Eavesdropping My Way Toward Becoming a Better Racial Ally

Another Round, cultural eavesdropping, podcastingKnow what’s shocking? How much I have to learn about race and the cultural divide. Cultural eavesdropping feels a little sneaky but it’s making me a smarter person, a better ally. I am grateful for the secreted lessons in race education and the exercise in restraint.

Another Round with Heben and Tracy is a new Buzzfeed podcast featuring conversations on race, gender and culture. It’s also hilarious enough to deserve the stink-eye you’ll get from fellow passengers after they hear your repeatedly snort-laughing on the train. And it’s something that more of us white folks need to be listening to.

Disclaimer: I am not this show’s demographic, and that’s on purpose. In a June 17th Observer interview, host Tracy says:

“The voices and the people I’m concerned about reaching are people like us, whose voices aren’t that accessible and aren’t that represented in the podcasting world and the media world and in American society in general.

“We get a lot of emails from non-black people in general. A lot of them will start off with ‘I’m know I’m not the target audience but I really love the show.’

“It’s perfect that they know that they’re not the target audience. I feel like they should… It’s very present on my mind who I’m not trying to cater to. I’m not concerned by, like, how do we get white men to listen to the show.”

Another Round launched in late March, but it wasn’t until early June that I heard about it on another podcast. Longform host Max Linsky recommended it. Especially intriguing was his self-deprecating white male awareness, when he said, “Within 30 seconds of listening to it, you’re just like, oh, it doesn’t have to only be 30-something white dudes who do these podcasts. Shocking turn of events. It’s not, like, a law.”

Know what else is shocking? How much I have to learn about race and the cultural divide. I’ve lived in a diverse community for the past ten years, but grew up in a Midwestern town nicknamed Caucasian Falls, obviously not a leading incubator of diversity education. My household mercifully lacked the wider community’s attitude on persons of color, to the point that I didn’t know racist vernacular. Until the playground. At age nine, I was stunned into silence when my friend’s father told a racist joke. I had to ask what the punch line meant. When he spied my tears, he began gleefully launching racial epithets like bombs.

My lily white formative years left more than a few bigot bruises and blind spots of my own. I simply didn’t know what I didn’t know, and the information available to challenge my juvenile mind was ugly and offensive. I never adopted racial malice, but I think I intentionally stayed dumb on the topic until I could get better information. It was long into adulthood before I really started looking deeply at my privilege.

During a conversation with a young black woman at a leadership retreat a few years ago, I displayed my dumb-ass colors in blazing fashion. We talked for a long time over dinner about what she was studying, what she wanted to do after graduation. Life stuff, all good. Then I did what many of us tend to do. Feeling comfortable and curious and, like, friends now, I started asking questions — the wrong kind. At one point, I verbally admired her hair, but made special effort to make sure that she knew that I knew not to touch it. Perhaps my intention was fine, but as I saw her eyes glaze over and her attention drift away, I knew I had blown it. Expecting that she explain the race rules to me? Privilege at its worst.

***

In Another Round Episode 1: “Unlearning,” writer Durga Chew-Bose says:

“You don’t want to be a beat writer for race, or a beat writer for brown women. It’s exhausting…and what will ultimately burn us all out, is that we’re actually expected to explain things to white audiences. I mean, I’m down with that if you PayPal me money, but… ”

It’s just not her job.

Gender gets plenty of attention, too. During the Another Round live show Episode 13, Roxane Gay is posed a question about women ‘having a moment’ in the publishing world. The Bad Feminist author responded that women are pushed toward memoir more often then men. She explains how we are expected to bare our souls and excavate ourselves in a way that men are not and that we are not taken as seriously writing other types of non-fiction or even fiction. She nearly brought down the house with, “The only thing we are allowed to be an authority on is ourselves.” I absolutely identify with this, given that I generally stick to personal essay in my writing. It’s a realm where no one can argue my expertise. Men are mediocre experts everyday, and can write from their own voice without incident. Feminist writers, especially, have learned to be more cautious, lest we face digital vivisection on Twitter, not only from trolls and men’s rights activists, but from other women, too.

Women should not have to bare their souls in their writing any more than a person of color need bare her soul in service to making me a better ally. White people are responsible for our own race education. Problem is, we haven’t exactly proven trustworthy with this task. We tend to hide out inside the vacuum, seeking voices that validate our experiences and don’t challenge us or make us uncomfortable.

Conversation can be overrated, especially topics that might bruise egos, trigger defenses and generally offend others before you know what has happened.

Another Round slides into this space perfectly. It’s funny and smart and honest in a way that pushes me out of the nest. I find that I am hungry for it, the dialogue between Heben, Tracy and their guests. While listening sometimes strains my ego muscles, it makes my empathy ones grow stronger. Empathy is a radical act…could merely listening spark a revolution?

At the very least, it’s sparked a groundswell. It’s estimated that 46 million Americans over the age of 12 listen to podcasts on a monthly basis. Half are between 12 and 34 years old and 54 percent of listeners are male. Most are affluent, educated, social media users, but deeper diversity demographics, say, on race, are harder to quantify.

Numbers on the production side are less balanced. BuzzFeed recently featured 13 diverse podcasts but considering that iTunes alone houses over 250,000 podcasts, the 13 diverse ones featured are in the minority in more ways than just color.

Diverse perspectives are what will deepen conversations on hard issues. But those perspectives are more powerful in the singular than the awkwardly inclusive roundtable. Another Round editor Jenna Weiss-Burman points out that “there are a few podcasts on race now, and they have a white guy weighing in. Our show is different because there isn’t a white voice represented. And I don’t think any of us felt the need to represent a white voice. There are plenty of white voices being heard.”

Exactly. A representational democratic approach to race conversations is laughably ironic. At it’s best, counterproductive, at worst, insulting. How will all voices be heard when prominent ones are so, um, prominent? Inclusivity is not always the worthiest goal. Durga Chew-Bose, said it beautifully on Another Round, Episode 1, says: “to be inclusive, half the time you’re not including yourself. You’re, like, on a talk show or a game show and you’re the host. But you’re just mediating other people’s comfort levels, and not living your true self.”

This is where empathy becomes a radical act. Showing up as yourself, trusting that you will be seen and heard is vulnerability that deserves respect, not interruption and disregard. But we rarely sit quietly long enough to proffer that respect.

As long as we are operating within a culture that celebrates power over and not power with, white voices in race discussions will be elevated. To Jenna Weiss-Burman’s point, white voices don’t exactly need more exposure. Gloria Steinem said the more power you have, the more you should listen. The less power you have, the more you should speak up.

Co-host Heben jokes that Another Round is FUBU entertainment, podcasting For Us By Us. Black people rarely talk to white people the way they talk to each other, and vice versa. In a recent Death, Sex & Money episode, comic W. Kamau Bell illustrates this perfectly. Kamau is black and his wife, Melissa, is white. In January, their family experienced a racial controversy that got a lot of attention, detailed on yet another podcast.

When host Death, Sex & Money host Anna Sale wonders how Kamau and his wife talk about race in their home, he riffs on The Talk that black parents have with their children, joking that the one he got will differ from the one he and his wife will have with their daughters. “In a household where everyone is black, from my own experience, you can have the racism discussion in a way that has a little bit embedded in it…like, the white devil did all these things, you can just have that in there.” But with his biracial daughter, “I can’t exactly take her down white devil alley, [lowers voice and gestures to his wife] when there’s a white person right next to us.”

Again, humor makes a point that no other medium can carry as well.

Black voices are flagrantly underrepresented in media, or alternately, overrepresented with stereotypes. Nevermind black female voices who are celebrated as smart, funny and angry. The diverse, all woman team at Another Round is diving headlong into speaking up. This white girl is thrilled that a white voice is not represented. Consideration for my fragile ego would dilute vibrant discussion, and neuter the jaw-dropping quick wit of the show. Sometimes I’m uncomfortable, and my laughter is nervous and cringey and knowing. But for progressives like me who fancy ourselves allies to women and communities of color, it’s essential that we absorb perspectives not tethered to white and male voices, or their approval.

Another Round is intended for an audience of color, and it’s not my place to opine about what this empowerment means to black and brown women. But co-host Tracy Clayton happily sums up fan feedback: I think my most favorite was just a one sentence email: ‘Thank you for validating the fuck out of me as a black girl.’ We all deserve validating, and some of us need practice in how to make room for others to experience the validation we might take for granted.

All this cultural eavesdropping feels a little sneaky but it’s making me a smarter person, a better ally. I am grateful for the secreted lessons in race education and the exercise in restraint. Happily listening in silence, I open myself to perspectives different from my own lest, I never discover what I don’t know. Laughing at myself never hurts either.

Podcasting is a one-way medium. There is no chance for monopolized conversation, no my-black-friend bloviating, no #notallwhitepeople qualifiers. On Another Round Heben’s and Tracy’s voices resonate without interruption, speak the truth, and force us to shut up and, just, listen.

Patti Carlyle is a Cleveland-based writer, activist and recovering perfectionist. She writes about gender, vulnerability and transformation at pardonmyfringe.com. Follow her on Facebook and Twitter @pardonmyfringe.

Image via BuzzFeed

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