Comedian Aparna Nancherla on Having Compassion in the Face of Bigotry
In a country divided by white nationalism and fear, Aparna Nancherla reflects on a woman of color in comedy and urges Americans to remember that its our country's "melting pot" that defines its greatness.
Photo by Theo Wargo via Getty Images
For lack of a better cliché, I keep thinking I am dreaming. Since becoming an adult, my dreams end up being mundane anyway, especially the ones I have after I hit "snooze" on my phone alarm. It's always me running back into the house to grab my phone charger or whatever else the writers in my subconscious ripped straight from the minutiae gazette. But now, it's the quiet replay of recent events without the comfort of the alarm jarring me awake again. The immediate aftermath of the election has passed, so the initial stages of grief, rage, sadness, and denial have washed over and evolved into an emotional purgatory. All that remains are shreds of the paradoxical trifecta of outrage, hopelessness, and calculated acceptance. A previous sense of innocence has been lost.
I was born lucky, and continue to be in the cards the world has dealt me. I grew up in an upper middle class Northern Virginia suburb. It was a global place with plenty of diversity, since many diplomats, State Department, and World Bank employees regularly had stints in the area. I had opportunities both academic and extracurricular from a young age, and was encouraged to freely explore my interests. While my parents both emigrated from India to the States in the 1970s, I was born here in the nation's capitol, Washington D.C. While childhood was a lopsided balance of embracing both my Eastern and Western cultural ties, I never felt like I couldn't have both. Holding both simultaneously in no way qualified my identity as an American.
This past election cycle was the first time I began receiving tweets like "Go back to your country" and "If you don't like it, leave." These would always be in response to any post that was anti-Trump or anti-Republican, but the underlying message was, "If you don't agree with this agenda, you are not entitled to share this land." It was the most polarized I'd ever felt politically from those with differing views.
Truth be told, I received the least of it. I wasn't the victim of hate speech or physical assault. I didn't feel newly unsafe walking on the streets, as compared to a woman in a hijab or a transgender person just trying to go about their day. This realization that bullying and ostracizing can be passively accepted, or worse, openly encouraged, led to reframing the entire country in my own mind. It's one thing to feel like "an other" in demographic terms. For example, I am a woman of color in the white male-dominated field of comedy. But it's another thing to be openly told that you are different and that makes you questionable. It's like all the "wrong" examples you read about in kindergarten picture books about acceptance and the golden rule manifested into one self-assured movement.
There is subversive and untapped power in the melting pot.
I am always open to understanding someone else's viewpoint. I would like to have empathy and compassion for those who may not necessarily agree with me, or see the world the same way. However, to me, America has always stood for welcoming those that feel they are Other. The Statue of Liberty has those words etched on her very base. "Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free..." We are the sum of our parts—the oft overlooked working class denizens of the Rust Belt, the inner-city youth hoping to break themselves from repeating cycles of poverty and violence, refugees looking for asylum from war-torn countries, and little girls hoping to break new ground with their ideas for the world.
America began as a great experiment, and it will continue as one, not by closing its doors and minds, but by keeping them open in spite of differences. I know I am an idealist. I know I am sheltered. I know I am privileged, but I want these opportunities for others. The mixture of all the Others together is what makes this experiment great.
In that sense, there is subversive and untapped power in the melting pot. As many people as are preaching isolationism and xenophobia, there are an equal number, if not more, holding on to their convictions of acceptance. We are at a rare moment where many progressive movements stand united against the encroachment on their liberties. America's greatness is not based in a strident, unknown formula underwritten by white nationalism and fear.
History has demonstrated and continues to demonstrate we are not a perfect country. We still live with the dull ache of segregation and internment camps, and the new sting of mass shootings and situations like Standing Rock. That's where action supplants inaction, and hope supplants fear, because to speak up is to represent both yourself, and others who may not be able to, whether it's from threat, circumstances, hopelessness, or all three. For every American saying "Go home," there are more saying "You are home." You are not alone. You are not responsible. You matter.