Like Hasan Minhaj, I dreaded attending prom at my predominantly-White, well-to-do high school. I was one of only two South Asian-American kids in my graduating class. The other, a girl of partial Pakistani descent, rode my bus route and became a sort-of friend across cliques. Come senior spring, my White friends thought this connection and my relative lack of romantic experience were enough justification to repeatedly hound me about asking her to prom. They proposed the scenario like it was the most natural thing in the world: "Of course the only two South Asian kids in our grade should go together, it's so cute! Maybe they'll wear Indian clothes! Maybe they'll kiss!" But the subtext I grasped was that these White kids' desire to see a spectacle was more important than our Brown kid feelings.
I didn't know the word "microaggressions" back then. I only knew the anger I felt, which I now know masked my hurt. Of the racism I experienced during my teens—a boy calling me a "towelhead," friends who labeled me anti-White for joking about Donald Rumsfeld, kids of businessmen who asked why Black and Brown people in nearby Hartford couldn’t lift themselves out of poverty, the same kids throwing the n-word around "as a joke" when none of the school's few Black students were around to hear it, teachers asking me to explain why Hinduism was so oppressive—this strike to my teenage insecurity somehow felt more personal. I didn't expect most privileged White kids to understand the insidious nature of racism, but these were my friends who jammed with me in rock bands and ate my mother's cooking.
These feelings came roaring back on Tuesday (May 23), when I watched Netflix's just-premiered "Hasan Minhaj: Homecoming King." Much of "The Daily Show" correspondent's one-man show, which he previously toured across the country, revolves around his own prom racism experience.
Minhaj, the only Desi student in his Davis, California, high school class, deconstructs his deepening mutual attraction with a White classmate who asked him to prom. Without informing his traditionalist Indian Muslim father, he donned an ill-fitting suit and biked to her house—only to see a White guy putting a corsage on his date's wrist.
He relays the aftermath as the camera zooms in on his pained expression: Her mother, who affectionately welcomed him into their home before, tells him that her daughter will attend with the other guy because "we're gonna be taking a lot of photos tonight" for her family in Nebraska, "so we don't think you'd be a good fit," before offering him a ride home.
"And it's not like they were a bunch of toothless yokels yelling 'sand n*****' from the back of the truck, I could let that just roll off my back," he elaborates. "I'd eaten off their plates, kissed their daughter—I didn't know that people could be bigoted, even as they smile at you."
But "Homecoming King" does not live in racism's despairing reality. Minhaj frenetically delivers passages like the one above with levity that allows the audience a break for laughter and catharsis. He finishes the prom story by saying, "I'm grown and time has passed, and I don't really think about that day—except I did write a show about it, but…" to uproarious laughter before setting the narrative aside until later.
This balance of truth-to-power proclamations and disarming candor, mixed with thoughts on his Indian Muslim family and immigration policy, makes "Homecoming King" especially useful for youth of color seeking insight about their place in America's tenuous multiracial tapestry.
As he's done on "The Daily Show" and during the White House Correspondents' Association Dinner, Minhaj uses his platform as one of few famous Desi comedians to model for others who experience similar tensions. During the show, he describes the death threats and smashed car windows his family endured after 9/11. While the teenage Hasan scoured the neighborhood looking for the culprits, his father swept up the broken glass. The story illustrates his view of a generational divide between first-generation immigrants and their American-born children:
My dad's from that generation, like a lot of immigrants, where he feels like if you come to this country, you pay this thing, the American dream tax: you're gonna endure some racism, and if it doesn't cost you your life, hey, you lucked out. Pay it, "Here you go, Uncle Sam!" But for me, like a lot of us, I was born here. So I actually have the audacity of equality!
Minhaj also processes these experiences in the context of a racist society historically built on anti-Blackness:
For the most part, I actually think about it the way my dad does: Oh, you couldn't go to prom with a White girl? Who gives a fuck? At least your spine isn't getting shattered in the back of a police wagon the way it’s happening to my African-American brothers and sisters in this country to this day. So this is the tax you have to pay for being here? I'll pay it, thank you. I can’t take your daughter to prom? I don't give a fuck, Uncle Sam, take it!
But then I realize, "Wait, hold on: Why is it, every time, that the collateral damage has to be death for us to talk about this?" A kid has to get shot in the back 16 times for us to be like, "Maybe we have a race problem in this country, maybe we're afraid of each other." For every Trayvon Martin or Ahmed the clock kid, there're shades of bigotry that happen every day between all of us.
Minhaj revisits the prom story to explain how he eventually spoke to his old crush as an adult, uneasily patching things up as she dated a Desi guy. Displaying a Facebook image of the other man's successful marriage proposal on the screen behind him, Minhaj declares: "I'm the cure for racism!"
He can't actually cure racism, but by offering a template for navigating it, Minhaj just might help other Desis find our own ways to fight it.
"Hasan Minhaj: Homecoming King" is available to stream on Netflix now.