The Code Switch Podcast, Episode 1: Can We Talk About Whiteness? : Code Switch On our inaugural episode, we're digging into how we talk about whiteness — or, really, how we don't talk about it — and hear from some folks who say it's really important that we figure out how.
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The Code Switch Podcast, Episode 1: Can We Talk About Whiteness?

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The Code Switch Podcast, Episode 1: Can We Talk About Whiteness?

The Code Switch Podcast, Episode 1: Can We Talk About Whiteness?

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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This is NPR's CODE SWITCH, race and identity remixed. I'm Shereen Marisol Meraji.


That was too much. And I'm Gene Demby. And this is the first episode of our new podcast.

MERAJI: You ready?

DEMBY: We better be ready.

MERAJI: Yeah, people have been asking about this for a long time.

DEMBY: And we wanted to do it for a long time.

MERAJI: We have.

DEMBY: Now it's finally, finally happening. This whole team - our whole CODE SWITCH team is excited to bring you all these messy conversations, play with all these different ways of telling story about race and ethnicity. So we're going to mix it up a lot.

MERAJI: We don't have all the answers. We have lots of questions. But here's the thing - we're going to figure it out together, so we're about to do this.

DEMBY: Let's do it. All right, so a couple of weeks ago, I was sitting at my desk. And Asma Khalid - she's a NPR reporter on the NPR Politics team - she's our play cousin. She covers demographics for the 2016 election. She swung by. And there was something she really, really wanted to talk about.

ASMA KHALID, BYLINE: I've been so obsessed this election cycle with the role of white identity in politics and white voters and how difficult it has been I would say for political journalists to actually dig down and talk about whiteness.

DEMBY: That was Asma. And we need to talk about whiteness because this election cycle, we're seeing these really stark racial lines in the voting patterns. So all these polls that show that in the case of Donald Trump's mind-boggling rise, a whole lot of his voters are really anxious about what it means to be white in America.

MERAJI: Yeah, we're really, really bad at talking about that. I, myself, when we were prepping for this podcast, would cover up the phone when I was on conference calls with you guys every time I had to say white people or white privilege. It made me feel so uncomfortable.

DEMBY: Part of why it's so hard to talk about this and why it makes us so uncomfortable is that for a really long time, you know, we've had this reflexive habit of talking about what's normal or what's default in American politics in ways that are really, really just about white people in white culture. But we're not really used to talking about white people directly as their own identity group.

MERAJI: Right. When you hear terms like middle Americans, soccer moms, NASCAR dads, a lot of folks are picturing somebody white.

DEMBY: Yeah.

MERAJI: We talk about everyone else as a clearly defined special-interest group - the black vote, the Latino vote, the urban demographic. But we tend to talk about white people's concerns as just politics.

DEMBY: It's like whiteness is everywhere and invisible all at once. So trying to put your hands around it is like trying to hold on to air.

MERAJI: And we're not just talking about politics here, right? After Ferguson, there were a lot of big national conversations going on about white privilege, and a bunch of people started figuring out for the first time ever that white identity is a thing.

DEMBY: So that right there is what we're going to dig into today. Why is it so hard for us to talk about whiteness? Can you even talk about white identity in America without talking about white privilege? And even if you do figure out how to talk about any of this stuff, all right then what? What are you supposed to do about that?

MERAJI: Hold up. This is our first episode of our new podcast about race, Gene. We're a bunch of journalists of color.

DEMBY: We are.

MERAJI: And maybe you're thinking - you listeners are thinking OK, you're going to spend the entire time talking about white folks? Did NPR put you up to this?


MERAJI: But no. We're trying to understand where America's at right now.

DEMBY: And you can't do that without talking about what's going on with white people.

MERAJI: We're going to get fired, aren't we?

DEMBY: I guess we're going to find out - right after this break.

MERAJI: Right after this break.


DEMBY: Thanks for listening to CODE SWITCH. Here's another podcast you might want to listen to - NPR's Politics podcast. Its where NPR's political reporters talk to you like they talk to each other. With weekly roundups, short takes on news and reporting from the campaign trail, you don't have to keep up with politics to know what's happening this election year. You just have to keep up with them. Listen and subscribe to the NPR Politics podcast on the NPR One app and at


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

DEMBY: And I'm Gene Demby. And we're back to talk about why it's so hard to talk about whiteness.

MERAJI: Let's get a few things out of the way first. If you want to talk about whiteness, you have to acknowledge that there's a lot of disagreement about what white even means and a lot of history.

DEMBY: Right. So we have to acknowledge that whiteness is elastic, right? There are whole groups of Americans we think of as white today that weren't actually counted as full normal white Americans for a long time.

MERAJI: Italian-Americans, I'm looking at you, Irish-Americans, German-Americans, so all that history and all that theory, yes, it's important. But that's not what we're going to be talking about right now.

DEMBY: Instead, we're going to start with something that a lot of y'all might have come across on the Internet or in college or somewhere on your respective trajectory toward wokeness (laughter). At some point, somebody has popped up in your mentions with a link to an essay by this lady.

PEGGY MCINTOSH: My name is Peggy McIntosh. I work at the Wellesley Centers for Women in Massachusetts.

MERAJI: That's at Wellesley College. And back in 1986, Peggy McIntosh wrote an academic paper that's basically a checklist of things that you're really only likely to experience if you're white.

MCINTOSH: I'm never asked to speak for all of the people of my racial group. I can be pretty sure that if I asked to talk to the person in charge, I will be facing a person of my own race. If a traffic cop pulls me over or if the IRS audits our tax return, I can be pretty sure that I haven't been singled out because of my race. I can go home from most meetings of organizations I belong to feeling somewhat tied in rather than isolated, out of place, outnumbered, unheard, held at a distance or feared.

MERAJI: And the list goes on and on, Gene, 46 things.

DEMBY: Peggy's essay is called "Unpacking The Invisible Knapsack." It's a knapsack because (laughter) it was the '80s.

MERAJI: I called it a backpack in the '80s.

DEMBY: But the invisible part of Peggy's invisible knapsack/backpack comes from something that happened to her early in her academic career, something that she had a lot of trouble seeing at first.

MCINTOSH: Black women in the Boston area, at about 1979, '80, had written that white women are oppressive to work with. They didn't put it in just those words. But that was the implication of a number of articles. It's embarrassing to remember my first responses to them. But I thought - I don't see how these black women can say this about us. I think we're nice.

And - (laughter) - and the second thing I thought, which is outright racist, but this is where I was in 1980 - I thought, I especially think we're nice if we work with them. And thinking back on it, I realized how mortifying this was. I was expecting to be thanked for working with people that I had been taught to look down on. And did that make me oppressive to work with? Yes, it did.

MERAJI: And this realization made Peggy deeply uncomfortable. She really didn't want to think about it. But she felt like she had to figure it out.

MCINTOSH: And one night I went to sleep saying, if I have anything I didn't earn except the knowledge system and the money system working for me that my African-American friends don't have, show me. And in the middle of the night, an example swam up. And I flicked on the light, and I wrote it down.

MERAJI: It took some time, but Peggy's paper eventually caught on, at least with people who are willing to talk about whiteness and white privilege.

DEMBY: And Peggy did not invent the idea that white people get unearned advantage. W.E.B. Du Bois was saying stuff like this. James Baldwin was saying stuff like this. But Peggy helped democratize it.

And 30 years later, that paper - the stuff she wrote in that is still really controversial. A lot of white people don't want to think what's good in their lives has anything to do with race instead of hard work or talent or merit. But it's really hard to get that idea across.

MERAJI: We found a couple of people who get paid to do just that. They're college professors who have a job, Gene, I really wouldn't want to do, which is getting students - mostly white students - to think about what it means to be a white person in America.

DEMBY: And this is all happening when they're, like, 18 and they're trying to figure out some really basic stuff, like how to feed themselves and how to wash their clothes without bleaching their jeans.

MERAJI: Should they use Axe Body Spray or not.


DEMBY: Yeah, just a cloud of Axe. I wanted to check out how these conversations are happening on college campuses because when you think about it, that's where a lot of the big fights over race and identity are playing out in our culture, right? You see the big protests over policing on campus, names on buildings and team mascots and Halloween costumes.

MERAJI: Yeah, so these two professors - one white, one black - are on the frontlines of all that on their campuses. And we wanted to hear about it.

DEMBY: They are Catherine Orr, who teaches at Beloit College in Wisconsin, and Chenjerai Kumanyika, who's at Clemson University in South Carolina.



KUMANYIKA: How you doing?

MERAJI: First up, can each of you tell us how you define whiteness for your students?

KUMANYIKA: Wow. That's - I define it in a lot of ways over 15 weeks. So I'm a let you go first, Catherine.

ORR: OK - thanks. I like to talk about whiteness right out of the gate as not just an identity but that which is embedded in various institutions and structures and practices. And the easiest place for me to do that is by pointing to the college as a predominantly white institution.

One of the assumptions that students might come in with is that race is what other people have, right? I mean, this notion that whiteness - and this is what you alluded to at the beginning with the unpacking of the invisible knapsack and Peggy McIntosh and that classic piece, right - is the kind of invisibleness. And then when you start showing it to them, it gets uncomfortable.

MERAJI: Chenjerai, so I'm going to assume your classes reflect the campus and are predominantly white as well. So when you are defining whiteness for them, what is that definition?

KUMANYIKA: I define it as a racial project. That sounds really kind of crazy. But basically, it's this thing that's a representation, but also something that redistributes resources along these lines. I teach critical media studies, critical approaches to popular culture, you know, and at some point in that course, we're going to have to talk about the R word, right? Like, race. And, you know, it's like I've realized that sucks for white people pretty much, you know what I mean? That's never fun for them. And so my approach to starting to talk about whiteness was an attempt to remedy that.

ORR: That's interesting. I was trained in communication studies and then women's and gender studies. And women default to whiteness so much of the time. And it was a battle, right? I mean, most of my students are white and they happen to be white women. And...

DEMBY: When you say women default to whiteness, you mean - I mean...

ORR: Well, the notion that what white women experience of the world is what women experience of the world...

DEMBY: Got you.

ORR: ...Right? A kind of universalizing moment. And I think there's an investment that white women have an innocence in a way that is really easy for me to unpack because I've unpacked it for myself, right, over these years.

MERAJI: Can you talk about that investment in innocence? What do you mean by that?

ORR: My students tend to be very liberal, talk a lot about social justice. And there's a way in which if they are doing that, they feel like they want to be the good white person, and especially if they're signing up for a class in whiteness. Well, here I am interrogating my whiteness. And, you know, it's kind of for some folks I think looking for a racial alibi, a way in which if I learn the language and if I learn the history and then I become the good white person, right, then that sort of sets me apart from the sort of structural racism that still nevertheless has benefited me.

KUMANYIKA: My students are not necessarily coming with that explicit commitment to social justice. Also, my course isn't called whiteness, right? This one was called media and social identity. So whiteness is on the syllabus, so they kind of signed up for it, I guess? (Laughter) I don't know.

DEMBY: So they come in to the class, and then you're like surprise. And then they just - everybody's sort of...

MERAJI: Right.

DEMBY: ...Has To Tackle this thing?

KUMANYIKA: Or like hey, right at the point when you're trying to sort of gel your identity together as a person going into the world, I'm just going to unpack all the pieces of that and just lay on the table.

MERAJI: Chenjerai, I spoke to one of your students yesterday, Will Johnston.

KUMANYIKA: Oh yeah, Will.

MERAJI: Yes, and he told me that you don't talk about yourself very much in class. You don't reveal your opinions. You don't use a lot of personal anecdote. Is that true?

KUMANYIKA: Oh absolutely, yeah, because from the moment I come in, I'm gripped with the sense that, like, everybody thinks I'm basically just trying to push my opinion on them. What I'm really trying to do is expose them to materials that are going to challenge you. But, you know, you have to read it and take it - you know, I'm just trying to avoid that interpretation. So yeah, I don't - but, you know, it's funny, I do think those personal narratives and people's personal accounts of their own whiteness and how they've thought about it - I think that stuff will probably do the work more than some of these theoretical things. But yeah, I keep myself out of it 'cause yeah, you know what I mean? Come on.

ORR: And I'm a professor that kind of keeps myself out of it most of the time. But I feel like when I'm teaching this class, I have to talk about - I mean, my body is exhibit A in front of the classroom, right? And I try and talk about that, that, you know, who I am in front of the classroom isn't an accident. You know, and so to make my body the evidence means that, you know, if I'm talking to my white students to get them to see their bodies in the same way, right, and where they're positioned. So I definitely try to in this topic, you know, put forward the fact that the reason I'm standing in front of them has to do with this topic that we're talking about.

MERAJI: Chenjerai, you already alluded to that it's uncomfortable that you're talking about race. It's a part of the class that your students really don't like. And so what is the initial reaction from your students been?

KUMANYIKA: Right, I said let me put whiteness first because what we're going to do, we're going to talk about actually the ways that poor whites have been oppressed historically. We're going to talk a little bit about their role in this history.


KUMANYIKA: So it's - like, they're not just only slave masters, right? But their reaction was really actually confusing to me. I mean, just - you know, like, there was basic things I thought that they would love, like, I, you know, deconstructed race a little bit and talked about why biologists and geneticists have a problem with that concept. I'm thinking they would love that, right, because they get to say oh, see? Race isn't real. But they didn't - they kind of seemed like they wanted to hold onto it...

DEMBY: Really?

KUMANYIKA: ...A little bit. Yeah.

DEMBY: What do you think that was about? I mean, not to - I'm asking you to play telepath here - but what did you think that was about?

KUMANYIKA: You know, I really don't know. I mean, I think that at that moment, I realized a lot of their self-identity was organized around whiteness. And that was something that again - you know, I thought - because I'm around a lot of very progressive or liberal white people, who kind of whiteness is almost like a little bit of a burden, you know? It's something you're ready to throw off. It's just associated with all kinds of problems.

These students were kind of holding onto it a little bit and unwilling to - you know, I'm going to say unwilling - but let me just say - I do have to say there are many days when I sort of suck as a professor. So some of it might have been that, too. Like, we need to be - keep it real about that.

DEMBY: How do you navigate those really tricky conversations, right? When people start to get - you know, they get their backs up. So, like, how do you guys moderate these conversations in your classrooms?

KUMANYIKA: You know, when I look at a lot of the younger college-age activists, they talk a lot about white supremacy and sort of forcing people to check and acknowledge your privilege. I kind of approach that problem of, you know, that sort of anger of white males from a different angle because I think white supremacy really is an unfulfilled promise for a lot of white folks. I mean, that's kind of what it - you know, how I teach it.

But I don't tackle that one head on because I'm - you know, that's like a - frankly, I don't have students that challenge me. And that may mean - I don't know if that means I've been unable to create a safe enough environment for them to feel that they can or if it's just that, you know, folks who feel like that have learned not to speak up in these kinds situations.

But what it does for me is I try to ground what I'm teaching in the actual experience of what some of them may have related to. And I've grown in this regard. So now I'm like, you know, yeah, I mean, let's talk about why you might have watched your parents struggle and why they might not be getting some things and let's - and really walk into that experience and really try to genuinely empathize with the part of that that I can't. And, you know, some of it is, you know, if you've been dealing with privilege, then equality feels like oppression.

But some of it is real conditions people are in, so I try to just let that temper and say - and sort of try to connect to them through saying, yes, there's a problem. But the problem is not Mexicans taking your jobs or black people taking your jobs or Muslims trying to convert you to Shariah law. It's something else.

MERAJI: Catherine, do you start right off the bat with white privilege? Do you just open it up, like, OK, this is going to be uncomfortable. Let's talk about white privilege from the beginning.

ORR: Yeah, and I think they're ready for that conversation, again, when the class is called whiteness. What I think is interesting is then if you're delivering the message - and I'm sort of thinking of what you just said, Chenjerai - if you're delivering the message, what does that make you? Do you become the target of, you know, their anger or their pushback? Like...


ORR: So what does that mean for us as professors and how differently does that play out given that I'm white...


ORR: ...And you're black, right? That's...

KUMANYIKA: Right. Well, it's like in feminism - it's like when I teach, you know, gender studies, I can just critique the hell out of men, no holds barred because there's not danger that I'm a man hater, you know? But with race it's totally different.

ORR: It's so interesting the way that I think students read our motivations for doing this work. So, for example, I have a colleague in anthropology, Lisa Anderson-Levy, who teaches a whiteness course, too. I'm white; she's black. The course has the same title most of the time. And the way that my motivations are read versus how her motivations are read and the way that students react to me versus the way students react to her - and we've actually had a couple students in common - she was just reminding me of this yesterday.

For example, I'm sort of read as a benevolent role model, right? And - whereas Lisa might be read as, like, oh, she has a chip on her shoulder. No wonder she wants to talk about whiteness. You know, and the question for me is then how does that change, you know, how students are taking in the content and what they're thinking this, you know, course is about?

MERAJI: After doing all of this work and research, how do you identify?

ORR: How do I - I identify as white. I am so white. I am very white. My tastes, my - the things that I like to read, the things that I like to do. I mean, just because you study whiteness doesn't mean then you have to abandon it because there is no abandoning it - right?

If I decided not to be white - if I relinquished it, it doesn't mean that everyone in the world who sees me has relinquished the same thing. So I - that's a reaction that I have from some of my students - right? If they could just push it away, if they could just know the history and know the theory and know the ideas enough, can they finally just relinquish themselves of this - and I think Chenjerai said this earlier - burden? No. No, you can't. You're living a world...

MERAJI: So what do you do with that? I mean - and what are the practical applications? They come to your classroom. They learn all this stuff. And you're sending them out into the world. And sometimes, it's really high stakes out there. How do you, sort of, help them figure out how to sit with this and live with this in the world?

ORR: Well, it's super high stakes. But it doesn't always have to be grand gestures. I talk to students about where they live, where they eat - who are they hanging out with? - and why do they think that is? I often try and make the gestures low stakes. Think about your other classes. What kinds of questions do you raise, you know, in your sociology class or in your art history class or things like that? How do you sort of take what you're learning in here and apply it to different parts of your life?

I mean, I think what I'm trying to do is teach intellectual habits. Like, here's a set of questions that are going to work for you in just about every situation. And it has to do with understanding who you are in the room and the history of how you got there and also then allowing the questions that we're answering in here to come to you in various situations - in your job, in your family and things like that.

And, you know, I hope nobody gets, you know, fired or kicked out or anything like that. But if we're going to start changing the way this world is structured, then let's start with our own individual lives.

MERAJI: Chenjerai?

KUMANYIKA: Yeah. I mean, this is part of where I make kind of a social justice appeal. I mean, I tell the folks, like, listen, there's clues in history when you look at how whiteness has been used. It's been used to help immiserate a lot of your ancestors, you know.

And in South Carolina right now, we have tremendous problems from gun violence to whatever. And a lot of those problems are racialized. But they also cross racial lines. So I'm saying to them - listen, if you want to be someone who's a changemaker, you're going to have to look at how your interests have been organized by these weird concepts.

Also, to point to something that Catherine said that's really important is - I think some of it is I want you all going out in the world as leaders and as whatever you're going to do to be able to discuss race and discuss these things and not feel intimidated. So I'm going to give you some tools to do that with and practice talking about it.

MERAJI: That was Chenjerai Kumanyika. He teaches communication studies at Clemson University in South Carolina. And we also talked to Catherine Orr. She teaches critical identity studies at Beloit College in Wisconsin.

So Gene, we heard both these professors say they want to give their students tools to talk about race in their regular lives. And that sounds awesome. But does it work?

DEMBY: So you're a white kid who took one of these classes about whiteness. And you read a bunch of bell hooks or Ta-Nehisi Coates. You're very far along in your path to wokeness.

MERAJI: You're all ready to go.

DEMBY: Right.

MERAJI: But then it's, like, OK - and then what? So I wanted to know - then what? And I talked to one of Chenjerai's students. He's white. His name is Will Johnston (ph). He graduated from Clemson last year and took two of Chenjerai's classes. And I was talking to him from the studios here at NPR West. He was sitting in his car on the other side of the country in Charlotte, N.C.

OK. Now I am talking to you in the headphones. Are you there?

WILL JOHNSTON: Yes ma'am. I'm still here.

MERAJI: All right. Oh, you know, I'm from California. And being called ma'am always makes me feel really old.

JOHNSTON: I'll do my best.

MERAJI: (Laughter).

Will grew up in South Carolina. Can you tell by the politeness?

DEMBY: And the accent. The accent is dope.

MERAJI: All the ma'ams. Anyway, he's a third-generation Clemson Tiger. His dad went to Clemson? His granddaddy went to Clemson. I started our interview by asking him if he ever talked about whiteness with his family or his friends, even, before taking Chenjerai's class?

JOHNSTON: Never really specifically. There'd be times when I was, like, a kid and I wanted to - you know, I was, like, having an argument with my parents. And their bottom line would be, like, well, you don't - you just don't understand how lucky you have it.

They didn't have those types of implications when they were saying it. But there really just is so much of a privilege that's associated with being white, like, just basic, everyday life.

MERAJI: I'm curious as to where the evolution came in where you were, like - oh, my parents are just saying that. And now you think it has something to do with your race.

JOHNSTON: I didn't know how lucky I actually was to be born white. Lucky is not the word that I need to be using. I don't - how privileged it's been because of being born white - growing up, I didn't really understand all the implications that led to until it was broken down in Chenjerai's class to me.

MERAJI: What was the racial makeup of this class that you took with Chenjerai?

JOHNSTON: Five African-American kids and probably 25 white kids. I mean, Clemson is a very white school.

MERAJI: So what was that like, being in a class with mostly white kids and having a black professor and talking around issues of whiteness and white privilege?

JOHNSTON: It took a long time for, not just myself, but for people to learn how to talk about these things in a tactful way and try and separate themselves out of it and separate their teacher from it. A lot of people get upset when this stuff is brought to their attention.

MERAJI: Did the five black students - did they take part in these discussions, too? And what was it that you learned from them?

JOHNSTON: Throughout the class, I would say they were some of the more talkative students. They had very first-hand experiences about stuff that we were talking about in class - the prejudices that they felt that went on on campus and, you know, the lack of inclusion that they felt and problems with being stopped on the street just because they're walking past. And the cop just stops them for no reason just to, you know, hassle them for whatever reason.

MERAJI: What's the racial breakdown of your friend crew? Is it diverse? Is it mostly white?

JOHNSTON: I mean, to be truthfully honest, it is mainly white.

MERAJI: Do you ever feel like sparking off a conversation around the issues that you learned in Chenjerai's class? Does that ever happen with your friends?

JOHNSTON: They haven't necessarily had this type of background. Looking at the same topic from multiple different lenses, it's not that I'm uncomfortable talking about it, it's that a lot of people - they don't know how to tactfully have the conversation.

MERAJI: What about your parents?

JOHNSTON: I tend to not have conversations with my parents like that, just different modes of thinking. It would be a lot of disagreeing. It's just a lot of old Southern mentality. A lot of what I was saying earlier, you know. People just want - want people to put their head down and put their nose to the grindstone. And everything's supposed to get better.

You can show them all the data you want. But that doesn't make it mean anything to them. What's the phrase? You can take a horse to water, but you can't make it drink. A lot of people, even if they know it's true, they don't want to believe it.

DEMBY: OK. So that was Will Johnston in Charlotte, N.C. It was funny, Shereen. He's wrestling with all the stuff he's learned. Like, you can hear him say I'm lucky to be born white - I mean - (laughter)...


DEMBY: He stumbled a little bit - right? - which is, you know, real and honest. But it's also fascinating what he said about the classroom - full of mostly white kids - 25 white kids, five black kids. And the black kids in the class were the ones having the conversation about whiteness, right?

MERAJI: Yeah. And you could just feel - even though he said he wasn't uncomfortable, how - he was just trying to find the right words...

DEMBY: Right, right, right.

MERAJI: ...The entire time.

DEMBY: Yeah. It seems like that class probably, you know - like, I imagine - imagine that times 25 (laughter). Right? You wonder, like, would there have been any conversation in that room had those black kids not been in there, you know.


DEMBY: Would they just been sitting in silence? So Will is just starting to think about these kinds of conversations, right?


DEMBY: But we also wanted to talk to somebody - you know, a white person - who spent a little bit more time sitting in the middle of all this. And Shereen you said when we were having these conversations - yo, you should go holler at Tanner Colby.

MERAJI: Yes, Gene. I am a stan for the "About Race" podcast, which is on hiatus right now. And I'm wondering when it's going to come back.

But Tanner was the regular white dude in the roundtable. I really enjoy listening to him. He grew up in Alabama. He went to a mostly white high school. He knew very few people of color. And as a grown man living in Brooklyn, he started to wonder - hm, why? And that became a book he wrote called "Some Of My Best Friends Are Black." And he is a professional at talking about whiteness.

DEMBY: So I asked Tanner - when you're a white person, a white dude, who's been grappling with these issues for some time, how do you work all this into the rest of your life?

TANNER COLBY: Well, you know, like, for instance, I have two young children now. One's 2 and a half. One is 4 months old. And I'm very aware of, you know, what the school districts are like and what's going on with all the gerrymandering and the redistricting and all that.

I went to a school board overcrowding meeting a couple of months ago. It was a two-hour meeting because, basically, all of the majority-white schools in this part of Brooklyn are just packed with white people because everyone's crowding into these neighborhoods. It was a two-hour meeting. Nobody mention race once.

But I'm aware of, you know, trying to find the right school district so that my kid - A, gets a good education, but is also exposed to a wide range of people. I don't want to live in a lily white school district. I want my kids, you know, exposed to the full spectrum of life in New York. So I do that in terms of how I choose to raise my kids.

DEMBY: So you just mentioned, you know, going to this meeting - the school board meeting. And there's all white people at the meeting. And no one's talked about race, though. Like, no one brought it up.

COLBY: Right.

DEMBY: So you were on the other side of this veil that I don't get to see. So do - does talking about whiteness make white people uncomfortable? Like, is that - (laughter) when white people are around each other, do they ever talk about the fact that they're white? Do they talk about whiteness?

COLBY: Not a whole lot. Calling out of obvious wrongs in society - that happens a lot. You know, you can bring up, oh, I read the article on mass incarceration in New York Times Magazine. That's terrible. We need to stop doing that. But that's - that's kind of it.

DEMBY: So if it makes people uncomfortable, like, what do you think that's about?

COLBY: Because I think they don't know how to talk about it. Like, if you were someone who knew nothing about neuroscience and you were put in a room full of people talking about neurology, you'd be like - you'd have nothing to contribute and so you'd feel weird. And when people are ascribing ill motive in America's race war - like frat boys wearing blackface and afros at frat parties. How could they be doing that? That's outrageous. And I'm like, no. They just don't know. They really just don't know. And I can say that because 10 years ago I didn't know, right? I wouldn't have done that. I was never that stupid. But generally speaking, I understand where white ignorance comes from.

And so I feel like when you first get into the space of talking about race, it is very uncomfortable. It is very difficult. And so then people then pull back, right? I went through that difficult, awkward phase and I was lucky in that I, you know, I got paid to go off and research a book in private. I think the average white person who has no, you know, skin in the game, or feels they have no skin in the game - pun intended - you know, they get up to that line and then they the back away 'cause it's uncomfortable. And they make the nervous joke about, you know, Wonder Bread and mayonnaise and, you know, oh, it's a whole bunch of white people at this party.

Most white people who then go further and engage with race do it from a dogmatic political point of view. You have the woke ex-boyfriend or the liberal progressive or you're the conservative. And if you're the woke ex-boyfriend, liberal progressive, you'll read the Peggy McIntosh essay and then you can parrot that and quote that and say that. And if you're the conservative, you can read Shelby Steele and John McWhorter and you get that patter down, that line of argument. And you can go out and you can repeat that refrain.

It's jargon. You go out to Silicon Valley and people talk about, you know, multilevel platform engagement, dut, dut, dut (ph). And it's like, maybe you know what you're talking about. And you feed (ph) the same people with, like, you know, privileged, ally, these words just get repeated. And you wonder how much people have really thought about them.

DEMBY: That was Tanner Colby. He's the author of "Some Of My Best Friends Are Black." He's also one of the co-hosts of the "About Race Podcast" over at Slate. So, Shereen, we just heard Tanner. We heard Will. We heard two professors talking about whiteness. We heard Peggy McIntosh, who is the, you know, the entry point for a lot of people. What did we learn today (laughter)?

MERAJI: I think we learned that it's very hard to talk about whiteness. And, obviously, it's hard when you have the tools in your toolbox. But it's doubly difficult if you're trying to strike up a conversation with other people who don't have those tools. And you may have them, as a white person, to talk about whiteness. Does that make sense? I mean, it's something that Will and Tanner both mentioned, which was when you're talking to a bunch of white people and you have done the research and you've done the reading and they haven't, it's almost impossible to have that conversation in a way that works.

DEMBY: Yeah, it's weird. It's like one of the things I realized, you know, as people of color on CODE SWITCH but just in general, there are so many conversations we have where, like, everyone has a bunch of racial awareness. I don't mean like about, like, other people. I mean, like, everyone is very cognizant of the fact they are not white, you know what I'm saying? And it's really fascinating - always fascinating. It's like, oh, white people even to themselves are not white, you know what I'm saying? Like, they don't - they're like, there's no sense of, like, what that means, right? But I think people of color often think of themselves as people of color, right? Even...

MERAJI: Constantly. I feel like we're always thinking about that.

DEMBY: Right.

MERAJI: It might be nice to not have that burden. I don't know. Or maybe it's a good thing that we're always thinking about it.

DEMBY: I mean...

MERAJI: I mean, we have this podcast and it's paying our bills, so we're not...

DEMBY: (Laughter) But also, you know, it's - it makes it hard to actually engage white people where they are, right? I mean, if you're - imagine trying to have this conversation in a classroom, right, which is supposed to be set up in this way where people can dialogue about this stuff and they can think out loud and they can have thoughts that might not be fully formed, right? And that's, like, probably one of the more safe environments that you can have a discussion about whiteness.

It makes sense to me that the way this conversation about sort of white grievance, right, in our election system is really, really janky because that's exactly the place where you don't want to have it, right, 'cause no one is trying to have that conversation in a way that's about sort of bridge building. It's about, like, picking sides.

And so if we can't even get people to talk about it in the safest possible space, like, it doesn't - it's really - I guess it should not be surprising that we have the crudest variation of that conversation in our political space.

MERAJI: I think you're right about that. But - and then I'm thinking is the safest possible space to talk about whiteness a classroom that, yes is mostly white but there are still five students of color in the class? Does that make it extra awkward? Should you only be talking about whiteness around other white people where it's the most comfortable (laughter)?

I mean, I don't know. I guess - but I guess we've...

DEMBY: You can only talk about...

MERAJI: ...Figured out that doesn't work either because then you're not aware of your whiteness because you're just around a bunch of other white people. I don't know. This is quite confusing to me.

DEMBY: So that's as good as it gets right now, so that's probably a good place to wrap it up. This is the CODE SWITCH podcast. Thanks for rocking with us. I'm Gene Demby.

MERAJI: And I'm Shereen Marisol Meraji, and we'll be back next week.

DEMBY: Yes. Our podcast drops on Wednesdays. Subscribe on iTunes, on Stitcher, on Google Play, buy our mix tape (laughter). You can subscribe anywhere where podcasts happen.

MERAJI: And they happen in so many places. And our producer is Walter Ray Watson. Our editors are Alicia Montgomery and Tasneem Raja.

DEMBY: Our project manager is Kerry Thompson (ph), and we had production assistance from Leah Donnella. What's good, Leah? Also a special shout-out to Asma Khalid at the NPR Politics podcast. You can follow CODE SWITCH on Twitter - @NPRCodeSwitch. That's N-P-R-C-O-D-E-S-W-I-T-C-H.


DEMBY: Be easy.


MERAJI: Thanks for listening to CODE SWITCH. You should try out the NPR One app for your phone for conversations you won't hear anywhere else. This week, Guy Raz interviews TED curator Chris Anderson. They discuss the secrets to giving a great TED Talk. You can find their conversation by searching TED Radio on the NPR One app where you can also find stories from your local station and more great podcasts. NPR One is in your app store right now.

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