Our National Conversation About Conversations About Race, with its knowingly obtuse title, is one of this year's best new podcasts. Its multiracial panel of discussants tackles current events and broader issues that feature race relations at their core. Given the serious nature of these topics and each discussant's passion for them, these conversations can become contentious, with people preferring to speak candidly instead of erring on the side of polite consensus-seeking. Despite this, everyone treats each other with respect, and I've already learned a lot by listening.
Of the three hosts, Raquel Cepeda's background is the one that is the most unlike my own, so it's been especially interesting for me to listen to her takes on these topics. As a Dominican-American journalist with bona fides in the hip-hop world, Cepeda wrote Bird of Paradise: How I Became Latina to both tell the story of how she survived a difficult childhood to become who she is today and to explore her recent efforts to better understand her own roots and sense of cultural identity. With an upbringing that was split across two countries and several dysfunctional households, it's easy to see how these were difficult issues for her to grapple with.
I am still working through the first half of this book, which has so far served as a harrowing tale of withstanding domestic abuse as a young child. Cepeda's parents (and stepparents) are described as being either violent philanderers or passive figures that generally acquiesced to that behavior. After divorcing her father after catching him in an act of infidelity, Cepeda's immigrant mother (Rocio) soon found herself in a more dire situation, marrying a man who beat her regularly and left Cepeda in a constant state of fear in her own home. Eventually, Cepeda moved back in with her father, who forced her to become proficient in a variety of activities that she had no interest in while also beating her.
On top of that, her father also hurled verbal abuse at her for being a Dominican-American, frequently claiming that she would amount to nothing and end up on welfare like other people with her skin tone. Her race also made it difficult for her to fit in at school; the tennis and piano lessons that were forced upon her by her father made the kids think that she was attempting to "act white,' and they were also flummoxed by her affinity for "black things" (like hip-hop). Teenagers can be unknowingly cruel to each other in many different ways, but while growing up, I was never harassed for my gender or for my whiteness. It must be immensely frustrating to deal with society throwing those things in your face on a daily basis.
Cepeda's writing style is clear and easy to understand, and sometimes coldly matter-of-fact, indicating a sense of emotional numbness that must have developed after being a victim of abuse for so many years. At the same time, her writing is also accentuated with a variety of Spanish phrases, swear words and slang, lending this book a more distinct voice. I'm definitely going to keep reading, and having a stronger sense of where Cepeda comes from will likely make listening to that podcast an even richer experience.