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By Why Is This Happening?

Why is everyone taking DNA tests to find out about their heritage? While Americans are fueling an industry selling them a story of global identity, their country’s president is spreading fear and hostility about non-white immigrants. Trump seems to have an idea of “Americanness” that is limited to those of a certain ethnic inheritance and anyone from places like Mexico or South America or Haiti is fundamentally foreign and "other."

But the obvious fact remains that the overwhelming majority of us came from somewhere foreign, that at some point, our heritage was "other." This is the intersection Alex Wagner explores in her new memoir, “Futureface." It’s a story about how we think about who we are based on where we come from and how that fits into our conception of our own “Americanness."

CHRIS HAYES: Why is the country in the midst of this identity anxiety right now?

ALEX WAGNER: I think it's twofold. One, I think it's demographic churn. Right? I mean, there are studies that back this up, that there is a fear that white Americans are losing and that their way of life as they know it, which is probably some airbrushed version of reality, is going away, and the brown blob is coming. But I think there's also a sort of sociocultural answer, which is that we are isolated from each other.

CHRIS HAYES: Welcome to "Why Is This Happening?" with me, your host, Chris Hayes. So, we're having a big national debate right now about what it is to be an American, I think it's fair to say. Now, you could say it's the debate that stretches all the way back to the country's founding about what it is to be American, who gets to count as an American, and there's a great line by... I'm now not remembering. I should have it in front of me, but I believe it was some state department official, I think, who I think was resigning when Donald Trump was being sworn in, and he had this line that I always remembered that he said, the dream of the US as a white man's republic died at Appomattox. The idea being that in some ways, for all the aspirations included in both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution about free people and self-determination and the US as a kind of creedal nation, it was a white man's republic.

It was an ethnostate for the first 75 years, and then fought a war, and the 14th Amendment particularly shifted the country towards the trajectory of being an America that was a nation in which Americanness was something larger than just race. It was something larger than having a certain color of skin, having a certain kind of background, and that project of making that dream real has been an extremely bloody one for many, many years. Obviously, genuine democratic equality, regardless of race, is something that was not even legally achieved until the 1960s, and is not still yet actually achieved.

Alex WagnerMichele Crowe / CBS via Getty Images

But there has been for a while, I think it is fair to say, a kind of consensus view that Americanness is about a set of values about liberty and democracy and self-determination as opposed to a certain ethnic inheritance. And that's given the U.S. a kind of leg up, I think, honestly, in the world order we're in now. I think it makes US better at integrating, accepting, celebrating immigrants from different parts of the world. I think there's not a sense... I spent some time in Italy when I was younger, and Italians think of Italianness as a very specific ethnic thing. It's like, well, you're from Bologna, and you cook a certain food, and you speak a certain language, and you have a very specific liqueur that comes from your town, and that's all what constitutes Italianness.

So, when there's an African immigrant who is now Italian, there's a bit of a question of, well, is that person really Italian? What is Italianness now? In Europe, you're watching Europe encounter and struggle with this question. It's a question the U.S. has kind of had to deal with earlier, and I think had reached a consensus about, even if only honored in a breach, even if it was an elite consensus but not an actual one, that America isn't about a specific ethnic inheritance or racial inheritance, and now there's real challenge to that view, and the challenge comes from the President of the United States.

The president very clearly, I think, views Americanness as tied to a certain ethnic inheritance. He views foreigners, particularly foreigners from countries like Mexico, from Central America, or say, Haiti, which he called a shit-hole country. He views them as a challenge to Americanness. He views them as fundamentally and irrevocably irredeemably foreign and other, and they cannot be made American, and America cannot accept too many of them and stay America, and then he's gone to Europe and he's avowed a vision of Europeanness that would be very comfortably espoused by white supremacist David Duke, or white nationalist Richard Spencer, or white nationalist Congressman Steve King, which is that fundamentally Europeness and Germanness is threatened by foreigners of different cultures and different skin color and different ethnicity and different languages, and you will lose your culture.

And amidst all that, it's so easy for everyone to forget that we all came from somewhere. I mean, it's the biggest, most obvious fricking cliché, but either you were brought to America as a slave and you are descended from people brought as slaves, or you are a descendant of indigenous people who have been here for thousands of years and who were almost entirely eradicated, or largely eradicated by disease and genocide and ethnic cleansing, those two categories, which are relatively small categories in the overall scheme of 300 million people, or you were in the vast majority of people who got here because someone somewhere else in the world was like, “I'm gonna go to there as a foreigner, as a person not of there,” probably is a person who didn't speak the language, probably is a person who was hated, looked down upon, wanted to be kept out.

"Futureface" by Alex WagnerRandom House

That's the story, and it's such a dumb, obvious cliché to say, but cannot be said enough, and I'm happy to say that my friend wrote a book about exactly this. My friend, Alex Wagner, who I've known for 20 years, as you will hear, has a great book out called "Futureface." It's a memoir. It's about her. It's about her lineage, about where she comes from, but it's a story about how we think about who we are and what our identity is based on where we come from and how that fits into what our conception of Americanness is, and I think it's a great time to reset that conversation. It's one of these interventions you have to constantly keep making. When we talk, when see a rising set of political actors, including the most powerful person in the world who wants to very explicitly articulate a vision of blood-and-soil conservatism and ethno-nationalism, it is inimical, and it was a project that was attempted in our past in different ways.

It was defeated at Appomattox, and it rose again. It was defeated when the Know-Nothing party was essentially extinguished. It was defeated in the Civil Rights Act, and yet, it comes back time and time again. It is an eternal recurrence that we battle this vision, and Alex Wagner is brilliant and she's funny, and she's written this really incredible, engaging memoir in which she just looks at her own family and says, “Where did they come from? How did we get here, and what made us American,” and that's really a question that everyone right now needs to be asking themselves and asking others.

CHRIS HAYES: I really loved your book, by the way.

ALEX WAGNER: Thank you, and I know you had to say that, but you didn't have to say that, and I appreciate it.

CHRIS HAYES: I didn't. I actually wouldn't have said it if I didn't really-

ALEX WAGNER: Would you?

CHRIS HAYES: Yeah.

ALEX WAGNER: We've known each other for so long.

CHRIS HAYES: You're right. I would have said it, even if I didn't. We've known each other since I was a freshman and you were a sophomore in college.

ALEX WAGNER: Yeah, and I remember hearing about you before you got to Brown.

CHRIS HAYES: I remember hearing about you because you —

ALEX WAGNER: I dated everybody that you went to high school with. It's true, America.

CHRIS HAYES: Definitely, definitely leaving that in. So, I was thinking about your book, and I want to talk about the book because I think it fits perfectly in this context of what are we, what are we as Americans. It's the big national fight right now. Right?

ALEX WAGNER: Yep.

CHRIS HAYES: But I thought about it in this funny way of thinking about a certain kind of politics of New York City in the '80s in which everyone's obsessed with their heritage. White people are... Because no one thinks of themselves as white. They think of themselves as Irish or Catholic or Irish Catholic or Italian, or they think of themselves as Greek, or they think of themselves as Albanian, and everyone's super obsessed with their heritage. Everyone's super obsessed with ethnicity and where their people came from.

ALEX WAGNER: Especially in this town, because there's such a strong ethnic identity that corresponds with neighborhood and cuisine and pastime, more than other cities, I think. Well, big cities like Boston has it a little bit, but there are enclaves, and so to be Irish is to participate in the Saint Patrick's Day parade. To be Dominican is to participate in the Dominican parade or...

CHRIS HAYES: Right, or to live in the Bronx and to speak a certain way and to eat certain things and to have —

ALEX WAGNER: Yeah, yeah. Exactly.

CHRIS HAYES: That there's this way in which... I guess I sort of... It was funny because I'm reading your book, and the book is all about you sort of going through this process of kind of tracing back up your family tree and figuring out your identity, and it made me think about how elemental that was to the world that I grew up in of people that we would call white, but in a way, because of the way the identities were formed in these urban ethnic enclaves, aren't thinking of themselves as white.

ALEX WAGNER: White.

CHRIS HAYES: They're thinking of themselves as these very specific, narrow ethnic terms, because that's their identity. That's who I am. I'm Italian.

ALEX WAGNER: Right. If you could see Chris Hayes right now, he's puffing his chest out, like I'm Italian.

CHRIS HAYES: Which is true. I am half Italian. Why did you embark on this? Why did you start looking into your family tree? What started you on sort of the journey?

ALEX WAGNER: So, for people who do not know me, and even for people who do, a lot of people are like, "What are you?" I grew up... My mom was born in Rangoon, Burma, and my dad was born in a tiny town on the Mississippi River called Lansing, and I was this mixed-race kid that didn't really... I didn't feel any particular calling towards exploring my identity until there was this moment when I think I was like 12 years old, and I write about this in the book, where I was at a diner with my dad, and my dad gets up to go the bathroom, and the line cook looks at me and says, "Are you adopted?" and independent of that being a completely outrageously inappropriate question to ask a 12-year-old-

CHRIS HAYES: Side note, don't do that, America.

ALEX WAGNER: Yeah, don't ever do that.

CHRIS HAYES: Just keep that one to yourself.

ALEX WAGNER: Right? Nobody —

CHRIS HAYES: Just no.

ALEX WAGNER: No 12-year-old needs to be asked that. No person needs to be asked that.

CHRIS HAYES: Stick that in your drafts folder.

ALEX WAGNER: Maybe just delete. Maybe not even keep that as a draft.

CHRIS HAYES: Exactly. Delete it. Yeah.

ALEX WAGNER: But it was the first time where I was sort of confronted with this idea that I saw and understood myself to be a natural part of the fabric of America and a natural daughter to this white American. Why would anybody question that? My heritage wasn't at all up for debate or the subject of questions, uncomfortable ones at that, and that was a moment that the way other people saw me wasn't necessarily the way I saw myself, and specifically, white America, and I understood the sort of conference of power that was part of that question, like you don't belong in this place. You must be from somewhere else. I mean, that kind of exclusivity is intoxicating. Right? How do I become part of that? What sets me apart? Why do you see me as different?

CHRIS HAYES: The exclusivity is intoxicating in which direction, to be not white, or to be in the inner circle of the power of whiteness?

The Nov. 18, 1993 issue of Time.Time

ALEX WAGNER: In the beginning, when I was little, I just wanted to be accepted. I was like, well, why don't I belong here, and then as I got older, I think as a reaction to that almost, in my late teens and early 20s, I was like, fuck that. I kind of was defiantly like, I'm mixed-race. I'm happa. I'm a future face. That title arose from this Time Magazine cover of 1993, which was a racial composite image of the future face of America, and I was like, bingo, I'm it, that's what I'm gonna be, and I would wear seed bead necklaces and a feather earring, and people would ask, "Are you Cherokee, or you must be —"

CHRIS HAYES: I remember the feather earring.

ALEX WAGNER: Do you? I mean, you would remember this stage.

CHRIS HAYES: I 100 percent remember the feather earring.

ALEX WAGNER: Right? But there's something fraudulent about that. You're happily getting confused, letting other people get confused, and you're claiming to be sort of above the racial fray, independent of the history of blood and plunder that attends most minority races in America, and I realized in my late 20s and 30s, I wanted to find out what the real story was, and I think actually the election of Barack Obama, who in face is our first mixed-race president as much as he is sort of proclaimed to be our first black president, his mother was white, but that's an example of how hard a time we as a country have in terms of grappling with people being mixed, not one thing or the other thing. So, this book is like a meditation and an exploration of all that.

CHRIS HAYES: It's funny because these terms, the terms and definitions are all created by a terrible set of ideologies. Right? I mean —

ALEX WAGNER: Yeah, and they're not easy to square. I mean —

CHRIS HAYES: Well, that's the problem with them. It's the whole idea of who's on what side of a racial line, which is a totally constructed line, doesn't exist, not a thing out there in the world biologically or part of the fabric of the universe, like a thing that human society and racism created. Then we all inherited that category, and then we have to —

ALEX WAGNER: But then there are also some people that are prideful. I'm black. Society sees me as black, and I'm not gonna say... I remember when I was saying on MSNBC when I used to have a show, Barack Obama is our first mixed-race president and people were like "Well how dare you? You're impugning his blackness."

CHRIS HAYES: Right.

ALEX WAGNER: It was like "No, no, no. I'm not trying to do that. I'm just pointing out a fact here…

CHRIS HAYES: Right.

ALEX WAGNER:... which is he comes from two sides of the aisle fundamentally.” We went to Brown University, Chris, for those who don't know, grappling with "Okay. How do you find yourself in a community that feels honest and is on the right trajectory?" I talk about this in the book. I didn't know whether joining the South Asian Students Association was a good idea or an idea that would further marginalize the South Asian Students community. Right? There's solidarity there, but don't you have more power when you're speaking to a broader audience?

CHRIS HAYES: Yeah.

ALEX WAGNER: There's this constant push and pull of "Am I being too reductive?" I mean it's a salad bowl versus melting pot thing.

CHRIS HAYES: Right.

ALEX WAGNER: How do we coexist in a way that gives people who are different from us agency?

CHRIS HAYES: So the story of both lineages is really interesting because I think what it does is it, particularly on your father's side... To me, it foregrounded the fact that these simple identities -- he's like a white Midwesterner — all identities are complex.

ALEX WAGNER: Yeah.

CHRIS HAYES:... in really interesting ways. Right? The categories ... Again, these categories, these invented categories as tools of hierarchy to give power to some people and take it away from other people-

ALEX WAGNER: Yeah.

CHRIS HAYES:... they do their own steamrolling on both sides of the divide-

ALEX WAGNER: Totally.

CHRIS HAYES:... about who is what. What did you find out about your dad?

ALEX WAGNER: We had been handed this story about my dad's heritage that was like impossibly Rockwellian. It was like we grew up, we went to church on Sundays, we had homemade donuts on Sunday and fish on Friday. It was this Irish-Catholic halcyon existence on the banks of the Mississippi River where the kids would play stick ball at twilight and the nuns would wrap your knuckles if you misbehaved. Right? I accepted that as gospel because who would ever think to question that?

But as I embarked on this project, I was asking my father detailed questions which, by the way, we should all do because nobody ever sits-

CHRIS HAYES: Well not everyone.

ALEX WAGNER: What do you mean? Not everybody should be... We should all —

CHRIS HAYES: You never know what you're going to unravel when you start asking your family questions.

ALEX WAGNER: That's true. I think especially in this moment, we're all content to take these DNA tests, but nobody actually wants to talk to their relatives. Right?

CHRIS HAYES: Totally.

ALEX WAGNER: There's an irony there.

CHRIS HAYES: Yeah, that's true.

ALEX WAGNER: I said "Why did we immigrate? Why did your grandfather immigrate from Luxembourg to Iowa?" My dad said "Well they were giving away the land. The land was free." That was like this alarm bell like "Wait a second. What? Why were they... Why were they giving..." Of course I knew about the Homestead Act.

CHRIS HAYES: Right.

ALEX WAGNER: I knew about the clearance of the land, but it had never occurred to me that there had been people walking on that land like hours before my ancestors got there. I mean like in a very practical way-

CHRIS HAYES: Yeah.

ALEX WAGNER: ... the American history had never intersected with my personal history. My dad said "There wasn't a person of color in town except for the lone black dry cleaner." I had just sort of accepted the whiteness of the Midwest as just a natural part of the American story, of our American story. As I did the research, I realized that the land that we got "for free," the land that we planted seeds on, that we grew food on that then made us strong and great Americans actually belonged to the Winnebago tribe just years before my great-grandfather got there and that the reason there were no people of color is because we had either cleared all of them off or prevented them from migrating north.

CHRIS HAYES: You were right in the book about that recency, and I think that's always a thing that's really hard for people to deal with when thinking about... Because everyone knows in the abstract the land was inhabited by indigenous peoples, but there's a sense of like long ago in a galaxy far, far away —

ALEX WAGNER: Like dinosaurs, dinosaurs.

CHRIS HAYES: Totally. Yes.

ALEX WAGNER: Like when T. Rex roamed the earth —

CHRIS HAYES: Right.

ALEX WAGNER: ... and the Iroquois —

CHRIS HAYES: It's like "No, no — "

ALEX WAGNER: ... had arrowheads.

CHRIS HAYES: "... days before." The footprints are still there and it was just a very managed, explicit process of ethnic cleansing that was happening by an essentially modern bureaucratic state at that point-

ALEX WAGNER: Yeah.

CHRIS HAYES: ... just doing it in the way that we would think today if another government was doing, we're like "Oh, that's ethnic cleansing."

ALEX WAGNER: Yes.

CHRIS HAYES: "That's — "

ALEX WAGNER: It's like what the Burmese are doing to the Rohingya Muslim minority.

CHRIS HAYES: Right.

ALEX WAGNER: But it's also like —

CHRIS HAYES: But they knew what they were doing. It wasn't like "Oh, it happened."

ALEX WAGNER: Oh, no. It was systematic. What you don't ever sense until you embark on projects like this is... I've been in New York for 15 years. Fifteen years, that's a long time. No, 16 years on and off. Sixteen years is longer than the period of time that separated the last Winnebago leaving the land and my great-grandfather arriving.

CHRIS HAYES: Right.

ALEX WAGNER: It's really hard for us to conceive of these two histories dovetailing with one another in such an intimate fashion. Then to sort of see the important part about that was not just better understanding the history of the native people but also understanding what was given to us as Wagners of Lansing, Iowa and what was not rightfully ours and who we have to thank for some of our success and what we did on our own. Right? I'm not trying to shortchange —

CHRIS HAYES: Right.

ALEX WAGNER: ... the work and the brilliance of the Wagner line.

CHRIS HAYES: Obviously.

ALEX WAGNER: Right? But I think when we tell our American story especially our white immigrant origin story, it would behoove us as a country, as a people, as a family to tell it more honestly and tell it more fully.

CHRIS HAYES: I think there's a thing that you write about which is this perspective shift when you go back and forth between who's the David and who's the Goliath.

ALEX WAGNER: Right.

CHRIS HAYES: Right? The story everyone constructs for themselves with I think maybe the exception of people who are part of some Mayflower society is that their people were the Davids and there was some other people that were the Goliath. Right?

ALEX WAGNER: Yes.

CHRIS HAYES: It's like "My grandfather, great-grandfather came from southern Italy with nothing but — "

ALEX WAGNER: "His shoelaces — "

CHRIS HAYES: Yeah, shoelaces.

ALEX WAGNER: "... and a dream."

CHRIS HAYES: To the Winnebago —

ALEX WAGNER: Hell yeah.

CHRIS HAYES: ... your immigrant is the Goliath.

ALEX WAGNER: Yeah.

CHRIS HAYES: That's their land that they got ethnically cleansed from and then the person comes like "Here, want some land?" That's true in so many... On the other side —

ALEX WAGNER: On my mom's side —

CHRIS HAYES: That, to me, was a fascinating story to go back and look because that's classic.

ALEX WAGNER: The brown immigrant from Southeast Asia fleeing —

CHRIS HAYES: Fleeing.

ALEX WAGNER: ... a repressive military government. What could be more David than that? Then you look back and I did more research and I crosschecked family lore with actual historical document, and I realized that this story my mother had been telling and my grandmother had been telling about sort of the halcyon days in Burma came to an end, the military government was bad, and we left. First of all, there were scant details in that, but second of all, it elided this entire caste system in Burma that we were a part of and that hung with us. I mean my grandmother held onto racism and bigotries until her death. Spoiler alert. She is 98 years old. This is in the book too.

CHRIS HAYES: An amazing woman who I was very lucky to meet.

ALEX WAGNER: That's the other thing. It's like people are complicated characters.

CHRIS HAYES: Yeah.

ALEX WAGNER: My grandmother had parts of her personality that were really difficult and totally fucked up, and on the other hand, she was amazing and she was like our own pope. She was just like this titular head of our family and she had this extraordinary story and extraordinary life. That's part of the American experience. I think we have to... Again, this is about a full accounting of who we are, warts and all. What I learned on the Burmese side is that we had been part of economic calamity that had devastated the country, that we were —

CHRIS HAYES: It's like you come from a line of subprime lenders basically.

ALEX WAGNER: Basically. They were well-intentioned, like Wells Fargo bank associates, but they were nonetheless... Again, one of the things writing this book did was create a whole new sense of empathy for actors, bad actors and otherwise in present day America.

CHRIS HAYES: Why is it... To your mind, why is the country in the midst of this identity anxiety right now?

ALEX WAGNER: I've gotten this question a lot when I have been doing book promotion stuff. I think it's twofold. One, I think it's demographic churn. Right? I mean there are studies that back this up, that there is a fear that white Americans are losing and that their way of life as they know it which is probably some airbrushed version of reality is going away and the brown blob is coming. The 2040 benchmark of when we become a minority/majority country is terrifying coupled with some economic anxiety.

I think there's also a sort of sociocultural answer which is that we are isolated from each other. I mean people don't have family the way that they used to. People don't have… like, community’s breaking down. Technology aids all of that, this feeling that we're at once part of this unseen society of Facebook friends, but the dividends are scant. You don't actually feel alive and part of a living whole-

CHRIS HAYES: Right.

ALEX WAGNER: ... in that way.

CHRIS HAYES: You feel like the Facebook connection doesn't replace the "I'm in my Italian neighborhood where — "

ALEX WAGNER: Yeah.

CHRIS HAYES: "... I have my extended cousins and we all know each other and there's this sort of communal solidarity."

ALEX WAGNER: Yeah. You're not marching down the street on a parade day.

CHRIS HAYES: Right.

ALEX WAGNER: You're not going to the diner —

CHRIS HAYES: Knowing everybody.

ALEX WAGNER: ... and eating your familiar foods. It's just a whole bevy of cultural identifiers that are missing from online communities. Right? And also just person-to-person contact can't be mimicked, I don't think, on Twitter or on Snapchat or whatever. I know it's Snap obviously. We're looking to belong somewhere, right? I mean I think that that's almost the two sides of this. I think that there's a strong conservative piece and then there's more of a liberal/progressive piece. Those two poles are maybe delaying-

CHRIS HAYES: Yeah.

ALEX WAGNER: ... those two things. That's why you see this billion-dollar industry of DNA testing with future face advocates on the ads that are saying "I found out I was a citizen of the world" because people are curious to find themselves in some kind of fabric. It's an easy way to do it if you have the money without actually having to call your relatives or do the touch work of genealogy.

CHRIS HAYES: Well the stuff you write, you write about this in the book. It got me thinking about this industry. What is the pull of it? The idea... One thing I think is really interesting about it is it makes us think these categories are real in a kind of deceptive way.

ALEX WAGNER: Yeah, which is maybe like a bad and fucked up way.

CHRIS HAYES: Yeah, exactly.

ALEX WAGNER: The idea that it scientifically doubles it down on the idea that we're racially separated from one another.

CHRIS HAYES: That's right. 14 percent and it's like "Guys, this is... The genetic differentiation we're talking about here is essentially meaningless."

ALEX WAGNER: It is meaningless. All the scientists I talked to were like "I mean it's very questionable to suggest that we're like fractionally different from one another." Also if we're being honest, nobody ... Maybe a few people go and take these tests because they're like "I just want to find out I'm a blend of everything." People ultimately end up taking these tests so they can say over cocktails "I'm 7 percent Scottish."

CHRIS HAYES: Right.

ALEX WAGNER: Or "I just found out that I'm .3% Iberian Peninsula." It's greedy kind of. It's a way —

CHRIS HAYES: Yes.

ALEX WAGNER: ... for us to separate ourselves actually rather than create this universal basic identity.

CHRIS HAYES: Right. It also speaks to a desire to create... There's different ways we figure out how we want to identify or belong, and that idea of cosmopolitan citizen of the world is like itself a kind of belonging identity —

ALEX WAGNER: Yeah.

CHRIS HAYES: ... that people want or are sort of longing for in a certain kind of part of American social life.

ALEX WAGNER: Look. I took a bunch of tests. I had my parents take a bunch of tests. I had my grandmother spit into the little vial which was a whole process. I got the Norwegian results or Scandinavian results. One test told me I was 14 percent Scandinavian. The science of all of this is highly hazy.

CHRIS HAYES: It really... When I read about this in the book, I had the idea that 100 years from now we'll look back on this as —

ALEX WAGNER: Jokes.

CHRIS HAYES: ...phrenology —

ALEX WAGNER: Yeah.

CHRIS HAYES: ... sort of. Possibly preposterous.

ALEX WAGNER: Yes, entirely. I mean the more you get into it, the more you realize that the databases that they purchase or acquire are based on market demand. Guess what? There are not a lot of Burmese people flocking to 23&Me to sign up for $100 identity DNA kits. Right? Their database for Burmese people is not that well-developed. But more than that, I tested my theory on myself. I got my 14 percent Scandinavian result and I was like "That's why I'm so tall. That's why I love the winter. That's why I'm so good at building IKEA furniture." We find information, especially now, that validates a thing we want to think about ourselves.

CHRIS HAYES: Right.

ALEX WAGNER: We do it with politics.

CHRIS HAYES: Right.

ALEX WAGNER: We definitely do it with identity and culture. The conclusion I get to at the end of the book is the community that you have is the community that you make. That community may involve like-minded Burmese people and Luxembourgians and also Latinas and Dominicanos and —

CHRIS HAYES: Right.

ALEX WAGNER: ...Peruvians and Albanians.

CHRIS HAYES: Right.

ALEX WAGNER: Right? We're not there yet because we're still concerned with this sort of white-brown binary. Inevitably as you said, we know where we're going. I think we will fundamentally have a more nuanced picture about race as we inevitably intermarry and trade and continue the inexorable march towards globalization.

CHRIS HAYES: One finding, one empirical finding in the public opinion research that I always find really comforting is that the places with the highest levels of particularly immigration or have had immigration the longest time tend to have the most sort of tolerant views on this.

ALEX WAGNER: Yes.

CHRIS HAYES: It's the places where the rate of change is very quick where you see the most intense backlash.

ALEX WAGNER: You can see that politically. If you map some of that on Trump's strongholds for example, like the rate of change or the rate, the degree of sort of exclusion in terms of like who is here and who is coming and who has been here for a long time and who has not been here for a long time, which is to say, quote unquote native populations and immigrant populations. Those are also the communities where I think the fear has been most resonant and a lot of the sort of Trump message has been most resonant about they're coming to get you, right? In cities, urban areas where you have tons of mixing and you have tons of mixed marriages and mixed households and all the rest, there's much more sort of tolerance born of awareness.

CHRIS HAYES: Right, although it also doesn't, I mean one thing that is also true, urban residents man they still have their bigotries.

ALEX WAGNER: Of course, Chris we're also not going to get rid of bigotries. There is no peaceable future where all bigotries are gone. This is part of human existence and again I think...

CHRIS HAYES: You create the structures to have equity, right the institutions and the structures to create equity...

ALEX WAGNER: Yes, you want people to have equity, be educated, be tolerant and empathetic but it's never going to be...

CHRIS HAYES: Humans are humans.

ALEX WAGNER: Exactly.

CHRIS HAYES: It's also hard to forge these identities sometimes about what we're and this is something that keeps coming up, it's funny we've been doing the podcast for not that long but we keep returning to these themes because it seems like this is the central conversation in America right now about belonging, identity, which group you're on.

ALEX WAGNER: Which team.

CHRIS HAYES: Oppression, hierarchy, the way that those two things intersect and sort of envisioning a place that's pluralistic, basically envisioning what a really functioning pluralistic democracy looks like where we have equality and we have space for diversity and people form these sort of coalitions across these different boundaries. That to me is the thing that at the end of your book that I really found sort of inspiring or the thing that I try to keep to is there's something about these inherited categories that are profound and powerful. Also, we get to create our own categories.

ALEX WAGNER: Yeah, we do. This book is particularly relevant I think for mixed race Americans who can be any racial category in some ways or don't fit easily into one or the other because I think that there's a rebuttal you could write to this book if you're a black American. How do I escape my past when that's all people see when I walk into any room, right? My ancestry, it doesn't matter whether I want to shed it or create a new one but that's kind of like why "Black Panther" was an interesting sort of chapter in the African American story. It's like well what if you created an identity that existed independent of colonialism and slavery. Maybe there's some power in that. That I think raises a lot of the same, that idea raises a lot, Afrofuturism in general raises this fundamental question of can you construct identity that gives you power in the present.

CHRIS HAYES: The other thing which is something that I've seen a lot of, different writer, Jamelle Bouie's written about this at Slate really interestingly, fundamentally the racial categories in America are really amorphous aside from blackness, that blackness is not amorphous. Blackness is really...

ALEX WAGNER: It's a super category.

CHRIS HAYES: Yeah, it's powerfully defined whereas whiteness has changed and been malleable and there are places, people that we call Hispanic are white and there are ethnicities that weren't white, how the Irish became white, that those categories change and flow and people can sort of ascend into the sanctum of whiteness except for African Americans who are ...

ALEX WAGNER: Denied it consistently. I will say I wrote a piece about this, the census categories, we still see Hispanics they don't have a racial category of their own. Some of that was on purpose in the 1920s and 30s when we were deporting Hispanics in this country at like, the rates stretching into the millions, some of whom were actual American citizens. Now it's actually a question of racial power, why don't Hispanics get their own racial category on the census. A lot has been written about this but the Trump administration has had its say in terms of determining who gets to count and who doesn't racially speaking. When you talk about the way in which people identify or are forced to identify or allowed to identify in America has changed dramatically over time, it will inevitably but blackness in particular is this thing that's been fairly constant since the inception of this country, right. It is not whiteness. It can be, it is just literally, the category for black Americans could just be not white.

CHRIS HAYES: The other categories, we could imagine them shifting.

ALEX WAGNER: Everything else is fungible.

CHRIS HAYES: There's a real question I think one of the things that I think is a real question about the future face, right a question about the sort of 2040 or 2050 tipping point is like whether for the first time that changes ever. One of the things that we're seeing which is interesting is the coalitional politics on one side of the aisle, which the democratic party and the center left is increasingly running up these large margins among racial categories of people that are not white, like Asian American which is when you think about it a totally insane category. Asian American is Pakistani oil engineers in Houston, Filipino nurses, fourth generation American cops in San Francisco cops who are Chinese American, what is that category.

ALEX WAGNER: Asia is a big place. You can argue that Hispanic is also...

CHRIS HAYES: Same thing, right.

ALEX WAGNER: What the hell are you talking about.

CHRIS HAYES: The one thing about that is there is a linguistic, generally a linguistic commonality whereas...

ALEX WAGNER: I've written about this for the Atlantic, the variation in terms of language, in terms of politics, in terms of cultural experience...

CHRIS HAYES: Religion.

ALEX WAGNER: The Asians, their sort of sub group is, it's nuts. Also, Asian Americans being seen as a model minority is a fallacy because once you dig deeper, Thai Americans have some of I think the highest uninsured rates in America. Vietnamese Americans are some of the poorest. We connote Asian Americans as I think generally stereotypically with East Asian like Korean, Japanese American basically, Chinese American.

CHRIS HAYES: What's interesting is the other side of the sort of white racial solidarity is that that category, Asian American we are seeing become more coherent as a political entity as part of a coalition that is the coalition of the democratic party which is increasing the coalition of these various groups that sort of are this kind of rainbow coalition, that's the term that Jesse Jackson came up with.

ALEX WAGNER: I remember it.

CHRIS HAYES: Yeah and there's something sort of promising about that in so far as there's an open question to me about the social experiment which is that can that vision of politics for the first time in American history break down those barriers, right. The sort of elemental essential nature of blackness as non whiteness if there's this sort of coalitional politics between all these groups, if they have the political numbers for the first time. That's the experiment we're running right now.

ALEX WAGNER: Yeah, I mean I guess I just am a little bit less optimistic, not in the future, not in the long term but in this sort of immediate, our life time, I'm not sure because I think one of the reasons the tent is so big is because the other side has become so exclusionary. I think even in this current moment in American politics the complications and the racism and the ascendant nationalism in Republican circles has provided a smoke screen for Democrats to actually develop a governing platform. I mean I don't know what it is right now but I do know that that tent, they're going to be inevitably people that leave it once the platform has been concretized or is actually in play in an administration.

CHRIS HAYES: Yeah and one thing you think you get from American history is that and all sort of political history is that coalitions are not stable by their very nature. They're...

ALEX WAGNER: I mean you and I are barely holding it together in this podcast. I'm kidding, we're in it together, my friend.

CHRIS HAYES: How are you liking being a mom?

ALEX WAGNER: I have been filming the show the "Circus" which has kept me on the road for six weeks non stop...

CHRIS HAYES: On Showtime.

ALEX WAGNER: It was the hardest six weeks of my life not just cause I did a book tour in the middle but because for the first time in my life I was like away from this baby that is, being a parent just it changes, little Cy Kass, it just changes where you want to be.

CHRIS HAYES: It does, man does it ever.

ALEX WAGNER: Before I would say I want to be in Paris or I'd like to be on a beach, now I'm just like I want to be home on that floor, on that rubber play mat...

CHRIS HAYES: With the tiles that interlock.

ALEX WAGNER: Those interlocking tiles that my cat keeps chewing on.

CHRIS HAYES: Gross.

ALEX WAGNER: Sorry, TMI. I want to be like playing with the bouncy ball.

CHRIS HAYES: It does change your life so much but it also, yeah what you find the thing that you want to be doing and where you want to be and that sort of transformation is pretty...

ALEX WAGNER: I think it's made me a more responsible person. Politics hits home in a way, I mean it's always hit home but really gravely. I want to make the world a better place. I want to be a better journalist. I want to be a better person because I want to be the best mom I can be to this baby. I also think in the context of ancestry and so forth, I wrote this book for him. It's great that someone decided to publish it, Chris Jackson, thank you but really I wrote it for him so that when he's some age where he becomes interested in memoir he'll read it and think this is a story of my family and this is a story of my mom and how she saw the world. Maybe I'm saying mom as in past tense, I'm a mother in how she sees the world but I hope he goes back to it when he's older and I'm not here anymore.

CHRIS HAYES: What was your family's reaction to the book?

ALEX WAGNER: It's interesting, there have been some family members who have just been like, my uncle was like I can't read this book. I read an excerpt and it's unacceptable to me.

CHRIS HAYES: Really? That's always my fear, I had never really written, I haven't written at length about my family. I've been a writer or writing for years and I have written in passing or mentioned my family but I've never done, that book is, you really go there. I always wonder what's that first email with the manuscript like.

ALEX WAGNER: Here's the thing, we as journalists are constantly talking about other people's shortcomings and flaws. I just felt like here's a responsible thing to do, explore my own flaws and shortcomings and my family's flaws and shortcomings and talk about them because that I think makes a better conversation and it's more honest. There's a lot of like gazing askance on the outside world that you do if you have a critical eye and you're a journalist.

CHRIS HAYES: Critique and yeah.

ALEX WAGNER: And, I wanted to turn that inward because I felt like it was time to do it. I also think, people have asked me along the way as I've talked about this book, how did you deal with the reaction from your family my answer always has been just don't be scared. We're a little bit too scared about ruffling feathers. I don't think I targeted anybody in the book. I think I was fair. I think...

CHRIS HAYES: They all come off really well I have to say, not in a one dimensional way, they come out as real people.

ALEX WAGNER: I love them. I love all of them.

CHRIS HAYES: That comes through is what I would say.

ALEX WAGNER: I think that that's like if you come away with anything it's like you can love people who are inherently flawed and you don't have to make up for their mistakes but you should acknowledge them as mistakes.

CHRIS HAYES: Yeah, love people who are inherently flawed.

ALEX WAGNER: Unlike us.

CHRIS HAYES: Right, exactly.

ALEX WAGNER: Just perfect in every way.

CHRIS HAYES: Alex Wagner is the author of the fantastic book "Futureface" which you can get right now in book stores. She's also a correspondent at CBS, which is a television network, maybe you've heard of. She's also one of the hosts of "The Circus," on Showtime which is a great show and really unlike other things on television. It's extremely ambitious what they try to do and pull off every week.

ALEX WAGNER: It's exhausting.

CHRIS HAYES: She's also my friend of many, many, many years and the mom of Cy. It's great to have you, Alex.

ALEX WAGNER: Chris, this has been a pleasure. Thank you my friend, can we spend a couple more hours in the podcast booth?

CHRIS HAYES: I know, let's just keep doing it, all right.

"Why Is This Happening" is presented by MSNBC and NBC News THINK, produced by the "All In" team, music by Eddie Cooper. You can get more from "Why Is This Happening" by visiting NBCnews.com/whyisthishappening.