This week, Alex Wagner, co-host of Showtime’s The Circus, contributing editor at The Atlantic, CBS News contributor and the author of the new book Futureface: A Family Mystery, an Epic Quest, and the Secret to Belonging, sat down with Ana in front of a live audience. Their conversation began with an anecdote in the book, when Alex was 12 and went to eat at a diner with her father. Alex, the daughter of a white, American father and a brown, Burmese immigrant mother, always felt like an American, until a cook at the diner asked if she was adopted.
“It was the first time I realized that the way I saw myself as a generically American kid, who liked Garfield, Saved by the Bell, and Chips Ahoy!, that wasn’t how other people saw me,” Alex said.
She explained the story behind her book’s title, “Futureface,” which originated with a Time Magazine cover story that proclaimed the “future face” of America, what the country would look like as it continued to become more multicultural.
“I felt like I sort of belonged in this imaginary, brown, nebulous community. But, of course, when you’re everything, you’re also nothing,” she said.
That feeling led Alex to search for belonging, tracing her family history back across generations and continents. She and her family took countless DNA tests, and she traveled from Rangoon to Luxembourg City to hunt down her mother’s and father’s family histories respectively.
Along the way, Alex discovered a number of things, like her maternal great-grandfather’s involvement in the creation of the Suez Canal, as well as learning that, like all families, hers had some unsavory characters.
“We had exfoliated a lot of the bad parts, which I think is an inevitable part of the American story. We arrive here, and we’re virtuous newcomers that make it by dint of hard work and divine providence. That’s not entirely true, and in some cases, not at all true,” Alex explained.
One thing that Ana zeroed in on in their conversation is the extent to which Alex is (or is not) present within the book itself. In part, Alex said that was because her background as a journalist has taught her to approach the writing process in one specific way. However, she also opened up about something else.
“It’s hard to really volunteer the depths of your personal experience as someone who also has to go on television and be sort of a happy, shining, smiling television face and doesn’t want to receive evil, trolly Twitter feedback,” she expanded.
Alongside the personal experience, Alex and Ana also talked about the white privilege involved in DNA testing. The backbone of the DNA datasets used by groups like Ancestry.com and familysearch.com come from white people. The same people that want their DNA tested are also sending their DNA in, and those datasets drive the results people get.
Thus, the testing winds up incredibly white and eurocentric, and relegates black and brown people to generic geographic regions like sub-saharan Africa or southeast Asia, perpetuating ideas of racial superiority.
Alex had to confront white privilege in another area beyond DNA testing. After talking with her father about his roots in small-town Iowa, she dug into the history of the land where her father grew up. Just like the land where Ana and Alex had this conversation, she learned it had been stolen from Native Americans not long before her family started living there.
That discussion led Ana to ask whether it is possible in 21st century America to have a truly mixed-race identity, or if people will always have to make a binary choice. Alex explained her own journey to accepting and proudly owning her identity as a person of color, and said that “it’s very hard to just be mixed. That you are fundamentally asked to choose, remains true to this day,” she said.
Their conversation ended with a sequence of audience questions, one of which prompted Ana to ask about Alex’s time on The Circus, where she replaced Mark Halperin after his outing as a sexual assailant. Although she had previously appeared on the show and had planned on playing a role in the second season, she had no problem owning the thought that her full-time role is a rebuke of Halperin’s conduct.
“Let me tell you, The Circus is a different show and I feel like it’s going be better and also more responsive to this political moment because there’s a woman on the show. I think it’s great all around,” Alex explained.
Things then came full circle with a question from WFLT’s producer, Jeff, who asked about the journey involved in Alex’s writing process. He wanted to know her biggest takeaway.
“What I realized in the end is, to be American is to be part of an idea,” Alex said. “What characterizes our species, the homo-sapiens, is movement. As much as we love talking about our bloodlines, they don’t end, nor do they truly begin. They will inevitably mutate through marriage and travel and globalization. And, this is just all part of one idea, we are all part of one idea of America right now. And that idea is going to shift and change. And, generations hence, when my son’s son’s son’s daughter’s son does his DNA test, it’s gonna light up a completely different part of the globe, and there’s something beautiful in that.”
You can find Alex’s book here: https://www.amazon.com/Futureface-Family-Mystery-Secret-Belonging/dp/0812997948
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