As my career progressed, I continued to write about these kinds of fraught experiences, in part because I felt it was important to tell these stories but also because editors and audiences really seemed to like them. After the airport security essay, I wrote an article about kids calling me a terrorist right as I hit puberty, and I continue to write about problems Muslims face in America. The perfect story, I found, was one in which an audience could feel educated about the Muslim experience but also laugh along with me at the absurdity of life in this country post-9/11.
I’ve also watched as entertainers like Kumail Nanjiani, who co-wrote and starred in “The Big Sick,” a comedy based in part on his clashes with his traditional Pakistani parents, and Riz Ahmed, a British Pakistani actor, saw their careers elevated by positioning themselves as underdogs. In a song Mr. Ahmed released well after he’d achieved international stardom, he rapped, “They say the airport search is random / But if it’s always me it ain’t random.” Cringe as I may at those lyrics, I can’t knock the hustle. I’ve felt the draw of that path, too, and the career boost that often comes with it.
In one of his representative tales, Mr. Minhaj describes asking a white woman to prom, only to find out that her parents don’t want her being seen and photographed with a brown Muslim man. The ordeal leaves him crushed, resulting in a formative realization that he’s not like his classmates after all. The contours of the story are so familiar that the fact that Mr. Minhaj felt compelled to embellish it (the story is disputed by his would-be date, and Mr. Minhaj acknowledged that he fabricated certain details) simply speaks to how popular and alluring these kinds of stories have become.
The news about Mr. Minhaj broke a few days after I had spotted him, coincidentally, at a screening for the forthcoming satirical film “American Fiction,” based on the novel “Erasure” by Percival Everett. The film tells the story of a hapless Black novelist and professor whose work has been rejected by a liberal, white publishing world that deems his book not Black enough, so he decides to play a prank. He writes an over-the-top story under a pen name titled “My Pafology” that’s filled with Black stereotypes — only to find that those same publishers greet it with lavish offers and glowing praise.
The film’s director, Cord Jefferson, was previously a journalist, and he’s written of making his name on the “racism beat.” He became exhausted, he said, by covering “the stories, struggles and politics of Blacks in America,” as each new outrageous piece of news would start what he called the “carousel ride: an inciting incident, 1,000 angry thinkpieces, 1,000 tweeted links, and back to where we started, until next time.”