Multi-colored hands representing diversity

When I asked Saadia Khan whether or not she identifies as a journalist, she said no. Her definition of a journalist: “someone with a degree in journalism or has worked in the field.” Without those credentials, Khan considers herself an entrepreneur and a human rights and immigration activist — but not a journalist.

"Immigrantly" podcast creator and host Saadi Khan

Saadi Khan

I disagree. As the founder and host of the weekly podcast “Immigrantly,” Khan dives into deep explorations with her guests about the stereotypes and narratives that Americans hold about immigrants and people of color. To me, a fascinated listener of those conversations, that absolutely puts her in the role of journalist — and an authentic one at that.

I first met Khan late last year through one of her writers. Full disclosure: She was looking for funding for the podcast and hired me as a part-time outreach coordinator. I don’t work on anything content-related for the show.

Khan started “Immigrantly” in 2017 as part of a career change. Former President Trump had just passed the Muslim travel ban and, as a first-generation Pakistani immigrant, Khan was acute aware of the nation’s increased anti-Muslim sentiments. Thus, a podcast was born.

It started as a platform for Khan to share her own experience with immigration and American culture. But it soon blossomed into a Fresh Air-like show about diversity, equity, inclusion, and access. Every week, Khan talks with change-makers from various profession that deal with  about race, immigration and identity.

An array of guests — from Justine Ang Fonte, Filipina sex educator who advocates for a sex- positive revolution in schools, to Khaled Hosseini, philanthropist and New York Times bestselling author of “The Kite Runner” — share views shaped by their lived experiences.

Downloaded 16,000 to 20,000 times a month, Khan believes that her success is in large part a result of practicing, in creation of each weeks’ show, what she preaches on the show about diversity and inclusion. She works with a small but diverse team of writers; all are women of color in their 20s whom she relies on to call her out on her own biases and blind spots. She says that without them, her show would lack the same depth and authenticity.

The creativity of diversity in a safe space

Khan works to create a safe space for the team — one in which assumptions can be challenged. If one of the writers says something that Khan perceives as biased or narrow-minded, she assumes an “older sister position” and offers a new perspective in a “diplomatic fashion without being harsh or derogatory in any way.”

For example, the show recently featured Dr. Anthony Ocampo, a scholar who focuses on the intersection between race, immigration and LGBTQ+ issues. Writer Ashley Lanuza wrote the first draft of the script. One of her questions was:

There’s a study you did in 2013 about second-generation Filipino and Latino gay men. And you shared a quote that caught my attention: “I think the battle that I have as a gay man is like the same battle immigrants go through in the United States. It’s equivalent in the way you have to come out, deal with identity, deal with society, deal with yourself, finding yourself, and leaving your parents in some way.” How can these similarities bridge the gap for second-generation folks who come out to their parents? And vice-versa, how can parents use this as a tool to understand their children?

When Khan reviewed this script, she felt Lanuza’s framing implied an assumption: that people of color or who identify as queer have parents who don’t accept them, so need help navigating the situation.

After Khan and Lanuza talked about it, they rewrote the question:

There’s a study you did in 2013 about second-generation Filipino and Latino gay men. And you shared a quote that caught my attention: “I think the battle that I have as a gay man is like the same battle immigrants go through in the United States. It’s equivalent in the way you have to come out, deal with identity, deal with society, deal with yourself, finding yourself, and leaving your parents in some way.” Could you elaborate on this? My understanding of this comment is that immigrant parents can find resonance in their child’s coming-out process and vice versa. I agree but I want to know,  given your experience, which parts exactly? And how can these iterations of learning and struggles be viewed as a strength?

As a writer, Lanuza says that collaboration, and feedback without criticism, gives her freedom as a writer: “It means knowing that what I write won’t necessarily be judged or assigned to my character.”

The critique goes both ways. “Not only is it a safe space for them to call me out on things sometimes, it has become a safe space for me to call them out on things, [too]…” Khan says. That fosters a horizontal leadership dynamic where everyone is able to contribute, no matter their age or position.

How diversity impacts both process product

As a first-generation immigrant who learned English as a second language, Khan says she sometimes lacks “the proper vernacular.” She relies on the writers to advise on pronouns and proper identifiers of racial identity. At the same time, she takes care not to tokenize the writers. “It’s not about checking certain boxes, right?” she says. “It’s more about how I value their perspectives and how their perspectives inform the work that we do — something which goes far beyond having certain people on your team.”

Having this input allows her to address her guests in appropriate language, building an atmosphere of respect.

Khan and writer Yudi Liu have long, “robust” conversations about their guests in which they challenge each other about the script. They recently featured Ali Noorani, president and CEO of the National Immigration Forum. Khan wanted to focus on public policy and immigration, but Liu, a graduate student in public health, wanted to know more about Noorani’s own degree in public health. Asking about it opened up a whole new space in the interview.

“It’s very organic,” Khan said. “Nobody is telling us to do this. It just happens because we are learning from each other.”

Challenging Eurocentric views

One of Khan’s goals is to work past what she sees as a common blind spot in American media: Eurocentricity. “America is very Eurocentric, so anything that falls out of that paradigm of is considered outdated, archaic or wrong.” Kahn screens for that bias in the show scripts, rewriting questions if needed.

Liu wrote the script for Episode 165, “Arranged vs. Love Marriage,” in which Khan interviewed Tina Khan, the mother of a former co-host, Shahjehan Khan. (No relation to Saadi Khan.)  One of questions Liu suggested was: “At that age, did you feel resistant towards the cultural expectation for arranged unions or were you on board with its practice and purpose?”

Saadia Khan challenged that frame, prompting Liu to consider her own assumptions. “I would say I always took on a Eurocentric view of arranged marriages,” Liu says. “The definition of arranged marriages in my mind is forced. But (Khan) was like, ‘Here’s an arranged marriage that works and you have to understand that arranged marriages are not like what the media shows it to be. It’s not a forced marriage.”

Now Liu says she imagines arranged marriages as “the pen-and-paper version of Hinge…you’re putting all of these qualifications down and then you’re sending it to your parents rather than an AI machine.”

Liu rewrote the script question this way:

Speaking of western practices around dating and marriage, there is this misconception that arranged marriages are forced marriages. Basically the woman has no agency. How would you address this perception and why do you think arranged marriages work and could work for certain people?

Personal and societal wins

Khan says has become “a more tolerant person than I was, say, 15 years ago” in part because of this considered approach to her podcast. The authenticity in the making of her show translates directly into a safe space where guests like a female trainer for a National Hockey League team can publicly discuss obstacles to gender and diversity representation in her organization — the kind of open dialogue that we need more of in the world, and that journalists, like Khan, can make happen.

Further Reading