Why Talk About Race? Responding to Critics of 'So Well Spoken'

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Ever since I was a kid, I've wanted to create and host a show. Now I'm getting that chance. So far, most of the reaction to So Well Spoken has been positive, sent in by people who are ready to have open and honest discussions about race, culture and diversity:

It's a scary issue, race, and I think I admire your effort to dip your toe into this water, because it's very tumultuous right now.

--Scott

Nobody has all the answers to these tough questions, least of all KQED, but we can help ask good questions and create a safe space to talk. The outpouring of personal stories and thoughts from all walks of life, from as far away as Germany, demonstrates the need for this:

I’m not sure how to compliment a person of color.  Maybe I’m overly sensitive to being white and coming across as condescending.  I appreciate our differences but I get stuck on what to say. This situation may not be prevalent, but...  I don’t feel very well spoken in these circumstances.

--Cheryl

 Still, we know that some folks just don’t like the idea of So Well Spoken at all: They believe that we’re chasing shadows, dealing in hyperbole and basically wasting time.

For example, our story about a woman who had a rough situation involving the word “uppity” drew this tweet from a listener in San Francisco:

@NPR Now UPPITY is a racist? @KQED should just fire all their reporters. Report the real news, stop trying to create news. #kqedspoken

However, uppity didn’t just recently become a racist term. In fact, the word has quite a long and loaded history.

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Public media organizations like KQED strive not just to report the news as it happens, but also to explore issues, ideas, events and cultures. So Well Spoken is the latter type of effort at a time when race and culture are featured prominently in the news. (Recent examples here, here, here, here, here, here and here.)

On Facebook, one person took strong issue with our recent story about the concept of white privilege:

2 MAs, 20 years teaching experience abroad, and I have the privilege of teaching ESL in the great East Bay for $17 net an hr at an ESL school in the super cool, super liberal, full of super-duper love for the homeless city of Berkeley - concern for those of us who work for a living, not so much.. Oh, I forgot!! I'm WHITE so I'm "privileged". Gotcha.

That story also prompted a similar reaction from Dick in San Jose, who left us a voicemail:

...I've had to work for everything I've got, so maybe stop spreading the propaganda that all white people are privileged. It's more of a socioeconomic, where you were raised and how much money your parents and how good your parents are at parenting you. So come on, guys, you're smarter than that. It's not about race really. So please, stop with this. Please. Every day. It's half intellectual conversation, half propaganda, “white men are horrible”... come on. Grow up.

It's true that not all whites are equally privileged. However, research shows that white privilege transcends socioeconomics. Another study shows that the “I’ve worked for everything I’ve got” argument often comes up among people who are reluctant to acknowledge the impact of white privilege.

Some of the criticism has been very helpful. One listener, a white male who declined to give his name or city, suggested that we create an email address for feedback (initially, we took only calls and social media posts).

His concern was that people like him wouldn't share their stories unless they could do so privately and think through their words. That was an excellent point, and we added SoWellSpoken@KQED.org to meet that need.

Perhaps our most vocal critic is Henry, a listener in Napa who was very upset over our story about the recent incident aboard the Napa Valley Wine Train:

...I think KQED in particular is obsessed with race, and I think the more you talk about it, the worse it gets. one of the reasons race in America is so tenuous and so tense right now, is because of the over-obsession with liberal media like yourselves, and I hope you have the b---- to put this on the radio, OK? Because we're sick and tired of it.

Whether you like So Well Spoken or not, whether you agree with the assessments of our guests or not, whether you think this approach is right or wrong, the mere fact that you are engaging with us makes you part of the dialogue. And part of the solution. 

I’m encouraged by these comments, critical and complimentary. We’ve aired only four segments so far -- hardly enough to get into the nuances of race, culture, diversity and identity. Today we air the first hourlong show, where we hope to consider more of those nuances.

So Well Spoken is a safe space to have dangerous conversations. Pushing the critics away would violate the spirit of this project because, at the end of the day, we really do need one another. I think Bayard Rustin, the main organizer of the 1963 March On Washington, said it best:

“We are all one. And if we do not know it, we will learn it the hard way.”