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When is it Appropriate to Ask Someone's Race?

From time to time, I think it's instructive to share audience emails and an NPR staffer's response. James Webb of Langhorne, PA, questioned why a guest on Tell Me More was asked her race.

"As a satellite radio customer I listen to Tell Me More quite a bit," wrote James Webb of Langhorne, PA. "During an interview on today's program, I heard the show's host ask a guest who was speaking about South Africa what her race was. Let us pretend that this happened on any other show and see what the reaction would be. I find the show has interesting guests but the bias the host displays is quite at odds with an otherwise good product."

Michel Martin, host of Tell Me More responds:

"I am sorry if the question offended the listener's sensibilities but the fact is it was a highly relevant question, one which was necessitated by the fact that race matters. Or more specifically ethnicity matters, which is, in fact, the question I asked. The issue here is that South Africa, like the US, has a history of voting along ethnic lines, and ethnic lines are INTRA- racial as well as INTER-racial.

"Having asked the black guest about her ethnic ( some say tribal) affiliation, I could do no less than ask the white guest, which would have been obvious if we had been in a visual medium. Which raises the further point that listeners seem not to find it strange when one asks a black African whether his or her tribal or ethnic affiliation factored into his or her vote—they seem to grasp the obvious since violence has attended a number of recent elections due to ethnic difference—-and the answer may be yes or not, but they grasp why we ask.

"People only seem to find it strange when the person being asked is white, as if whiteness is so universal and expected it does not need to be highlighted. But the fact is that few white South Africans ever vote for the ANC as this guest had done in the past. Most vote for the Democratic Alliance, all the more reason it was important to ask, and for the listeners to know the ethnic identities of both guests."

Later, Webb replied:

"I have spent some time in South Africa and understood by the accent that one of your guests was white so I suppose I was surprised when that question popped out. I do not equate tribal membership and ethnicity but your response explains your position well and I am grateful for the reply."