“It was the first time that I realized that the way that I saw myself, which was generically American … was not the way that everybody else saw me.”
Alex Wagner was a 12-year-old having breakfast in a diner with her father in a Washington, D.C., suburb when the white line cook asked her, “Are you adopted?” The CBS national correspondent, contributing editor at the Atlantic and the co-executive producer and co-host of “The Circus” on Showtime is the biracial daughter of her Burmese immigrant mother and her late white American father. Her quest for identity and belonging led her to write “Futureface: A Family Mystery, an Epic Quest and the Secret to Belonging.”
“I remember answering this guy, almost embarrassed for the way that I looked, saying, ‘Oh, my mom’s Asian,’” Wagner told me in the latest episode of “Cape Up,” which was recorded during a discussion of her book at the Aspen Ideas Festival on June 26. “As if that should explain why I looked the way that I was, when, in reality, why shouldn’t I be the natural-born daughter of a white American?”
The title “Futureface” was inspired by a 1993 Time magazine cover that Wagner said was “a composite image of all the races that were gonna compose the United States in the years hence.” During her teen years, Wagner avoided putting herself into a racial or ethnic box. But that magazine cover changed everything.
“I looked at it, and I remember being in high school, and I said, ‘That is me! I look like that. I am future face.’… I didn’t care whether people thought I was Hawaiian or Egyptian or Alaskan or Burmese American. I just liked the idea that I was the avatar of the future,” Wagner explained. “But that kind of made-up identity, which is inherently one of privilege, especially given how deeply and distressingly grounded race still is in America, it’s not sustaining. And as I got older, I felt like I wanna know where I belong. I wanna know who my people are. I wanna know what community is my own.”
Wagner’s book, which was tops on former president Barack Obama’s famous summer reading list, is best seen as a three-act opera. The first act is the author retelling the stories she heard during her childhood. “We hear stories from our parents and our grandparents about what life was like in the old country or wherever they came from. They are biblical. They are truth. There could be no alternate history,” Wagner told me. “But that begged the question, why then did my parents leave? Why did my grandmother leave [Burma]?”
What Wagner calls the “white immigrant origin story” describes her father’s family’s story. “My father grew up in a Norman Rockwell postcard. His mother was a stay-at-home mom, his father was a rural mailman, they had six kids,” she recounted. “But how did we get to be these people? We came from Europe and landed in Iowa. But why did we land in Iowa? And, more importantly, who was there before us?”
Act two, the untangling of her family lore to get at the truth, was the eureka moment for the author and her understanding of our nation’s current racial dynamic. “If we knew the facts and who our people were, we could have a more comprehensive account of what this country is and who we owe a debt to, and what we earned on our own, and what we should seek forgiveness for,” Wagner said. “There are a lot of unsettled debts on the ledger. And so, this is the first time that I realized that tracing family history can also be a way of settling debts in the present day.”
“The other piece about tracing your ancestry is it makes you slightly more empathetic about what happens today. As we seem to have lost a certain sense of humanity for and among each other,” Wagner went on to say. “I am more forgiving because I realize that all of our family histories — definitely mine — it’s populated with thieves and liars and incompetent people who weren’t bad people and who I’m not ashamed of, but who are my family.”
Listen to the podcast to hear Wagner discuss the newsiest part of her book and our discussion: DNA testing. Her reporting after getting her own results revealed mind-blowing information. “The boundaries are arbitrary, the data sets are market-driven. And the results were all over the place,” she said. But the journalist’s assessment of the popular way folks are finding out their ancestry was blunt.
“It’s a Ponzi scheme,” Wagner said to laughter. “Don’t do it!”
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