Podcast review: “Code Switch: Fearless Conversations About Race”

Dartinia Hull highlights a "Code Switch" conversation with author Alejandra Oliva. Perhaps paying attention can help us live into the Advent season, she writes.

Hosted by a rotating group of journalists of color

“We live in an age where being ‘a good person’ can sometimes feel like reposting a link online or virtue signaling from the comfort of our own homes. I’ve done it … I see my friends and family and colleagues do it … and I know you all listening do it, too.

“But what would it look like to try to do more?” continues B.A. Parker of NPR’s “Code Switch” podcast. “What does ‘being of service’ look like?”

Parker, one of a rotating group of journalists of color hosting the “Code Switch” podcast, raises these questions in the October 11 show. “Code Switch,” named a top podcast by Apple in 2020, explores “how race affects every part of society — from politics and pop culture to history, food and everything in between.” Recent episodes include a talk with the U.S. Poet Laureate Ada Limón, who speaks about the fluctuations of identity and the necessity of poetry in a burning world; an interview with James Spooner, the founder of the Afropunk Festival, who discusses the post-pandemic world of Black Punk; and bonus episodes on the ignored history of American trans youth.

Parker’s questions about service, faith and ministry arose after reading Alejandra Oliva’s memoir Rivermouth: A Chronicle of Language, Faith, and Migration. A first-gen daughter of Mexican immigrants, Oliva graduated from seminary thinking she knew exactly how to faithfully serve the Spanish-speaking side of her identity and community. During her “Code Switch” conversation, she talks about her time as an interpreter and advocate for people seeking asylum in several U.S. cities and along the U.S.-Mexico border. While freely going back and forth across the border, she began to wonder: What does it mean to help?

Sometimes the work feels meaningful, Oliva says in the book.

Other times, she wonders how much she has in common with other people who come (in this case, to Tijuana) to see, to document, to help — but to also “star” in the helping. Am I “catering to anybody’s needs but my own,” she wonders?

When she returned from the border, she posted a social media status about the work, and how difficult it was, and was hit with the repeated comment: “Thank you for doing this important work.” Which made her cringe. Whose needs did she serve?

All of which should make us think, both in Advent and beyond. Especially beyond. What do people around us, in our communities, our homes, or sanctuaries and shelters, really need?

“Code Switch” should be in your rotation of repeat listening. I’m focusing on this particular episode because it feels poignant during the short season when we’re expected to be more “good” than usual (roughly November 1 – December 25). Is the act of being good just that? An act? A season? Does the status quo return after Advent and Christmas end?

But what doesn’t make Oliva cringe is a sign she saw in a yard: “Don’t look away.” Don’t stop trying, she says. And that, as Advent ends with the birth of a child who eventually called all into community, means Advent’s spirit doesn’t necessarily have to end. Nor does it begin where our vision begins. Paying attention is important. And when you think about it, that might be the beginning of being “good.”