In this episode Annenberg doctoral student Florence Madenga interviews scholar, activist and media producer Chenjerai Kumanyika. Their conversation touches on the ethics of media production and research on and by people of color. They also discuss the challenges and opportunities for addressing forms of oppression in the contemporary political moment.
Aaron Shapiro: Welcome to Media at Risk, a podcast from the Center for Media at Risk at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. In today’s episode Annenberg doctoral student Florence Madenga interviews scholar, activist and media producer Chenjerai Kumanyika. Their conversation touches on the ethics of media production and research on and by people of color and the challenges and opportunities for addressing forms of oppression in the contemporary political moment. Hope you enjoy.
Florence Madenga: Hi, my name is Florence Madenga I am a PhD students at the Annenberg School for Communication. In this episode I sat town with Chenjerai Kumanyika, who is a journalist, activist and Assistant Professor at the Rutgers University Department of Journalism and Media studies.
Chenjerai Kumanyika: I teach a variety of topics at the intersection of social justice and popular culture. A lot of my stuff focuses on race, journalism and race in music industries and how race is happening in media making and social movements; all those kinds of things.
Florence Madenga: He is also the co-executive producer and co-host of the Peabody Award-winning podcast, “Uncivil.” I spoke to Chenjerai about navigating his various roles, being a scholar of color in the Trump era and tackling deep-seeded issues like white supremacy, the Civil War and black philanthropy.
Florence Madenga: You’re at the intersection of a lot of things— what are the advantages and drawbacks of being in that space?
Chenjerai Kumanyika: Let me make sure I understand your question.You’re asking me what are the drawbacks of working in these different fields, right? The intersection of these fields?
Florence Madenga: Yeah, especially because the expectations of working in certain fields sort of contradict others. So, working in academia is very different from working in media, which is also very different from working in activism. And sometimes some people have views that you can’t be both; that you can’t be a journalist and an activist. So I’m just wondering how you maneuver those things.
Chenjerai Kumanyika: Right.I think there’re two things I would point out, two sort of areas of tension.One is what counts as certain kinds of knowledge. Journalists generally don’t have too much of a problem dealing with academic knowledge other than many scholars are horrible … we’re horrible talkers. I mean we traffic in a whole lot of nuance, which is good, but then we nuance things to the point where it’s unintelligible to people. But I think that in the reverse it’s interesting. I mean, right now what you’re seeing is all kinds of knowledge production being made possible. Some things were already possible before but they just kind of take on a new feeling in the context of new media.
Andthe academy now is really thinking “How can we account for different kinds of knowledge production.” Like, what do we make of a podcast? What do we make of someone who’s extremely prolific on social media to the point where they’re really influencing things in that regard. I mean, certainly someone’s social media or even a podcast is not the same as a book. It’s not the same as a peer reviewed journal article and that kind of research. And I feel really strongly that we shouldn’t try to equate those things.
But I also think that there’s room for different kinds of knowledge production and I think that is a challenge for scholars who are trying to do both research that engages with political organizing and grassroots organizing and scholars who are doing something like what I’m doing where you’re in podcasts and those forms of narrative journalism. I think at this point you just kind of have to do it all.
And then I think there’s all the slow work of making illustrating the rigor. I mean, when we make “Uncivil” so much research goes into it. We’re traveling. We got interviews that nobody got. We have to transcribe those interviews. We got to put those into a narrative… we’re really thinking about the structure, which means you have to think about how history happens. You feel me?
Florence Madenga: Yes
Chenjerai Kumanyika: Then you got to make a case to people that that’s rigorous knowledge.
Florence Madenga: Yes, absolutely. Some other things you’re doing are these amazing podcasts. So a lot of them are on the topic of race and systematic issues, right?
Chenjerai Kumanyika: Yes.
Florence Madenga: “Uncivil” is around history of the Confederacy and its legacy.And then you were sort of involved in “Seeing White” as well. These issues are… definitely really, really deep and difficult to deal with. And journalism… even school systems, usually don’t really deal with those issues well. Which is why we end up with a lot of problems. I’m wondering what your thoughts are, how are you thinking about getting around these issues in journalism and as an educator. How are you getting around those shortfalls that these spaces usually have?
Chenjerai Kumanyika: Well, I can say the community of journalists that I work with really are passionate about trying to understand systems and trying to use narrative journalism, whether it’s a podcast or a written essay, to reclaim storytelling to tell stories about power. I recently did a talk for a conference called Third Coast, which is a great conference of storytellers and people who make radio and podcasts. I did it with Sandhya Dirks. It’s called All Stories Are About Power. That every story has political elements, is saying something about the structure, saying something about the culture, and of course, the power of stories is that they can have individual compelling narratives.
So I think that when we want to understand things like race, we want to understand things like the criminal justice system, we can use individual stories to do that work. The problem is that individual stories can also be very depoliticizing. So there’s a dominant mode that has to do with the history of social thought and how that intersects with industry and a lot of other things. Particularly in the West, our dominant mode of understanding everything is more psychological than sociological. Everything comes down to the individual. So what that means for understanding something like race or misogyny is that people just are like, “Am I a misogynist? Do I hate women? No, I don’t. Okay, no problem.” Like there’s no patriarchy, there’s no ability to capture a larger structure. It’s just l, “Am I racist? No.” You know? Like the bar for being a racist is you literally have to have a hood on, which turns out a lot of people do-right–the entire government apparently of Virginia had hoods on.
But I think that patriarchy’s a much broader system than just the attitudes. So the trick is to tell stories and use someone’s personal experience in a way that illustrates that, right? I think a wealth of those stories came out in the #MeToo era. One of the things I thought that was so profound about those stories was hearing women’s accounts of if you’re someone who’s an intern in an entertainment company and a man harasses you or assaults you in certain ways, just the matrix of decisions that that person has to make about their livelihood, about what they’re going to do. That’s structural. Right? That has to do with economic conditions, right? That has to do with job security.
That tells us that if people are insecure and are working and don’t have guaranteed contracts, they’re going to be vulnerable to that, because they’re going to put up with more, just because they don’t want to get fired or they don’t want to deal with it, right? That’s structural. That’s not just about what’s in a man’s head, although there’s horrible things in men’s heads that have to be erased, right? It’s not to let men off the hook. So it’s not about letting individuals off the hook. Those stories that came out of #MeToo, I think, have shown people some of the things that are wrong with the structure. And I think that’s the power of what storytelling can do–that’s what we try to do with both “Uncivil” and “Seeing White” in different ways. With “Seeing White” we’re really trying to shift the conversation about race to something that is structural and systematic and historical, rather than just thinking of racism as a disease.
I mean, you still to this day will hear people use that kind of metaphor. They’re like, “People have the disease of racism.” “Racism is a disease.” Racism is not like a disease, I don’t think. It’s not like a thing…when you think of it that way, some people got it, most of us don’t. Let’s fix the people who got it and we’re all good–nah that’s just not how it goes.
Florence Madenga: Yeah, and not only is it a disease but sort of how far back can you forgive racist acts. It’s like, “Yeah, back then I was sick, but now I’m okay and I can be governor.” That idea definitely ispervasive in a lot of ways.
Chenjerai Kumanyika: Right. Absolutely. And, I mean, I’m just curious. So how are you all thinking about this thing in the Center for Media Risk? These issues.
Florence Madenga: Well, the stuff I’m doing for the center is very … well, for me it’s very traumatizing to be honest.
Chenjerai Kumanyika: I understand, yeah.
Florence Madenga: And just really disturbing. Last semester I did a long form piece just on the beat of reporting white supremacy. First I started off just talking to journalists– who’s actually reporting this? What’s the history of reporting? All the way from back to when people were doing stories on the KKK to now. What are sort of like the norms? And then I got to a point where I went to WURD, a radio station in Philly. I was asking these questions and somebody actually stopped me and was like, “Well, you’re not really thinking about the audience as well. We are a black radio station and our audiences don’t want to hear someone from the alt-right coming in and having an interview with somebody and rehashing why they think in the ways they think. We’re reporting on white supremacy, but we’re approaching it very differently. We’re not infiltrating, we’re not doing the things the New York Times is doing. We’re looking at this differently.” And I started thinking, okay, who is deemed to be working on this beat? How do we conceptualize reporters working on this issue and what does that say about the large systematic issues as well. So that’s where the piece then went.
Chenjerai Kumanyika: Oh wow. That’s brilliant.
Florence Madenga: So that’s what I worked on. I worked on this for a couple months actually.
Chenjerai Kumanyika: Oh wow. No, I’d love to read this. It’s such a great point, right? Local radio like W-U-R-D, which is dealing with these systems in different ways and these oppressive structures, but isn’t doing like a VICE, “We’re going to go in to infiltrate the Klan.” But that gets the props and the awards actually. I remember meeting the woman who did that at the Peabody Awards, you know? They get the awards, but the local reporting, which is still covering those kinds of things, may not get those kinds of awards. And that’s a great point, yeah.
Florence Madenga: Absolutely.
Chenjerai Kumanyika: One issue that a lot of journalists of color are dealing with is being in institutions that are predominantly white. And I want to be clear. I mean, the white journalists that I’ve had a chance to work with at NPR and even Gimlet and many other places are really committed to trying to do better, essentially. I would say at Gimlet, there was a real understanding. We made “Uncivil.” I was co-executive producer and they were really receptive to some of the things that we wanted to do. I was like, listen, I’m not going to be the only black person in the room who has to be a proxy for…something false called “the black audience,” as though there’s just one perspective amongst the 42 million black people in the United States. “I’m not going to take that pressure” I said. Some of that was we hired diversely and also we created a consultant-like group of people who are journalists and people who are scholars who we could send certain aspects of our episodes on and get a take on it. That reduced some of the stress on me, because I could at least feel… the dynamic changes when you have those voices present.
That’s not the deep structural solution that we ultimately need. And I don’t know that the deep structural solution we need is going to come out of a for-profit media organization, period.
Florence Madenga: Yeah. It’s good you brought that up, because you’ve been an advocate of diversity voice-wise as storytellers, sort of in the newsroom, particularly in radio and even podcasts. What do you think it would take for the equity and diversity of voices—what do you think it would take to get there.
Chenjerai Kumanyika: I think you need the right mix of media institutions. Right now almost all our primary news institutions, at least all the cable news and big media networks, are all totally for-profit entertainment entities. That’s a change that we’ve seen happen and I’ve seen happen in my lifetime. A similar thing is kind of starting to happen even in podcasting. So all those things, I think, are not great for diversity in terms of voices. But what I want to get at is I think we should think critically about some of the language about voices. I think that, essentially, there’s a long history of the influence of advertising, monopoly and capital and corporate processes in media in general. If you see the influence of advertising on media, you start to see is it really does start to affect the content. It starts to affect the autonomy– and there’s lot of research on this. There’s a certain oppressive influence that economic forces have on media.
Now there’s a way where some media are very savvy to just say, “Well, our solution to that is just to diversify that oppressive influence.” We have to think about diversity in terms of ownership, but also we have to think about diversity in terms of analysis, right? Like are we getting the voice of radical traditions and analyses in? It’s been interesting to watch mainstream news organizations react to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. What they have been successful with thus far, and they’re just getting started, goes against the sort of centrist mainstream wisdom that you saw coming out of the news often from even hosts of color.
So it’s totally possible for a woman host to be arguing something that’s in favor of patriarchy, for a host of color to be arguing something that’s still in support of a colonial kind of mentality, with reference to Puerto Rico. So that’s a problem I’m currently struggling with– how do I articulate the need for diverse voices without restricting it to just voices? Thegoal is not to diversify a colonial hierarchy.
There’s a lot of violence that’s been done using the language of objectivity in the past and it leads in some cases to that “both sides-ism” where you just are covering sides of an issue and perspectives that are absurd, have no real research behind them. But I think in what is being called the Trump era and I’m very clear to say, “What’s being called the Trump era,” because most of the things that are problematic about Trump did not start with Trump, right? In this time I’ve really come to value objectivity in the sense of saying, “There’s such a thing as facts.”
We can figure out, when we say that there’s disproportionate police killing of certain groups of people, that’s a fact. That’s not like made up. So I think our goal is to have better facts. It’s not about saying that there’s not an objective reality. People have different lived experiences But there’s a truth and I think in this area it’s really important to hold onto it, because we are in a moment right now with Trump where people will just choose their own facts and choose their own reality almost. And I think that that’s not what we want.
Florence Madenga: Yeah, absolutely not.
So one of the things that “Uncivil” does really well is to methodically dispel myths. One episode that really struck me was, I think it was called The Portrait-
Chenjerai Kumanyika: The Portrait, yeah
Florence Madenga: Yes. When a caller, so said he had changed his mind about a story he’d grown up believing about black Confederate soldiers. And I remember at the beginning that there was a comment about how rare it is for someone to actually change their mind on an issue. Right now that got me to thinking about the issue of fake news and information bubbles and social media is a really difficult one to maneuver in that way.
Chenjerai Kumanyika: Right.
Florence Madenga: How do you think about … how do you change someone’s mind about that when we can’t even agree right now–well some people can’t even agree right now–on facts about things that are happening right now. How do you think about changing someone’s mind from things that are so ingrained in national memory? Myths about the South and the Civil War that people still believe that are just not factual.
Chenjerai Kumanyika: Right. One thing I think that doesn’t work is to walk up to someone who has deeply held assumptions that are totally different from yours and has held those things for years and then just try to have a dialogue like you’re going to do the work then. I mean, really this stuff requires some degree of study. It requires reading. It requires a desire on the part of the person who’s going to be learning to want to learn. And sort of good faith sensibility.
So we understood when we made “Uncivil” and when I made “Seeing White” that this is in a way for an audience who does want to know, who’s interested, but maybe who believes some things that aren’t true. We tried to find the stories that would do the work and we spent a lot of time thinking about the structure that would really tell a story and when you get the story and you get someone’s experience in that way it’s very persuasive.
And it’s not just that it’s bad and ignorant. It’s also ideological–it serves certain purpose. If we’re going to get to justice and liberation for women, for people of color, for people with disabilities, for poor people, we need a radically transformed system, in my analysis. What I think the American mythology does is cause us to feel like to get liberation we got to go back to something that was great. We got to go back to the Founding Fathers.
So I think it’s about undoing that and a lot of it is just facts. Even the Constitution, right? One of the things I’ve been spending more time with constitutional scholars in terms of reading them. And seeing the way in which some of the problems we have go right into the Constitution, like an institution like the Senate, right? What the Founding Fathers literally wrote. They created a Senate where you can have a state like Wyoming with a tiny population have equal voting power in the Senate to California.
And those larger states are all places where people of color are, right? And women. So you have a Senate which by its nature, the way it’s designed and written into the Constitution, is discriminatory in a way. Cause it has veto power over other decisions. So I think it’s really about knowing that it’s okay for us to let go of what once existed and to essentially say that to get justice we have to become something we’ve never been and that’s okay. We can still find our identity and purpose. We can still find solidarity, we can even find joy and hope that way. We don’t have to cling to this mythology.
Florence Madenga: I’m assuming a lot of your students interact with the work you’re doing outside of class, like educating the public. I’m wondering what kind of conversations these interactions bring up? Because you are working in an institution where a lot of the ideas you’re talking about are sort of feared—the sense of overhaul of the system we have right now. So I’m wondering, do you talk about these things in class or is it sort of separate? And what are some of the things that are coming up that you think are interesting?
Chenjerai Kumanyika: It’s like I have two sets of students. I have the students who actually physically take my classes at the universities that I work for and then I have students are sort of like the millions of people who listen to “Seeing White” and “Uncivil.”
In a way there’s more conversation about the specific podcasts among them. I often use “Uncivil” and “Seeing White” in the classroom, and other podcasts, to try to give students examples. Sometimes it’s to address an issue– we talk about what does whiteness mean, why whiteness is not skin color, to talk about what the lost cause narrative is and what it has to do with race. But mostly what I’m trying to do is show students in my classrooms that these are things you could do, like here’s a little example of how we use storytelling, use technology, and then you all have much more ability to do this. Let’s create some assignments and some cool things where you can engage.
But as far as the questions about the actual content, more of those come from e-mails. You talked about people not changing their mind very often, but I get to see the people who do change the mind, people who are thinking differently, and I get an e-mail and they’ll say, “Oh, I listened to this and it really changed how I thought about this. Ask me about a particular detail, historical detail. It really, I think, gives you a sort of hopeful vision of humanity.
Probably also because podcasts are very self-selected. We have trolls and stuff like that, but mostly somebody who wants to hate on you is not going to listen to like six hours of your podcast just so they can hate. They’re just going to tweet. They’re not going to listen to six hours first. “Let me make sure I’m tweeting accurately!” No, they don’t care about that, you know?
Florence Madenga: So, on that note, we talked a little bit about having diversity in the newsroom but also I do have this concern around the burden of educating the nation about white supremacy or the history of white privilege that often falls on people of color. Even like the responsibility of systematic change. I’m thinking specifically about a passage I read in Safiya Noble’s book, Algorithms of Oppression where she talks about this onus of change in digital spaces where sort of algorithms that are biased and changing that is placed on black people, so things like, “Oh, they should play a meaningful role in the production of this or that” or “They should learn how to code.” And so, the responsibility then is, “You fix this” and “You be there.” And that alone supposedly should shift the tide of hiring in Silicon Valley and the things that are going on there that are problematic.
So yeah, I’m wondering how you’re thinking about this tension here and just how to express it?
Chenjerai Kumanyika: I would divide your question into two different things.
One is just the educational burden that you wind up living with as a person of color or a woman or someone who’s maybe oppressed in some way. I think for me, once again, we need certain conditions. So I’ve become aware of that and I try to really lovingly let people know when it’s not time for me to do that. I have reporters who would just call me like, “Will you educate me on this issue?” And I’m just like, “Yo, you know. I want to help, but I’m not somebody who’s actually getting paid.” People who are making movies, films, just like free consultancy on race.
So there’s that aspect and then there’s the issue of ultimately changing these systems, right? I think that unfortunately the burden does wind up falling on oppressed people to change systems. Not because it should, but just because those who are living through it are the ones who typically and historically have come together to resist that oppression. I think that when we do it collectively and when we do it in an organized way we can distribute that work, and we can actually make it a site of community building and something that recharges us as a kind of collective self-care. I think that’s why ultimately we want to try to find ways to institutionalize and collectivize those moments.
For me, especially in this body of a black male, I’ve definitely learned that you have to just … once my tone goes up and people feel any level of anger … I can be talking about something that legitimately you should be angry about, like a 12-year-old child being killed by the police or whatever. Or poverty or whatever. But if I seem the least bit angry it’s like people stop listening, they shut down.
So I’ve learned to try to moderate and really kind of calm myself and appear measured. I spend a lot of time about being angry about having to do that, but I think that what just got beyond the anger is I just want to be an effective communicator.
Florence Madenga: Can you expand a little bit on this. Like what are some lessons and techniques for storytellers or educators or media practitioners, I guess, like me, who want to learn how to do the work you’re doing? I’m thinking even specifically about things like dispelling national myths at a time where things like just fact-checking doesn’t seem to be enough.
Chenjerai Kumanyika: One technique I saw Michelle Alexander employ, that has always stuck with me, is when she began giving her first talk about The New Jim Crow, and I believe the book is structured this way too, she started out by saying, “Here’s how I was thinking about this issue six years ago. People who commit crimes, maybe they’re not totally treated fairly, but if you don’t commit a crime you don’t have that problem.” She didn’t really see crime as a social justice issue and mass incarceration.
So when she stated all those assumptions like that, it was clear she was echoing what a lot of people in the room believed at that moment. But that’s where she started the speech, and then she slowly walked to where she is now at the end of having written The New Jim Crow. Because she just sort of walked with people I think it was really, really persuasive. That means you have to recognize and understand what people’s assumptions are. And that means that there even has to be a certain kindness and patience with that.
Florence Madenga: What are some things that you’re working on now that address the challenges we’ve been talking about.
Chenjerai Kumanyika: My main project right now is a book I’m writing on stories about black philanthropy. And it’s a critical book. I want to find a way to worry about black philanthropy without hating on the people who are doing these efforts.
I think it’s great that people like Jay-Z or Beyoncé or Rihanna or somebody are “giving back.” But I want to think critically about what giving back really means, especially if you’re making money by giving back, and also I want to think about the narrative of social mobility. Because we’re at a time when I think a lot of people are understanding that it takes social protest and struggle to change systems, right? You go back to the roots of a particular strand of philanthropy, which is Carnegie and Rockefeller, they explicitly were giving back to prevent people from critiquing their corporate practices. So the question is if you put a black face on that does that change it? Does that intensify the ability to do that? It’s probably going to be a little controversial. ‘Cause we like those stories, right? We like to hear oh, Jay-Z built a charter school. But…
Florence Madenga: Yeah. Really looking forward to what you do with that. And the Twitter rage that will ensue.
Chenjerai Kumanyika: Yeah, yeah… I’ll probably have to go off Twitter soon ’cause … But I want to have the conversation though so, you know? I’m receptive too..
Florence Madenga: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.
Aaron Shapiro: Thanks for listening. Today’s episode was produced by Florence Madenga and edited by me, Aaron Shapiro. We’d like to thank Emily Plowman, Joanna Birkner and Waldo Aguirre. Barbie Zelizer directs the Center for Media at Risk. Our next episode will be the first in a multi-part series on the media cultures of the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, be sure to check it out. To find out more, visit our website www.ASCmediarisk.org.
“All the Right Things” by Son Lux (intro)
“Better Give U Up” by FKJ
“Slow Roll” by Tommy Guerrero
“Tiny Tortures” by Flying Lotus
“A Fang Kheng Kan — Acoustic” by Khruang Bin
“Let Go” by Son Lux
“Blue Zipper” by Made of Oak
“Two Fish and an Elephant” by Khruangbin (outtro)
We’d love to hear from you, especially if you have stories about this podcast, our Center and anything in between. Feel free to write a note or record a voice memo on your smartphone and email it to email@example.com; you can also find us on Twitter and Facebook at @ASCMediaRisk. Though we’re a small operation, we’re always open to pitches and new stories.
Chenjerai Kumanyika is a researcher, journalist, an artist who works as an assistant professor in Rutgers University’s Department of Journalism and Media Studies. His research and teaching focus on the intersections of social justice and emerging media in the cultural and creative industries. He has written about these issues in journals such as Popular Music & Society, Popular Communication, The Routledge Companion to Advertising and Promotional Culture and Technology, Pedagogy and Education. Currently, Kumanyika is the Co-Executive Producer and Co-Host of Gimlet Media’s new podcast on the Civil War. He has also been a contributor to Transom, NPR Codeswitch, All Things Considered, Invisibilia, VICE, and he is a news analyst for Rising Up Radio with Sonali Kolhatkar. Find him on Twitter @catchatweetdown
Florence Madenga is a doctoral student at the Annenberg School for Communication. She studies journalistic practice broadly and comparatively construed, and how certain existing journalistic models and paradigms fall short in different cultural contexts, especially in countries in sub-Saharan Africa. She is particularly interested in the roles journalists play in or beside state-sponsored media, how they challenge or are affected by censorship laws and “nation-building” tools employed by governments, and journalists in diasporic communities and social media. She also explores the evolution and boundaries of media and identity as it pertains to expanding globalization as well as new and old conceptualizations of nationalism.
Prior to joining Annenberg, Madenga worked as a freelance writer both from the United States and internationally, mostly writing about African immigrants in the United States and elsewhere. Her work has appeared on BuzzFeed, in Chimurenga, Narratively, and other publications. Find her on Twitter @florencemadenga
This episode was produced by Florence Madenga and edited by Aaron Shapiro.