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Terry Gross

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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

Growing up in his grandmother's home in Durham, N.C., in the era of Jim Crow, former Vogue magazine editor André Leon Talley often felt like a misfit. Bullied for his clothes — which he describes as beautiful, but not overly flashy — he remembers feeling alone.

Then, when he was around 9 or 10, he stumbled onto an issue of Vogue at the public library. Paging through the magazine, he was captivated — it was was like traveling down a "rabbit hole," he says, into "a world of glamour."

Journalist Alex Wagner was 12 years old when a line cook in a diner asked her if she was adopted. Wagner was taken aback — her father's family came generations ago from Luxembourg, and her mother came to the U.S. from what was then Burma.

"It was the first time in my life that I realized [that] ... I conceived of myself as generically American, but not everybody else did," Wagner says. "To some Americans, there was no possible way I could naturally be the daughter of this white American; I had to be from someplace else."

Comic Roy Wood Jr. is now a correspondent for The Daily Show, but he got his start performing in comedy clubs in the South and Midwest — sometimes in places where he felt unsafe as a black man.

"I did a lot of shows in a lot of strange places," he says. "I've been called the n-word from the stage by somebody in the crowd and the club owner did nothing to defend me."

Actor Danny Trejo came of age in the California prison system, doing time in a juvenile detention center as well as in San Quentin, Folsom and Soledad, on charges relating to drugs. He says that background prepared him well for acting.

"Standing on the yard in San Quentin, knowing that there's a riot coming, you're absolutely scared to death with every fiber of your body," Trejo says. "[But] you have to pretend you're not. You have to stand there and make everybody think you like it."

In 2017, Lena Waithe made history as the first black woman to win an Emmy for outstanding comedy writing. The award specifically recognized Master of None's "Thanksgiving" episode, which Waithe co-wrote with Aziz Ansari and based on her experience coming out to her mother.

Patrice Banks is now a mechanic, and the owner of a successful auto clinic, but there was a time when she avoided taking her own car in for routine maintenance.

"I was afraid I was going to be taken advantage of," she says. "I was tired of feeling helpless and having to go talk to a guy."

Banks, who was working as an engineer at DuPont at the time, thought she'd feel more comfortable with a female technician. There was only one problem: "I couldn't find a female mechanic," she says, "so I had to learn it [myself]."

Stories about sexual harassment in the workplace have dominated the news cycle this fall, but New Yorker journalist Jane Mayer remembers a time not that long ago when even the term "sexual harassment" felt new.

"Most of us really didn't know much about sexual harassment," she says. "Many of us had experienced it, but we didn't really know the name for it or how to handle it."

On July 17, 2014, an unarmed black man named Eric Garner died on Staten Island, N.Y., after police officers threw him to the ground and put him in a choke hold. Garner's last words, as recorded on a cellphone video, were: "I can't breathe." He repeated the phrase 11 times.

David Litt was 24 years old and just a few years out of college when he landed a job writing speeches for President Barack Obama — an experience he calls "surreal and completely terrifying."

Though he was initially assigned the speeches no one else wanted to write, Litt eventually became a special assistant to the president and senior presidential speechwriter. His duties included writing jokes for the short comedy routine Obama performed annually at the White House Correspondents' Association Dinners.

Many comics struggle for years before making it big, but Jessica Williams' lucky break came early. She was just 22 and still in college when she landed a gig as a correspondent on The Daily Show in 2012.

Despite her early success, Williams says that her career before that wasn't always smooth sailing: "I am a 6-foot tall black woman and I have been since I was about 13 years old. ... As a comedian and improviser and somebody who did a lot of sketch and was an actress, I got tons of rejection early on."

Growing up in New England as a first-generation Pakistani-American, Haroon Moghul was taught that practicing his Islamic faith would make life his better. What he didn't anticipate was how challenging it could be to be Muslim in America.

In 2001, Moghul was the student leader of New York University's Islamic Center when the Sept. 11 attacks occurred. Shortly thereafter, he was called upon to be a spokesperson for the Muslim community in New York — a role he describes as both a "civic responsibility" and a "tremendous burden."

In the annals of TV villains, actor Giancarlo Esposito's Breaking Bad character, Gus Fring, stands out. Gus was an upstanding, impeccably dressed, New Mexico businessman who spoke with an elegant Chilean accent — and also happened to be a vicious drug lord.

Esposito describes the character as resembling "someone who may live next door, who is successful and very caring, but who is also ruthless."

Susan Burton knows just how hard it is to get back on track after being released from prison. It's an experience she lived through six times, once for each of the prison terms she served.

"One of the things about incarceration is that you're deprived. You lose all of your identity and then its given back one day and you're ill-equipped to actually embrace it and work it," Burton says. "Each time I left prison I left with the resolve to get my life together, to get a job, to get back on track. And each time the task became more and more and more daunting."

Growing up in Brooklyn with a mother from the South and father from Senegal, Gabourey Sidibe spent much of her youth feeling anxious. She was mocked for being part-African and for being overweight, and she worried she would never find her true calling.

As a young woman, Sidibe struggled to find work and ultimately took a job as a phone sex operator where the rule of business was to sound "100 percent white." Then, when she was 24, she auditioned for the role that would change her life.

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