Some of My Best Friends Are White: The Need for Minority Voices in Podcasting

A few months ago I found myself involved in one of those vicious, no-win Facebook debates. A woman I met while waiting tables during grad school in Memphis posted something to the effect of how she was tired of hearing that black lives matter as she believes that all lives matter. I found it to be a banal comment that entirely missed the point of the social movement. I should have just ignored it. However, I chimed in, suggesting that the value of white lives was not under attack and that perhaps she should take note of the implicit “too” at the end of the “Black Lives Matter” slogan. I fired it off and forgot about it.

When I signed in hours later, I was greeted with a shit storm. My friend’s post had racked up an impressive amount of likes and many took exception with my comment. There was a barrage of responses from people calling foul on the “excuses” from black people, accusing them of “reverse racism,” and arguing that cops wouldn’t shoot black men if they obeyed the laws.

Also, something curious happened. Several people assumed I was black. I have a racially-ambiguous name. My picture was black and white and hard to decipher. And apparently only a black person would decry white privilege. One woman wrote:

You want change.. You want what the “white man owns” … Um… Work for it.. Easy… You have the same privileges we have.. In fact you have for a while! I do not believe you have ever been a slave… Or sprayed down with a hose… Beaten etc… By the white man.. You are on equal ground now! you want that beamer.. Nice house great job.. Guess what.. Work for it.. Like I do… I work for every thing I own and I dare anyone to say I have it because I am white. No fuck that. You want change. THEN CHANGE THAT ATTITUDE! No one wants to deal with racist ass shit like that ‘white privliage crap”, I don’t see a white man turning you away from living in a neighborhood or not allowing you to gain your education. Telling you you cannot have a job BC you are black. Turning you away from reasturants BC you are black. So ball is in your court. The racist card won’t last forever.

I was horrified, filled with indignation that anyone would speak to a stranger that way–that anyone would speak to another person that way.

No, that’s not quite right. I was horrified that someone would speak to me that way. A white woman.

I’d always picked the side of civil liberties and considered myself a progressive. I read James Baldwin and Zora Neale Hurston and wrung my hands when a KKK rally gathered in downtown Memphis in 2013. But as much as I rooted for Hurston to sharpen her oyster knife, I never needed to whet my own.

I’m not going to offer some pat epiphany that the incident opened my eyes to how it felt to be persecuted. I know better than that. A momentary flash of discrimination is not the same as living in it. It was easy to wriggle out from beneath the weight of that hatred because I’m not black.

But I will say this: for one moment, I was starkly aware of just how far away I live from the black American experience. That I could distance myself from that vitriol, resting easy in the knowledge that I was not really its intended target. This was a mental exercise for me, not a way of life.

The truth is, I have no idea what it’s like to live as a black person in America.

When Chenjerai Kumanyika wrote about the whiteness of public radio, I felt the same shiver of recognition I did that day on Facebook. A realization that, for all my good intentions and liberal lip service, I live in a white world.

So much of podcasting and public radio exists to share with us the white experience. That shows like This American Life take listeners to racially diverse locations like Harper High School and Miami Gardens, Florida, is important, but we’re merely visiting those places. We’re not living there. I think it’s vital that different racial experiences are represented in stories like these, but I’m not entirely convinced they don’t just exist as white people field trips.

More often than not, the person driving the bus on these trips is white. As Kumanyika wrote, “Different hosts with different voices tell different kinds of stories. I make this point because there are many public radio programs that go to significant lengths to include the voices of underrepresented groups. These voices most often appear as people who are interviewed, but this is not the same has having hosts with different perspective and styles of speech.”

I agree. We need hosts with different perspectives, styles of speech, and cultural experiences. Not because it’s “politically correct,” but because without these voices, podcasts don’t offer a complete portrayal of who we are as a country. And as long as that’s the case, there is only one “normal,” and then there’s everything else.

Two new podcasts have come on the scene recently that are attempting to bring us a new perspective: Panoply’s Our National Conversation About Conversations About Race and BuzzFeed’s Another RoundBoth of these shows feature racially diverse hosts and focus on a range of cultural and racial issues (not exclusively, but largely).

About Race is hosted by authors Baratunde Thurston, Raquel Cepeda, and Tanner Colby–a black man, Dominiyorkian woman (a New Yorker of Dominican descent), and white man, respectively. The podcast takes a scholarly approach to topics like affirmative action, “New Black,” and racial profiling by police. The three are articulate and intelligent and their conversation can be charged. Two episodes in and already this show feels more important than 90 percent of the programming out there.

The three perspectives on About Race are not representative of the entire American experience and much could be said about how their similarities as educated writers are as remarkable as their racial differences. However, they nonetheless provide conflicting cultural narratives that underscore the notion that there is more than one America. At one point in the second episode, Cepeda and Thurston compare notes about the deep sense of fear that accompanies getting pulled over by police. For his part, Colby shares a story of being on the other side, with cops making racist jokes to him about black people not reading.

About Race works as well as it does because it endeavors to give both dominant and minority voices a seat at the table. What’s striking about BuzzFeed’s Another Round is that it works just as well by doing the opposite. This is a podcast far less concerned with the white perspective. Hosted by two black women, Tracy Clayton and Heben Nigatu, the podcast also tackles race, but it feels happy to cater to a black audience without pandering to a white one. Clayton and Nigatu are dazzlingly funny hosts whose style is anything but the white public radio voice. When they take on race issues–and occasionally poke fun at white culture–it’s from a decidedly black perspective that does not pretend to be anything else.

On Another Round, Clayton and Nigatu also share notes about the black experience, but it’s not always about persecution. In fact, it’s often just about culture. About what it means to be black. Because being black apparently is about more than being oppressed. I say ‘apparently’ somewhat cheekily, but not entirely. So much of the black narrative is either ignored or presented as one about discrimination. Clayton and Nigatu depart from the serious and somber discussion of race presented in About Race by inviting listeners in to something of a celebration of what it means to be black.

It should not be revolutionary to hear black people at ease within their own culture, but on network podcasting, these are voices I’m not accustomed to hearing. At times I even feel a little on the outside of the conversation, such as when Clayton and Nigatu list questions they would like to ask white people.

Lifted from a BuzzFeed article, “35 Questions Black People Have For White People,” it’s mostly a funny list with questions like “Why are y’all so obsessed with gluten?” and “Can you please take Iggy Azalea back?” However, the questions gain depth with the hosts’ comments and occasionally it feels like there is something much darker brewing beneath the surface of the conversation.

Nigatu asks comedian guest, Desus Nice, why white people always wear “Jesus sandals.” Nice responds, “White people have no natural predators, so they never have to run. They can wear sandals. We always wear kicks and Jordans and Tims because we have to hop over a gate. Who are white people running from? The cops? No! Nobody. They’re chilling.” When I laugh at this remark, I’m not sure if I’m laughing with them or at myself.

That’s the power of Another Round: it excludes white voices. There are plenty of podcasts hosted by white people where no one questions the lack of minority perspective. That this podcast didn’t reflexively include a majority voice was a wise move.

It’s worth noting that neither About Race nor Another Round is good simply because it includes minority voices. They’re not the first shows to do this and no show can thrive on this asset alone. They are good because the hosts are smart and perceptive and the shows are well produced and carefully edited. However, that new shows are emerging from major networks that include these perspectives cannot be ignored because of how needed they are in a field of so many white voices.

And as a white listener, I appreciate that for once I can’t quite hear myself reflected in the conversation.


Author Description

Devon Taylor is co-founder and editor in chief of The Timbre. Her work has been featured in The Atlantic, CutBank, and The Tottenville Review. She grew up in New Jersey, received her Masters in creative writing at the University of Memphis, and lives in New York City.