So how do you view Code Switch and what it’s meant to do?
Obviously, the sort of formal pitch is: Code Switch is a show about race and identity from NPR. And we tackle all of these big issues about how we identify… but race is this really messy concept, right? I mean, it’s about self-identity, but it’s also about the way we organize and stratify society, right? It’s about who we find community with, it’s about how we allocate our tax dollars, right? Like all these issues are issues of race. So, it’s been just a really challenging and like provocative subject matter areas to cover. And obviously, I mean the last year has been… with everyone, turning their attention to these issues of race, turning that attention to us, to really to sort of guide them through this, we felt a lot of responsibility in being sort of good shepherds, but also good co-travelers, right? And trying to understand all the stuff that we talk about when we talk about race.
You’ve been talking about this topic of race since the early 2000s. You started out blogging. How did Code Switch become Code Switch?
Like you said, we were a blog. I was the main, the lead blogger and Shereen was reporting for NPR, for our news shows, like All Things Considered and Morning Edition, but we didn’t have a podcast, cause nobody in like 2013, when we launched… there were some podcasts, NPR, but not a ton.
And so one time we were just all in the office and Karen — Karen Grigsby is on our team — mentioned that there was the whitest, historically Black college in the United States in West Virginia. And we were like, “What are you talking about?” And it turns out that this school called Bluefield State University: 98% white, but it’s an HBCU. And Karen was like, “Wouldn’t it be wild if you went there for homecoming?” And we were like, “Absolutely, we should go down there for homecoming to see what’s good.” And so we went down to homecoming at the whitest, Historically Black College/University.
When we found this bananas story that could not fit in a seven-minute radio piece, we needed to tell this long story about how this Black college became a white college and it involved bombings and it involved, all this sort of like class conflict between like… we’re at the homecoming, it was like 65-year old, like middle-class/upper middle-class Deltas looking sideways at these poor white folks who went to the school, who were like the current undergraduates. It was this bananas story. And we were like, “how do we tell this?” And Shereen was like, “maybe we should pilot an episode of a podcast. And that was like the first seed of it. And one day we will find this tape. We will try to figure out what happened and put it together.
How has the conversation, in your mind, evolved to today where this is a topic that I think a lot of white people never talked about, but now it’s, it’s a subject that people are [talking about] at dinner tables all over the country?
The wild thing is, there’ve always been, obviously, plenty of people of color talking about this stuff, right? But one of the things that’s been fascinating just, in the last — we’ve been doing Code Switch as a team for a little over eight years, but as a podcast for five years — we talk about it a lot. Like we’re learning together with our audience, with our readers before, and now with our listeners. And a lot of this stuff, it’s just becoming more and more complicated all the time.
So just generally in the media, there was a lot of interest in issues of race in America with a very specific lens during the Obama administration, right? “Why haven’t we overcome?” … Michael Brown happens, Trayvon Martin happens. Then you see the Trump administration follows that immediately. And you start to see, like, there are obviously structural forces in the world that create disparities and all this stuff, right? We’re all becoming much more well-versed in how pervasive this inequity is, and how individual sort of excellence is not a balm for it.
I got to tie it back to Philly because when we started this conversation, you said that Philadelphia kind of laid the foundation on how you see the world. How did it do that?
So many ways. So I’m from South Philly, but I went to a magnet school. I went to Carver High School of Engineering and Science. And it wasn’t until I was in college that I realized that the magnet schools in Philadelphia and a lot of big cities, especially in the Northeast, were created as a response to white flight. I grew up after the Rizzo years, right? But like I grew up in a city where my mom was telling me about the Philadelphia police department and what they did to Black folks. Right. I learned a little about the MOVE bombing, and I got to explore that a little bit more, but all those things are things that deeply shaped the way that I think I report to this day,
Given the breadth of the discussion that race has kind of expanded to, how do you still stay focused?
I mean, it’s really hard. Like literally every day we could do a different story, right? Like if you just want to do, like, this is a story about racial conflict, right? This is a story about racial injustice. A lot of times we have to step back and sort of say, “how do we tell a story in a way that we’re learning something? So we all come out of this with a different frame of reference or at least a different way of looking at these problems that we all live with?” It’s a fun problem to try to solve. You know what I mean?