Podcaster and activist Tony Khuth at the Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden’s Ruan Reflection Garden.
Writer: Luke Manderfeld
Photographer: Duane Tinkey
Last year, at the height of the pandemic, Tony Khuth witnessed hate crimes rising against Asian Americans. Because of Khuth’s own experiences with marginalization—Khuth identifies as nonbinary, using the pronouns they and them, and was born to Cambodian refugees—Khuth was moved to stand up.
To Khuth, that meant creating a podcast. Called “de facto with Tony Khuth,” the show touches on culture, politics and identity.
“This podcast allows me to speak with my own voice,” says Khuth (rhymes with put).
The idea for “de facto” didn’t come overnight but was a culmination of Khuth’s experiences. Khuth was born in Rochester, Minnesota, to parents who escaped Cambodia after being the targets of the Khmer Rouge. The totalitarian regime ruled the country from 1975 to 1979, killing an estimated 1.5 million to 2 million people, about 25% of Cambodia’s population.
In Rochester, Khuth’s family lived in a segregated neighborhood that local residents called “Asian Avenue.” When Khuth moved to Des Moines at age 19, the youth experienced culture shock.
“I had never experienced whiteness to this degree,” the now-33-year-old Khuth says. “I also realized these communities [I lived in] struggled to comprehend other cultures. So I started this journey of discussing inclusion-related topics.”
Khuth joined the inclusion council at Wellmark Blue Cross and Blue Shield, where they work in special inquiries. Khuth also became involved in politics, even traveling to Washington, D.C., in 2019 to push for the Equality Act.
Then, in 2020, as the coronavirus gripped the globe, Asian Americans were targeted in higher numbers. According to the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, hate crimes against Asian Americans jumped 149% between 2019 and 2020. Khuth heard personal stories of friends and family members victimized by violence but who were afraid to speak out.
“When I asked them if they’ve contacted the police, they say it’s not a big deal,” Khuth says. “The frequency alarmed me, and I wanted to speak up and speak out.”
Khuth didn’t know how to do that, though. Last fall, Khuth talked with a friend about racial identity and recorded thoughts. Khuth’s friend said Khuth sounded like Ira Glass, host of the popular NPR radio show “This American Life.” Then the podcasting idea clicked.
“I had this huge fear the podcast wasn’t going to do well,” Khuth says. “But I knew the pandemic was preventing me from doing typical advocacy work.” So, in the span of a month, Khuth spent $2,800 on equipment and software to get started.
Khuth practiced for hours speaking into a microphone and learned audio editing. On Jan. 16, Khuth released the first episode, “Intro: Why I Advocate,” explaining the purpose. Since then, Khuth has touched on topics such as identity vocabulary, Cambodian history, and why representation matters.
Khuth wants podcast topics to be wide-ranging, but a main focus is helping others recognize Southeast Asian culture. To many Americans, Southeast Asians can look similar to Chinese or other Asian nationalities, but their identities are different, Khuth says. And Khuth will continue to speak out until the message reaches the masses.
“I want to effectively reach the entire country,” Khuth says. “I want to create awareness about the injustice Southeast Asian individuals face. We don’t have a voice in politics. I want to make a point that we are people; we are individuals. I want to create an environment in which we are no longer invisible.”