Live From Chicago...It's Code Switch! Hosts Shereen and Gene take on Chi-City with help from Chicago-natives Eve Ewing and Natalie Y. Moore, plus Code Switch's play cousin, Hari Kondabolu. Ewing opens the show with a poem from her new collection, Electric Arches. Kondabolu talks about his upcoming documentary, "The Problem with Apu." And Moore brings her Chicago-expertise to some tough questions from our listeners.
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Live From Chicago...It's Code Switch!

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Live From Chicago...It's Code Switch!

Live From Chicago...It's Code Switch!

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(APPLAUSE)

EVE EWING: This poem is called "Origin Story."

This is true. My mother and my father met at the Greyhound bus station in the mid-'80s in Chicago. My mother - all thick glass and Afropuff - came west on the train when she was 19, lived in a friend's house and cared for her children, played tambourine in a Chaka Khan cover band.

My father - all sleeveless and soft eye - ran away from home when he was 17, mimeographed communist newspapers and drew comic books, like this one - for sale, $1. My mother bought one.

Love is like a comic book. It's fragile. And the best we can do is protect it in whatever clumsy ways we can - plastic and cardboard, dark rooms and boxes. And in this way, something never meant to last might find its way to another decade, another home, an attic, a basement - intact.

Love is paper. And if my parents' love was a comic book, it never saw polyvinyl, never felt a backing. It was curled into a back pocket for a day at the park, lent to a friend, read under covers, re-read hanging upside down over the back of the couch - memorized, mishandled, worn thin, staples rusted.

And a love like that doesn't last. But it has a good ending.

Thank you.

(APPLAUSE)

EWING: Chi City, please join me in welcoming to the stage the hosts of the CODE SWITCH podcast, Shereen Marisol Meraji and Gene Demby.

(APPLAUSE)

GENE DEMBY, HOST:

Damn.

SHEREEN MARISOL MERAJI, HOST:

Oh, my goodness.

DEMBY: Wow. That's a lot. That's a lot.

MERAJI: Whew.

DEMBY: Thank y'all for coming out.

MERAJI: Yeah. Right? This is a lot of people. This is...

EWING: I told you.

MERAJI: Good thing I can't see them all.

(LAUGHTER)

MERAJI: So a love like that doesn't last but has a good ending.

EWING: Yes, true. True story.

MERAJI: Is that you?

EWING: Oh, I hope that I last. I hope I stick around. Oh - am I the good ending? Yes.

MERAJI: Are you the good ending?

EWING: Yes. Yes, I am. That's me. That's me. Yeah, yeah. My parents are not together, but I'm alive. So it's a...

MERAJI: Yes.

(APPLAUSE)

DEMBY: There's a lot of comic book imagery in your poem.

EWING: Yes, there is.

DEMBY: This week, the Internet has told us that they want you to be the next writer for "The Invincible Iron Man."

(CHEERING)

EWING: (Laughter).

MERAJI: What?

EWING: Yes. The Internet is a fickle, fickle mistress.

DEMBY: What is happening? What is happening now?

EWING: So the short, not supernerdy, wonky answer is that Brian Michael Bendis, who's a longtime Marvel writer, is leaving Marvel for DC, which is, like, a big shocker in the comics world. And he created a lot of new characters who are people of color, including Miles Morales and Riri Williams, who...

DEMBY: That's Spider-Man and Iron Man.

EWING: Yeah, it's from "Spider-Man" and "Iron Man" titles.

And Riri is a black teen girl from Chicago, and so - who, like, is a genius. And someone was like, you know who should write that...

DEMBY: (Laughter).

EWING: ...Is Eve Ewing. Yeah. So that's obviously very flattering and very humbling.

DEMBY: That's what's up.

(APPLAUSE)

DEMBY: Eve actually has to bounce.

EWING: I do (laughter).

MERAJI: We're very sad about that.

EWING: I agreed already to read at a - like, a community justice fundraiser on the west side. So I'm going to go to that. I know - thanks. Right? People are like, yeah. So that's a good thing. Be good. Have fun.

MERAJI: Thank you, Eve.

(APPLAUSE)

DEMBY: What's good, Chicago?

MERAJI: What is good?

(CHEERING)

MERAJI: Whew.

DEMBY: How are you feeling, Shereen?

MERAJI: I am so nervous.

DEMBY: Me, too.

MERAJI: We've never done this before. We have never done this before.

DEMBY: No.

MERAJI: And not only have we never done this before, we have never done this before in front of 1,500 people.

(APPLAUSE)

MERAJI: I cannot believe you all came out tonight.

DEMBY: We are so grateful...

MERAJI: I'm honored.

DEMBY: ...You all came out. We question your life choices. It's cold as hell outside.

MERAJI: I - we do.

(LAUGHTER)

MERAJI: It is too cold. All right - so a little later on, we're going to be doling out advice on some complicated questions about race. We got three Chicagoans to write to us. And we invited Chi-Town's Lois Lane to come help us out with that. That's...

(CHEERING)

MERAJI: Yes, Natalie Y. Moore from WBEZ 91.5. Natalie.

(APPLAUSE)

DEMBY: After that, we're going to do some songs that are giving us life. This might turn into a full-blown turnup situation.

MERAJI: But first, a special friend of the podcast is here to talk about his new documentary...

DEMBY: Our play cousin.

MERAJI: ..."The Problem With Apu."

(APPLAUSE)

MERAJI: He's a comedian. He's a writer. He co-hosts a podcast of his own, called Politically Re-Active, with W. Kamau Bell. Give us your most exuberant, your loudest, your warmest applause for Hari Kondabolu.

(APPLAUSE)

HARI KONDABOLU: Look at all these NPRFOCs, National Public Radio fans of color.

DEMBY: Yes.

MERAJI: (Laughter) Yes.

DEMBY: Yes.

MERAJI: You do exist.

KONDABOLU: Yep.

DEMBY: So Hari has been on the podcast before. He was actually on one of our most popular and polarizing episodes.

MERAJI: Uh-huh.

DEMBY: It's called "The Explanatory Comma." Some of y'all might remember that episode.

(APPLAUSE)

DEMBY: It's an episode in which we discussed sort of the ins and outs of when you explain something in a story to a community that might not be the audience that you're intending to listen to - like, you're basically explaining it to white people - and what that means for the people of color who are listening to it. Were you guys (unintelligible)...

KONDABOLU: Yeah. I mean, it was a great Google advertisement...

DEMBY: (Laughter).

KONDABOLU: ...Because I was like - oh, you don't understand a thing? - why don't you Google it? And then people were like, I'm never going to listen to your show again.

(LAUGHTER)

KONDABOLU: I don't understand why this can't be for me.

DEMBY: (Laughter) So we brought you on here to talk about the documentary you've been working on for two years. It's called "The Problem With Apu." For the two people in the audience who don't know what "The Simpsons" is, can you just explain who Apu, the character, is?

KONDABOLU: OK. There's a TV show called "The Simpsons" that's been on for 30 years.

(LAUGHTER)

MERAJI: Twenty-eight - right? - 28.

KONDABOLU: And a bunch of white people made it in 1990. And they thought it'd be funny to put an Indian convenience store owner in it with, like, a thick accent and, like - really one-dimensional. And people really love the character 'cause people are racist. And...

(LAUGHTER)

KONDABOLU: And then, like, 30 years later, the show's still on. And one of the kids who grew up watching it made a movie.

DEMBY: (Laughter).

MERAJI: All right, we're going to play some clips from that movie.

KONDABOLU: Yeah.

MERAJI: The first one doesn't need a whole lot of explaining. You're talking to Kal Penn. He's an actor. Maybe people know him from "Harold & Kumar Go To White Castle." He played Kumar.

(APPLAUSE)

MERAJI: And let's watch the clip.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "THE PROBLEM WITH APU")

KAL PENN: I hate Apu.

KONDABOLU: Hate Apu?

PENN: Hate Apu.

KONDABOLU: When...

PENN: And because of that, I dislike "The Simpsons."

KONDABOLU: Wow - the whole series?

PENN: Yeah.

KONDABOLU: The whole series?

PENN: Yeah.

KONDABOLU: I love "The Simpsons." I just don't love that character. The whole thing...

PENN: I have never been able to divorce the two.

KONDABOLU: I love "The Simpsons" because...

PENN: You hate yourself.

KONDABOLU: 'Cause I - this whole film is me trying to get over the fact that I hate myself.

(LAUGHTER)

MERAJI: So you've been working on this for five years?

KONDABOLU: Two years.

MERAJI: Oh, I thought it was since 2012 you've been working on this.

KONDABOLU: No, I made a video. I made a - there was a piece on W. Kamau Bell's old show "Totally Biased"...

MERAJI: Yes.

(APPLAUSE)

KONDABOLU: ...Which I used to write on and was a correspondent on. And that happened five years ago when I did this piece. That...

MERAJI: Oh, OK.

KONDABOLU: If I did this for five years - oh, my God - what a waste of five years.

(LAUGHTER)

MERAJI: But you've been seething about Apu for 20-some odd years. Right?

KONDABOLU: Yeah. I mean, I don't think - I wasn't...

MERAJI: Almost 30 - not seething?

KONDABOLU: ...Haven't been seething. Like, I'm a 35-year-old man. I'm not seething about a cartoon character. But...

(LAUGHTER)

DEMBY: But you felt strongly enough about a cartoon character that you made a documentary about him.

KONDABOLU: I mean, I think it's the fact that that was the only representation that South Asian-Americans had. Like, there was nothing else. There was like Gandhi. And so that's not - all right. And then...

(LAUGHTER)

KONDABOLU: And then there was Apu. And, like, growing up, there was nothing else. And initially, I was so excited - like, we have something. Like, when you don't have anything, something is amazing. And then you realize - oh, that's not a good something to have. You know, when you realize that like, oh - like, my parents, I don't want them to be seen in public because they talk this way. Or when you feel like - oh, I thought I was American. But I'm not quite because I'm not represented in any way except this cartoon character. You know, that's when you start to realize, like - oh, no, this is the worst thing that could have happened.

DEMBY: Yeah.

KONDABOLU: Well, that's an exaggeration. There's been a lot of other things in the news. But, like, that is...

(LAUGHTER)

KONDABOLU: That's a thing that is not positive that happened.

DEMBY: So what's the deal with Apu's name? His name's Apu Nahasapeemapetilon.

KONDABOLU: Yes.

DEMBY: I think that's how to pronounce.

MERAJI: Oh, good job.

KONDABOLU: Yeah.

DEMBY: That was first pass - one-take Hov.

KONDABOLU: Sure.

(LAUGHTER)

KONDABOLU: Well, the last name, Nahasapeemapetilon, is based on a Sanskrit root for racist bull [explextive]. And...

(LAUGHTER)

KONDABOLU: Get it? They got long names.

(LAUGHTER)

KONDABOLU: And Apu is based on the Apu trilogy, which is a series of films by the legendary Indian filmmaker Satyajit Ray, who I love. His first film, "Pather Panchali," is one of the greatest ones I've ever seen in my life. I, like, still cry at the same point. It follows a small boy through childhood to adulthood, going from a small village into a city, dealing with the hardships of day-to-day life. He's a very complex, multidimensional character.

(LAUGHTER)

KONDABOLU: And Matt Groening, who created "The Simpsons," was a fan of that. And unironically - I don't think he realized how ironic it was - named, you know, this convenience store character Apu. And yeah. So it kind of is the last thing I'm sure he wanted. He also probably never heard of "The Simpsons" because he died before...

(LAUGHTER)

MERAJI: So a little-known fact - Apu was voiced by a white actor. Did you always know that a white actor did Apu's voice?

KONDABOLU: I'm a huge "Simpsons" fan. Like, I still am. And so I knew who was doing all the voices. And when I found out - I don't remember - when I was 11 or 12, it was a bummer. And certainly - like, you know, they used to have the "Simpsons" voice actors come on, like, late-night shows to do the voices.

And everyone's like - oh, my God - that's the voice from the other thing, except this man is doing it. You know? Like, and people get all excited.

MERAJI: Right.

KONDABOLU: And every time Hank Azaria did the Apu voice, I'm like - oh, my God - this is like school. Like, it's like the worst thing in the world. It's like you're watching your bully...

DEMBY: (Laughter).

KONDABOLU: ...'Cause it doesn't feel - you know, when you're seeing the cartoon, you don't think of it as, like, minstrelsy at all - right? - which - and I wouldn't, by the way - I want to clarify that I don't think this is equivalent to minstrelsy historically. I'm just saying it comes from the same legacy. It's a white dude in brown paint. Like, that's basically - it's exactly what it is. And so you realize, like - oh, this is how white writers viewed us then and continue to view us. And that's what all the punchlines are based on.

So it was really frustrating to see that, you know. So you have this voice that's from Hank Azaria that's actually based on Peter Sellers' voice in this movie "The Party," where Peter Sellers is in brownface and he puts on this ridiculous accent.

DEMBY: Oh.

KONDABOLU: So this, like, racism is based on some old-school racism. Right? And the weirdest thing about that - which we didn't put in the film - that I find so upsetting is that Satyajit Ray actually knew Peter Sellers.

DEMBY: Wow.

KONDABOLU: Yeah. Satyajit Ray was going to make his first-ever Hollywood film called "The Alien." And he loved Peter Sellers' work and asked him to be in the movie. And they met. They hit it off. And Peter Sellers agreed to do it. And some time passes, and Satyajit Ray sees "The Party." And he sees Peter Sellers in brownface doing this ridiculous accent. And it was like, I can't deal with this person. I can't work with this person. Like, that ended that relationship. And what's even worse is Peter Sellers' character in that movie has a pet monkey...

DEMBY: Oh.

KONDABOLU: ...Because of course we do.

(LAUGHTER)

KONDABOLU: And the pet monkey's name is Apu.

DEMBY: Wow.

MERAJI: Wow.

KONDABOLU: So like, it was ruthless, you know.

MERAJI: Yeah.

KONDABOLU: And it's one of those things where if you don't squash racism when you see it, it mutates and comes back - because after all these years...

(APPLAUSE)

KONDABOLU: That's an old legacy, and we're still - I mean, this cartoon is based on this racism from the past. And we still see how it lives.

DEMBY: You tried to hunt down Hank Azaria for this movie, though. You tried to...

KONDABOLU: I wouldn't say hunt down. That sounds...

(LAUGHTER)

MERAJI: On the Twitter.

KONDABOLU: That sounds criminal.

(LAUGHTER)

KONDABOLU: We tried to get Hank Azaria to be in this movie, and he declined. We definitely had a journey. It was a lot of emails, and there was actually a phone call that we had that also isn't in the movie 'cause it was a private phone call. But I don't give a [expletive].

MERAJI: Yeah.

KONDABOLU: But, like, he...

(LAUGHTER)

KONDABOLU: He said that he liked my work and he was very appreciative of the documentary and he didn't feel comfortable with me controlling the edit of the film. And he said a compromise would be if I agreed to do the interview with him on either Fresh Air with Terry Gross or with WTF and Marc Maron.

DEMBY: OK.

KONDABOLU: So that way, there'd be, like - there'd be accountability - right? - because if I fudged the edit, there's an actual copy that exists in the world. And I don't know if he expected me to say yes. But I'm like yes. Like, this film is about accountability. It's about a critique of art. It's about an open, reasonable conversation. It's about dialogue. It's not meant to be an attack. And so I said yes. And then he waited a month, and then he still said no.

DEMBY: He was like psych, I was playing.

(LAUGHTER)

KONDABOLU: Yeah. Like - I'm like, he's going along with it? All right. And I still want to have that conversation because the movie is not really an attack on a TV show that I love. And it's not an attack on an individual. This is about representation. Who gets to represent us? Who gets to tell our stories?

And even something as magical as "The Simpsons," there's tons of insidious racism. And that's not to say I don't love the thing. You can love something and criticize it. Like, I think my mother would agree with that. And...

(LAUGHTER)

KONDABOLU: So like - I mean, that's what this film is about. And I wanted it to be an example of - you can have an open, reasonable conversation about something even as small as a cartoon character, and you can learn from each other and move past it. And unfortunately, that's not what happened. But the film is pretty damn good.

MERAJI: Would you have that conversation with Hank on CODE SWITCH?

KONDABOLU: Yeah, of course I would.

MERAJI: Hank...

DEMBY: Come on, then.

(CHEERING)

MERAJI: ...Let's do this.

DEMBY: Come through, Hank.

KONDABOLU: If he's not afraid of NPRFOCs, I'm all about this.

MERAJI: (Laughter) They are scary.

DEMBY: We out here.

(LAUGHTER)

MERAJI: All right. So a white guy doing an Indian accent - that's one thing. But you actually get into Indian-Americans being asked to do an Indian accent. And let's just watch another clip from your documentary.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "THE PROBLEM WITH APU")

KONDABOLU: How would you define patanking (ph), if you were to explain what that means?

SAKINA JAFFREY: Patanking is being asked to speak in a broad Indian accent with broad acting. (Patanking) So patanking was going into a room and having to that exact thing in front of people - like a monkey.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONKEYS SCREECHING)

KONDABOLU: God, that music's terrible.

(LAUGHTER)

MERAJI: Isn't it?

KONDABOLU: We ran out of money. This is what the budget allowed us.

MERAJI: So patanking...

KONDABOLU: Yes.

MERAJI: ...That's first time I had ever heard of that.

KONDABOLU: Patanking is a term that Sakina Jaffrey, who's in the film - that you just saw in that clip - Sakina Jaffrey created that. And she never gets the credit for it. So I just want to make it clear that Sakina created that.

And she called it patanking because the sound of that word, patanking - like, that's basically the essence of what people - like, (imitating genericized Indian accent intonation, rhythm) - that ridiculous - that's the essence of what they want to hear when they want to hear an Indian accent, patanking. It's absurd. So that's what we call it. And it's being forced to play a certain - play a role really broadly.

So if you have, like, you know how to do accents, you can do various regions of India. You have specifics. And you go in, you study, you do the thing.

MERAJI: Yeah.

KONDABOLU: At this - during this time period, they would say, that's great. Can you do the Apu one? So it didn't matter. Like, none of it mattered because with Hollywood - and we all know this - they do the same thing over and over and over again until it stops working. And this worked for a really long time. So I mean, that's what a lot of these actors ended up having to do. And I think that's important because actors are the ones that are representing a whole community. Right? They end up being our ambassadors whether we like it or not. And they're being put in these positions where they have to represent us poorly. Or they get white people to represent us in brownface.

MERAJI: And they had really complicated feelings about that. Right? I mean, they didn't necessarily say, no, we're not going to take these roles because you're asking us to do an accent.

KONDABOLU: Right. I mean - you know, I'm a stand-up comedian. So I have the privilege of - I get offered a role, I say no, I go on the road, and I'm fine. I make money. Like, I can still be creating art. If you're an actor, you're beholden to someone else's ideas, to someone else's money. If you want to work, you can't keep saying no. It's a much more difficult position. And also, you know, this - we're talking about the pre-Aziz era. Do you know what I mean?

DEMBY: Uh-huh.

MERAJI: Uh-huh, right.

KONDABOLU: This is pre-Aziz and pre-Mindy. This is when, like, you didn't have people not only being in the work but creating the work, owning the work. And as a result, like, you had to take those roles. I mean, Kal talked about being in that movie "Van Wilder." And, like, it wasn't - like, the name of his character in "Van Wilder" is Taj Mahal...

MERAJI: Ay.

DEMBY: Ah.

KONDABOLU: ...Because of course it was.

And he didn't want to play that part, but that's what he got offered. And eventually, you see him playing these better things. Aasif - we didn't have this in the movie, too, just out of lack of time - but he talked about the number of cab drivers he played. The - he actually had somebody - he had to play a snake charmer. He didn't have to play a snake charmer.

(LAUGHTER)

KONDABOLU: But they offered him a snake charming role, and they asked him if he had a turban. And he said yes because he really wanted that money.

MERAJI: Yeah.

KONDABOLU: And they gave it to a white guy anyway. But it was like...

MERAJI: What?

DEMBY: Wow.

KONDABOLU: It was still like - yeah, I have a turban. Of course I have a turban.

DEMBY: See how they do you.

(LAUGHTER)

KONDABOLU: So I mean, that was the position they were in at the time. And Aasif went on to do great work. And him being on "The Daily Show," to me, is still one of the greatest things that - like, I feel like in terms of South Asian representation, that has ever happened. Like, it was huge because we got to be ourselves.

MERAJI: Yeah, no accents.

KONDABOLU: No accents. In the film he says, like, he thought that Jon Stewart wanted him to do the accents. He was like, I'm not going to do the accent. He's like, accent? No, no. Just be yourself. And the idea that we can talk for ourselves is magical. I think that's the experience that all of us have. Like, we can actually say what we want to say. And you can't take that from us.

And also, now we're in an era that we're going to say what we're going to say, and we're going to make you money by doing it. This - ultimately, that's what this is about. Like, there is an actual financial gain from Hollywood because they suppressed our stories for so long that all of them are new all of a sudden. Like, this is not - I'll be honest with you. I don't really give a [expletive] what happens to Apu.

(LAUGHTER)

KONDABOLU: You know what I mean? Like, this is old. My community's been talking about this for almost 30 years. This is old for us. Right?

But it's almost like the nation has to play catch-up to actually get to where we should be. So this is part of filling in that gap. That's how I see it - because I didn't want to keep talking about this character. There's other things that are far more interesting to discuss. But this does allow us to figure out that - what was missed during that era. We get to fill in those gaps. We get to talk about how this works. And since racism and representation - it mutates from generation to generation, we can figure out how to stop it now. Like, you know, I don't want this - to say, like, this is the most important film in the history of the world, but I'm not going to not say that.

(LAUGHTER)

DEMBY: So earlier in your career, you used to do an accent.

KONDABOLU: I used to do an accent when I was 17 or 18 - when I started doing stand-up - because, you know, I learned it was effective from watching "The Simpsons." Right? Like, that's going to make people laugh. When you start doing stand-up, the idea of silence is horrifying. You want to make people laugh in every single possible moment. You don't care how it gets there. Now I would rather perform and tell my truth and be blunt and honest. But at the time, I'm like - let's dance for them. Let's do what I have to do. And that's what I did. And I think a lot of comics of color, COCs...

(LAUGHTER)

KONDABOLU: ...We've been in that position. And it's a weird one. But like...

DEMBY: When did you stop?

KONDABOLU: After 9/11 - but then it gets serious.

(LAUGHTER)

MERAJI: Yes.

KONDABOLU: You didn't think I was going to bring 9/11 up.

(LAUGHTER)

KONDABOLU: But (laughter) - 9/11 happens. And, you know, I grew up in Queens, N.Y., and it's the most diverse place in the world. And I have so much love for Queens. And even in Queens, there were hate crimes against South Asians and Muslims and Arabs and Sikhs and whoever. Like, anybody with brown skin, there was attacks against them even there. All around the country - but even in this place that I see as almost holy. Right? And it hurt.

And I realized - I have this platform, and it's limited. And people are willing to listen to me. And I have to say something with meaning because the things I was saying, I didn't even believe. I just knew they worked. And as I was becoming politicized, it seemed ridiculous because, if you think about it, like, this is why the idea of representation matters.

At that time, you had two major representations of brown people. We're talking 2001. Right? You had Apu from "The Simpsons," who's, like, the most regular South Asian character on television - you know, harmless - right? - kind of like - there's nothing about him that is especially interesting or scary. Right? He's harmless. And on the other side, you have terrorists. That's the other depiction that we had. And after 9/11, what side do you think people are going to err on, you know?

There's a broad range between convenience store owner and terrorist. There's a lot of humanity there. Like, after, you know, the Las Vegas shooting happened and it was a middle-aged white guy, people weren't going after middle-aged white guys because there's a range of middle-aged white guys. Do you know what I mean? Like, kill him. No, that's Steve Carell. Like, it's not - like...

(LAUGHTER)

KONDABOLU: Like, there's - you're not going to just do that. And that's why representation matters. You want to make sure people understand your full humanity. You know, I would love for there to be a convenience store...

(APPLAUSE)

KONDABOLU: Thank you. Thanks.

(APPLAUSE)

KONDABOLU: Thank you, choir.

(LAUGHTER)

KONDABOLU: I would love for there to be a convenience store owner or a cab driver or some character that actually had some authenticity to it where you can hear their stories and you could find out what they find funny because they're dealing with hundreds and hundreds of people every day, and I'm sure they have stories. There's all these people that - whose voices should come out, finally. And I feel like we're in an era that, you know, that could possibly happen. And this is just a reminder of, let's not do that again.

(APPLAUSE)

MERAJI: Yes. Speaking of an era where that could happen, in your documentary, you talk about famous Indian-Americans - Mindy Kaling. You brought up Aziz. The former surgeon general, Vivek Murthy - he's in the documentary. So are we in a good place? Do you feel like you're in a good place, as far as representation is concerned?

KONDABOLU: With regards to my personal representation, I...

MERAJI: Yes.

KONDABOLU: It could be better.

(LAUGHTER)

MERAJI: Oh, well, yeah.

KONDABOLU: I want some stuff. But...

MERAJI: Is this a happy ending? Can we leave people feeling good or...

KONDABOLU: I mean, yeah. I mean, in the era that we're in, no one should feel good ever. But, like...

(APPLAUSE)

KONDABOLU: But, I mean, I feel like, yeah, I mean, we're in a era where they - there aren't just a handful of gatekeepers. You have the Internet. So somebody like Issa Rae wouldn't have been given an opportunity, then all of a sudden it's like, you're not going to give it - right?

(APPLAUSE)

KONDABOLU: And Issa Rae is like, I'm just going to make it myself. And then all of a sudden, you have - Hollywood's like, oh, we're not interested - oh, how many people are watching it? How much money can we make?

MERAJI: That's right.

KONDABOLU: You know, we've loved you since the beginning, you know? And it's nonsense, but at the same time, there's something to be said about, like, we can actually control their images, and we can reach our communities and other communities, and we can create something that people want. It's not the days of three or four networks and a few studios - right? - where, like, everybody wants them - like, the biggest audience share, so they're going to pander completely to mainstream white America.

There's so much, whether it's Amazon or iTunes or whatever. There's so many different places where you can put stuff that, like - they want a piece of the pie. They don't want the biggest piece of the pie. And that means that all of us - I don't want to say all of us. Some of you, I don't know. But, like, I think a lot...

(LAUGHTER)

KONDABOLU: No, but I think that our communities actually have a chance to put something out. And people are interested in what we have to say because it's never been heard. It's never been seen. And they want that particular market. Like, again, it's cynical to say this is all about capitalism. But, you know, it's true.

DEMBY: Let's give a round of applause for Hari Kondabolu. He's a comedian and writer, a podcast host. And his new documentary is called "The Problem With Apu."

(APPLAUSE)

MERAJI: And Hari's going to stay with us for our next segment that we call Ask CODE SWITCH. Will you guys mind if he stays up here with us? Are you cool with that?

(CHEERING)

MERAJI: All right, we're going to be right back.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DEMBY: So as you might suspect, we get a lot of questions from listeners about race - questions like, should I say black or African-American?

MERAJI: Which is it?

DEMBY: I don't know.

MERAJI: (Yelling) Which is it?

UNIDENTIFIED AUDIENCE: Black.

MERAJI: I heard black.

DEMBY: OK, so we going black. We decided that today right here.

(LAUGHTER)

DEMBY: Can I be woke and date a white person?

UNIDENTIFIED AUDIENCE: Yes.

DEMBY: So we get questions like this so much that we decided to just dedicate a whole advice column on the - our CODE SWITCH blog to answering these questions. It's like Car Talk, but instead of janky carburetors...

(LAUGHETER)

DEMBY: You have racist uncles.

MERAJI: And that's how Ask CODE SWITCH was born - all those racist uncles and aunts. And for tonight's show, we sorted through 300 questions, and we found three from Chicago-based folks. And we are bringing a special someone here to help us sort through these questions. She's a Chicago insider. She's a reporter with WBEZ 91.5. She covers segregation and equality in the South Side of Chicago. Please welcome to the stage Natalie Y. Moore.

(CHEERING)

MERAJI: All right, all right - Natalie Y. Moore.

NATALIE Y. MOORE, BYLINE: Hey.

DEMBY: Natalie Y. Moore.

MERAJI: We're going to go to our first question. Let's hear it.

HALEY BRADEN: Hi, my name is Haley Braden (ph), and I live in Denver, Colo., although I'm from outside Chicago. My question is, my extended family is made up of South Side Polish - the third generation for some of them - still live in the same neighborhood as my great-grandparents did. And many of them are adamant Cubs fans, although most South Side residents are Sox fans. I've always wondered about the race and class element to this choice.

MERAJI: All right, before we answer that question, make some noise if you're a Cubs fan.

(CHEERING)

DEMBY: All right...

MERAJI: All right, make some noise if you're a Sox fan.

(CHEERING)

MERAJI: (Yelling) Oh.

MOORE: (Laughter).

MERAJI: FOCs in the house.

KONDABOLU: NPR FOCs - that's what I'm saying.

MOORE: So now we have to...

DEMBY: So the - explain the story...

MOORE: ...Totally change this, right?

MERAJI: I know, I know.

MOORE: I was like, it's going to be nothing but Cubs fans.

DEMBY: I know. We just assumed it was going to be Cubs fans. So the - explain the story we commonly hear is - so the basic breakdown has traditionally been, the Cubs play in the National League. They're on the white side of town - the North Side of town. The play in Wrigley Field, which is, of course, named after the chewing gum magnate. The White Sox play, ironically, on the black side of town - on the South Side - in some place called Guaranteed Rate Field.

(LAUGHTER)

MOORE: Comiskey Park, Comiskey Park.

DEMBY: OK.

(CHEERING)

MERAJI: Yeah, that's better. That's better.

MOORE: Wrigley Field is on the North Side. It's in a neighborhood called Lakeview, which is very, very white, affluent, has a frat-boy element to the clubs and bars around it, if I'm being generous.

(LAUGHTER)

MOORE: And the White Sox play on the South Side, actually, in a mostly white - though it's getting more diverse - working-class neighborhood. So these do become shorthands. Like, North Side white, South Side black, Cubs white, Sox black. However, we're talking about race, so it's complicated, even...

DEMBY: Yes.

MERAJI: Yes, we love to say that.

MOORE: For example, my family grew up liking the Sox and the Cubs. So, you know, the Sox won the World Series in 2005, and the Cubs won, as we all know, last year. You know, to Haley's question - I don't know her family's racial politics, so I don't know if they're saying, we're South Siders; we're not going to, you know, like the White Sox.

But after the Cubs won, I saw all these black people on the South Side rocking Cubs gear. I don't know if they felt comfortable - so, you know, there's - it's shorthand, it's generalizations, but there's also many of us who believe Chicago over everything, so we're going to root for whatever Chicago team's winning.

(APPLAUSE)

MERAJI: Go Dodgers. Our next question is from Caitlin Rosberg (ph). She lives in Pilsen. And she's in the audience tonight, I believe. Caitlin, thank you for your question, but we're not going to get to it yet because I don't know Chicago, and I don't know anything about Pilsen. Natalie, can you just break down Pilsen for me?

MOORE: Depending on who you ask, Pilsen is either on the South Side or the West Side. I think it's South Side, personally. Pilsen was actually, originally a Czech neighborhood, and today, it's Mexican, Mexican-American, and it's dealing with the strains of gentrification.

MERAJI: OK, with that, we are going to listen to Caitlin Rosberg's question.

CAITLIN ROSBERG: How do we - particularly white Chicagoans - balance the fight to desegregate Chicago with the need to not gentrify neighborhoods? Trying to address problems with food deserts and lack of accessible public transit and education is focused on specific wards instead of citywide initiatives. And a lot of alderpersons won't listen to people who aren't residents in their wards. When white folks move into these communities, it often gets results, but at the cost of pushing out people of color that have lived there for generations.

MOORE: Well, first, I want to say, I appreciate the framing of her question and understanding that, you know, people of color want nice things in their neighborhoods too. So how do we talk about development? First, I want to set the stage because I think gentrification is one of the most misused words that I hear in the city when we talk about development. Gentrification is about class, not race. They're first cousins. They go hand in hand.

But gentrification, by its definition, is the displacement of lower-income people who are then replaced by higher-earning-income people. So you could be any race and do that. So that's our base line right here. We know that that's happening in Pilsen. What can she do? Be a good neighbor, talk to her neighbors, fight for affordable housing, lend her voice, be an ally, don't ignore the public schools if she decides to have kids.

(APPLAUSE)

MOORE: You know - just being a basic, decent human being in your neighborhood.

MERAJI: All right. And we know that Pilsen, you said, is a majority-Latino neighborhood.

MOORE: Yes.

MERAJI: ...That is going through some gentrification. What about the black neighborhoods in Chicago? What's happening there?

MOORE: Gentrification ain't happening.

MERAJI: What?

MOORE: ...At least, not on the South Side. And I'm basing this answer on my 10 years of reporting at BEZ and the academic research that's out there. So, for example, Bronzeville - everyone thought that was gentrification. You saw the displacement of lower-income people with the tearing down of the high-rise public housing, but those corridors are empty, so there was no replacement. And there still are a number of low-income people who live in Bronzeville.

There was a study that was done that compared Pilsen to Bronzeville. Why did Pilsen gentrify and Bronzeville did not? Well, white people's perceptions of Bronzeville was black crime, poverty, violent, poor. Pilsen - Cinco de Mayo, tacos and happy margaritas - so it was more ethnically palatable for Pilsen than it was for Bronzeville.

DEMBY: Wow.

MOORE: And so what we're seeing is that people want development. I mean, everybody wants nice things in their neighborhood, no matter what their income is. But I think the framing that we have to think about, particularly in South Side neighborhoods - Chicago is so humongous. We're so vast. And we're very diverse, but we're so segregated. And so the black neighborhoods on the South Side are really dealing with trying to get over the foreclosure crisis, unemployment, getting grocery stores. You know, it's a press conference in Chicago when a black neighborhood gets a grocery store. So those are more pressing issues.

But when we think about desegregation, we often think about, OK, white people moving into black neighborhoods. But we have Wrigleyville that we just talked about, all of these gated white communities on the North Side that do their very best to keep out people of color or people, you know, who don't have as many means. The neighborhoods we're in right now where this show is, so downtown, River North, River West - there have to be ways to get people into those neighborhoods to share within the wealth of the amenities.

MERAJI: So desegregate white neighborhoods.

MOORE: Yes. There's a thing as white segregation, it's not just black segregation.

MERAJI: All right. We're going to end with a question from Melissa Rodriguez (ph). She lives in the burbs in Berwyn. And she's also here in the audience tonight. Thank you for your question, Melissa. Let's hear Melissa's question.

MELISSA RODRIGUEZ: I'm a dark-skinned Mexican-American. There have been times when some of my light-skinned Mexican peers have said to me, you look too Mexican or you look like a trola wearing that when I would be wearing something as simple as a turtleneck and jean jacket. How can a situation like this be addressed next time?

MERAJI: All right. In Melissa's email, she mentioned to us that these friends of hers who are lighter-skinned Latinx people, that they will wear traditional Mexican clothes. But for some reason, they tell her that she looks too Mexican when she wears like a turtleneck and a jean jacket, which further confuses Melissa about what is going on here. Natalie, you talked to somebody, and you have some advice for Melissa, right?

MOORE: I do. So this question is deep in colorism, class, colonialism. You know, if we turn on Univision right now, we're going to see mostly light-skinned Latinos.

MERAJI: Until this week.

MOORE: Until this week. They got an Afro-Latina. So there has been this erasure of, you know, Afro-Latinos, of indigenous people. So she's not in the audience tonight, but I reached out to Argiana Diaz (ph), who is a nonprofit communicator. And her response, Melissa, was she feels frustration and empathy for you.

But she also says there is a way to spin this to the people who are asking you. And so ask them, well, what do you mean when you say I look too Mexican? And if you turn the question back to the person, it forces them to confront whatever their anti-insert-whatever-bias is. And she also said, put your light-skinned friends to work. Get them into the conversation. Make them help answer this question.

DEMBY: Let's put light-skinned people to work in general.

MOORE: Put light-skinned people to work.

(LAUGHTER)

MERAJI: Hurry. South Asians have colorism issues.

KONDABOLU: The last place the colonizer leaves is your mind, right? And I feel - but I think (laughter).

(LAUGHTER)

KONDABOLU: And you see that. I mean, we created a cream called Fair & Lovely cream, right? Fair & Lovely. And it's this stuff that's supposed to be skin-lightening cream. And that's - it's very successful in South Asia. Like, it's a big thing because everybody wants to be lighter. But it's something we're obsessed with. And some of it comes from, you know, the old country. Like in India, in Bollywood, everyone is light-skinned - everybody. Like you don't have like - when they say, oh, she's like a dark-skinned actress, I'm like, she's lighter than me. Like, you know I mean?

Like, it's always like a really light-skinned person. The worst example I remember is there's this actress. I think her name is Amy Jackson. She wasn't an actress. She was a beauty pageant contestant in Birmingham, England. It's a white girl. And a Bollywood producer saw her and brought her to India to be an actress, except she would pretend to be Indian, and someone would just dub over her voice.

MERAJI: Oh, wow.

DEMBY: Wow.

KONDABOLU: Yeah. And his excuse was that like, you know, like, she has Indian features, which is weird. Out of a billion people, there's a lot of Indian women that have Indian features. I mean, that's one thing that Indian women historically have been known for is Indian features. So it's deep, man. Like, it's...

MERAJI: Do you have any advice for Melissa and what she's going through?

KONDABOLU: Yeah. I mean, I think you have to - I mean, I wouldn't say the whole colonizer line I said because people are like, all right, I get it, OK. I mean, I think you have to talk about like their own experiences with racism. Like, what do you experience? Think about the fact that I have to deal with it on the outside and I have to like deal with it from you.

MERAJI: Yeah, my friends, right.

KONDABOLU: I think sometimes you have to reach people in terms of where they're at. It's like when I talk to like white women about racism, I try to talk about it in terms of like, think about how you didn't get paid what you deserved for a job. You got paid more than the minorities, but you still didn't get paid what you deserved.

DEMBY: An important caveat.

KONDABOLU: But like you have to reach people where they're at. And I think that's one way to do it. Like, they will understand, yes, I've been discriminated against. And I didn't know I was doing that to my own friend.

MERAJI: Punto, as Perito Mas (ph) would say. Rest in peace.

MOORE: We just solved racism, right? We just solved colorism.

MERAJI: We did. We solved racism.

DEMBY: We just solved racism.

(APPLAUSE)

MERAJI: So I know all of you in the audience have a lot more questions. Don't worry because right now we're working on a special holiday-themed episode of Ask CODE SWITCH. Email us your questions and anxieties about race and identity that come up when the holidays roll around, and we know that they do. Our email is codeswitch@npr.org.

DEMBY: We want to thank everyone who asked us questions for Ask CODE SWITCH. And we thank Natalie for your reporting and insights for Ask CODE SWITCH.

(CHEERING)

MERAJI: And Melissa, Caitlin, Haley - Natalie, you were amazing.

MOORE: Thank you.

DEMBY: Thank for kicking it with us.

MERAJI: And Hari, you're all right.

DEMBY: Hari's documentary comes out next week. It's called "The Problem With Apu" - next Sunday on truTV.

(APPLAUSE)

MERAJI: All right, so to wrap the show, Gene and I are going to tell you the songs that are giving us life right now.

DEMBY: Want to start it off?

MERAJI: So Puerto Rico's been on my mind a lot lately - Puerto Rico. Are there any Puerto Ricans in the audience? Clap if you're...

UNIDENTIFIED AUDIENCE: (Cheering).

MERAJI: Ah, my boricuas - yes. And just to get through things, I've been listening to a lot of salsa. And Victor Manuelle is a Puerto Rican salsero. Clap if you know who Victor Manuelle is.

(APPLAUSE)

MERAJI: And he has this great song called "Que Suenen Los Tambores," which I absolutely love and I've been playing on repeat. The video opens with a wonderful quote, and it's in Spanish, and I'm going to try and read it for you. All right, so bear with me here. (Reading) En un mundo donde la oscuridad y el silencio han amordazado la esperanza, que la musica sea la (ph) luz y fe sea la palabra. Para que vengan tiempos mejores, que suenen los tambores.

DEMBY: Yes.

(CHEERING)

MERAJI: So here's the loose translation in English of that - in a world where darkness and silence has muted hope, music is the light and faith, is the word. To bring back better times, bring on the drums.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "QUE SUENEN LOS TAMBORES")

VICTOR MANUELLE: (Singing in Spanish).

MERAJI: All right, Geney (ph), what you got?

DEMBY: So late in the spring, we did this episode on - of CODE SWITCH on house music, which, of course, got its start here in Chicago.

(CHEERING)

DEMBY: House music has some very complicated racial dynamics, but when we were rabbit-holing (ph), doing the reporting for that episode, our editor, Sami Yenigun, who is a big house music fan, put me onto this song. It is a house edit of a gospel song called "Jesus Can Work It Out." The song is by this dude named Karizma, and the house song is "Work It Out."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WORK IT OUT")

COSMOPOLITAN CHURCH OF PRAYER CHOIR: (Singing) Work it out.

DIANNE WILLIAMS: (Singing) Maybe got a gas bill too.

COSMOPOLITAN CHURCH OF PRAYER CHOIR: (Singing) Work it out.

WILLIAMS: (Singing) Because you got a light bill due.

COSMOPOLITAN CHURCH OF PRAYER CHOIR: (Singing) Work it out.

WILLIAMS: (Singing) Maybe got a gas bill too.

COSMOPOLITAN CHURCH OF PRAYER CHOIR: (Singing) Work it out.

WILLIAMS: (Singing) Because you got a light bill due.

COSMOPOLITAN CHURCH OF PRAYER CHOIR: (Singing) Work it out.

WILLIAMS: (Singing) Maybe got a gas bill too.

COSMOPOLITAN CHURCH OF PRAYER CHOIR: (Singing) Work it out.

WILLIAMS: (Singing) Because you got a light bill due.

COSMOPOLITAN CHURCH OF PRAYER CHOIR: (Singing) Work it out.

WILLIAMS: (Singing) Maybe got a gas bill too.

COSMOPOLITAN CHURCH OF PRAYER CHOIR: (Singing) Work it out.

MERAJI: "Work It Out."

DEMBY: Work it - so this is my, like, get up in the morning like I'm about to run some miles, like, I'ma (ph) need to run through a wall, everything is messed up - like, we - the stuff we cover can be so depressing, right? It's really easy to slide in fatalism. I think we have, like, a - we have a lot of dark humor on our team, but every now and again, you just need to remember that, like, some of this stuff is going to work itself out, but it won't work itself out unless we do the work, right? So...

(APPLAUSE)

DEMBY: That is my...

MERAJI: Well said.

DEMBY: This is my jam. This is the song that's giving me life.

MERAJI: And we want to hear from you. We want to hear the songs giving you life, so tweet at us. Use the hashtag #CodeSwitchLive.

(CHEERING)

DEMBY: Before we go tonight, special thanks to the WBEZ Podcast Passport series for bringing us to Chicago.

(APPLAUSE)

DEMBY: This series is curated and produced by WBEZ's Tyler Greene - more shows in the series at WBEZ.org/events.

MERAJI: Also thanks to WBEZ's events team. That's Haley Carlson, Ashley Thorpe, Mary Kathleen Nadelson (ph), Simon Tran and Mindy Zhang. The WBEZ recording engineer was Collin Ashmead-Bobbitt. Support your local station. That's WBEZ.

DEMBY: It's right now.

MERAJI: ...Because supporting your station is how you support us - Pop Culture Happy Hour, the Politics Podcast, and all the other NPR podcasts you love. But you love us the most, we know. Yes.

UNIDENTIFIED AUDIENCE: Yes.

DEMBY: Special thanks also to The Fest, which is a new podcast festival curated by the Third Coast International Audio Festival.

(CHEERING)

DEMBY: Shoutout to Johanna, Maya and Emily from The Fest for co-presenting this live show.

MERAJI: And a special thanks to our volunteers tonight. That means they did stuff for free, so lets give them a round of applause.

DEMBY: Yes.

(APPLAUSE)

MERAJI: And back at NPR, our thanks to Anya Grundmann, Neal Carruth and the NPR events team and visuals team. And thanks to producers Jessica Reedy, Leah Donnella, Walter Ray Watson, Maria Paz Gutierrez, our editor, Sami Yenigun, and our executive producer, Steve Drummond. Big shoutout to the rest of the CODE SWITCH team.

DEMBY: Woo (ph).

(CHEERING)

MERAJI: We love you.

DEMBY: Thanks to everybody here at the Harris Theater. I'm Gene Demby.

MERAJI: And I'm Shereen Marisol Meraji.

DEMBY: Chicago, be easy.

MERAJI: Peace.

(CHEERING)

DEMBY: The music you heard on this episode is original music composed by Ramtin Arablouei.

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