Hagan Center Speaker to Discuss Being the “Bad Minority”
[SPOKANE, Wash.] As a child growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area, Wahajat Ali imagined himself to be the hero in a story. Ali was a first generation Pakistani-American growing up in an affluent environment as, what he terms, the “good minority,” who was valued and respected. But that shifted after 9/11. Ali was raised Muslim, and people soon saw him as the “bad minority.”
“I became the outsider, the stereotype, the token in the history books,” said Ali, 42.
Since then, Ali has advocated for minorities by telling his story through writing and public speaking. He is currently a Daily Beast columnist, former New York Times writer, TED speaker, an award-winning playwright and a Peabody-nominated producer (head to his website for all of the glowing accolades). Ali is taking his storytelling talents to Spokane Community College’s Hagan Foundation Center for the Humanities on April 13 at 10:30 a.m. in the Lair Auditorium located in Building 6.
“One of the things that I appreciate about him is his ability to tell a story that helps us understand the human experience,” said Gwendolyn Cash-James, SCC’s Dean of Arts and Sciences and the Hagan Center’s administrator. “The way he manages to humanize things is the essence of what the humanities is about, to bring the lived experience in what could otherwise just be a news story.”
It is important to Ali that his talk is not the typical narrative with charts and graphs. He doesn’t believe those reach people in a way that brings about change.
“I push for true diversity but in an entertaining and honest way without the boring crap, like platitudes and euphemisms and Hallmark card nonsense that doesn’t ring true,” Ali said. “It’s the story I’ve been telling my whole life that’s now becoming honed into a narrative that makes the case of why you should be more aware and intentional and push for true diversity.”
Even Ali’s editors have stereotyped him, expecting him to write from the perspective of a person of color. Ali has managed to maneuver around those boundaries by being a “trojan horse.” He uses his lived story to turn minorities from a “them” into an “us.”
“I tell stories that are about (a people of color), but they are for everyone,” he said. “I try to appeal to a diverse audience from a culturally specific lens. That’s been the hurdle of how a non-white story can relate to white people. But if you make an interesting story, the audience will come. My career has proven that true.”
Cash-James believes that Ali can connect shared experiences with the college’s students and the broader Spokane community. She said that everyone has more in common than they think.
“When we see people of color, we automatically assume that they must not have the same set of experiences and culture that we have,” she said. “(Ali) is seen as an outsider, but he’s had an insider experience. We all are overcoming some kind of difficulty or hardship, whether that’s based on the color of our skin, the accent we speak with or the socioeconomic background that we come from.”
Cash-James said it's important that Ali speak at the Hagan Center because it’s more of “an idea, rather than a physical space.” The Center is one of only four humanity centers in the US to be located at a community college. It was established by a donation from Dr. Cornelius Hagan and continues operation through an endowment that he established and is managed through the Community Colleges of Spokane Foundation. The Center’s goal is to bring humanities programming to college students and the Spokane area. Guest speakers at the Center should bring the message of equity, diversity and inclusion. Cash-James believes that Ali brings that message through his powerful writing.
“I think the definition of humanities is our shared human experience, and what does it mean to be human,” she said. “We’re trying to bring that story to our campus through speakers that can enlighten, entertain and challenge us in a different way.”
Ali thinks the best way to reach people is through vibrant engagement. He uses irreverence and humor to entertain and allow his message to sink in. And he encourages audience members to also be heroes.
“I’m making the case to have hope in hopeless times and join the Ethnic Avengers or Justice League to push and stretch this country to accept all of its residents as equal co-protagonists,” he said. “It’s about how to fight for a country that oftentimes doesn’t fight for the rest of us through the power of telling more than one story.”
For more information, contact Strategic Communications Manager Rachel Román at Rachel.Roman@ccs.spokane.edu or Gwendolyn Cash-James at Gwendolyn.James@scc.spokane.edu.
CCS provides education and services in a six-county region of Eastern Washington, operates Spokane Falls Community College and Spokane Community College and is the largest provider of Head Start and Early Childhood Education in the region. Each year, nearly 30,000 people – from infants to senior citizens – are provided educational services by CCS.