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Opinion

Some thoughts on race and speech from Michigan Radio's Jennifer White

We've recently dedicated a fair amount of time on State of Opportunity talking about voices and bias and code switching, so I thought it'd be cool to check in with Jenn White about what it's like to be one of the few minority voices on public radio. Below are a couple excerpts from our chat.

On teaching kids to code switch

In this week's State of Opportunity story, we looked at a new curriculum that aims to teach African-American kindergartners how to code switch in hopes that it will help them perform better on standardized tests. But instead of using "right" and "wrong" to describe Standard American English versus African-American English, the new model uses "formal" and "informal" designations, so there’s no judgment attached to either language. I asked Jenn White what she thought about that.

On being a black woman on the radio 

The New York Times recently published an interview it did with NPR's new chief executive, Jarl Mohn. In it, Mohn talks about race at NPR and the organization's need to reach out to "communities of color."

Here's how NPR's staff breaks down by race, according to NPR's ombudsman Edward Schumacher-Matos:

You will see that Hispanics in particular are under-index in the newsroom compared to the population. In the last census in 2010, Latinos made up 14 percent of the adult population and growing, but they make up only 5 percent of today's NPR newsroom. This, roughly a third of their adult population weight. The proportion of blacks in the newsroom has actually dropped over the last two years. It dropped to 10 percent from 12 percent, which had been equal to the adult population weight. Asians significantly over-index in the newsroom, though their absolute numbers are small. NPR had one Native American newsroom staffer in 2012. It has none today.

At Michigan Radio, where I work, there is one Latina reporter, and every one else in the newsroom is white. It's a similar story with our on-air hosts; they're all white except for our All Things Considered host, Jennifer White, who's African-American.

I asked her what it's like to be one of the few voices of color on the radio. She says said "it's tough" because she feels like she carries with her a "concern and burden about representing other African-American people."

Now because she is on the air, she of course realizes that listeners are going to comment on her voice. That comes with the job. But one anonymous listener letter in particular stands out, because it dealt with the way she spoke as a black woman. Here's Jenn White with the details:

WHITEletter.mp3

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