Acceptance speech for “Spirit of Asian America” Award

Delivered on the evening of June 21, 2018 at The Pierre Hotel at the Asian American Federation annual gala; these were my prepared remarks but I recall starting with a joke about how I deserved another award for rocking my sari on the subway

Thank you so much for this honor. 

Just to be clear what we are celebrating today — my daughter Naya graduated from 8th grade earlier this afternoon. We were just planning to go to the Olive Garden tonight for dinner. And then Jo-Ann Yoo called. So thank you, Asian American Federation for throwing us a better dinner. And congratulations, Naya — she’s heading to Stuyvesant High School in the fall. Which we know is really an award that trumps mine tonight — especially in the Asian community. 

I thank her and my entire family here for sharing this day with me, as they have shared so so many days that were meant to be theirs – birthdays, anniversaries, milestones like losing teeth and bigger crises  like losing homework or library books. In this year that the Asian American Federation is honoring women, we acknowledge the sacrifice that our families make day in, day out, for us to do the work we do. 

And of course, we acknowledge the families who came before us to pave that path in the first place. So tonight I share this award with my in-laws, Kiran and Satish Mukul, who arrived in Canada in the 1960s and then crossed the other border into Massachusetts. (Asian tip, always thank your mother-in-law first) And my parents, Mohesh and Nirmala Kalita, who arrived in 1971 and 1974, respectively. Their first stop in America was an apartment just about 13 blocks from where I live today in Jackson Heights, Queens. 

I have an army with me here today because the stereotypes about Indians are true. There is no such thing as a +1 for us Indians. If you look underneath table 12 over there, I think you might find my uncle — and his whole family. And I think this trait is shared by many Asian communities. 

We have ridden these close bonds and a propensity to look out for each other to much success. We open our houses and our basements and our attics to cousins and complete strangers. There’s always enough food for the five or 15 people who might just stop by. We drive friends to and from the airport or the hospital or basically anywhere they need to go. And when there’s a big purchase like a house or a car or college tuition, we pool our money and make it work. In this definition of community, this broad definition, we are truly blessed. 

The title of your conference today was Model Minority. That term forces us to be compared to other brown or black people. And certainly the attitude around Stuyvesant High School right now – and the future of its admission test — is to lump all minorities in and pit one group – ours, as some alleged “model” – against the others, blacks and Latinos. The facts, though, are that we triumph over every group in America — not just minorities. Overall, Asian American men and women both earn more than our white counterparts. Young Asian Americans, those between ages 25-29, are better educated than white Americans. The divorce rate for Asian Americans is also lower than that of white Americans. We are in federal prisons at a lower rate too. 

And yet Asian-Americans have the highest poverty rate out of any ethnic group in New York. The first murder classified as a hate crime after the election of 2016 was 32-year-old Srinivas Kuchibhotla, who was told to “get out of my country” before he was shot to death at a bar outside Kansas City. And when he ran for Congress, Mike Pompeo called his Indian opponent a “turban-topper” and said he could be a ‘Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, who knows’… Despite the racism, Pompeo won. And now he’s secretary of state. 

Asian America is privileged. Asian America is oppressed and disempowered and the target of hate. We are, as the saying goes, caught between these two worlds. Whose side do we pick? 

I turn to my roots as a journalist when I say neither. I entered this industry with an explicit mandate to diversify newsrooms and their coverage. Sadly, we are in a no better state of representation than when I began my career more than 20 years ago. And yet I have never heard as much consternation over trust, and the lack thereof, in the press.

To me, it is so simple. If people feel included, reflected, acknowledged in your journalism, they might trust you. And so my job, as a woman, as a journalist, as an Asian is to keep asking who is not here, who is not represented, who do I need to make room for — even when I disagree with the point of view. I truly believe that every problem we have in journalism right now — and to a broader extent, democracy — stems from a failure to be inclusive and a failure to operate from an instinct of generosity versus survival. 

As Asians, I ask that we use this privilege and this ability to transcend two worlds wisely. We have certainly looked out for each other and tonight is a recognition of that. But are we looking out others? And might we perhaps be, due to our overlapping Venn diagrams, the best positioned to do so? 

Our family would not be here without the Civil Rights Movement that led to the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which opened doors to certain countries, namely non-white, non-European ones. Basically everything we are today, everything I am today, every award I have ever won, including this one, comes on the backs of black people who sacrificed so much, including their own lives and dignity. I was raised in a house that reminded me of this at every turn, especially the books my father read and made sure I read, too: James Baldwin, Malcolm X, Toni Morrison. We would go take pictures of ourselves on Princeton’s Paul Robeson Place, named after the lawyer, actor, athlete and Civil Rights hero. 

As I came of age as an Indian, as a South Asian, as an Asian, I realized not everyone was raised this way. Understandably, a first generation of Asian America spent so much time focusing on making sure their kids knew where we came from — and not so much on HOW we got here and our need to create roots in this country too. 

This role of translator is a familiar one to women of color. We of course spend our days and our lives as conciliators among overlapping identities, often in conflict. I commiserate with white feminists talking about the pay gap — and then gently remind them that black men make less than they do. My hope is that we lift all tides up along the way. 

That work, of course, is what the Asian American Federation is known for. One of the reasons I am so humbled tonight is because you are not some anonymous organization googling Asian women in corporate America you wanted to honor. This organization and I have a history going back about 20 years when I was a cub reporter at Newsday. I did a search for the stories where I quoted the organization and I came upon one from 2002 focusing on garment workers after 9/11. “What happens in Chinatown has ripple effects that spread throughout the city,” I wrote. 

It is because of the work you did — and perhaps the person I am — that we got stories about garment workers and Chinatown in a business section usually devoted to coverage of Wall Street. I and my industry thank you for that. 

It is exhausting work. It is invisible work. It is necessary work. I see you and I thank you for seeing me. 

I want to acknowledge my conspirators, namely my colleagues at CNN, some of whom are here tonight. My boss, also an amazing woman Meredith Artley, who has truly shaken up what you think the website of a cable TV network should be. My colleagues Marcus Mabry and Amanda Wills, who I have brainwashed to sound more Asian as they try to make me more black, gay and Southern. 

I also acknowledge the workers, the real ones that I know AAF has done such a good job supporting. My nanny is here tonight, Fareeda Huda, and our previous nanny, Paldon. You should know my mother gave me the best advice a few years ago when I got a promotion. She said she wanted to buy Paldon a gift as a thank you — and wanted to make sure I gave her a raise. “Because she is really the one who made it possible,” my mom told me. It was the single best piece of advice on being a better human I have ever received. 

Lifting others up feels the only antidote right now. This country’s very foundation feels so cracked and divided, sometimes beyond repair. Because of the aforementioned success I mentioned, our proximity to power, our legitimate power, is quite real. We have no choice but to help bridge this divide to those who feel they have none. That much we owe those who came before us. And that much we owe to this great country and our rightful place in it. Thank you.