What can we learn from talking about race on public radio?

What I heard in seven interviews with Ijeoma Oluo

This is the second of a two-part post.

Photo by Jonathan Velasquez on Unsplash

In my last post, I wrote about Ijeoma Oluo’s interview on the call-in program “The Morning Show” on Wisconsin Public Radio. The topic was her book, “So You Want to Talk About Race.” After the interview, she posted on Facebook, “People say that conversations on race don’t get anywhere, but these aren’t conversations. And that’s the problem.”

During the program, callers minimized her experience, and her expertise about race; their comments failed to advance the conversation.

I wondered how many public radio interviews Oluo did about her book. Who was interviewing her? What were the race and gender of the interviewers and callers? And how did the conversations play out?

I analyzed seven interviews Oluo did earlier this year.

I listened and transcribed each show. I noticed repeating themes:

  • How to talk about race. (That makes sense.)
  • President Trump’s effect on conversations about race.
  • Seattle and race.
  • Family conversations about race.
  • Colorblindness.
  • Class is a bigger issue than race.
  • Time for action, not talk.
  • Vulnerability.
  • Going deeper.
Transcripts of the public radio programs interviewing Oluo

Only two of the shows included callers: “The Morning Show” on Wisconsin Public Radio (which I looked at in my last post) and the national show “On Point,” from WBUR.

Here is an example of a caller in the category of “time for action, not talk” on “On Point.” The host, John Harwood, asks the caller, “What’s your question?”

“It’s really not a question. It’s more of a statement. The issue of race isn’t really a conversation. We have to be motivated to do something about who we are and our connection with society. So I guess I’m saying that it’s more of, race is going to be solved by action and not just by conversational alone.”

Oluo wrote a book on talking about race. I was surprised how many times the theme of “it’s time for action, not talk” came up.

Oluo also talks about a pattern of hearing “I have more of a statement than a question.” during interviews and Q and A’s during events.

Next, an example in the category “colorblindness.”

My question is, I believe, do we really feel it’s constructive to keep on throwing blankets over all people? And we do. I’m an Italian New Yorker. And when I put a suit on and walking down the street, people have a different impression of me, of the bad group that I belong to. I’m not a racist person, but it seems I almost seem to be feeling like I’m into that group. The way she’s talking, is ‘all of the whites.’ It’s not all of the whites nor is it all of the blacks, nor is it all of the Black Lives Matter. I think we need to go to the issue and I think we keep on putting blankets over everybody and that does create more problems.”

In my experience, when someone says “I’m not a racist, but…,” you need to brace yourself for what comes next.

Oluo replied, “I would say, it’s important to realize that regardless of your intentions you interact with a system of white supremacy. This really has nothing to do with what you personally think and feel about people of color.”

You can hear in her voice she’s addressed this before many times.

Finally, here’s an example of the “vulnerability” category, with Bill Radke, a white host from “The Record” from Seattle’s KUOW.

“Well, Ijeoma, it’s [because of] conversations like I’ve had with you over the years, that I’m able to say ‘I can be functionally racist.’ Really, because I’m a lazy person. I love comfort. I prioritize my own comfort and I continually try to do better. You know? And then I notice how I didn’t try that hard and then I try to do better.”
Oluo replied, It’s been actually really fun to witness, the last couple of years, coming into the show. Because I remember when I first start coming in — and you’ve always been incredibly kind, very Seattle-nice — and then I would say something, and you would get this expression like ‘oh, oh God what’s happening?’ And while this still happens occasionally, I’ve noticed it happens a lot later in the game. And I notice that you have taken a lot of effort to welcome those situations where everyone, including yourself, can learn something … And I’m not trying to give cookies here because sometimes you screw it up really, really badly. And we’ve seen that. But I do think that it’s the fact that you are still coming back to it, that I hope other people listening and watching realize that you’re still engaging and that is important.”

Regarding this interview, I talked to Oluo and Adwoa Gyimah-Brempong, producer for “The Record.”

Oluo said, “I think they really took a lot more care with this interview than they would have in the past to try and not repeat the mistakes they have made in the past.”

Gyimah-Brempong said she asked Radke “to read the book, and make notes whenever he felt a defensiveness or emotional charge.” Then they sat down to brainstorm “questions that would keep him on his toes during the conversation.”

They discussed it and decided not to take any callers. “We worried that if we took callers, it would be a 101-level discussion of race and racism,” she said.

“I wanted Bill to get uncomfortable as a stand-in for white KUOW listeners who might not think this conversation was relevant to them. And I wanted Ijeoma to steer.”

So they tried something really different to start the show. Here’s how it began.

“Welcome to ‘The Record,’ on KUOW. I’m Ijeoma Oluo and I’ve got Bill Radke here with me. Hi Bill.”

Oluo starts out interviewing him, not the other way around. They literally flipped the script. This was a powerful way to acknowledge and interrupt the usual power dynamic of a white man talking to a black woman about race.

She continued, “Race has been a defining force in my life, but I didn’t always talk about it. Maybe you don’t either. So today, Bill and I are going to try that. We’re going to talk about race. Bill, what has been your experience talking about race? Was there ever a time you tried to talk about race but failed or you wanted to but decided not to?”

Radke answered by sharing a time when he suggested, to his mother, that his sister go to a dance with his college roommate, who was black. He said he did so simply to provoke his mother, not to have a productive conversation with her about race.

Later, Oluo told me “It’s not always important that privileged people get all their questions answered because their questions are really limited, by their privilege. And they miss out on so much by just centering what their limited experience would tell them is the right question.”

During Oluo’s interview on “Inflection Point” from KALW, host Lauren Schiller also modeled vulnerability. She recognized herself in a comment Oluo made about white feminists sometimes missing out on the intersectionality of feminism. Schiller asked, “What specifically should I be thinking about?”

I appreciate that Schiller didn’t pretend to know all of the answers.

Oluo invited her to ask herself, “Who am I not listening to?” She suggested seeking out voices of feminists who are: women of color, poor, disabled, or transgender.

Interviews going deeper

Two interviews with Oluo about “So You Want to Talk About Race” that I listened to were ones she recommended to her followers on Facebook: “The Takeaway” and “Midday.” They both had some moments where she was able to go deeper than in some of the other interviews. The hosts were both people of color. When Oluo was not having to defend herself or stick to the basics, she could go deeper.

An example of this happened on “The Takeaway” with interviewer Rebecca Carroll. She asked Oluo about growing up in Seattle and how it informed her understanding of race.

“Seattle is a weird place. There’s hardly any black people there and especially when I was growing up there were hardly any at all. … And it creates this weird world because in Seattle, it’s rude to talk about race. So there was something very visibly different about us and we were definitely treated differently. And when you are the only black kids, you are very black all of the sudden.”

Carroll asked if it was “more rude to talk about race in Seattle than in Arkansas or in San Francisco?”

“Yes, there’s a hostility to bringing up race. In fact, in many ways, it’s far more rude to address issues of race than to be racist. And there have been plenty of times when I say, ‘Hey, can we look at the racial aspect of this,’ whether it’s in the arts or in literature, and someone will say, ‘Well that’s rude.’… People really value calm politeness. And they want to paper over any idea of racial animosity or racial issues in society,” Oluo said.

Arun Venugopal from WNYC’s “The Midday” goes a little further. He asked her about progressive cities that are unwilling to talk about race. He said:

“This is something we hear a lot about cities like Seattle or Portland, that they’re progressive ‘and yet…’ I’m trying to understand the dynamic. Why is it that progressive cities have this particular problem?”
Oluo responded, “I liken it a lot to, when you watch movies where they talk about the Old South. And you have the virulent racist and people watch that and go, ‘I would have been the person telling him what’s what.’ But you weren’t in that situation, so you don’t get to test it. And a lot of these areas where a lot of [white] people have very limited contact with people of color they can imagine themselves as the most progressive and the most anti-racist. But it doesn’t get tested. And so then there becomes a discomfort because when you’re suddenly face to face with people of color, you don’t actually have any practice with how to talk to someone and relate to someone and have these discussions.”

I asked Oluo if, in her experience, public radio culture was like Seattle-nice. The phenomenon that she calls “Seattle-nice” could be a cousin to “public radio-nice.”

She said, “There’s this fallacy in news[rooms] that it’s removed from the general societal constructs of racism. That they are impartial. I wish more hosts would realize they are part of the construct.”

Here is what Oluo has to say, on “Midday,” about privilege covering up other viewpoints.

“The thing about privilege is it sets our life and our advantages as ‘normal.’ That’s our default and we think that’s the same for everyone else. So when someone says, ‘Check your privilege,’ what they’re saying is, ‘What you are thinking is normal is stopping you from seeing what my normal is and it’s stopping you from seeing what my reality is.”

Since I wrote my first post on Oluo’s interview on Wisconsin Public Radio, she was invited back to “The Morning Show” for a do-over, or as host Carrie Kaufman called it in the interview opening, “a mulligan.” The three of us: Oluo, Kaufman, and I agreed this show was a much better conversation on talking about race.

Lessons Learned

After spending some time looking at the seven interviews Oluo did on public radio, I learned the following actions we can all take in interviews and newsrooms to reduce the impact of bias:

  • Recognize talking about race on the radio can mirror the same challenges of talking about race in everyday life.
  • Admit you don’t have all the answers. Don’t shy away from being vulnerable when talking about race. That is where important learning can take place.
  • Think about who is asking what questions. The race and gender of hosts, guests, and callers matters. We need to consider what we can do to interrupt the status quo of power dynamics.
  • Track how those same power dynamics may also be playing out in our newsroom meetings. We could do a much better job at keeping track who gets the most speaking time and who gets to interrupt or explain.
  • Encourage callers to ask questions and share experiences rather than simply making comments, when guests of color are talking about race to a white host and white callers. Comments don’t always advance the conversation. Correct false comments or add context when necessary. It’s not always the guest’s job.
  • Ask the question, on-air and off-air, “What might I be missing due to my privilege?”

Earlier this year, I called for a racial inequity analysis in public radio. This type of analysis could be extensive. It could be based on a computational analysis of words used over time by hosts on many public radio shows. But it doesn’t have to be that big to be effective. What I did here was a mini analysis and I still learned something. A bigger pilot experiment might include several stations asking an expert on race and journalism to analyze a handful of shows. There are a lot of ways to approach this. What is important is that we just begin.

To continue the conversation, please reach out to me in the comments below or via email.