Seeing White

By  |  June 29, 2017

A Dispatch from the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University 

Center for Documentary Studies audio director John Biewen launched our Scene on Radio podcast in 2015 with the goal of “exploring human experience and the society we’re making for ourselves in America.” It’s not easy to stand out and get noticed in the existing sea of podcasts, but Scene on Radio grew its listenership at a steady, respectable rate. Then, earlier this year, John rolled out a new series of episodes—and things got crazy. An example, among many: one of the world’s leading radio production companies tweeted, “Currently the best thing coming out of the U.S. podcast scene.” John describes it all in this story for The By and By.

Elizabeth Phillips, CDS Communications Director

By 2016, plenty had happened in recent years to get me pondering a different type of audio documentary project. The string of shootings of unarmed black men and boys by mostly-white police officers. The massacre of nine black worshippers in Charleston by the white supremacist terrorist Dylann Roof. Cultural flaps, such as Macklemore, a mildly interesting white artist, winning best rap album over musical genius Kendrick Lamar at the 2014 Grammys, and the following year, #OscarsSoWhite. The seemingly weekly drumbeat of horrific scenes from the everyday of American life, moments not meant for public consumption but captured on video by smartphones and blasted across the culture through social media: white cops and school cops manhandling African-American teenage girls; those white fraternity brothers from the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity at the University of Oklahoma singing their racist song (referring to African-American students: “You can hang him from a tree, but he’ll never sign with me.”); and on and on. And on.

But Donald J. Trump winning the Republican nomination for president of the United States—after a campaign in which he banged the drums of white resentment and white identity like no major party candidate in living memory—settled it. I didn’t imagine that he would go on to win the presidency, that almost 63 million of my fellow Americans—including, crucially, 58 percent of white voters, from up and down the socioeconomic scale—would color in the bubble next to his name in November. Still, at some point in the weeks after Trump’s GOP nomination, I decided: The people who look like me, White People, are a story. Time to take an in-depth, head-on look at some questions: Just what is up with us, the people who call ourselves white? Where did “whiteness” come from? Who invented it, and for what purpose? Who are we, and how did we get this way? Thus was born Seeing White, a series for the CDS podcast, Scene on Radio

I’ve reported on race in America, off and on, throughout my thirty years as a public radio reporter and documentary maker—and more recently, as a podcaster. The race beat in this country traditionally entails pointing our gaze, and our cameras and microphones, at people of color. So, I’ve reported on black folks from Chicago to the Mississippi Delta; on Latinos from North Carolina to the apple orchards of Washington State; on Native Americans from the Navajo and Hopi Nations in the southwest to Ojibwe and Oneida country up north. Many of those stories involved white individuals or white-run institutions—the alleged discriminators, the bad apples. But in my reporting, as in most mainstream reporting on race in the U.S., white people as a group, the White Race, went unnamed.

Seeing White changes that. It turns the lens around. We've now released eleven episodes in the ongoing, biweekly series, with several more to come. Before starting in on the project, I thought of myself as relatively knowledgeable and thoughtful about race and how it works in our society. But most of what we’ve reported in the series was new to me. I now see that I knew very little. I started by asking, simply, where exactly did we get our notions of distinct human “races,” and of the “white” race in particular? Four episodes of thirty minutes or more are spent answering that question, based on scholarship by historians such as Nell Irvin Painter (The History of White People) and Ibram X. Kendi (Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America). Those findings include the naming of one man, in fifteenth-century Portugal, whom Professor Kendi blames for effectively inventing the idea of a “black” race—and thus, by implication, a “white” one. (To learn that man’s name, listen to Seeing White, Part 2.) We also explore the plank-by-plank construction of American-style chattel slavery, with its distinctively cruel and rigid rules surrounding race and sex, and how the process of shaping American slavery resulted in notions of white and black that we take for granted today. 

Other installments are grounded less in history and more in our present reality as Americans. For example, the episode titled “That’s Not Us, So We’re Clean,” is about the smugness and condescension with which white Northerners (like me) tend to view white Southerners.

Listen to an excerpt from “That’s Not Us, So We’re Clean.  

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An important feature of the series is my conversations, in most of the episodes, with Chenjerai Kumanyika. He’s a Ph.D. media scholar at Rutgers, as well as a journalist, activist, hip-hop artist, and podcaster. I enlisted Chenjerai, as an African-American intellectual and a friend, to help me unpack the stories we’re telling in the series and, frankly, to give me backup—to check me. I don’t quite trust myself as a white man to see whiteness plainly and fully. Chenjerai helps me to get it right, or less wrong, as does our editor on the series, public radio veteran Loretta Williams, who is of mixed race. 

Whiteness, and white supremacy, are the water we swim in as Americans. In the introductory episode of Seeing White, I invite our listeners to come on a journey with me, to try, together, to get better at seeing the water. I’ve relished the challenge of sharing these discoveries, as engagingly as possible—with help from collaborators who are not only brilliant scholars but also gifted, clear, entertaining talkers. The response has been gratifying. No journalism I’ve ever done has drawn so many comments along the lines of, This should be required listening for all Americans.

It’s not required, of course, but the invitation stands. Come on along. 

Listen to the Seeing White series and other episodes in the Scene on Radio podcast.

This installment of The By and By is curated by the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University (CDS). CDS is dedicated to documentary expression and its role in creating a more just society. A nonprofit affiliate of Duke University, CDS teaches, produces, and presents the documentary arts across a full range of media—photography, audio, film, writing, experimental and new media—for students and audiences of all ages. CDS is renowned for innovative undergraduate, graduate, and continuing education classes; the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival; curated exhibitions; international prizes; award-winning books; radio programs and a podcast; and groundbreaking projects. For more information, visit the CDS website

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John Biewen’s radio work has taken him to more than forty American states and to Europe, Japan, and India. He has produced for all of the NPR newsmagazines, This American Life, Studio 360, American RadioWorks, and the BBC World Service. He is audio program director at the Center for Documentary Studies, where, in addition to producing Scene on Radio, he teaches audio courses to undergraduate, graduate, and continuing education students. With co-editor Alexa Dilworth, he edited the book, Reality Radio: Telling True Stories in Sound, now in its second edition.

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