It’s March and, drawing from our Nasty Woman planner, our focus is on immigration and civil rights. You can’t talk about immigration in America without talking about what it really means to be an American today, so we’re thrilled to sit down with Rebecca Lehrer and Amy S. Choi of The Mash-Up Americans. They share their thoughts with Shrill Society about how to define “mashiness,” female collaboration, and who’s really driving culture in this country.
Shrill Society: First off, what is a Mash-Up American?
Amy S. Choi: We had come up with a couple of specific demographic qualifiers, which we’ll start off with―somebody who is an immigrant or a child of immigrants, so really bridging the two cultures there; somebody who is married or partnered up with someone who is from a different cultural background, religious background, racial background, ethnic background; and I believe the third one was...
Rebecca Lehrer: We always call it culturally curious and that was like city people engaged with the communities around them. But really I think the first two are our primary―what a Mash-Up is. The Mash-Up community includes the culturally curious, but we’re not representing their stories in what we do. So it’s really about, “Are you navigating a culture different than the one your parents are from? Or is your culture at home different than the majority culture? Or are you married to somebody or in a relationship with somebody who is from a different culture than you?” And again, we define culture quite broadly. Culture can be race, religion. There’s also class―wealth as a culture―so there’s lots of things.
You have a podcast, a curated newsletter, and an editorial website where you publish original content. How do you go about translating that idea―I’ve heard Rebecca call it “mashiness”―into your work?
RL: It primarily comes from personal experience in some ways, right? Realizing we didn’t see and we don’t see our stories in media, in the news, in the world. So much about ethnicity and culture in the U.S. is white-dominated or very binary―black and white―and not necessarily exploring all of the messy grey in between that. That’s what we’ve been figuring out from personal experience, when we’re like, “This is something of interest to us. This is something we believe shows our lives. These are the questions that we have about the way the world functions. Or the way we might name our kids or that we might think about rituals when we get married”―all of those things. So it’s about realizing that our point of view has value. Then in some ways with our original content it’s translating that into, “This has value and here’s somebody who might be really good at telling that story because they have a specific experience around that.”
AC: I think that’s right. When Rebecca is saying “mashiness,” she means that quality of being able to hold two truths at one time―to be able to understand how to translate, how to navigate the world with the ability to see more than one path. Understanding the richness and textural backgrounds that everybody is coming from gives us an innate understanding of perspectives that I think, coming from a single or white-dominant culture, you have to learn how to see that way rather than understanding it intrinsically. I think this is what we’re trying to bring to the forefront, whether that is in amplifying stories from the community on the website, curating news through that lens, or interviewing luminaries on our podcast. I think the fourth thing is we bring Mash-Ups to the world through our creative studio, which is really us advising, creating content for, and helping other media brands and other companies internalize this point of view and this lens so they also start to reap the benefits of telling more authentic, richer stories.
Your idea for the Mash-Up Americans started taking shape several years before the 2016 election and your first podcast episode in 2015 actually looked at the mashiness of then presidential candidate Donald Trump amidst his anti-immigration platform. How has the Trump presidency and shifts in Americans’ conversations about race and identity changed your approach to the Mash-Up Americans?
RL: I think that’s the best question. Look, when we heard the world post-racial, we were like, “What?!? That’s not a word. That has no meaning. Stop saying that.” Even during the 2008 election. Still, we were just so thrilled then to have a Mash-Up president―someone whose experiences we knew, navigating multiple cultures, being first generation, being diasporic, being deeply rooted and looking forward, which are all things we think about. This person can wrap their head around our stories―him personally and his family. This is the previous president, obviously. With Obama, one of the things we started realizing in 2013 was Amy and I, in our personal lives, we were going through big important life moments that were like, Amy was having kids, I had gotten married, and we married people different than us. What do we name our kids? What really matters? What rituals matter. So that was really the focus―how can we be a resource? We started early on through our newsletter curating the news through this lens, but in some ways it was much more celebratory. We had this feeling like, “Oh my god. This is a passing moment.” We realized there was space in the market because we’re looking for this and we’re not alone because all of our friends and community are also navigating this and there aren’t really resources to find, even things like having a mashy wedding. I think we really thought, “OMG, we’re gonna be behind. We’re catching up and then the whole world is going to catch up because Barack Obama’s the president. This is clearly the future of America.” Then Donald Trump entered the picture.
AC: Booooooo! We boo every time we say his name.
RL: So he enters the picture in a real way in 2015. We actually thought with that first episode that we would put out that episode and it would be done, that he would already be out of the race. It’s still a story of navigating what it means to be an American―the shifting, the messiness, and the ugliness all mixed up. Then it became clear he would win and it was a serious threat to us, our community, and our livelihood. There was an urgency there that was much more than our personal stories. But even when we tell our personal stories, it is saying, “Hey, we’re here and you can’t erase us despite what you are trying to do. You can’t dehumanize us because our lives matter, our children’s lives matter, our weddings matter, our deaths matter. You cannot dehumanize us because we are here and we’ll tell our stories and we’ll use all the extraordinary resources of technology and our voices to have ourselves heard.” So I think the shift was suddenly we are not just a resource, we are a home, and we are also a cause. What we are doing is for history and for ourselves in the present.
The word that comes up for me is lifeline.
AC: Exactly. And I think as the years have gone by, we have become better at our jobs―which I think everyone hopes to be―but we have also become clearer in our purpose that we are serving our community in a really laser-focused way because we realized what a lifeline we were. We realize how much of a need there is for Mash-Ups to see themselves reflected by women―women of color, children of immigrants―that are completely proud of our stories, gifted at what we do, and owning that. Those actions themselves are validating for our listeners.