Sam Kass / Kobina Agbeyome / Eye Em / Getty Images / Jessica Wang / HelloGiggles

Alex Wagner's epic mixed-race memoir Futureface makes the case for interrogating our family histories

January 10, 2019 4:51 pm

To have roots in multiple places is to be divided, or so it can feel. Growing up in the diaspora, in a different place than your parents, means growing up with questions, whether they’re your own—What would it be like to communicate with your grandparents with no language barrier?—or everyone else’s—What are you?

Political journalist Alex Wagner, who co-hosts The Circus on Showtime, previously hosted Now with Alex Wagner on MSNBC, and writes for The Atlantic, had these questions and more: Was either side of her family complicit in racist violence? Were the stories they told just convenient myths? Who were her people, and where did she belong? To find answers, she traveled to Iowa, Luxembourg, and Burma, interviewing family members and searching government archives. Her book, Futureface: a Family Mystery, an Epic Quest, and the Secret to Belonging, which came out in paperback January 8th, documents this journey, following messy personal and political history to reach something like home.

We spoke with her about approaching family as a journalist, DNA ancestry tests, and how we construct our identity.

HelloGiggles: You wrote about how your father and maternal grandmother each have a single clear identity. What made you feel that you didn’t have your own version of that?

Alex Wagner: When you’re a mixed-race American, there’s often the sense that you have to choose or one culture is chosen for you just by virtue of where you grow up and what the dominant cultural practices are. I grew up in what felt almost like a vacuum. I just thought of myself as generically American—I guess, probably to some degree generically white, but not actually white. It wasn’t like I grew up not thinking I was half-Asian, but I grew up in a part of Washington, D.C. that was largely white. I went to a school that was very mixed, but most of the kids in my classes were white, and so most of my friends were white. I’m fully aware of how weightless this sounds and, to some degree, thoughtless, but I think I didn’t feel like racial identification was a huge part of my upbringing and therefore my identity.

There were a few discrete moments, though, where I understood that I wasn’t “generically American.” One of them, which I talked about in the book, was this time when I was about 12 years old, when my dad and I were at the local diner, and my dad, who was white, got up and went to use the men’s room. The line cook looked at me and said, “Are you adopted?” It was the first time I thought, “Oh wait, he thinks I look really different. He thinks that I don’t belong in this particular family picture. Why is that?” I was embarrassed in that moment, and I was ashamed for myself, which is totally messed up on a number of levels, but is, I think, a natural reaction to being made to feel like you don’t belong, that you’re an outsider. That was the seed of like, “Okay, wait a second. What does it mean to not be of this place? Where do I fit in the American story? Where does a mixed-race person find that sense of cultural rootedness?”

HG: That story really hit me when I read it. It reminded me of these moments in my childhood that I didn’t understand until I was older. Like, going to the grocery store with my mom, who is Japanese, and being asked if we were together when, obviously, I wouldn’t be at the grocery store by myself as a kid.

AW: I think I actually carried with me that sense of embarrassment or shame whenever I was with my dad after that. I think I went out of my way to make sure people knew that he was my dad and I wasn’t just some random little girl with this white guy just because I felt like, “Oh, it’s up to me to make sure everybody understands that I belong.” That’s a very twisted way of realizing that race isn’t and wasn’t as simple as I had thought it was prior to that. I think that’s one of the reasons why later on in life I became really interested in the idea of being mixed and embracing the difference. The name of my book comes from that Time magazine cover about the future face of America, because that was the first time I felt like, “Oh, hey, I belong. This person is me and I’m the future, and being the future seems like a really good thing to be.”

HG: I could really relate with your progression—from being made to feel different for the first time to getting interested in being mixed and trying to learn about race and find community—and then finding a lot of conversations pretty superficial and unsatisfying, too focused on our faces or food and a mythical future beyond race. Why do you think that this narrative of a mixed, post-racial future was so common or appealing?

AW: Well, I think there was a moment where we all thought like, “Oh, the great browning of America is just an amazing thing, and we’re all gonna look like each other,” but of course, what we’ve learned, especially in this moment is people want to belong to something specific. They want to identify. Tribalism is poisonous in our politics, but as an evolutionary impulse, it makes a lot of sense. There’s a sense of safety and protection in community. When I was in high school happily being confused as Hawaiian or Egyptian or Alaskan or whatever, that was novel, but there wasn’t the same sense of belonging. There wasn’t a community in that.

That’s I think what drove me in college to more fully explore, “Okay, well, what does the Asian part mean?” But like you said, it felt fraudulent in a way, which isn’t to say that those groups don’t provide a lot of support for people. I don’t mean to denigrate them at all, but for me, it just felt like, “Well, I don’t really belong here either.” I didn’t grow up with some strong Asian identity that I could share with all the other Southeast Asian students. It was a bad fit, but that didn’t resolve the fundamental question of, ”Who are your people? Where do you belong? Where are you in the big American story? Where’s your tribe?” All of that in combination with where we are as a country politically made me really want to explore this idea of identification and belonging and community.

HG: You wrote about going to the different countries of your family’s ancestry, looking for that sense of being among your people, in a place that you were innately tied to, and not necessarily finding it. Did you have an idea of what that feeling would be like and how you would know, This is the place, these are my people?

AW: When I went back to Burma, in part because America was where I grew up, Burma was like Brigadoon, right? It was this magical land lost to the mists of time and history, and I really wanted to discover it because I think I had an Indiana Jones-style appetite for discovery, but also because a lot of people engage in ancestor tourism, and it’s really meaningful for them. I know I have friends of African American descent who have gone back to see where their slave ancestors were stolen from the land, and it is meaningful for them.

There were some discrete moments where I went to places where my family had once worked or lived, and connecting with actual parts of our family history was meaningful, but in the most generic sense, just being in Burma didn’t make me feel more Burmese. Being in family locations made me feel more connected to the actual men and women in my family, but in terms of broader Burmese cultural identification, I didn’t get that just by virtue of drinking Burmese tea and eating Burmese curry. And that was disappointing, but it also made me realize, “You know what? I grew up in America.” As dissatisfying as that may be in this quest to find my people, that’s actually where I belong. I’m an American. I have just been told by some people that I don’t belong there, but at the end of the day after having circled the globe, of course I belong there.

HG: There are so many different degrees of closeness you can have to the country your parent immigrated from—whether you get to visit often or you’re encouraged to speak the language or live in a community surrounded by people of the same background. But with Burma, I’m sure there was a huge component of, there was also a regime change and there was so much history that happened between when your family lived there and when you went to see it, that it wasn’t necessarily the same place.

AW: Yeah, that was part of it that was really hard, too, with so much that was lost. I talked about the archives and the information systems, and how so much was thrown out or destroyed. So much evidence of who we’d been and what we’d done was gone. And that’s really hard. I mean, that’s decades of family history just lost, and so you kind of have to recreate it in your head, and that’s not satisfying in the way that you want it to be when you go back to the place that we once called home.

HG: You mention that your relatives on both sides of your family talked about their homelands in these nostalgic, rosy stories. It seems like a really common thing to airbrush the past, but what do you risk when you do that?

AW: Well, I think in many cases, you sand down the things that make the stories extraordinary or interesting. But often—and we’re living through this moment, right?—this nostalgia for the past glosses over the faults, the sins, the injustices, and it gives us a false sense of who we were, and I think it engenders a sense of entitlement in some ways.

In terms of the immigration debate, the more you learn about undocumented people and how you may have undocumented people in your own family from years past—I mean, part of what this moment requires of us is empathy, and the more honest we can be in our own accounting of who we actually are, the more empathetic we are in the present. That seems paramount, especially right now.

HG: You’ve been a journalist for a long time. Was this your first time writing about your family or interviewing your family for a professional project?

AW: Yeah, it was, and I have to say, I recommend that everyone do it, not just the professional journalists among us because, you know, two of my family members passed away as the book was being completed. And as painful as that was, I’m so deeply thankful that I was able to spend hours with them talking about the lives they lived. We all have that opportunity. We just rarely seize it. We too often leave the work of investigation and interview to casual stories around the Thanksgiving table.

It’s really important to make time to ask your mother and your grandmother and your grandfather and your father about who they are. We rarely see the people in our family as people and also characters in a bigger story about America. And it’s a really beautiful thing to be able to see us in that context.

HG: Since you started writing this book, your father and grandmother have passed away and you’ve become a mother. How have those major changes to your family affected the way you think about identity?

AW: Well, I think this story brought into sharp relief this idea that we all play a role in creating the narrative about who we are. And I feel like my role, given the work of this book, is to give my son and future generations a more full accounting of who we were, at least to the degree that I could do the research. But also I don’t want the family narrative to function in any way as an ankle weight. If one thing became very clear to me, it’s that it is up to us. It is important to have the knowledge and the information and then to go soar.

Because all the genetic testing taught me one thing, which is that we are destined as species for change. And the death of my father and my grandmother and the birth of my son…you really get in touch with the cycle of life, and that we’re given a finite period to walk the crust of the earth. And so it’s up to us to make the best choices we can while we’re on it and to live the fullest lives that we can. This book started out as a pretty analytical journey, but by the end, it became a pretty deeply spiritual journey.

HG: Are there things that you want your son to know about having a mixed identity that you didn’t know when you were younger?

AW: First of all, I want him to see the world. I want him to talk to his Burmese grandmother as much as possible and…I want him to ask lots of questions, really, because I definitely didn’t ask enough, even as many as I asked for the process of this book. I want him to fully immerse himself in life, not just our family life but also the life of his community because that’s sustaining and that’s the tribe just as much as one’s bloodlines are. I want him to see Burma. I want him to see Luxembourg, but I also want him to be fully invested in this globe that he’s growing up to be a part of.

HG: Are there things that you worry about not being able to pass down, like, language or specific traditions that you don’t know as deeply as you would like?

AW: Definitely no one will cook as well as my grandmother. I mean, that skill is lost to the sands of time, and that breaks my heart because she could make mohinga, which is the national noodle dish of Burma, better than anybody. And he’ll never know what it is like to come down in the morning to see her tiny little diamond-covered hands crumbling pea fritters on a hot bowl of noodles soup. And that is a national tragedy, but, but! He will go back to Burma one day and have a pretty damn good bowl somewhere. I’ll make sure of it.

HG: I’ve often struggled with how much I care about and feel connected to Japanese culture versus what other people expect when they look at me. Do you feel that kind of anxiety about yourself or for your son, in terms of how he’ll be able to immerse himself in Burmese culture one day?

AW: I don’t think so, just because I think more important than looking Burmese is actually, are you gonna make an investment in knowing about Burma? And by the way, it’s not incumbent upon him to do that. I would love for him to be in touch with his family history, but I think part of the problem right now is we’re all too obsessed with our past. Again, I say this from the perspective of a mixed-race person who has largely been freed from a lot of the deep, heavy, fraught complicating parts of race. But I want him to be as engaged as he feels comfortable being. I just hope it is an authentic engagement. So if he decides he wants to be a Burmese scholar and only have Burmese friends, I mean, that’s up to him. I guess, I don’t feel any particular weight. I don’t feel any particular anxiety for him one way or the other. I just want to give him as much information as possible.

HG: I think that’s great and encouraging because it’s not necessarily healthy to carry that anxiety. It’s just something that is so common because of the way people talk about race.

AW: Well, you know, when I went to Burma, everyone was like, “You must be half Thai.” I was like, come on, people. But we all own our own story, and you can’t let skeptics or naysayers define who you are. It goes back to that 12-year-old in the diner.

HG: You wrote that you didn’t really start exploring your Asian roots until you were motivated by guilt. Can you talk more about what that guilt was about and why you think it kicked in when it did?

AW: I think because Burma has been so in a state of, and continues to be in such a state of, turmoil, it wasn’t until a certain broader engagement with the world kicked in that it occurred to me, “Oh, wait a second. I’m Burmese. Really traumatic, cataclysmic things have happened in this country, and I don’t know anything, really, about it.” I know a couple of headlines but I don’t know what my family did there. I don’t know the debt that we owed to Burma. I don’t know the debt that Burma owes to us if we are in fact democratic activists, you know?

There was a sense of needing to set the ledger straight to some degree that brought me to really, more fully engage with the country. Then also, the Saffron Revolution 2007, it was the first time that Burma was really on the national radar in a meaningful way and was leading the news headlines. That’s when I felt incredibly guilty that I’d never been there. I would drop in casual conversation that I was Burmese and yet I was not tethered to the country in any meaningful way.

HG: Early in your research about your dad’s side of the family, you discovered that you might be Jewish, and that was an exciting possibility for you. You also wrote about how your dad grew up Catholic in a town where he was surrounded by Catholic people and steeped in that culture, but he wasn’t able to pass on that experience to you in a way you felt was whole or authentic. What did you feel having Jewish roots might give you that Catholicism didn’t?

AW: Many of my friends so strongly culturally identify with Judaism. It seemed like immediate belonging, right? It just seemed like, “Okay, if I want a family, here’s a ready-made family with its own set of religious practices and religious values and Shabbat dinners.” That was intoxicating, but also, I was drawn to the Jewish theory because it would have represented a sort of upending of our family narrative. That was attractive to me in part because I was convinced that we hadn’t been fully truthful and that we had alighted lots of parts of our past, and this would be a stellar example of that, right? Not only have we not told the full truth, it turns out we’re Jewish! It would have forced a larger conversation about the truth. Those were attractive parts of it to me.

I think it was easier for me entertain the idea of Judaism or Jewish family because my relationship to Catholicism had been so sporadic. My dad would make me go occasionally to Sunday school, but I was never grounded in the rituals of the church and the community of the church. It all just felt a little bit fraudulent, and I felt always like an outsider. And that was the opposite of what you want someone to get from a religious institution. Not only did I not feel like I was part of a community and find anything spiritually sustaining, I felt fraudulent and like I didn’t belong there at all. Maybe in some way, the embrace of Judaism was my way of grappling with that sense of guilt about Catholicism.

HG: How did your family feel about your desire to upend to their stories?

AW: You know, I kept my cards pretty close to my chest as far as what the end goals were. Also, I wanted to be honest about the journey, and I didn’t find Jewish roots, right? As hard as I looked. So if there wasn’t anything sensational or upending to find, I obviously wasn’t going to say that there was. But my father was very dismissive of the Jewish idea, not because he had any data to disprove it, but mostly because it would have repudiated what he had understood to be the central organizing principle of his childhood. And that was not okay with him. I also think, furthermore, he grew up, as you point out, in a largely Christian town, and to not be Christian was to be an outsider. I think, deep in his mind, and I never got to talk to him about this in any great detail, he would have felt somehow rejected from that tableau, and that was not okay with him.

HG: That wasn’t a feeling he’d had to have as often as you did.

AW: No, and by the way, a lot of white Americans don’t have to grapple with that idea of being the minority, and I think a lot of the angst that we see right now is tethered to this changing demographic, and there is the reality of whiteness in America, which is that it is a shrinking majority, and one day soon will be a minority. That represents a rejection in a lot of ways. Folks can’t deal with it, and so I think we’re seeing some of the things we’re seeing now.

HG: I was really interested in the section of Futureface about DNA ancestry tests. Nicole, my co-editor at The Blend, and I, we took tests together and wrote about it. I already knew going in that there were limitations to the testing process, but I didn’t know the extent of them until I read your book. That was fascinating to me—in a way, I think, it made it more interesting that the test gave us some information, but there are still all these other gaps that only stories can fill in, even if it’s impossible to get those stories. Can you talk a little about what you learned from taking those tests? Do you think that, given all their limitations, they provide any worthwhile information?

AW: I think they are quite accurate for some people and quite inaccurate for others. And I think the problem is people don’t understand the inaccuracies. Some companies do better than others. They have accuracy graphs, but a lot of them are very opaque. There is a ton of guesswork in it, and I think there’s an incredibly arbitrary nature to some of these divisions. Then there are sociopolitical and cultural limitations and designations. Are you South Asian or are you British? Are we going by region or are we going by country? If we’re going by country and you’re telling me I’m Chinese, what China are you referring to? When you tell me I have Chinese blood from the 1800s, do you mean Chinese blood as China as drawn on the map now or China as it was drawn on the map in 1800?

There’s just a lot of questions, and I think that there is no real conversation about it. And maybe that’s okay, as one of the genetic scientists I spoke to said, if you take it like a crystal ball or as recreation, then maybe it’s okay. But when you’re talking about questions of identity and belonging and how people see themselves, I do think it’s probably worth a little bit more thought.

Because anthropologically speaking, my sense is that people look to find the thing that sets them apart from someone else, or they find one particularly interesting part of their DNA and they hold onto it. Furthermore, that really interesting part of that DNA, like my 14% Scandinavian DNA, could be based in an arbitrary nothingness, right?

If you take the test very seriously and think of it as absolute science, I would warn you to look at the fine print. Find out where the company is getting their datasets from. Do they have a number of well-developed reference population for that part of the world? Before you go off deciding that you need to celebrate St. Lucia’s Day or whatever it’s called, just be aware that the science is not entirely settled.

HG: I didn’t realize I had this thought until I took my DNA test that, you know, I grew up doing class projects where I had to talk about my heritage, and as a result, I had this very clear idea of my identity as this perfect pie chart where things were divided in halves and eighths. When I took the test, I was like, “Of course the truth wouldn’t be that neat.” I didn’t even realize that, as an adult, I still had this idea that seems so very obviously impossible. I also had surprise Scandinavian DNA, but my dad’s family story is that we’re French—

AW: Well, you might be. It might just be French DNA that originated in Scandinavia 500 years prior, you know what I mean?

HG: Exactly.

AW: But the tests don’t tell you that and people just accept it, and they’re like, “Oh my God, I’m Scandinavian.” There’s a shitload of Scandinavian DNA all over the world because the Vikings went a lot of places, right? But it became French DNA at some point, so it’s not inaccurate to say it’s French. I mean, there’s just a host of issues like that that shape the way we think about ourselves, which is perhaps not the most honest and forthright way.

HG: Since you’ve written Futureface, have you received a lot of feedback from other mixed people, and have you found a sense of community among people who have read the book and identified with your journey?

AW: I’ve gotten a ton of great feedback from mixed people. What is so amazing to me is how many people have stories like mine, whether it’s the diner story or stories about growing up in a certain neighborhood. I mean, it’s such a common experience, a sense of rootlessness and questioning. It’s not characterized necessarily by deep angst, but it’s a constant low-level thing that you’ve just learned to live with, and it just takes someone saying, “Hey, I’m dealing with this thing, and it’s been something that’s always existed in my life, and I didn’t actually even know until I sat down and thought about it.”

The other thing that I’ve gotten from people who know me more from my political journalism on The Circus or MSNBC or The Atlantic is this sense of hope, which is awesome. I didn’t intend on this being an inspirational book, but they find a lot of hope in the idea that we can create our own communities and that all is not lost and that there is hope for figuring out how to stitch something back together again that looks like the United States.

HG: Do you feel like this experience of investigating your own family story has changed your approach to political journalism in any way?

AW: I think overall it’s made me more empathetic. It’s definitely shed light on this urban-rural divide because I had that with my family—my dad grew up in rural Iowa and my mother was a product of a cosmopolitan upbringing. The white immigrant origin story is a narrative that is everywhere in American politics. And I think I have a better grasp of the way that’s intoxicating and the way that it’s fraudulent. I think any time you investigate deep questions about American identity, you come away with a better grasp of what we’re going through right now as our democracy changes and mutates and hopefully returns to normal someday.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.