Black Atheists, White Santas, And A Feast For The Deceased We're answering your holiday race questions: Why do we still think of Santa as white? Are POCs responsible for calling-out the racism at holiday parties? How do you tell your black family you're a non-believer? And, can you resurrect a dead family tradition?
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Black Atheists, White Santas, And A Feast For The Deceased

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Black Atheists, White Santas, And A Feast For The Deceased

GENE DEMBY, HOST:

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(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE KELLY FILE")

MEGYN KELLY: And by the way, for all you kids watching at home, Santa just is white, you know. I mean, Jesus was a white man, too. But, you know, it's like we have - he was an historical figure. I mean, that's verifiable fact, as is Santa.

MONICA CROWLEY: Right.

KELLY: I just want the kids watching to know that.

CROWLEY: Yes.

KELLY: But my point is - how do you just revise it, you know, in the middle of the legacy of the story and change Santa from white to black?

CROWLEY: Yeah. I mean, you can't.

SHEREEN MARISOL MERAJI, HOST:

Megyn Kelly setting the record straight about Santa Claus and Jesus Christ on Fox News in 2013. Both white - verifiable fact.

DEMBY: Verifiable, a hundred percent.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MERAJI: You're listening to CODE SWITCH. I'm Shereen Marisol Meraji.

DEMBY: And I'm Gene Demby. And today is the Ask CODE SWITCH Holiday Edition. We're going to answer some of your questions about race and the holiday season.

MERAJI: The first one we're tackling has to do with why so many people still picture Santa as a rosy-cheeked white man - people like Megyn Kelly.

DEMBY: (Laughter) By the way, what made Megyn Kelly rush to defend the honor of Santa and Jesus (laughter) - to defend their white virtue - was this headline, "Santa Claus Should Not Be a White Man Anymore." It was the headline to a piece written by Aisha Harris at Slate. Some of you may know Aisha from her podcast "Represent," which deals with race and identity and representation in pop culture. Anyway, Aisha was basically making the argument in the essay that there's really not that much of a need for us to continue defaulting to this white Santa - or even a human Santa for that matter.

And Shereen, you actually called Aisha up.

(SOUNDBITE OF PHONE DIALING, RINGING)

AISHA HARRIS: Hey.

MERAJI: Hey. I'm just going to get straight into this. All right?

HARRIS: Cool.

MERAJI: So what happened to you after you wrote on Slate that, quote, "we should abandon Santa as fat, old white man and create a symbol of Christmas cheer. From here on out, Santa Claus should be a penguin."

(LAUGHTER)

HARRIS: All hell broke loose, apparently. I think I was at, like, a basketball game the same day I wrote that post. And then that night, while I was there, my phone started blowing up. And everyone's like, Megyn Kelly just talked about you. And I was like, who's Megyn Kelly? Like, I literally had never even heard of Megyn Kelly. She had, I think, 3 other people come on to talk about it and didn't even bother to invite me on. So I was like - OK, let me respond on Slate.

And so that happened, and then it just sort of snowballed. I think the combination of - like, the fact that she said Jesus was white (laughter) - just, like, straight up said that - it's already a slow news time - or at least, like, in 2013 when this came out it was slow for news time slow...

MERAJI: Right.

HARRIS: ...In the holidays.

MERAJI: Things have changed.

HARRIS: But, like - so there was really nothing else for anyone to talk about. And that was what they talked about. My Twitter feed was blown up. My emails were blown up. I mean, I've been called the N word before but never so much...

MERAJI: (Gasping) Really?

HARRIS: ...And so many times in such a short amount of time. And it was very overwhelming. I actually went into, like, a mini-depression...

MERAJI: Oh, I don't blame you.

HARRIS: ...Just because it was, like - it was very overwhelming. And it was like a piece that I had intended to just be sort of, like...

MERAJI: Fun.

HARRIS: ...Tongue-in-cheek...

MERAJI: Yeah.

HARRIS: ...And fun and, you know, making a salient point about these things - about representation - but not to the point where it would - I would be getting, like, death threats (laughter) - like so. But yeah, that's what happens when you write anything that really strikes, especially Santa.

(LAUGHTER)

DEMBY: It's so ridiculous. What a weird controversy to be swept up into the middle of. Anyway - as we just heard from Aisha, you know, people get really defensive around the whiteness of fictional characters.

MERAJI: Oh, yes.

DEMBY: I'm looking at you, Spider-Man.

MERAJI: Spider-Man is from Queens. So in my mind, he's Puerto Rican and Bangladeshi.

DEMBY: (Laughter) Right.

MERAJI: Right?

DEMBY: Right, right, right.

MERAJI: And now that that's settled, our Santa question is from a listener in Neosho, Mo., who asks, quote, "we know who the original Santa Claus was - Turkish St. Nicholas. But why do we still picture Santa as a white person?"

Now G.D., did you know that St. Nick was Turkish like our editor Sami Yenigun?

DEMBY: I did not. I mean, I felt like...

MERAJI: I didn't know that either.

DEMBY: Does that make me a bad Catholic? 'Cause, I mean, you know - supposed to know my saints.

MERAJI: And me, too.

DEMBY: Anyway - it turns out, as I learned, St. Nicholas was actually a wealthy bishop way back in the early, early Catholic Church, like the third century. He later became a patron saint for children and sailors. And legend has it that he dropped little bags of gold down people's chimneys to help them out in times of need. That historical figure, Nicholas, was from what is modern-day Turkey.

MERAJI: Fascinating.

DEMBY: In fact, this October apparently, Turkish archaeologists think they uncovered his tomb underneath St. Nicholas Church - fittingly - which is in southwest Turkey.

MERAJI: But Turkey is one of those places nobody can seem to agree on where exactly it is.

DEMBY: Right.

MERAJI: Is it the Middle East? Is it western Asia, Eastern Europe - you know? It has all these borders. it borders Bulgaria, Greece, Georgia, Armenia, Iraq, Iran and Syria. So yeah, it's complicated. But let's be real. Whether they identify as white or not - and I'm talking about Turkish people - we don't often picture people from that region of the world with pale skin, rosy cheeks, rocking furry suits.

DEMBY: It's like the Mediterranean. It's like hot.

(LAUGHTER)

MERAJI: I know - exactly. So I say we at least give Santa, aka St. Nick, dark hair, a tan and a red and white caftan. What do you think?

DEMBY: (Laughter) Sounds like a good look. I mean, Santa Claus, incidentally, comes from the Dutch name Sinterklaas, which is short for Sint-Nicolaas. I don't know if I'm saying (laughter) that right.

MERAJI: Rock that Dutch.

DEMBY: You know what I mean. You know how we do. Aka St. Nicholas. Some of y'all may know Sinterklaas from his little blackface helper (laughter), Zwarte Piet.

MERAJI: What...

DEMBY: Yeah.

MERAJI: ...Are you talking about?

DEMBY: That little - there's this little - every year around Christmastime - there's a whole controversy every year around Christmastime.

MERAJI: I've miss this controversy every year obviously.

DEMBY: Short story - in the Netherlands, they have this - Sinterklaas' little helper friend is this little brown person with, like, big, red lips. It's like...

MERAJI: Ay, Dios.

DEMBY: And so people in the Netherlands dress up in blackface. Anyway, that's a whole different podcast. Sinterklaas, though, is this old, bearded white dude, red outfit, keeps a book of names of children who have been naughty and nice. Some of this sounds obviously familiar to y'all. Anyway, when Dutch people came to the States, they brought Sinterklaas with them. St. Nicholas became the patron saint of New York City.

MERAJI: What?

DEMBY: I know. Right?

MERAJI: I didn't know that either.

DEMBY: New York.

MERAJI: You are dropping so much knowledge on me.

DEMBY: I mean, get on my level, shawty (ph).

MERAJI: (Laughter).

DEMBY: The Santa we know today in America doesn't really get fleshed out until the 1800s. This cartoonist named Thomas Nast reimagined him as a fat man. Anyway, there's all sorts of Santa Claus analogues all over the world. They have their own riffs on this. But in America, our Santa Claus was white just like, you know, the people who were creating him.

MARIA TATAR: Yes, we like to think of this jolly old St. Nick with his white hair and his granny glasses.

MERAJI: That's Maria Tatar. She's a professor of folklore and mythology at Harvard.

TATAR: But he doesn't have to be like that. You know, these are invented figures to begin with. We invent the representations. And there's no reason why they shouldn't be subject to change and to cultural variation.

MERAJI: Look, we know people hate change. And when it comes to these characters and traditions, people often equate change with their demise. But Tatar says, when you change a childhood story - now, for Aisha, it was making Santa into a penguin...

(LAUGHTER)

MERAJI: ...You're actually doing just the opposite.

TATAR: There's nothing sacred about a red suit with white cuffs. So in some ways, I think I would love, for example, to see a new book or a film come out with a female Santa Clause. You know, as human beings, it's our genius. The great thing about being a human being is that you can invent, adapt, appropriate, recycle, make it new and make it more exciting and vibrant. We think of iconoclasts as the ones who are, you know, breaking with tradition. But in fact, they keep the traditions alive by making them new and keeping them relevant.

DEMBY: And, Shereen, listening to her, it makes me wonder about all the things that we grew up with as kids - like all the things that we grew up with that were coded as white and the ways that nostalgia for those things and the desire to not have those things changed or reimagined upholds their whiteness, you know.

Anyway, this holiday season, y'all, we implore you to go out there, embrace own unique traditions. Maybe that means you have a Middle Eastern Santa. Maybe that means you get, you know, a Christmas succulent instead of a Christmas tree.

MERAJI: Or maybe it means telling your family you've rejected white Jesus as your lord and savior.

(LAUGHTER)

DEMBY: That was kind of a hard pivot. You sound like a street corner preacher. What just happened?

MERAJI: Don't worry. We're going to get into that after the break.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MERAJI: Shereen.

DEMBY: Gene.

MERAJI: CODE SWITCH.

DEMBY: All right, we're back. We're here to settle even more of your holiday-related questions about race and identity. A little later, we're going to get into Dia de los Muertos. Yes, Adrian, we know - a little behind the schedule, a little on CP time. We know it's already passed. But shoutout to "Coco."

MERAJI: Shoutout.

We're also going to help those of you trying to survive the mental toll of racism during the holidays.

DEMBY: (Laughter) OK. But first, let's get back to this question we just raised, Shereen, before the break of forsaking Christianity.

MERAJI: Yep, it's from a listener who's black and was raised a devout Southern Baptist. But she's not sure if she believes in God anymore. And she's very worried about how her family may react.

She writes, we travel home for the holidays, and I constantly live in fear of what will happen when they find out - which they certainly will someday. Outside of this, I struggle personally with race and religion, since I see myself as unapologetically black. And I have nothing but love for what the church has done for black people historically. I'm not one of those condescending/argumentative Atheist types. I can't stand them. But, at the same time, I know that many black people want nothing to do with atheists and agnostics. I don't know if my black family and black people in general would be accepting of me if they knew the truth.

Gene, you're black and agnostic, but you identify as culturally Catholic.

DEMBY: I do. I do.

MERAJI: Well, according to Pew Research, you and our question-asker are in the minority. African-Americans are the most religious racial group in the country with 87 percent self-identifying as religious and 79 percent saying that religion is, quote, "very important in their lives."

DEMBY: That 87 percent number - I mean, I figured it was high. But I didn't think it would be that high.

MERAJI: It seems high to me, too.

DEMBY: Yeah.

MERAJI: Hm, 9 in 10.

DEMBY: That's a lot.

MERAJI: But 20 percent say they're unaffiliated. But then again, unaffiliated doesn't necessarily mean non-religious.

DEMBY: Right, exactly. And it probably means they don't go to church. But it also probably means they love them some Jesus or whomever - (laughter) Black Jesus. Just as an example of how tricky this question can be for people, I actually texted a friend of mine when we got it. She's a professor of divinity. She's taught at historically black colleges. And she declined to talk on the podcast because she's an atheist, and she's not out.

MERAJI: Whoa.

DEMBY: But she said I could quote her text there.

MERAJI: Yeah, what's the text?

DEMBY: So I said like, yo, is it OK if we bring you on? She was like, quote - this is the quote - "Nah, bro, my mama would have a stroke if I said I didn't believe in the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus."

(Laughter) So this is a woman who talks Bible for a living - right? - and is hanging out with Christians all the time but is also very much in the closet with her faith. So...

MERAJI: So we called up Mandisa Thomas...

(LAUGHTER)

MERAJI: ...Since your friend wouldn't talk to us.

DEMBY: Absolutely.

MERAJI: She's the founder and president of an organization called Black Nonbelievers. They're a community/support group, and they host both in-person and online events and discussions for black folks who don't believe in God. She says, look, there's no rush to tell the fam. Do it when you feel ready, but Christmas might not be the right time. And when you are ready...

MANDISA THOMAS: Approach it casually, in a friendly manner - it doesn't have to be combative. You know, just kind of sit down and maybe have a, you know, just a short conversation with - especially with those who are more open-minded, maybe starting with them first. My grandma and I haven't had this conversation, and I don't think we ever will. She's staunchly religious. She's 89 years old. I just don't think this is a conversation that would be productive to have. But with other family members, I have. And I didn't feel that pressure. I actually found that more of my relatives are atheists than I thought.

DEMBY: Now, for the black community more broadly, there's this long, long history of atheism in the U.S. It goes all the way back to slavery, where a lot of enslaved people just renounced God and Christianity altogether because, you know, their thinking was - what loving, benevolent god would allow such misery upon people?

MERAJI: Makes sense.

DEMBY: Right? And that was a strong intellectual tradition that continues to this day, obviously. Mandisa Thomas pointed out that W.E.B. Du Bois, Zora Neale Hurston, Carter G. Woodson - who's the father of Black History Month, Hubert Henry Harrison, Butterfly McQueen - they were all freethinkers, which was the old-timey term for agnostics and nonbelievers - so are people like Ta-Nehisi Coates and Jelani Cobb. There's basically no way in which atheism or agnosticism is at odds with black identity, even if it's still a minority position.

Shereen, if you had some belief that you know your parents - your family didn't rock with, would you tell them?

MERAJI: Yes. But my parents already broke those barriers by marrying each other. You know, so - my dad's Muslim. My mom's Catholic. And so I feel like they paved the way for me to be and do whatever I want. Thank you, Mom and Dad.

DEMBY: Yeah. I feel like I wouldn't necessarily say something to a bunch of my family members. At the same time, I'm Catholic. So like, if I had to suck it up and go to mass - mass is 55 minutes (laughter). Our letter-writer is a Southern Baptist. That's, like, a whole commitment. If you go home for Christmas...

MERAJI: Yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

DEMBY: ...And you're fixing to be in church for four hours - you know what I'm saying? - maybe you're like, enough - this is where I draw this line in the sand. But who knows, you know?

MERAJI: Yeah.

DEMBY: Yeah, I don't know. Good luck to you, listener.

MERAJI: We hope that helps.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DEMBY: All right, so y'all may remember, a few weeks ago, we answered this question from a white woman who was trying to figure out just how to confront her white relatives during Thanksgiving about beliefs that she felt might be anti-immigrant or racist.

MERAJI: Well, this week, we heard from a woman of color with a follow-up. Here's Caitlin Rawling (ph) from Madison, Wisc.

CAITLIN RAWLING: Right around the holidays, many of us encourage white people to check their problematic family any time they say something racist. And I agree with this. I think it's very important for them to have these critical conversations. But what about the people of color with white families? Some people of color with white family members tend to avoid these conversations in order to protect our mental health.

For years now, my family has criticized me for being too sensitive or too serious whenever I stand up against anything that they say that is sexist or racist or homophobic. And during this past Thanksgiving, my grandmother, a white liberal woman, said that POCs often use their skin color in order to get ahead in politics. And so my question is - as a biracial black woman, do I need to check my white side of the family every time they say something racist?

MERAJI: Gene, this reminds me of something we heard on a past CODE SWITCH episode about casual racism from the writer Nicole Chung. She's Korean. Remember this? Right.

DEMBY: Shoutout, Nicole. Yes, that was very uncomfortable.

MERAJI: Her adoptive parents are white and so is her husband. By the way, she has a memoir about her search for her Korean birth family out next year. Anyway, the story she shared with us is a good example of what happens to people of color with white families around the holidays.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

NICOLE CHUNG: Yeah, it was a couple days after Christmas, and I was at my in-laws' house. They had some family friends over. And then there were, like, relatives of these family friends. And inevitably, the conversation turns to, like, pop culture and television because I feel like those are generally sort of safe topics that everybody feels like dissecting and relaxing.

MERAJI: Yeah.

CHUNG: Someone mentions I got to interview Constance Wu from "Fresh Off The Boat." And so someone asks me about it, and we're chatting. And then, the mother of a family friend looks over at me and says - oh, like, do people ever tell you you look just like everybody on that show?

DEMBY: (Groaning) Oh, my God.

CHUNG: Everybody. I was like, excuse me, just thinking I must have misheard or something. I'm in a space I assume is safe.

MERAJI: Right.

CHUNG: And it's just - it was very jarring. I didn't know how to respond. My two kids are sitting right there. So you just have this moment. And it feels like a lot longer than a moment.

MERAJI: In your essay, you take us through what went on in your mind in a matter of seconds. Run us through all of those things that happened.

CHUNG: You kind of start with, I must have heard that wrong. Like, is she saying this to actually be mean or offensive? Or was it just a verbal slip? You know, why isn't anybody else saying anything? Am I the only person who even noticed this?

DEMBY: Yep.

CHUNG: I really just had trouble figuring out what to say. And I thought of several different snarky things I could say. I thought about just ignoring it. I thought about trying to get her to explain what she meant - just sort of, like, let her, you know, dig her own hole. I just really didn't feel like I could say much of anything without ruining the party.

MERAJI: If you had to do it over, would you have done anything differently?

CHUNG: It's still really tricky to kind of work that mental calculus because - just the level of trying to figure out, like, how different people would react. Would everybody feel like they had to jump in and take a side? And when I did sort of smile and laugh and say no and let the subject change, looking back, I think there was definitely relief in that room that I didn't say anything else, even though I could have. Like, you both love and hate that moment where everybody just picks up and moves on like nothing happened.

DEMBY: Yeah, like the - so much psychic energy goes into all those gymnastics she was doing in that moment, you know.

MERAJI: I love that she broke down for us what goes on step by step.

DEMBY: Yeah, absolutely. But it takes a real toll on you to keep doing that over and over again.

MERAJI: This woman Monnica Williams runs the Lab for Culture and Mental Health Disparities at the University of Connecticut. And she told us incidents like this can cause major anxiety. And she adds that an array of mental and physical problems are being linked to ongoing experiences with racism, whether they're casual or systematic or not. I mean, just the fact that they're happening all the time - it really takes a toll. We're talking PTSD, OCD, depression, hypertension, diabetes, even cancer.

DEMBY: Which is crazy to think about. And she also, you know, said it's a kind of damned if you do, damned if you don't situation, like Nicole just said to us. If you say something to your relatives, they get defensive. You don't say anything, and they keep saying wild stuff to you. You know what I mean? So her advice is to find out who your allies are in your family, if you have them.

So when you go to family events, they make sure they have your back if you do decide to say something and speak up. And if you can, she said, you know, let your family know that you might have to just bounce or bow out if a relative you know is going to be on some bull (mumbling) is fixing to be there.

So again, that won't fly in some families. In some families, you will have to show up. You won't be able to bow out. But if that's an option on the table, you should avail yourself of it. And you should also, importantly, try to find a culturally competent therapist to talk to if you can.

MERAJI: And don't forget to breathe in the meantime.

DEMBY: Deep breaths.

MERAJI: (Inhaling, exhaling).

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DEMBY: All right, Shereen, our last question has to do with a holiday that's passed, Dia de los Muertos, Day of the Day. But we decided to not make Sylvia Arteaga (ph), the letter-writer, wait until next November 1 to get this answer. Sylvia's dad is Mexican-American. Her mom is from El Salvador.

SYLVIA ARTEAGA: And I am their very begrudgingly assimilated daughter. I recently learned that El Salvador has Dia de los Muertos customs of its own, and it's made me want to research and adopt some of the celebration. How can I honor the culture without making it all about what I've lost through assimilation? How can I pull it off in a place like Seattle? And how can I learn about it when my mom has become very Pentecostal and distanced from such celebrations? Thanks.

MERAJI: So when I saw this question, I knew exactly who to call.

CARLOS CORDOVA: OK. I am professor Carlos Cordova. I am originally from El Salvador. I was born in El Salvador. But I have lived in San Francisco, Calif., since I was 15.

MERAJI: He was one of my professors from San Francisco State's Latina/Latino Studies Department. We called it Raza Studies back when I went there. Anyway, he's a cultural anthropologist who specializes in religion, traditions, art and popular expressions in Mexico, the Caribbean and Central America.

CORDOVA: The Day of the Dead in El Salvador is called el Dia de los Difuntos. It's a bit different than how it is practiced in El Salvador than in Mexico, but it's still the honoring of our ancestors, knowing that our ancestors continue to live with us as long as we always remember them. Basically, we go to the cemetery during the day. We go and give flowers - We call enfloradas las tumbas - put the flowers in the tombs. There are certain foods that we eat that are traditional during that time - some tamales as well as what we call hojuelas de maĆ­z, fried corn flatbread that we put honey in them. I think in Mexico they call it bunuelos. And that's what we eat.

DEMBY: Fried bread? I'm always here for fried bread.

MERAJI: With honey.

DEMBY: Yeah. Listen, man, let's do that.

MERAJI: You know, I looked up recipes for hojuelas online. There are a bunch, but most call for flour, not cornmeal.

DEMBY: Oh. I bet you his taste better.

MERAJI: Also, professor Cordova says there are plenty of Salvadorans in Seattle. So if your mom's not interested in talking about Dia de los Difuntos, aka Day of the Deceased, you can use the power of the Internet to find folks who will be. He suggests talking to the elders in the community. And when it comes to honoring your culture without making it all about what you lost through assimilation, professor Cordova says don't be too hard on yourself. Even he's lost certain things after living in the U.S. for so long. But that doesn't mean they can't be rediscovered.

CORDOVA: Yes. I think, you know, the issue of culture is very flexible. One thing about cultures is that cultures are not homogeneous. Culture is rapidly changing from one place to another. And so for this person, you know, to be exploring and asking questions about her identity is perfectly normal. She would have many elements that might be just dormant in her consciousness, you know. And all of a sudden, they might be reawakened in the process of finding out all these things. It's never a mistake to look for your identity and who you are.

DEMBY: Kind of reminds me of what Maria Tatar from Harvard was saying earlier when we were talking about Santa Claus. Right? Like, it's people taking these traditions and remixing them and reimagining them that makes them thrive and spread and makes people attach themselves to them and pass them down.

MERAJI: Make them your own so they won't get lost or forgotten. Right?

And Sylvia, professor Cordova says if you haven't already and you need some more inspiration...

CORDOVA: See the movie "Coco."

(LAUGHTER)

MERAJI: Yeah.

CORDOVA: It is one of the most beautiful films that I've seen in a long time that really addresses that issue of the Day of the Dead. And even though we have variations in El Salvador, the fact that in El Salvador our heritage is Mesoamerican, he has a great deal of influences coming in from Mexico.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "REMEMBER ME (DUO)")

MIGUEL: (Singing) Remember me, though I have to say goodbye. Remember me...

DEMBY: We're listening to the theme song from "Coco" right now. It's called "Remember Me." It's by Miguel.

MERAJI: The R&B singer, not the kid in the film. This is the song giving us life, of course.

DEMBY: You can hear Shereen talking about "Coco" on Pop Culture Happy Hour.

(LAUGHTER)

MERAJI: Check it out. I almost burst into tears 'cause I love it so much.

DEMBY: That's our show. You can follow us on Twitter. We're @nprcodeswitch. We want to hear from you. Our email is codeswitch@npr.org. Subscribe to the podcast wherever fine podcasts can be found or streamed.

MERAJI: Leah Donnella produced this episode, and it was edited by Steve Drummond. And we had original music by Ramtin Arablouei

DEMBY: A big shoutout to the rest of the CODE SWITCH fam - Walter Ray Watson, Karen Grigsby Bates, Adrian Florido, Maria Paz Gutierrez, Sami Yenigun and Kat Chow. Our intern is Nana Boateng.

I'm Gene Demby.

MERAJI: And I'm Shereen Marisol Meraji.

DEMBY: Be easy, y'all.

MERAJI: Peace in the Middle East - like where St. Nicholas is from. Shoutout to Turkey.

DEMBY: (Laughter).

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