Race, The World, Inequality, Interviews

Evolving Wokeness: An Interview with NPR’s Code Switch Co-Creators

"It's early, we're just beginning this conversation, but I think this is a place where Code Switch can do some real good. You know?"

Kat Chow and Shereen Meraji are two badass women that are part of a diverse team of journalists that created NPR’s podcast Code Switch. The Code Switch team has had a presence online since 2013, and now they have an amazing podcast of the same name that unapologetically covers the overlapping topics around race and ethnicity. The Tempest spoke with Kat Chow and Shereen Meraji, and we’re nothing less than inspired.

Since 2013, the Code Switch reporting team has tackled the constantly-shifting and overlapping themes of race, ethnicity and culture and how they play out in people's lives and communities.

The Tempest: Tell us about yourselves!

Kat Chow: I am Kat Chow, I am a journalist for Code Switch.

Shereen Meraji: I am Shereen Marisol Meraji and I am a journalist for Code Switch. I also co-host the podcast with our team member Gene Demby.

What put you both on the path to creating the podcast Code Switch with your team?

Shereen: The idea for Code Switch was already out there. There was a grant to do race reporting for NPR, and there was already a reporter doing that. Her name is Karen Grigsby Bates and she is also on our team. And then they decided to put more resources toward that coverage, and then they hired Gene, Kat, and me. Basically they wanted to put more coverage into covering race, ethnicity, and culture for the network three years ago, and that was how Code Switch was born. And we’re still around, and it’s awesome.

Where did you find the majority of support and your following?

Kat: The Twittersphere for sure. I mean, if you look at Twitter, there are so many brown people. If you look at research, that indicates a good thing. When we started Code Switch, we knew that we wanted to throw a lot of our weight into social media and have conversations there, where people are already having them. We wanted to dig into these difficult conversations about race and culture on Twitter and on Facebook. So it makes sense that that’s where a lot of our listeners and readers are.

Was there any pressure to not do this podcast?

Kat: No, I think it was the opposite. Everyone was like, “Where is your podcast? We wanna hear from you guys!”

Shereen: Yeah.

What made you want to talk about whiteness in your first podcast’s episode?

Shereen: Well, we are Code Switch, so we like to switch it up. And I think there was an expectation of what we might tackle in the first episode, and we like to keep people on their toes. And also, whiteness is something that is being discussed right now in this election. And we’ve been talking a lot about the disaffected white male, and it’s just been something that has been hit upon in the mainstream media, but we hadn’t put our Code Switch spin on it. So it just felt like, “Okay, this discussion’s already happening, let’s add to it. Let’s get in there right when the timing is perfect.” Not too late, not too early. Just right. You know? What is that, the Goldilocks thing? It just felt like the porridge was just right. We wanted to switch it up, keep people on their toes, and the time was just right to have this conversation, and to have it in the way we would have it.

Kat: Yeah. Exactly I totally agree. And what’s so exciting too, is that now that we have a podcast, it’s so awesome because, we dig into whiteness in one episode, but that’s obviously not the last time we’re ever going to talk about whiteness. It’s just one piece of the many things that we’re trying to do.

Shereen: I totally agree.

In the first episode, your co-host Gene Demby talked about how white people may need to have a process to “wokeness.” In your personal opinions, is there a similar or different process that people have to go through a process of wokeness? Did either of you have to go through a process like that?

Shereen: I think that’s always evolving. We’re a team that’s very diverse, so we may be woke on our specific issues and the things we’ve studied, but maybe not as much about other people’s ethnicities and backgrounds and the way they identify on the team. So we’re learning from each other all the time. It’s like a constant evolving state of wokeness. Not to put a depressing point on it, but this tragedy that happened over the weekend at this Latin, LGBTQ friendly club [Pulse in Orlando, Florida], really also reminds us that we also have to have a discussion about that and how that intersects with race. How transgender issues and race issues intersect. And issues of homophobia in all of our specific communities. I think we’re constantly learning and, I don’t know, getting woker and woker by the day.

Kat: I think that’s the neat thing about what we’re trying to do. The way I would describe as a good story is something that makes us challenge how we previously thought of something we thought we knew. It makes us challenge our own assertions or our beliefs of things and think about them differently. When Shereen tries to do a story, or if I try to do a story, we’re always thinking about ways we can make people think differently about something they thought they knew before. To me, that’s the definition of challenging someone’s idea of wokeness.

To keep that form of wokeness evolving, who else did you two have in mind to interview next on Code Switch, and what other topics do you hope to touch on, or you will touch on?

Kat: There’s been a big discussion about Asian Americans on TV in general, Asian Americans in representation. If you look at a lot of casting decisions recently, there have been a lot of whitewashing going on. So I had the chance to sit down with two really fascinating people. And I was able to kind of dig and pick their brains about the state of Asians on TV. I’m excited to dig into the things I’m fascinated with. That’s the type of thing I’m looking forward to.

Shereen: And we’re trying, hopefully to do something that, unfortunately the catalyst for the conversation is what happened at the Pulse night club, and the horrible tragedy there, but we’re trying to have a conversation about how the Latino LGBTQ community, the needs in that community are made different than the needs in the white LGBTQ community. How are those needs different? We’re talking to activists and members of that community about, “How do you want this conversation to go after this horrible thing happened? What do you want people to know about your identity, and your struggle, and what needs to change?” And also, we spoke to somebody who identifies as queer and Muslim. “What is that like to have those two identities? Where do you fit in this whole conversation we’re having post-this tragedy?” It’s early, we’re just beginning this conversation, but I think this is a place where Code Switch can do some real good. You know? And we’re talking about identity, it’s hyphenated. Can you always be all those things, or are there times where one highlighted over the other, and why is that? Are there are times when you are afraid to emphasize a part of yourself and why is that? It’s very complicated, and this is such a perfect place to have those messy conversations.

When it comes to these messy conversations, are you able to reflect on your own lives regarding your identities?

Shereen: I think so. I think it’s been a space where it feels safe to work through some of your own personal identity issues. I think it is a really great space to work out our own things. A lot of us are hyphenated humans. And it’s nice to have a place that’s public to work it out, but also just be able to have each other to figure these things out with. It’s been really good for me. I think I’m the happiest I’ve ever been in my professional career. And that may be one of the reasons why.

Kat: I think it’s very fulfilling and it’s nice to have people who can relate to what you’re going through. On our team, what I’m so proud of, is how diverse our team is. We have Filipino, I’m Chinese American, we have people who are African American, Shereen, you’re Iranian and Puerto Rican. I just feel like we have such differing perspectives of how we grew up, and I think it just makes for meaningful conversations. We have such different points of views, and yet We’re all trying to tell really important stories. I think there’s something really special about that, that a lot of other major news organizations don’t have. It makes me feel real warm and fuzzy when I think about what Code Switch is. It’s nice to remember that when we have interviews like this.

Be sure to follow them on Twitter (@katchow and @RadioMirage ), as well as Code Switch on Twitter. This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.