Hari Kondabolu: On Racism in
Post-9/11 New York
In Conversation with Will Schwalbe on But That's Another Story
WS: Hi. I’m Will Schwalbe, and this is But That’s Another Story. Many of the books that have made the biggest difference in my life are the ones I first encountered in college. In fact, if I remember anything from college—and sometimes, I’m not sure how much I remember—it’s the books that I read there. And that’s a good thing. I can’t go back and hear the lectures I heard—or the ones I slept through. But I can always go back and reread the books. And when I do, something wondrous happens: the lectures come back to me too. I read these books the way I read them because my professors helped me do so.
I lived on campus through my college years. One summer, there was a fire and everything we stored in our dorm was incinerated: clothes, bedding, books, everything. Not to worry, we were told—the school had an insurance policy. All we had to do was send in a list of all the possessions we’d lost to the flames. We would be paid back for all the essential items. I’ll never forget the response I got back, along with a check. I was reimbursed full value for my down coat and comforter. But sadly, the university could not reimburse me for the loss of my books. We’re sorry, they said, but books are not essential. Luckily, everything else I was taught at college said otherwise. And recently, I got to talking about how sometimes, the most essential books find you at the exact right moment with today’s guest.
HK: My name is Hari Kondabolu. I’m a comedian, writer, and podcaster.
WS: Whether you know him from his podcasts Politically Re-Active and the Kondabolu Brothers Podcast or his recent Netflix special, Warn Your Relatives, you likely know Hari Kondabolu as a comedian who will also make you think. His act talks frankly about race and inequality, topics that have all been on his mind a long time. A really long time. Like, ever since he was a kid.
HK: I grew up in Queens, New York. We lived in different parts of Queens—Jackson Heights, Floral Park, on the Queens side. Not the Long Island side. That’s very important to distinguish.
WS: Tell me, what’s the difference?
HK: Oh my God. It feels like night and day. Queens kids—even though we lived in a fairly suburban part of Queens, you know, it was still like city money, city buses, average incomes. Just completely a different experience. Plus, I don’t think anyone from New York City wants to identify with Long Island, just out of a sense of pride. I remember my parents wanted us to move to Long Island in the middle of high school. My brother and I were both very clear, like, “No! We cannot live in the Island. We’re going to be screwed up. Don’t you understand? You’re going to screw us up. Our personalities are going to suffer!” Which I still stand by.
I grew up in really diverse setting—diverse in every sense of diverse: racially, people whose parents were immigrants from all over the world, people who themselves were immigrants, people with documents and without documents, a range of economic statuses, all kind of living together. And I didn’t necessarily know who had money and who didn’t, because with Queens, block to block, it’s very different. So, I kind of grew up sheltered in diversity.
WS: So I want to get a little into your reading life. Were you a big reader as a little kid?
HK: No, I wasn’t a huge reader. I’m embarrassed to say, I haven’t read a book in way too long. It’s mostly like essays, and I actually still get the New York Times as a hard copy to read, stuff like that. But as a kid I think I was more than average, but not like, a kid who read all the time.
WS: But there was another thing that Hari did like doing as a kid.
HK: I loved organizing things, whether it was Halloween candy or if I was going to play action figures, I would create a whole world for myself. I remember wanting to write a series of books—like action/adventure books. And so I wanted to start by writing all the titles of the potential chapters so I knew what I was going to write. So I wrote like 18 different titles and kind of where I was going to go. Never wrote the books. I just liked the organizing part.
WS: Unsurprisingly, another thing he was good at was being funny. But Hari says he wasn’t the stand out comedian, even in his own family.
HK: I was funny as a kid. I was never the funniest of my group. I feel like my brother’s always been funnier than I was. My mom’s always been funny.
I think my mom dealt with a lot. She was a doctor in India, and then she got married and she moved to America and she was raising kids. So she found ways to deal with that through humor. And even at a really young age, I was really close to my mom. We were friends as much as we were mother/son. We would laugh a lot, and she was really quick. She was witty. I hadn’t called my mom for a couple weeks, I was working on something, and I said something to the effect of, Mom, I’m sorry I didn’t call this week. And she said, no, it’s okay—it was a relief. And that’s what my mom—she’s just quick.
I think it throws people off because I think when they see this accented, older immigrant woman, I don’t think they expect that. There’s a whole set of expectations, and I don’t think people know what to do with that. I don’t think when people imagine immigrants they imagine the complexity of that experience. My mom came to this country when she was, what, 29? She’s lived in America longer than she’s lived in India. Who she was when she was 35 isn’t who she is now. The core of who she was—that’s still there, but it doesn’t look the same. And I think sometimes people lose that when you hear about immigrants, and especially when you see the media and you don’t see immigrants portrayed with such complexity.
WS: And as he moved to college at Bowdoin in Maine, Hari found that not only were his new environment and his classmates different than what he was used to—they saw him as different.
HK: Growing up in Queens, and then all the sudden you’re in a place that is so white and where diversity is identified as a thing. Like in New York, people weren’t talking about diversity because it’s New York—that’s like talking about air. It’s just what it is. But you go to Maine and diversity is almost commodified. That’s a value, right? And I became diversity. And I did not like that. I didn’t like also being asked, “Where are you from?” And in New York, when a white person asks you where you’re from, you can ask them where they’re from and they’re not just going to say “America.” They’re going to say, Ireland, or Greece, or “I’m Italian,” or they’ll give you their fractions.
But there’s this sense of, we’re all from somewhere. And New York is an immigrant city. And so, going to school in New England and being asked, “Where are you from?” And I guess saying India, because I guess that’s the response I assumed, even though I’m born and raised in Queens. And then asking someone, “Well, where are you from?” And they’d say, Melrose, Massachusetts, or Waltham, or some other, Medford or whatever. And it’s like, no, those are towns in Massachusetts, or just outside of Boston. I want to know where you’re from. And you realize, oh, I’m the outsider to them.
These were kids who were going to boarding schools and private schools and using the word “summer” as a verb. And who had buildings named after them. And you go, “Oh, that’s funny your name is the same as—oh okay, I see why.” It was very different. The way people spoke, the way people dressed. I’m growing up in New York in the late 90s hip-hop generation. It’s not that I listen to a ton of hip-hop, but the styles were like baggy clothes. And I’m wearing baggy jeans going to a place where everyone’s wearing tweed—not tweed jackets, but button-downs and ties and khakis. It looked like School Ties. It looked like a movie. It didn’t seem like the real thing. It felt like a time warp.
WS: But in the middle of that time warp, a book came across Hari’s path that snapped him back to a new reality.
HK: I’d heard about The Karma of Brown Folk for quite some time. Just because the name is kind of amazing. The Karma of Brown Folk. That was such a shocking name.
WS: The book, by academic Vijay Prashad, is a sort of sequel to The Souls of Black Folk by W.E.B. Du Bois.
HK: Du Bois talks about how black people are seen as the problem in America. Everything is a problem—it’s the black problem. And Vijay Prashad in Karma of Brown Folk says that South Asians and Asians are seen as the solution to the black problem. I think Du Bois writes something to the effect of, “What does it feel like to be a problem?” And Vijay writes, “What does it feel like to be a solution?”
It was a summer. I remember it was on a break. And I read it on a bus. I remember I started reading it on a—I don’t know why I remember this so vividly—I remember reading it on the bus. I was coming from Flushing. I was taking the 17 bus to my parent’s place in Jamaica. And I had been holding it for a minute. I had bought it—who knows how long ago. And I just remember devouring it and just being shocked. It shook the foundations of what I thought it was to be an Indian-American and all the things that were told to me as reality. I remember I just tore through. And the whole time, I can imagine the look on my face of just page after page of revelation after revelation. Something as an adult, I think maybe it’s harder to have, you know. But at that point, it was amazing.
WS: For Hari, Prashad’s challenging of myths around race changed the way he thought about his own experience as a person of color.
HK: Asians and South Asians are seen as these model minorities. We’re able to do things right. So how come Black people can’t do things right? And how come they’re struggling when this other group, that is also from a minority group, is achieving? And it’s buying into that myth. And buying into that myth is pitting Asians and South Asians against Black people. And it ignores the actual conditions of how people got here.
We were always told that like, we were special—something about Indian culture, and that we value education, and that we were extremely special and gifted. And it’s not to say some of that isn’t true. It’s ignoring the idea that’s not why everyone was doing well, necessarily. It was shocking to read all that when you were 19 or 20.
WS: So this just blew your mind.
HK: Blew my mind! Blew my mind.
WS: Hari Kondabolu was early on in his college career when he tore his way through Vijay Prashad’s The Karma of Brown Folk. But the impact of the book would take him far beyond his college years.
HK: I don’t remember if it was pre-9/11 or post-9/11 when I read it. But it certainly, post-9/11, had a huge impact. If I didn’t read it after, it certainly resonated more. And after 9/11, I felt my skin in a way I’d never felt before. I think after 9/11 happened, pretty immediately, I could feel that things were going to change. Just because I knew the country well enough to know that there was racism. And this just happened. And all the people were brown. And I knew it wasn’t going to be positive, but I think I was shocked by how quickly the country’s xenophobia came out. How patriotism and jingoism are different. That this isn’t the patriotism I knew.
I remember being in a class. It was a human rights class. There was a professor, Henry Lawrence, who I was very close to. We’re still very good friends, and I loved Henry’s classes. I remember walking in, he was outside smoking a cigarette, which is certainly not what you normally see from a professor right before a class, looking depressed and smoking a cigarette. We weren’t talking about the reading. He came in and he wanted to talk about what happened. And he wanted to talk about what happens from here And it’s like he knew what might happen. And certainly for me, it kind of woke me up to the possibility—that was one big thing. There was this one woman who, even in a few classes, constantly spoke and was totally into the topic. I remember, she constantly raised her hand. And all of a sudden, when the question was asked, “What happens now?” She raised her hand and she says, “We need to bomb them. We just have to bomb them.” And he was like, “Who?” And, “I—I don’t know. We just have to respond.” And I’m like, last class you were talking about human rights and you become all on board, but as soon as it becomes close, that was the first reaction. And if that’s how we’re seeing other human beings in this macro level, how are you seeing me?
It was so frightening. And then reading about what actually was happening: Sikhs being killed, Balbir Singh Sodhi being killed at a gas station in Arizona, people all over the country—kids being bullied, people getting detained and deported. There were FBI raids. This all shook me to my core. I was seen almost like a threat in a way. I remember—I still do—I try to shave before I go to the airport, still. I am very mindful of how I’m going to come across. I remember being pulled out of line a lot very early on. I remember times where there would be seats available next to me and people wouldn’t sit down. Stuff that never happened before. Really strange stuff. And I think I put it together—it was around the time I read Karma of Brown Folk—I think I put it together that this is what black people deal with all the time, before 9/11. And it’s embarrassing that it took that long to make that connection, but this is the experience of being feared constantly.
WS: For Hari, Prashad’s book came at exactly the right moment—changing not only how he thought about race, but also giving him a path forward.
HK: Reading Karma of Brown Folk and seeing our place in it, as South Asians, it shook me because I was starting to feel some of that. Just an inkling. Just an inkling of being threatened by people who were afraid of me. By being stared at a little more harshly. It wasn’t just the curiosity. It wasn’t just the, “Oh, what is he doing here? What is he doing in Maine?” It was, “What is he doing Maine… and is something bad about to happen?” It was an incredible time to read that book and for that book to sit with me, considering all that was going on. And I knew that I wanted to contribute positively to the world and this wasn’t what I wanted to see. I mean, it was pivotal. I read that book at just the right time.
WS: So you sort of swung from being the solution to the problem.
HK: I felt like I went from being seen as the solution to wanting to solve the problem.
WS: And after college, Hari began to work at solving that problem when he got a job doing the very thing he had excelled at as a kid—organizing. He moved to Seattle, where he worked as an immigrants rights activist. And while he was there, Hari found himself pursuing a hobby he’d been quietly pursuing on the side ever since he was a kid.
HK: I did comedy at night there. There was a comedy scene in Seattle. It was thriving at the time and it was a young scene and I was getting up every single night after work. So I had this job where I was dealing with the victims of hate crimes and meeting refugees and people who had gone through some of the most awful things you can get through, either on their way to America or in America. And at night, I was telling jokes. And not necessarily about what I had experienced in the day, but it was certainly a stress relief. But I did it for me. I did it as a hobby. And I started to build a following, which I did not expect. But I just assumed, oh, it’s Seattle. It’s a real liberal city so people like somebody doing something different.
WS: But Hari’s comedy was getting noticed outside of Seattle too. Soon, he was invited to the HBO Comedy Festival, getting spots on Jimmy Kimmel Live and Comedy Central, and wondering if his hobby was something he should be pursuing full time. And throughout it all, the thing that made his stand up stand out was the way he spoke about the very issues Prashad examined in The Karma of Brown Folk.
HK: No one had heard people saying what I had said before. I was an act that was political, and talked about race, and talked about my experience. And certainly was aggressive in how I talked about race. Just the idea of a South Asian comic at the time was still shocking. So the idea of being critical the way I was, I think was new to a lot of people. And so, I decided to pursue stand up and I’ve been doing that for ten years.
I would probably tell me when I was younger to question everything, that it’s okay to not follow the rules sometimes. And not all the rules are righteous. And everyone is giving you an opinion—is giving you something that has a point of view. And that doesn’t mean it’s wrong, or it doesn’t mean it’s wrong to agree with, but it does mean that everything has to be taken with a grain of salt because human beings aren’t empty vessels. They come with their prejudgments. I probably would say it in much easier language, because I’d be talking to a child. And also, I’m sure the child would be freaked out that I exist and I’d come from the future. So there’s all sorts of things that would have to happen, but after we get through the initial shock of that and what not, I think I’d want the kid to be a little bit more… I would definitely want that kid to be a little bit more critical and have that awakening much earlier than I did.
But That’s Another Story is produced by Katie Ferguson, with editing help from Alyssa Martino, Alex Abnos, and Becky Celestina. Thanks to Hari Kondabolu and Sheila Breen Kenny. If you’d like to learn more about the books we mentioned in this week’s episode, you can find out more in our show notes. If there’s a book that changed your life, we want to hear about it. Send us an email at AnotherStory@macmillan.com. We’ll be back with our next episode in two weeks.