Code Switch’s Alicia Montgomery on leading conversations about race

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Members of NPR’s Code Switch team, from left: Adrian Florido, Shereen Marisol Meraji, Gene Demby, Kat Chow, Tasneem Raja, Alicia Montgomery, Karen Grigbsy Bates, Walter Ray Watson and Leah Donnella. (Photo: Matt Roth)

Members of NPR’s Code Switch team, from left: Adrian Florido, Shereen Marisol Meraji, Gene Demby, Kat Chow, Tasneem Raja, Alicia Montgomery, Karen Grigbsy Bates, Walter Ray Watson and Leah Donnella. (Photos: Matt Roth for NPR)

Since its founding in 2013, NPR’s Code Switch has delivered “news from the frontiers of race, ethnicity and culture.” On the July 1 episode of our podcast, Supervising Senior Producer Alicia Montgomery discussed the goals of Code Switch, the unit’s future and its distinct perspective on current events. This transcript has been edited for clarity. 

Alicia Montgomery: Our mandate is to talk about, and talk from the perspective of, the new and emerging America, which is a lot more diverse and is growing in different directions. Public radio, the original mandate that we had 40 years ago — it’s a different audience and a different country. Just like we wouldn’t talk about technology, education or science the same way that we did 40 years ago, we shouldn’t be talking about race the same way we did 40 years ago.

Adam Ragusea, Current: Is it specifically supposed to be stories not just about things that affect people of color, but about issues of identity and representation, which is what the name suggests?

Montgomery: Yes, that’s exactly it. There are a lot of stories that are just about race in the news and racism. And we want to do something that’s a little bit deeper than that — get inside the community and get inside the experience of how your identity affects the way you view some of these stories, and the way that you experience some of these stories. That is a really complicated and layered discussion. Sometimes it’s very surprising not just to people who are outside these specific communities of color, but it can be surprising to the people inside the communities.

Current: On that subject — I’m at somewhat of a disadvantage conducting this interview as a really white dude — I’ve had several conversations with journalists of color in preparation for this interview and asked them what they think of Code Switch, and they’re broadly complimentary of it; they feel it’s a really good thing. But one consistent critical note that I heard was some felt like Code Switch primarily serves to explain things to white people, things that people of color already know about.

Montgomery: When you’re talking about this, are you talking about our radio stories, or are you talking about the four years that we’ve done in the digital space?

Current: All of the above. I definitely talked to a couple of people about the podcast since its launch, too.

Montgomery: I just want to explore a couple of the assumptions that are built into that criticism, that there is one conversation happening inside communities of color, and there is an opportunity to present them to one white community that’s going to receive them this way, that way or the other way. Even inside different communities of color, there are different levels of conversation, different opinions. One of the things a lot of people would be surprised about at Code Switch is how many passionate discussions and disagreements we have amongst ourselves about what this or that means, if it’s significant to this community to look at a story this way or that way, who we should talk to.

The whole idea that there is somebody who is a spokesperson for any one community — we want to explode that. That’s one of the problems and the conversations that we have — not just at NPR, and not just in the media, but in in America — about race, which is that there is one person who speaks for a community, and there’s one point of view to be had about this or that given issue.

It’s not possible for us to have a podcast that explains the whole experience of every person of color to every white person. And it’s not really desirable or useful to the audience. We just want to challenge that idea, that there is one playbook for any of these discussions and one point of view.

Current: On the other hand, the launch of the podcast — which sounds great — the first episode was about whiteness. In fact, Gene Demby and Shereen Marisol Meraji made an explicit tongue-in-cheek joke about how you would expect that if NPR was going to do a podcast about race that the first episode would be about whiteness, because NPR is so white.

But then, when we got into the substance of things, the main segment of the episode was an interview with a couple of academics who teach classes in whiteness. I’m going to play a clip here; this is you guys talking to Chenjerai Kumanyika, who is a communications professor at Clemson, a friend of mine and a frequent source. But the conversation spent most of its time in a place where they were talking about how you explain whiteness to white students, and here I’ll play a clip.

Interviewer: 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 has the initial reaction from your students been?

Kumanyika: Right, I said, “Let me put whiteness first because what we’re going to talk about is actually the ways that poor whites have been oppressed historically. We’re going to talk a little bit about their role in this history,” so they’re not just only slave masters, right?

Current: It strikes me that that conversation could have spent more time talking about how people of color talk about whiteness among themselves or across different groups of people that are being described under that unfortunately crude heading of “people of color.” But, in fact, most of that show was about how you talk about whiteness to white people, and how you negotiate their delicate white-people sensitivities when you’re calling them out on their privilege or their complicity in injustice.

Montgomery: I see it differently. One of the things that Code Switch does is get inside the group and have the conversation inside the group, because that can be more revealing. I want us to have the complicated conversation and not be a platform of lecturing white people about the way that they should behave, and the way that they should treat people of color or have conversations with people of color.

I think that what you heard was consistent with our belief. There’s a saying in the disability rights community, which is “Nothing about us without us.” We wouldn’t have a conversation about African-American people that centers on white voices, one white voice after another. We wanted to get at the complicated ideas that are flowing back and forth in this space where people who share this identity are having conversations about it. And it was revealing; to me, it was surprising. One professor’s experience surprised the other professor, and the history of discussing whiteness was something that was really interesting. I learned things that I didn’t know from the discussion, so it was valuable to me. I hope that it was valuable to our listeners as well.

Current: I spoke with one person, a journalist of color who is a self-described radical in his political beliefs. The criticism that he expressed to me — that I’ll pass along to you and see what you think of it — was that Code Switch, by talking about race in the context of signifiers, semantics, identifiers, identity, is keeping the conversation in a place that is very comfortable for white people, or at least white liberals who have been comfortable for many, many decades having conversations about how, “Oh, no, you shouldn’t call them Indians; you should call them Native Americans.” That’s a familiar comfortable conversation for white liberals like me.

Montgomery: I just want to jump in and say a lot of American Indians prefer American Indian to Native American —

Current: But those are the kinds of pieces that you have. Another example is a couple years ago when the Pentagon put out new regulations on women’s hair, and they disproportionally affected black women in particular. That’s a Code Switch story if ever there was one — and you guys did lots of coverage about it, and it was great coverage — but where is the Code Switch piece that interviews someone who makes the argument that people of color shouldn’t even be serving in the United States military because it serves to advance American foreign policy, which is fundamentally predicated on advancing white supremacy on a global scale. Muhammad Ali had to die in order for that argument to get articulated in the pages of Code Switch, and even then only in kind of a comfortable time capsule of something that was 50 years old.

Montgomery: Well, as a woman of color with several veterans in my family, this gets at the idea that this isn’t a complicated conversation inside the black community and inside other communities of color. We’re going to be having lots and lots of conversations about these issues, but one of the things that I want to be focused on is making sure that when we are talking about a point of view about a story that’s affected by your identity, that we’re not saying, “This is the most black thing that we can say about the military, or the most Latino thing we can say about immigration, or the most Asian-American thing we can say about entrepreneurship.”

Because there are plenty of black people who believe that if you are joining the military you are supporting a racist blah blah blah system of colonialism — there are plenty of white people who believe that, too. But if you look at the numbers of people who actually served in the United States military, they’re disproportionately people of color. So the idea is that if we were going to give the African-American point of view about military service, it would necessarily be centered on this idea.

Current: It would not necessarily be that but, again, I don’t think I’ve ever read that argument in Code Switch other than when it was a 50-year-old Muhammad Ali quote.

I don’t want to get hung up on this particular example, but I think the core of the criticism is that by having the conversation about identity and semantics, you could be seen to be deflecting the conversation away from the really substantive things, the things about policy that actually affect the lives of people of color — not just what we call them and how we think of who they are, right?

Montgomery: Again, if you look at the body of the stories that we do — not just on the blog but also on the radio — you’ll have a more layered and complicated view of a lot of these issues.

Karen Grigsby Bates did a couple of stories last year, one about the complicated reaction to the Bill Cosby scandal among African-Americans in Hollywood. Before all of these allegations became a matter of public discussion, Bill Cosby was a hero for integrating … the community she focused on was stuntmen. He was an innovator for making sure that African-American stunt people got opportunities when there were African-American leads involved, instead of having people painted down. There was a lot of uncomfortable conversation for these folks about, “OK, so this person is now known in the public sphere for doing this, that, the other 10,000 terrible things.” But in the community he also has this history. People were betwixt and between, and that’s where we live.

The way that we speak to each other is really important. One of the reasons why that’s a focus of Code Switch but not necessarily the focus of Code Switch is that depending on who you’re talking to, you can shut down a really important conversation before it gets off the ground. Actually, this is a way that people encounter race in their day-to-day lives a lot, which is they don’t know how to talk to people; they don’t know how to talk across difference. And so unpacking what goes into that, both from the perspective of white Americans and the people who are in communities of color, it’s very important; it’s a good place to have part of that conversation.

Current: I make a great effort in my work to be in contact with conservative critics of public media, who tend to be older white dudes, basically all of your internet trolls. I talk to them a lot, and I get a lot out of it, and I want to try to present some of their concerns and see what you think about them.

One is the idea that when you read Code Switch text pieces — or even the radio pieces, but more so with the text pieces — they tend to be written in what I would describe as a magazine voice. There is reportage and there are facts being communicated, but the writer also has an angle and gives some analysis that could be categorized as opinion. And there’s a concern that those pieces don’t get labeled as commentary when, in fact, maybe they should be. And then, secondarily to that, old white dudes who criticize NPR will often say, “Where is the counterpart to Gene Demby? Where is the NPR writer who’s going to argue that race is not a determining factor in life outcomes in the United States?”

Montgomery: OK, so I’m going to take your first question —

Current: I committed such an interview sin just then, two questions at once.

Montgomery: All the hosts do that. I’ve been here at NPR for a very long time, and so I know the double question.

Taking your first criticism first: I am one of those public radio people who left NPR to do something that I thought was more exciting at the moment. I went to Salon.com for a couple of years. One of the things about Salon.com was that — and I think it’s still a point of view you find in digital media — part of the story is telling people where you stand. And if we’re going to have revealing and interesting conversations about race and identity, it’s important that we own where we stand in relation to the story.

Current: Oh, absolutely, but maybe could there be some cognitive dissonance in scrolling through the pages of NPR.org? When I go to Salon.com, I know that it’s a magazine of opinion, whereas if I go to NPR.org, there are things that are straight reportage. Then I might come across a Code Switch piece that is not labeled as commentary but is basically a Salon-style essay.

Montgomery: Because we are on so many different platforms, there is a level of expectation that our audience has about what they’re going to read in our pages that may be different from what a traditional NPR audience has when they’re listening to the radio.

My mom is one of those baby boomer, Whole Foods–shopping, Birkenstocks-wearing, Unitarian Church–going NPR listeners. I have had that conversation with her, and if you think that the only people who are NPR critics are old white guys —

Current: Oh, God, no. No no no no no no no.

Montgomery: — you need to sit down with some of my uncles who will still tell you about something that they heard.

Current: Something that I always try to communicate to my trolls is, “If you think that NPR represents the far left, you have no idea how far the left goes in this country.”

Montgomery: Yeah, but I think that by telling you, “This is my relationship to the story,” that it’s part of illuminating the space, not just for the people who are coming to Code Switch because they read a lot about race, but also for people who are NPR listeners.

There is a hunger among our listenership — and I know from inside these walls because I’ve made my career here for close to 20 years — to have the deep, complicated and sometimes uncomfortable discussions about issues of race and identity that we have about all manner of things on the air. Part of leading that conversation is that we have to speak the language of the space. People who say that they want more of an NPR style here, we’re not going to be reaching them as effectively.

Current: That raises a really interesting question, which is the concept of straight reporting or objective journalism or impartial journalism, as some people call it. Is that an inherently racial concept? Is that a white concept?

Montgomery: The way that it’s been defined has a racial overtone — and I want to say this as somebody who loves NPR. I’m at NPR because I was one of those seventh graders who started listening, and I was so thrilled to be able to come here. … You could say that if you listen to traditional NPR, you can get an idea about the world view and the experience of the people who are doing the journalism —

Current: — who are still disproportionately white, and that’s still the case despite a lot of efforts to diversify the workforce, right?

Montgomery: If you look at our newsroom diversity, you will see that we’re doing a lot better than a lot of the outlets out there. I call it the “Seven Sisters slant,” which is that we have a lot of people who are from the Northeast, from a certain economic experience and background. We have default assumptions that everybody goes to college, that everybody grew up with a certain set of experiences, and the news that we produce from that, and the stories that we produce from that, are beautiful stories; they’re just not the complete story of the country. Part of the effort to diversify the newsroom is not because we haven’t been doing excellent work for four decades; we have. But we need to have that same depth and quality of experience reflected in communities that are not that traditional NPR community.

You can see that in the coverage that we did of Orlando, the whole network. But I do want to point to our latest episode, the fourth episode, which was about Orlando. We went inside; we got voices from the LGBT Latino community; we had our own Adrian Florido reporting on how this horrible shooting affected the feelings of Americanness and connectedness between Latino people in the area who were affected by the story. We also heard a Muslim LGBT point of view, because it can be a very complicated experience when you belong to more than one community that’s considered a minority community and something like this happens. We heard about the experience of being LGBT and being the son of immigrants, which is a unique experience unto itself. And so we were able to hear from people who have lived the lives of the folks who were affected by this story, the victims and their families.

Montgomery in the studio.

Montgomery in the studio.

That’s not a greater journalism or a lesser journalism, but it’s different where you start the story and who you say are the central characters of the story. That makes a difference, and that’s where we can add value to the great work that NPR does already.

Current: So swinging back to the second part of my two-part question — which again is a major interview sin on my part because now I have to restate it, so I’ve wasted all that time. I just had a conversation with Celeste Headlee two weeks ago about how you should never do that, so she’s going to yell at me later.

The criticism that I think is worth considering from some conservative critics of NPR is, where’s the white conservative counterpart to Gene Demby? Where’s the person who’s going to argue that race is not a determining factor in people’s life outcomes, that it’s about class, it’s about other things?

Montgomery: NPR is here to talk about the points of view that are not getting a platform, and there’s no dearth of space for people to say that race isn’t determinative, that it’s more class. There is a whole set of conversations — I know inside the black community, I believe inside the Latino community and other communities of color — about this intersection of class and race, where your experience of being African-American in modern times is also determined largely by your education and your income. That’s a conversation that happens, I know, inside the black community a lot; I’ve been in that conversation. But when I hear people talk about Code Switch and it’s like, “Why do you guys make everything about race?”, I wonder if these are the same people who read the sports section and say, “Why is everything in here about a game that was played or box scores?”

This is one of those things where … there is a high expectation of us inside our core audience but also among the American people, that we’re going to center the things that are important. The conversations that we have about race and identity are not important to certain people, and that’s fine. They’ve got plenty of material to go to and hear that point of view. Our space is about how race affects people’s experiences. We don’t want to fall into the idea that a space for talking about diversity and how race and identity affect people is a space where we just have one statistic after another, where we’re talking about, “Oh, this person didn’t get X, Y and Z, didn’t go to school or didn’t finish school,” or a whole list of woes about being in a community of color. That just feeds into another set of stereotypes that don’t advance conversations. It does not educate people, it doesn’t enlighten them.

One of the challenges — and now I’m on a bit of an NPR tear — is that one of the things that we love to do here is call the smartest people on every topic, ask the smartest questions and deliver the smartest answers. One of the challenges for a team like Code Switch, or one of the challenges of covering race for an organization like NPR, is there aren’t really answers. Should President Obama identify himself as African-American or as biracial? What’s the answer to that question? There isn’t a definitive answer. There’s a way to have the conversation. There are different people who you can talk to who can give you the best arguments for this or that or the other.

We want to stay away from is this idea that we’re going to be delivering conclusions to people: “This is the correct way to talk about this.” “This is the correct way to think about that.”

… [R]ight after the Charleston shooting, Gene Demby did a piece — and this was something that was floating around in our editorial team for a while — about this complicated relationship with the Confederate flag. Lots of people see this as, “Why haven’t folks taken down these flags?” and “It can only be about racism.” What we did was explore, not just among Southern whites, but in our own lives, there are these things that maybe 20 years later we hear are racist or inappropriate or discriminatory that have a totally different meaning. Maybe for a segment of the people who embrace the Confederate flag, this is one of those things. It isn’t a racist symbol from God.

Current: As a Yankee living in the South, something that I had to learn the hard way is that there are lots and lots of perfectly reasonable white people here who really identify with the Confederate flag as a positive symbol. It is in part because they were fed false history in elementary school about the nature of the Civil War, which they were told was the “War of Northern Aggression” or the “War Between the States.”

Montgomery: Or it’s a symbol from one of their ancestors that they embrace. It’s complicated.

Current: It’s complicated, and it is both a historical fact that the Confederacy and the Civil War were about slavery and race. That is a fact. It is also a fact that, because a symbol is inherently subjective, it doesn’t mean that to some people, even though it has that history. There are people for whom it simply means something else, and you have to accept that.

And I thought that Code Switch’s coverage of that entire issue — as I was watching it from down here in Georgia — was really excellent. But to pivot to another issue, to say that you don’t want don’t Code Switch to be in a position of telling people that this is the right way to think about something — this is something that Code Switch has been dinged for in the past by [CPB’s] ombudsman as being too aggressive in its online comment moderation and in shutting down people making arguments that could be construed as racism but maybe aren’t —

Montgomery: That controversy happened a couple months before I got onto the Code Switch team in August 2014. It was something before my tenure. …

Current: … Do you think that the criticism was legitimate? And what, if any, corrective action has the Code Switch team taken in response to it?

Montgomery: Again, I hate to do this to you, but I did join the team after this happened and after this was settled. And my understanding was that when I got to the team, this was a discussion that was had with the previous folks who were leading the team. … [W]e had a discussion about the interaction and the comment space, and we came to a resolution that worked for everybody.

Current: Where do you want to take Code Switch going into the future? What frontiers are yet to be explored?

Montgomery: Oh, wow, the sky’s the limit. There are so many new discussions and discussions that we’re already having in our editorial meetings. There’s a term called “intersectionality,” which is in academic social media spaces about race — this whole idea that your race is the default identity that determines everything from your politics to the place you live. That’s one school of thought, but what if your identity is African-American and LGBT? What if your identity is Asian-American and deaf? What if your identity is white and you’re the parent of a child of a different race? These are complications.

It’s interesting because NPR does a lot of high-minded, thoughtful coverage of issues in the public sphere, but these are very tricky, challenging, intimate kinds of experiences that so many more people — white people, black people, Asian-American, Latino people — are having just because the ways that we interact with each other are changing. This experience of being, of living and working in one racial or identity community and worshipping with another one, or going to school with another one, these are the kinds of conversations that I see in our future.

One of the things that we talk about is, we’re not here to give you the simple story; we’re here to give you the complicated story. We’re going to tell you why this answer that you have about race and racial identity isn’t as simple and cut-and-dried as you may have been led to believe that it is.

Current: Well, speaking of intersectionality, is there a white member of Code Switch’s editorial team?

Montgomery: Not yet.

Current: What is your thinking behind that? Is that something that is deliberate?

Montgomery: No. This is a question that we get a lot.

Current: I bet. That’s why I asked it.

Montgomery: One of the things you mentioned, the first episode of the podcast, which is this idea that whiteness isn’t a racial identity; it’s something that we know is not true. We all have an experience with an identity, we all have an experience with race, and those are worth exploring across the spectrum.

… Of course, we’re public media, and you know what that means as far as money and adding new team members. But my hope is that we can expand our team and expand the number of perspectives that are represented by our editorial staff.

Current: I’m not necessarily arguing that there should be a white member of the Code Switch team; in fact, I don’t think I would make that argument. I think that the white perspective is perfectly well-represented in other quarters of NPR.

Montgomery: There is not just one white perspective.

Current: Yeah, exactly. Or maybe there is. I don’t know. I would love to be on your show to talk about that. But anyway, thank you for being on my show, Alicia Montgomery.

Montgomery: Thank you so much, Adam.

Clarification: In the interview from which this transcript is derived, Ragusea mistakenly said the NPR ombudsman criticized Code Switch’s handling of online comments. It was in fact CPB’s ombudsman who addressed the issue. The error has been corrected in this transcript.

  • cheryl head

    Thanks for this interview. Smartly conducted and Montgomery’s responses reflected the nuance and complexities required of our ongoing conversations about race. Kudos to Code Switch.