With Donald Trump, a candidate who ran on racism, xenophobia, sexism, Islamophobia and a disdain for journalists, heading to the White House, reports by and about the communities most impacted by the president-elect’s rhetoric and proposals are ever-important, making Shereen Marisol Meraji a periodista you need to know.
The Cali-based Puerto Rican-Iranian is a journalist reporting on race for NPR’s Code Switch podcast. Each week, Meraji and her team tackle issues of race, ethnicity and identity that are impacting our country as a whole.
The mixed-race mujer, who prides herself on being vocal, opinionated and informed, approaches these topics from her own intersections as a woman, bi-cultural Latina and daughter of a Muslim immigrant father.
Ahead, the Persian-Rican opens up about her work, why she focuses on race and identity, and the need for nuanced and uncomfortable discussions on these topics in the media and at the dinner table.
How did you get involved with NPR’s Code Switch? How did this podcast start?
Code Switch started as a desk at NPR that was covering race, identity and culture for about three and a half years. We had a blog and Twitter feed that were very popular. The podcast didn’t come about till about March. I was a radio reporter for All Things Considered at the time, so, personally, I was super passionate about doing a podcast. I’m an audio journalist first. I really like audio; it’s an intimate medium – you get the humanity of the person.
What's your objective with the podcast?
The podcast is a place where people can listen to conversations about issues on race that the country is grappling with right now. It’s a place where things can be complicated and messy and where we can work through that through conversation. It’s not a regular reported story with a beginning, middle and end; it’s a conversation that keeps going. We are in murky waters, and it’s an interesting time given the election, Black Lives Matter and immigration. So we are having these conversations and taking little bites of it every week and exploring this with our guests, who range from regular folks, activists and academics. We do this in several ways: sometimes it’s us chopping it up, sometimes we do a really thought-out reported story, sometimes we call academics and talk research and sometimes it’s the people telling their own stories. It’s not an ethnic studies 101 course. We want to get into the messy stuff. We want to attack our own biases. For example, I’m Latina, and there’s a lot of internalized racism and colorism in our own communities, and it’s important to interrogate that. This is a safe space to have those conversations.
Why is a podcast like this important, especially in today’s racial climate?
I think it’s important because there’s a lot of opinions, a lot of vitriol and negativity around these issues that are flying back and forth. At Code Switch, we aren’t having a calm and muted conversation, but it is measured. We are trying to listen to all the people involved. In the podcast, everyone has a say. We don’t necessarily agree with everyone, but it’s a safe space to talk about this, call each other out and rethink stereotypical racist ideas. We also have a lot of knowledge and facts in covering race and culture issues. We can respond to claims with history and dates. I was a raza studies major at San Francisco State, so this is something I studied, allowing me to challenge misinformation with actual facts on the podcast. Because we, as reporters of color are living this, studied it and reported on it for years, it feels measured. It makes sense and is not all just opinions flying around.
As you mentioned, you and your team are all people of color. What do you think you bring to the podcast that’s unique to your mixed cultural and racial identities?
What’s in the zeitgeist right now: my father is a Muslim immigrant from Iran, and my mother is from Vieques, an island of Puerto Rico that has its own political struggles. I can draw from both of their experiences as well as mine growing up mixed and not quite a part of either world. My Puerto Rican side can be super anti-Islam, and my father’s side, which is middle-class, can be classist, looking down on the working-class and uneducated like some on my Puerto Rican side. And I’m holding these identities in California. Even on my own team, we have Adrian Florido, who is Mexican American, and me, a mixed-race Puerto Rican, and I challenge him a lot on his understanding of Latinidad that’s different for Puerto Ricans.
Why are issues of race particularly important to you, Shereen the human, rather than Shereen the journalist-podcaster?
For me, the human, I think it’s because of my mixed background. I never felt like I belonged. I realized, Oh my God! Not only is my mixed identity not represented anywhere, but not even my mom’s or dad’s 100 percent identities are represented. I’m not seeing any stories of what I’m interested in, what I do or who I am, and those stories are important. Never having really belonged, being on the margins while observing everything, that’s made me a natural journalist – not quite a part of something, always observing.
What do you hope listeners get from your segments?
I hope they are encouraged to have the conversations we have on race and identity in their own lives. I hope it encourages people to talk about the taboo, that it’s something that makes Thanksgiving dinner awkward. I hope we provide a template or roadmap for people to have measured and informed conversations about race in their own lives. And I hope it combats misinformation out there about people of color.
How do you bring up your womanhood in these conversations on race, ethnicity and culture?
I feel like I’m drawn to stories where women are the center, and I really focus on the women’s perspectives. But, personally, like as a woman in this industry, I push these conversations. During meetings, I’ll ask if we are being paid equally. I look at how we are treated, who is seen as the lead and who is seen as the supporter. I’m really loud. I’m opinionated. I speak up for myself, and I like to encourage other women of color in journalism to do the same. Our stories matter. We are 50 percent of the world. Come on!
Who are some of the Latina journalists that inspire you?
First, Mandalit Del Barco. She is a Peruvian-Mexican from the Bay Area who has been at NPR for more than 20 years. She brought me into public radio journalism, and now I sit next to her and she still supports me every day. She is a total mentor and friend, and I look up to her in every way, shape and form. Also, Maria Hinojosa. I worked with her early in my career. She’s a badass woman who tells it like it is and has been focusing on telling stories of the Latino community since it wasn’t cool to do it. She was way ahead of the curve. Both of these women have been reporting on the issues for years in the English-language public radio world, oftentimes being the lone Latina or one of just a few doing the work. I’m just so proud of what they’ve accomplished and so inspired by them. They are my heroines, for sure.