of the many correspondents on Comedy Central’s The Daily Show, I became more interested in him when I watched his comedy special Homecoming King–3 times. That’s when I got to know Hasan as a storyteller. His story? Mine, and most children of immigrants marginalized because of the color of their skin or the “complexity” of their names.
In his comedy special, Hasan Minhaj (pronounced Hah-sun Men-haj) begins to tell the story of how his parents met “thirty years ago in a small town in India called Aligarh, population 990, 000.” Behind him is a map of India, which zooms into this city, that probably very few people have heard of. Mumbai? Yup. New Deli? Yup. Jakartar? Maybe. Alighar?. . . And herein lies the beginning of nuance to his story that is essential to the details of what makes an American Dream. Started from Alighar, now we’re here!
Throughout the special he shares stories about relating with his parents who emphasized education over fun, and marriage an “unspoken” appropriate time. Those were my parents. He shares a story of contemplating having friends from school interact with his home life which smelled like curry. My house smelled like ata and fried dodo. And as any good storyteller who discloses a little bit of their pain in order to connect with our unvoiced hurts, he tells the audience about his father experiencing discrimination post-911. I remember how my mother’s older white doctor dismissed her question about her cancer diagnosis claiming he could not understand her, presumably because of her accent. I was indignant. My mother who was a fighter in many ways chose to be silent. That was the American Dream tax Minhaj talked about, and I had never heard it aloud or been able to identify it until hearing him share his story.
Like many of us, Minhaj carries his parents’ story with him. Whether in his stand-up, his political show, or in interviews, he unabashedly celebrates his Indian heritage, and his religious beliefs alongside his passion for sneakers, basketball, and hip hop–all American cultural obsessions. Minhaj effortlessly presents in that in between pace. Switching between Hindi and English in his routines, confidently displaying his South Asianness, boldly declaring his Browness, and engaging its implications in an American context without shame.
In Hasan’s interview on Ellen, he rhetorically elucidates the biases Americans have with pronouncing his non-Eurocentric name contrasting the ease with which Americans can pronounce Ansel Elgort compared to his own. It was certainly affirming for me to hear with all the renditions of my name I received growing up. I can’t imagine what hearing him request effort in the pronunciation of his name correctly could do for someone like my daughter.
Yet, he openly wrestles with his entitlements as a second-generation American, his disenfranchisement as a Brown practicing Muslim, his institutional education, and his cultural one. He is a classic example of the insider/outsider relationship many second-gens have with the United States. Both a part, and not. Having an aerial perspective of our American blessings and biases, our ideals and inconsistencies, Hasan unpacks cultural and political tensions from a privileged and provoking frame.
Being both inside and out helps people like Minhaj use humor to get audiences to question what does it really mean to be American? Minhaj’s media platforms equip people from all backgrounds to leverage their constitutional rights to use their voices. Besides intimate details of his home and family life, nothing is off limits with Hasan as he talks about almost anything with a IDGAF attitude. What does he have to lose? He knows the costs his parents’ paid to get here so in his words, he’s ” [gotta] empty the tank and say what [he’s] got to say.] Free speech. Can’t get more American than that.