“Go back to your country,” yelled a stubby, beet-red-faced Sox fan at a bar, located across from the Orioles stadium, at Camden Yards in downtown Baltimore. It was days after Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old unarmed Black man, was killed in police custody. As a result of the tragedy, a group of community members in combination with a few local activists, had organized a march to plea for justice and the arrests of Gray’s uniformed killers.
I participated in that march, as an angry citizen, but more as a reporter. Things were 100% peaceful, until we intersected with the baseball crowd — where, “Go back to your country,” easily rolled off of the stubby guys tongue, as if he was more than sure we didn’t belong in America, without question. As if we all weren’t from east or west Baltimore. Needless to say, massive fights broke out shortly after the bigot’s chant, and the rest is history.
“Go back to your country,” is something that almost every person with Black or Brown skin living in America will hear at some point in their life. White people with heavy accents could yell, “I’m from Sweden, f**k America!” and still would probably never be told to go home. It’s actually pretty funny, because the U.S. is always sold as this big ol’ melting pot, until a POC pisses off the owners of that said pot – and then it’s no longer about “we” but more of an “us versus them” kind of thing.
Award-winning playwright Wajahat Ail brilliantly captures the “us versus them” feeling in his new memoir, “Go Back to Where You Came From: And Other Helpful Recommendations on How to Become American.”
Ali, who is most known for his New York Times column, and CNN political commentary takes us to his early days of the deplorable nation where he emerged, the United States of America – the suburbs of Fremont, California to be exact. There he learned the poison that race is in America at an early age, from how he was treated in school to his parents’ unfair incarnation. Ali maintains humor and optimism while showing readers how the Liberals aren’t even Liberal, and how nothing has changed, not even in the post-Obama era. Ali details why it’s so necessary to find humor in the midst of the chaos that is politics, on a recent episode of “Salon Talks.”
Watch my “Salon Talks” episode with Ali here or read a Q&A of our conversation below to learn more about how his family survived the rise of Islamophobia post 9/11, his non-traditional journey into becoming a writer and the hilarious way he demolishes trolls.
The following conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
During the pandemic you got a chance to spend extra time at home with your kids. Are you still a child creation advocate?
My child, Nusayba, as you’ll find out in the book is five years old. She’s a cancer survivor and she’s an immunosuppressed. And as we are recording this to my left she’s doing her gym virtually, and my son who’s seven is also in the other room doing virtual school. And then I got a baby running around and this wildling might crash through the door.
I hope we’re over that pandemic, but 60,000 people died in January. An average of 1,700 deaths a day, just last week. And so, it’s one of those situations where I would love for my kids to go to school. Trust me, I got two kids in virtual school. I got three kids running around. I’m exhausted. But at the same time, it’s like, whatever keeps them healthy and whatever keeps people healthy. And the second thing I’ll say is, I was just thinking about this right before we start recording is I’m like, “Man, I’m so tired. I’m so exhausted.” But maybe if I look back on this moment I’m like, “I got to spend time with my kids at this really precious age. Who gets that?”
One of the things about your book “Go Back To Where You Came From” is you cover some very deep topics. Topics that can go dark pretty quickly, but it still has you maintain humor throughout the whole book. Is humor your main coping mechanism?
That’s a good question. Is it coping or is it just how I process the world? Maybe it might be both because they often say if you’re not laughing, you’re crying and I’m not one to cry. My wife thinks I’m a cyborg. She goes, “I’ve never seen you cry before. What’s wrong with you?” For those listening, it’s okay to cry, cry. It’s good. It’s healthy, it’s therapeutic. But I have like this, I’m this old antiquated Spartan male from this older generation. We just suffer quietly and suffer well – even though I’m completely opposed to it – that’s how I’m built.
I think laughter and humor allows you catharsis, which is release. It allows you to kind of enjoy an absurdist view of the darkness that oftentimes accompanies life, the challenges, and the pain, and the sadness. And then also sometimes it’s a good way just to feel better. I think in a way in conveying these stories and specifically some of the interesting challenges that my family and I went through, yeah, I could have cried about it, but I think processing it through humor gives me a vantage point and a perspective in a way that I could also communicate the story to the audience in an accessible way that allows you I hope to take it very seriously because it’s serious stuff, but also find some of the absurd humor in this thing called life.
You’re like Generation X, Millennial cusp.
That’s right. That’s exactly right.
Me too, and I feel like our generation wasn’t really allowed to cry. Millennials have it good. They cry, they get awards and plaques and people giving them gifts, but we cry we kind of get ran out of society.
It’s like because they got Brene Brown. So, you can Brene Brown your life if you’re a Gen Z or a Millennial, like vulnerable. We didn’t have these words. Vulnerable is the buzzword right now. Trauma is another buzzword. If you were a dude crying in front of your other boys, let’s just be honest, they’re like, “Yo, man up. What’s wrong with you? You seem like a B.” And then now it’s like, “It’s OK to get in touch with your feelings.” We didn’t even have the word self-care. That’s something beautiful with Gen Z. Ours was suffer well, brush yourself off, man up, work hard, and then die at the age of 65.
Now self-care is get a massage and buy yourself something nice. And I think when we were kids self-care was like the crack era.
You got dudes our age getting pedicures. Get some bath salt and no one blinks, which is good. Look, I’m saying, this is good. You got to take care of yourself because oftentimes the Gen X and Millennial cusp that you and I are, we inherited some of the baggage, the trauma, and the bad behaviors of our elders who weren’t given this language, right?
What they were taught was man up, suffer well, suffer quietly, never talk about your emotions. Even if you got problems, mental health issues, financial issues, you just man up. Man up and stay quiet and grit it with your teeth. And if you’re a model minority, smile your white teeth because you are so happy. You’re the token, and what will people say? So just smile.
We’re at that certain age where you get older and you listen to the older generation, right? The older men and women, they kind of open up to you, and you realized, “Oh, wow. That uncle suffered from depression. That person has anxiety. That person went to jail. That person has been sad for 20 years.” All of a sudden you’re like, “Oh, I understand this person,” but they never had the ability or the permission to share the type of story that I was able to share in this book.
My experience is different from yours, which gave me the space to learn so much to feel more connected to your journey, to that immigrant experience, to the Muslim experience. I’ve learned so much and it got me thinking about audience because I felt like I’m definitely the audience, but then a part of it also frustrated me because I know that Brock Strong Balls is probably not going to pick up the book. Strong Balls is probably going to look at a tweet or look at a meme, even though that person or that prototype could learn so much and be able to connect with you.
In the opening of the book is I decided to experiment with how a memoir can be written. And so, instead of starting it with “once upon a time,” I started with emails that I get. Lovely emails, emails that give me very unsolicited, helpful advice, such as, “Go back to where you came from,” and “Go f**k a goat.”
A lot of goat f**king.
Why are they so obsessed with goats and camels? These are actual emails that I got, so I just copy-pasted them. And then there’s my response. With a book like this, or even most memoirs it’s like walk a mile in my shoes type of book, right? So, I’m like, okay, let’s just hit it right out of the gate. Let me punch you in the gut. If you were to walk a mile in my shoes and you open up your inbox, this is how you would be greeted by your many fans.
I didn’t write the book for Brock Strong Balls. “Brock Strong Balls” is one of my haters who’s a hateful missive I wrote in the book, but you’d be surprised because I got surprised that the stuff that you and I have to deal with on a daily basis, Black and brown folks, Muslim folks, women I would even see on the internet just in life, the macroaggressions. Many folks, especially white folks – and these aren’t the Brock Strong Balls – we’ll just say liberal center left, center right, they’re like, “Wow, you have to deal with this every day? We had no idea.” And so, the stuff that’s common to you and me sometimes is like completely revelatory to other folks. They’re like, and then they feel bad. Like, “We had no idea you had to go through this.” And you’re like, “Yeah, no s**t.”
I’m not trying to get your sympathy, but I’m like, “All right, you want to walk a mile in my shoes? Here we go.” Go f**k a goat. Go back to where you came from. Even though you’re born and raised in the Bay Area, California. Do you want me to go back to the Bay Area? Okay, subsidize my rent because I can’t afford it. You want me to go back to my mom’s womb. Let’s go Freud. Let’s all go back to the womb.
When I think about those comments, the first thing that comes that I always think about is a Trump rally. When Trump was having those rallies it was like the comment section coming to life.
The comment section for my articles throughout my career, oftentimes, were filled with so much hate and anti-Muslim bigotry that the editor just shut down the comment section. And I went to a Trump rally a couple of weeks before the election. And it was every type of white you could meet under the sun. It was old whites, young whites, red-haired whites, brunette whites, blonde whites, biker whites, senior whites, all the whites. This was right after the Access Hollywood tape came out and he bragged about grabbing women by the p**sy. I even asked white women. I’m like, “Aren’t you offended by this?” They’re like, “Eh, locker room talk.”
And then I said, “What about all the horrible vile things he’s saying about every group?” And his voters loved it. What they said was, “This is why we like him. He’s politically incorrect. He shoots from the hip. He takes on everyone. He doesn’t care.” The more vulgar he was, the more his base ate it up. It’s the comment section come to life. And the comment section back in the day was filled with deplorables. Clinton was actually right in that categorization of the Trump voters, but because we infantilize and romanticize and cover up whiteness and white anxiety and white rage, it wasn’t racism. No, no, it was economic anxiety, which is BS and disproven study after study.
It’s sick. I have a friend who’s from China. And he actually said that in his culture, “artist,” where he’s from, it means homeless. When did you first realize as a husky young man that writing was going to be your thing (as long as you’re still going to be a doctor)? Can you take us to that moment?
In Pakistani culture, artist means dumb and poor. The kids who weren’t smart enough to do engineering or business or law then became artists. I joke in the book that for many immigrant communities, there’s a trinity of occupations: It’s doctor, engineer, wealthy businessman and failure. So, you and me are basically failures. I always wanted to be storyteller. I always enjoyed making people laugh. But the back of my head I’m like, “How am I going to pull this all off when there’s no models of success?” And you get handed down this checklist of immigrant success, kind of not actually handed out, but you hear the conversation you see what’s valued. No one ever said writer.
And so, you’re a brown kid, a Muslim kid growing up in the bay area. There was no Hasan Minhaj at that time. There was no Rizwan Ahmed. There was no Fareed Zakaria. There was no Mindy Kaling. And so, you’re like, all right, I have this dream, but whatever. Maybe I’ll just go do something else. And I remember the power of a mentor or a teacher just taking a shot at you, just believing in you. Ms. Peterson in fifth grade told us all to write a one-page short story. I wrote a 10-page short story on Robin Hood. And she gave me an A+++, and then she said, “Get up in front of the homeroom and recite the story.” I’m like, “Ms. Peterson, please, I can’t do it.” She goes, “Shut up, fatty, get up.” Maybe she didn’t say that, but that’s my recollection.
Shout out, Ms. Peterson.
I recited the story and the same kids in my fifth grade homeroom who used to bully me, for the first time ever they just sat there rapt with attention and they laughed at all the right parts. That’s when I realized I might have something. A reason why I mention that is oftentimes when folks see this video, or they read this interview, and they see people like you and me they’re like, “Who am I? I’m nobody. I can’t do this.” And I say, “Some of my favorite people are nobody. I’m also nobody.” Great things have small beginnings. It’s like planting a seed.
You get to the point [in the book] in college and 9/11 happens. A couple of weeks after 9/11, my teacher at that time, Ishmael Reed who’s a MacArthur Genius winner, and a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer, African American literary giant, he says: My people, Black people have been fighting back for 400 years. They’ve been trying to erase us and suppress us. The way we fought back is through art and culture and storytelling. We need your story out there. Writing is fighting. You have to write a story about an American family that happens to be Pakistani and Muslim. Write a play. Dialogue and characters are your strengths. I’m like, “What are you talking about?” This is a short story writing class. He goes, “No, no, no, just do a play, and I’ll see you in two months. All right. Bye.”
Sometimes just having a writer, a mentor, a teacher, a family member, a friend say you got something, and to encourage that seed. Without that, that’s a sliding door moment, man. Maybe I wouldn’t be here. Maybe I’d be a miserable attorney right now taking Xanax, marrying the wrong woman.
It becomes real when somebody who has that success and they push you, then it goes beyond just a hobby and it becomes a real thing.
Then when someone pays you. When someone gives you a check and you cash the check and they gave you the check because you wrote something you’re like, “What? Is this real?” And then when people start inviting you as a writer, this is the whole process. It took me a long time to really own the fact that I’m a writer.
How much was your first check the first time you cashed a check off writing, you remember? I know mine was $25.
That’s not bad at all. Mine was $50. My director, Carla Blank told me, “You’re a writer.” I’m like, “I’m not a writer.” She goes, “You wrote something. You gave it to an editor. They gave you a check. You cashed the check. You’re a writer.”
White privilege is also a recurring theme in the book, and my question for you is how can I actually get my hands on some of that?
You have to be an average American who’s from the Rust Belt who drunk the real coffee, who has economic anxiety, who lives on Main Street, who’s part of the mainstream. And then you too, sir, you can have white privilege.
You want to be blunt? Be a white European refugee. Don’t be Haitian or Yemeni or Syrian. And by the way, when I say that comment, we have to help and we should help the one million Ukrainians who are fleeing, but I got this article coming out today with the title, “It’s Good To Be a White Refugee” because there a whole bunch of other refugees, there are a whole bunch of other refugees right now who are suffering and the borders got closed and there were barriers and walls, but now blue-eyed, blonde-haired, Ukrainian refugees, and we’ve got many of our colleagues in the media saying, “They look just like us. We have to help them.” That’s white privilege also.
One of the things that you do in a brilliant way is point out how hypocritical this country is, and people who disagree it seems like they have a problem with understanding that, pointing out the flaws in the country, and then working towards fixing them actually makes the country into what you are trying to push it off as anyway. How do we get past that?
I get called this now. “You are a race-obsessed liberal because you talk about racism.” Other stuff you get called is you’re a race hustler. You are just sucking at the teat of white guilt and making white people feel bad and trading in that white guilt to create a career. And I’m like, I do suck at the teat of white guilt. It’s delicious. Salty, but delicious. It’s one of those situations that if you really think about the beating dark heart of America is white supremacy. It’s part and parcel of the American nightmare, and oftentimes we never talk about it. We like to promote the fiction of the American dream. And unless you acknowledge it and diagnosis it and take a scalpel and remove it, it will poison everything.
The paradigm, the structures, the education, the housing, the lending, everything. It’s like poison. And so, what happens in America instead is we don’t want to acknowledge. It’s like Voldemort. And if you acknowledge it, it makes people lose their effing mind. I’ll give you one quick example. 1619 Project, just look at the freak out over the 1619 Project. How dare you challenge our notion of this myth of America where the white man came here and birthed this nation from nothing? That’s the quote from Rick Santorum. Sure, there were some Indigenous folks, but we came here. We were good. Slaves were treated well. I mean, the slaves got . . . I’m not making that up. That’s what Bill O’Reilly said, remember? The slaves were treated not too bad. And then, OK, fine. Nobody’s perfect. But then we gave you Martin Luther King and Beyonce and Ta-Nehisi Coates.
Look, it’s the American dream. And why can’t you poor refugees and poor Blacks and poor browns be like the good model minorities who grit their teeth and have resilience and pull their selves up from the bootstraps and work hard and stop complaining. We gave you Obama. We live in a post-racial society. Get over it, darky. Don’t mention it. Don’t acknowledge it. And if you do mention it, you’re extremist. You’re hysterical. You’re uppity. You’re race-obsessed. You’re divisive. These are the tricks that white privilege, the mental gymnastics, the type of defensive mechanisms to avoid talking about race because if you avoid talking about race, you don’t have to confront racism and you don’t have to confront and acknowledge your role in either being against it or perpetuating it. So, instead, keep that privilege because the system helps you, and instead blame the darkies for bringing it up.
Being a race hustler sounds like a pretty good profession. If I could sign up . . . I would rather be a race hustler than a cop.
You want some white privilege? You want some white guilt? I got everything. How much guilt you want today? I got you.
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We spoke earlier about how even though you didn’t write the book with the intentions of certain demographics trying to learn and connect, but you also didn’t write 10 chapters saying my parents did everything perfect. You mentioned the good, the bad, and the ugly because that is how we heal.
The book has a plot twist in the middle where you’re living this model minority myth – a suburban kid, 20 years old going to UC Berkeley. My parents, Pakistani Muslim immigrants, like many immigrant parents, worked hard. Middle class, upper-middle class. Mervyn’s not Bloomingdales, sometimes Macy’s. That’s how I describe them. That was my parents. Immigrant parents who looked out for a good deal, but when they had the savings or the money, they spent it, and we went on vacation, but we didn’t have F-U money. I was the only kid and I lived a comfortable suburban life. You kind of achieved the American dream, upper-middle class, maybe, that’s about it, and my parents were happy.
We had two crisis points in my senior year of college. Number one, 9/11. Overnight everything changed in the perpetual war on terror. And then overnight, you’re a model minority. You’re now the enemy. You’re now them. You’re now a suspect. You are now a dirty Muslim. I went from Gandhi, which was what I was called when I was a kid, to Osama overnight. And not just me, but all my people. And then a few months after that in the aftermath of 9/11 when this country went insane, they banned, they canceled Susan Sontag. They banned “Imagine” by John Lennon and the Rage Against the Machine catalog. People forget that. They banned French fries. They banned Dixie Chicks. Dixie Chicks were the whitest women on earth. They canceled the Dixie Chicks for the most benign comment. Muslims were hazed, surveillance, FBI just showing up at your home.
A couple months later, my parents were arrested in part of this operation Cyber Storm where Microsoft and the FBI teamed up and Robert Mueller then the head of the FBI comes to San Jose and says this the biggest piracy crackdown and two dozen people have been arrested. And my parents’ luck was they worked in the same office complex as these other folks. They didn’t have a single piracy complaint, but Microsoft got them on a licensing charge from a business they did two years ago. So, it doesn’t matter a headline as you know flattens everything, and who’s on the front page of the FBI? My parents. And what happens overnight is then I experience the American nightmare as experienced by so many communities. You lose the house, you lose the credit, you lose the community, you get hazed, you need money to take care of your family.
Now I leave school and I got both parents in prison, and now you experience the criminal justice system, which like I mentioned in the book and my experience flattens not only the individual who is incarcerated, but people sometimes forget it flattens the families and the communities. It flattens generations. I tried my best to really articulate that to an audience that otherwise was not expecting that story, and also to an audience that oftentimes sees prison and Black, prison and poor. And I’m like, no, no, no. Our prison system incarcerates two million people more than any other country on earth. We talk about rehabilitation in this country and redemption and everyone has a shot, but what about people who went to prison? What about people who just happen to be poor and Black and were using drugs? How come they don’t get a slap on the wrist? So, I think this story and that chapter, I hope illuminates also.
I really wish as a collective we would rally around these different narratives and stories so that we can move forward.
A part of me says, “White people, you figure this out. We’ve had to survive on our own, we’ll survive, maybe. Many of us won’t, but guys figure this out. You’re having a moment.” And so, I’m going to live in a bluish state and I’m going to make my money and I’m going to have my community, inshallah, I’ll just try to protect myself.” That’s one instinct.
Another instinct says we have to do everything within our power as usual to save this country from itself. And oftentimes we’ve been Black folks leading the way, but more and more, there’s a multiracial coalition that gets it, and enough whites. This is the key thing. You’re not going to get the majority of whites. You’re just not. But if we can get enough whites to realize that we have to fight for a multiracial democracy, maybe we have a shot. Maybe we have a shot. Some people say it has to get worse before it gets better. But what I say is sometimes when it gets worse, it just gets worse. And so, we got to do what we always have to do, man. We have to fight for a country that doesn’t love us back.
We have to do our best to protect our communities. And unfortunately through our pain and suffering, this country eventually learns of this thing called white supremacy and the American nightmare. And maybe enough people wake up and realize maybe we can work together to create the American dream for everyone.
Watch more memoir interviews with D. Watkins: