White supremacy, doing journalism, and the explanatory comma

Gene Demby and Shereen Marisol Meraji chat with Hari Kondabolu about the dangers of centring whiteness in exposition.

Code Switch is a great NPR podcast.1 I recently re-listened to an episode they first published in 2016 which is a an examination of explanatory commas.

An explanatory comma is a brief aside that explains, or gives context for, a word or phrase. In a sentence these kinds of phrases are surrounded by commas, or sometimes parentheses. In a podcast, it can be a longer aside, or even a segment.

This particular Code Switch episode on the explanatory comma is itself a kind of extended explanatory comma, or perhaps an interrogatory comma, because Demby and Marisol Meraji take time to really discuss and think about their own discomfort with this practice.

The thing is that explanatory commas are a common practice in journalism, and high value is placed on exposition.

However, journalism in North America is taking place in a dominant culture shaped by whiteness and white supremacy. Journalists, including racialized minority journalists, will find themselves doing a lot of explanatory commas for white people. And for programs that have racialized minority audiences, this practice can seem very out of place and can be alienating.

But also, non-white audiences aren’t monolithic. So explanatory commas can be helpful to segments of racialized minority audiences as well.2

So the best way forward is not obvious. This is great listening. And it’s something I want to think more about.

Gene and Shereen ask how much cultural context to give when talking about race and culture. So, how much context should you have to provide? Comedian Hari Kondabolu, co-host of the podcast Politically Re-Active, deals with these questions regularly, both in his stand-up routine and on his podcast.
“Hold Up! Time For An Explanatory Comma,” Code Switch, NPR

A version of this article first appeared at Sherwin’s personal site.

  1. Hosts Gene Demby and Shereen Marisol Meraji are always excellent and this interview with Hari Kondabolu is .
  2. And since whiteness is already centred in terms of power, it’s sometimes appropriate to explicitly centre whiteness in exposition.