Explanatory Comma

National Public Radio’s (NPR) Code Switch podcast tackles issues of race and identity and I love to listen regularly. Not only does the podcast provide a window into perspectives and experiences different from my own, but it also has helped to remove the blinders to some (many!) of the privileges that I have. One such privilege – the result of white privilege – is the ability to consume media and entertainment and understand, most of the time, what is being discussed. An “explanatory comma” is rarely needed for the references that pop up in my everyday life.

In an episode entitled, “Hold Up! Time For an Explanatory Comma” (December 14, 2016), journalists Gene Demby and Shereen Marisol Meraji, along with comedian Hari Kondabolu, tackled the question of how much cultural context to provide when talking about race and culture. An explanatory comma is the aside or comma after a word, idea or person is introduced in an effort to define it for an audience that needs the explanation. For example, in a prior podcast episode, Gene and Shereen paid tribute to Tupac Shakur without providing an explanation of who he was. They then received a number of comments from listeners complaining that they felt left out. In particular, a self-identified 54 year-old white woman stated that she could tell Tupac meant a lot to the hosts, but she never felt invited in to the discussion, because she had no idea who Tupac was. As another example, Shereen mentioned a segment she did for NPR’s Morning Edition about a Guinean web series and when the director referenced Nollywood, she took a moment out of the story to explain, “she is talking about West Africa’s version of Hollywood in Nigeria, also known as Nollywood.” She stated that the explanation might’ve disrupted the flow of the story and Hari pointed out that if he were Nigerian (which he isn’t), he would’ve heard that explanation and felt like the story was not for him, because the segment didn’t assume knowledge that he already had. As I listened, two initial thoughts were:

  • Re: Tupac Shakur episode. I had felt similarly left out, but assumed that it was on me to educate myself about a cultural reference that I was missing. That’s what google is for, isn’t it?
  • Re: Morning Edition segment. Personally, I appreciated the definition of Nollywood because I had never heard of it before. Also, having majored in Sociology in undergrad and then enduring law school classes, I just assumed that defining terms is good practice. But, the Code Switch hosts were right – I wouldn’t have needed an explanation for Hollywood or even Bollywood.

commaThere’s nothing inherently wrong with the explanatory comma. The problem is that it most often is used to provide explanations to white people that people of color already understand. And, because of that, the Code Switch team also mentioned receiving comments by listeners of color about being tired of having to use the “explanatory comma” in their lives constantly; they reported being tired of being racial ambassadors.

Soon after I listened to “explanatory comma” episode, I experienced being on the receiving end of an explanatory comma in real life (not that it was the only time – it was just a time that I was conscious of it). For work, I provide career counseling services to  students and part of that includes arranging on-campus interviews for summer internships. Every year, the affinity groups on campus host an initiative for diverse students to apply and interview on campus for summer opportunities at large firms (the reasons for the necessity of such programs is a topic for another day). After a day of interviews, I was chatting with two first year law students about their experiences and helping them debrief from a fairly stressful day. I was the white career counselor talking with two students of color when one of them said something along the lines of, “I’m so afraid that I won’t get anything out of this opportunity and then people will say, ‘Ah ha!  See? That affirmative action woman isn’t really smart enough to be here [in law school].” At that comment, I made a face – a horrified of-course-no-one-should-say-that-face. The student saw my face and explained to me,

“This is what students of color think about on a regular basis.”

We continued talking for several minutes, but on the inside, I froze. With the explanatory comma podcast episode still in my mind, I realized that I had unwittingly caused the student who I was suppose to be helping to feel like she needed to be a racial ambassador to me. Instead of providing her with comfort, I put her in explanation mode. I paused the conversation and awkwardly apologized. I don’t recall my exact words, but I managed to mumble, “I just want to say that I’m sorry for you needing to explain to me what students of color deal with.” Even though the student accepted my apology, I’ve since been wondering:

  • How did I make her feel when I made a face at her comment? Does it call into question my ability to help her plan her legal career (which is my job)?
  • What did my apology accomplish? Did it make her feel better or did it just make myself feel better?
  • How can I respond better in a similar situation in the future?
  • In what other ways do I unknowingly force students, acquaintances and even friends to be “racial ambassadors”? Or, cause others to feel misunderstood?

White privilege revealed:

  • When I was a law student, I had the benefit of turning to career counselors who looked like me – white skin – and to whom I never had to explain a huge part of my life experience. I never needed to be a racial ambassador.
  • In fact, I never find myself in the situation of being a racial ambassador. The exhaustion and exasperation that comes along with needing to do so is simply not something that I ever need to deal with.
  • I rarely need to google a reference that I hear on TV, the radio, or other form of media.
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