The -ism that isn’t

In addition to teaching, I work at a radio station. It stands to reason I listen to a lot of radio. I do, but I only listen to the station that employs me in the morning, during the time I work (which is 6 a.m. to 9 a.m.). The rest of the time, I listen to NPR. There are two NPR signals I can get in Twin Falls, and when I go to Boise I switch over to the Boise signal. There is a stretch of no-mans-land between Twin and Boise where I get no signals–not for NPR, not for my phone, not for the station where I work. I drive in the silence with my thoughts. Sometimes I like the radio better than my thoughts.

I’ve been driving quite a bit lately. I have my weekend graduate courses in Boise, which means 260 miles of driving over the weekend. This Saturday’s post-class NPR playlist  included the end of Invisibilia, a break for food, The Splendid Table, and then a phone call with my mother.

I want to like Invisibilia, in the same part of me that wants to like This American Life. I like the idea of both shows. I generally like the style of the shows, and the content always seems promising. But, as I wrote last month, This American Life has a bad history of handling disability content. It leaves me to wonder if the episodes I really enjoyed were as problematic as the episodes with ableist language, but I didn’t notice because it wasn’t my realm of experience or expertise.

Batman,” the TAL episode featuring a blind man who uses echolocation as an orientation strategy, was rife with abelist language. Invisibilia hosts Lulu Miller and Alix Spiegel did all the leg work on that episode, so I went into this episode of Invisibilia with trepidation. I find it unfortunate yet unsurprising to say that Spiegel and Miller got another -ism wrong: racism.

In the second segment of this weekend’s episode titled “The Power of Categories,” Spiegel and Miller shared the story of Iggy, an Indian immigrant who built a retirement community in Florida called ShantiNiketan, a gated community for other aging Indians like him. Despite launching his project at the beginning of the housing crisis in 2008, he quickly sold all of the units. He attributed his success to the innate human desire to be around one’s own kind. The residents of the community echoed these sentiments, saying it felt comfortable to be in a place that felt like their former home.

I followed so far. Marginalized groups often carve out safe spaces as a refuge from the challenges of a non-inclusive society. It’s a relief to be in a place where you are not seen as the Other. What I didn’t follow were the next mental leaps the program asked me to make: First, the comparison between Iggy Ignatius’ ShantiNiketan community and the Augusta National Golf Club. Then, three consecutive uses of the words racism or racist that stood unquestioned.

The program was addressing how we place ourselves into categories. I get that. Drawing a comparison between a retirement community of minority senior citizens and a golf club of affluent white men who banned people of color and women (until very recently!) is quite a leap. And Iggy told them such a comparison was unfair. But airing a five-word rebuttal from Iggy did not undo the fact that Invisibilia had just lent NPR-credibility to the non-concept of reverse-racism. 

Let me provide a quick summary of terminology and directionality: an individual may have bias based on race (or sex, gender identity, disability, etc.). An individual may stereotype based on race. An individual may even discriminate based on race. And bias, stereotype, and discrimination can be omni-directional. But racism and other forms of oppression are different. Racism is systemic. It perpetuates hierarchy, disempowering those at the bottom to ensure the continued dominance of those at the top. It is impossible for reverse racism to exist, as it is impossible for the oppressed to oppress the oppressor. 

The ShantiNiketan retirement community attracts its residents because it is a safe space, a refuge from a society in which Indians are seen as the Other. It does so by replicating the familiar environment of home. The Augusta National Golf Club was (is?) a racist organization because its white membership had official policies that barred specific types of marginalized groups from joining. That is a pretty big difference. And not only did Miller and Spiegel neglect to clarify or retract the comparison, they doubled-down and cheerily invoked the concept of racism two more times before the end of the segment.

And when the psychologist chimed in, explaining how as we near death, we desire to be around people like us, he affirmed* that it might be a little racist. But it isn’t. That’s not what racism is. But listening to NPR this weekend, you wouldn’t have known that, as the newest NPR program/podcast subtly perpetuated this fundamental misunderstanding of marginalization and oppression.

We still have a long way to go.

*This affirmation of sorts appeared in the episode of Invisibilia as it aired on Saturday, but not in the All Things Considered text linked above.

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