The Story Behind #OUR_racism: Interview with Fumi Kurihara about Podcasting & Pursuing a Ph.D.
What does it look like to challenge the conventional narratives surrounding race, discrimination, and societal norms? Fumi Kurihara, the creator and host of the thought-provoking podcast series #OUR_racism, provides a compelling answer. In this in-depth interview, Fumi takes us on a journey through her exploration of racism, spurred by the 2020 Black Lives Matter movement. She discusses the main goals of her podcast—creating a space for diverse voices to share personal encounters with racism—and emphasizes the importance of intersectionality in understanding these experiences. Fumi challenges the perception of podcasting as not a "real job" and shares the behind-the-scenes work that goes into her episodes, involving laypeople who have never actively explored race-related issues. The interview touches on her academic journey, the transferable skills between academia and other industries, the impact of her unemployment journey had on the creation of the podcast, the challenging perceptions which persist about unconventional career paths, and much more. It is inspiring to note that in the midst of a challenging job application process, Fumi persuaded herself to choose empowerment over potential frustration, channeling her energy into creating a podcast series. This transformative decision turned a period of uncertainty in the job search into a catalyst for meaningful change and self-discovery. As we conclude our conversation, Fumi provides valuable advice for individuals navigating multiple fields, emphasizing the significance of staying curious, embracing humility, and continuously stepping outside one's comfort zone. In her words, "it's vital to continuously step outside your comfort zone, stay curious, accept that you don't know everything, and embrace humility about what you know and what you don't."
Interview by Sorina Matthey de l'Endroit, Ph.D.
Q1. Thank you for taking part in the Persuasive Discourse interview series. As we begin our conversation, could you please offer a brief description and highlight some of the goals for your podcast series, #OUR_ racism, which you both produce and host?
Thank you for inviting me to discuss my work. It's a great opportunity to reflect upon my journey which began in 2020.
#OUR_racism is a podcast that delves into the various forms of racism experienced around the world through personal stories and reflections on lived experiences. In each episode, individuals share their personal encounters with race-related issues with an emphasis on intersectionality. We aim to explore how factors such as gender, sexuality, religion, socioeconomic background, age, and other aspects that shape our identities and lives contribute to our experiences and reflections on racism.
It's important to note that the series doesn't aim to provide definitive answers. Instead, it serves as a platform for collaborative exploration, helping us better understand concepts like race, racism, and the often unclear distinctions between stereotypes, xenophobia, jokes, and racism.
One of the goals of this podcast is to encourage listeners to reflect on their subconscious biases and consider these biases in their daily lives to become more conscious of their explicit and implicit roles in perpetuating racism in various contexts, such as in the workplace and public spaces. I hope that the listeners of this podcast will recognize the ways in which their (in)actions may affect strangers and friends from different backgrounds alike.
Another goal is to make the subject of racism more accessible to a wider audience, namely, by bridging the gap between those deeply engaged in the subject and those less engaged. When I was developing the series, I looked at different podcasts related to racism and discovered many existing podcasts were quite technical and often catered to advocates fighting against racism. These discussions often assumed a certain level of knowledge about the subject, making it challenging for someone like me, who had no prior understanding, to join in. Additionally, the subject of racism is deeply sensitive. I wanted to ensure that everyone, regardless of their knowledge on race-related issues, would find it more accessible and feel more comfortable discussing it.
Another noteworthy aspect is that I primarily engage with laypeople who have never actively explored or contemplated upon race-related issues before. I can elaborate on this aspect further later on.
Q2. What pivotal experience or moment during your journey towards understanding racism convinced you that starting this podcast could be a persuasive tool for raising awareness and inspiring change regarding issues of racism and discrimination?
There's a long answer and a short answer to this question.
For the long answer, perhaps we can direct people to the first episode of my podcast because it contains my story and reflections on racism, and why I started this podcast (link here).
The shorter version of the story is that my idea for this series originated in 2020 during the Black Lives Matter movement. Before that, I never really considered racism as my primary concern because I had grown up with the belief that racism was mainly an issue between Black and White people. This perspective had been instilled in me through my upbringing and conditioning.
At the time of the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests, I was in Switzerland, and it was the first time I heard stories of racism outside the U.S.. Growing up in Japan, most discussions about racism were framed from a U.S.-American-centric perspective. It was a turning point for me as I began to realize how certain situations, like people switching streets when walking in the dark or avoiding sitting next to someone in public transportation, were common experiences for People of Color.
That’s when I started to question and reflect upon my own actions and inactions, and realized I didn't understand what racism was at all. Many people were talking about “being anti-racist” and “supporting People of Color”, but I felt that I couldn't be truly anti-racist without a clear understanding of racism itself.
So, I embarked on a journey to talk to people with diverse backgrounds and gain a better understanding of what racism is or could be, how it manifests in everyday life, how it affects me, and how I contribute to it.
Q3. Who are your main target audiences for the podcast?
My podcast is intended for people interested in the subject of race-related issues and those who want to learn more about it. That being said, it may sound unrealistic to some, but my target audience is really everybody. I believe everyone can benefit from it, whether they are children, teenagers, or adults. Each episode delves into our subconscious biases, which we all possess. The point of this podcast is to explore how racism is connected to the ways we've been conditioned. We perceive and understand the world based on our upbringing in our families and societies, which shapes our subconscious biases. Often, we're not even aware of these biases. However, when you listen to the interviewees' stories and reflections, you start questioning your own behavior: "Have I done that? Have I said that before?" So, regardless of your age or background, everyone can gain something from the podcast.
But I'd like to highlight two key points. First, for those who have experienced racism, this podcast is valuable because it provides the language and expressions needed to articulate their experiences. The speakers offer the linguistic tools to make sense of these experiences. I've personally benefited from this as well. I didn't grow up with the knowledge and tools to make sense of my own experiences. But speaking with and listening to over 40 participants has given me the language I need to do that because many have expressed things I couldn't put into words till now. Acquiring these terms and expressions has improved my ability to articulate and engage on the subject.
Second, the series is also relevant for those who may have “unintentionally” acted as perpetrators. By listening to my podcast, people will realize that one can be both a victim and perpetrator of racism simultaneously. I openly discuss my own experiences as both a victim and a perpetrator, which is why I provocatively call myself a racist in my podcast.
Q4. Could you elaborate on your initial perception when you believed that “racism was not” your “issue”?
My initial perception was rooted in the fact that many discussions about racism were primarily U.S.-American centric. This perspective emphasized a particular history of racism, one that revolved around overt acts such as shootings, hence creating a hierarchy of experiences. Initially, I saw racism as a problem that was associated with extreme events like police violence or groups like the Ku Klux Klan, and I didn't consider it as something that I personally needed to address.
However, as I engaged with people from diverse backgrounds, including Central and Eastern Europeans, I came to understand the constructed nature of this narrative. Living in Switzerland and having connections in Germany exposed me to the experiences of, for example, Eastern Europeans who undoubtedly faced various forms of racism. Some resort to changing their names to improve job prospects, navigate application processes, or secure housing.
One striking example came from a Bulgarian law student in Germany who noticed that all the cases in their law textbooks involving car theft featured Bulgarians. This perpetuated harmful stereotypes and contributed to societal discrimination. This realization led me to emphasize the importance of considering different contexts and intersectionality in our discussions about racism. Our current understanding of racism is limited, and we must strive to uncover the various manifestations and layers of racism worldwide.
I believe it's essential to recognize that racism isn't limited to extreme events, and we shouldn't wait for such incidents to prompt discussions. This issue is interconnected with broader societal problems, much like the connection between sexual harassment and deeper, ingrained issues. We need open and ongoing conversations to address the complexities of racism effectively.
Q5. Why did you choose the podcast format for your project?
There are two primary reasons for selecting the podcast format.
First, racism is a sensitive subject that many people find uncomfortable discussing. Conversations often lead to defensiveness because acknowledging one's role in racism involves introspection and admission of wrongdoing, which can be difficult. To avoid confrontations and encourage self-reflection, I decided to create a space where people could listen to others' stories privately, reflect on them, and choose when to engage in discussions at their own pace. This format allows for a more open and non-confrontational approach to addressing the topic.
The second reason is practicality. Most of my speakers, including myself, are laypeople, not experts or activists. A podcast format allows individuals to speak without revealing their identities, making them more comfortable sharing their experiences. People are often more open to discussion when their faces are not shown, and it's easier to find willing participants for the project.
Additionally, many existing podcasts addressing racism tend to cater to like-minded individuals, essentially preaching to the choir. I wanted to create a platform where people with varying viewpoints, including those who may not see their experiences as racism, can express their reflections and opinions. It's important to recognize that not everyone wants to label their experiences as racism, and this diversity of perspectives is valuable. The podcast format essentially serves as a space for candid, honest opinions, offering both listeners and speakers alike a safe, hidden space to engage in meaningful conversations.
Q6. Creating and running a podcast involves a significant amount of work and a lot of time commitment. Can you describe how you manage the various aspects of your podcast production, from reaching out to participants to publishing and promoting the episodes?
When it comes to the podcast's content, it's a one-person operation. I take care of everything from reaching out to participants, conducting interviews, transcribing episodes, adding voiceovers and music, publishing, creating quotes and audio clips for social media, the list goes on.
In 2022, I began collaborating with the Competence Center for Diversity and Inclusion (CCDI) at the University of St. Gallen, where I'm currently pursuing my Ph.D. They've been instrumental in helping with the podcast's outreach. Their extensive network allows for broader advertising and increased outreach for the episodes. Moreover, a close colleague of mine from the CCDI also assists in connecting me with potential participants due to their extensive network.
However, it's important to note that finding laypeople is a significant challenge. While it's relatively easy to locate individuals working professionally in diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I), my target speakers are those who are not part of this sector. At the outset, when I started the series, I relied on personal connections. I reached out to my friends who then reached out to their own contacts, creating a chain of connections.
The other form of invaluable assistance I receive is from translators, all volunteers and some professionals, who translate episodes into German, French, and Italian, the three main official languages in Switzerland. While my initial goal was to have the podcast available in as many languages as possible to make the subject accessible to a global audience, practical considerations led to this approach. I do still hope that once I have more capacity, I’ll expand to more languages!
Q7. Have you encountered any challenges in translating your interviews into the three different languages of Switzerland you mentioned, French, Italian, and German?
As mentioned earlier, many discussions about race and racism are predominantly centered on the U.S.-American, Anglophone perspective. It has been a fascinating exercise for my translators to work on some of these episodes. They have approached me with concerns about the absence of certain words in their languages, such as "racism". Take the example of the German language: the literal and direct translation of the term "race" carries a different meaning and historical connotation than in English due to the Nazi regime, which leads to avoidance of the topic. Similar challenges exist in French and Italian.
This raises the question of how knowledge is produced and who produces this knowledge. Language and vocabulary play a crucial role in shaping our understanding of issues, and it becomes evident that many languages lack the necessary vocabulary to discuss matters related to race and racism due to historical connotations.
Q8. Can you talk more about your choice to interview laypeople?
When it comes to interviewing laypeople, what's intriguing is the diversity that emerges in the way people express themselves. My speakers come from various educational and professional paths. Some have attended university, and some have not. Some have studied the social sciences while others have not. The difference in their levels of analysis and how they express themselves is striking, shaped by their unique journeys. What this reveals is that, regardless of their backgrounds, each individual engages on this subject in a different way, offering a tapestry of expressions and language to describe daily manifestations of racism.
Q9. As already mentioned, you run a podcast and at the same time, you are a doctoral student at University of St. Gallen. What is it like to be juggling two, what appear to be, very different jobs?
I see five key similarities between the two jobs:
First, even though they may seem different on the surface, they share a common trait: they both demand a significant amount of time and energy. Despite this commitment, they each offer their unique rewards.
Second, they both involve storytelling, albeit in different forms. In academia, I work extensively on research papers, striving to communicate complex ideas to a specific scholarly audience. With the podcast, I focus on allowing participants to share their personal stories. And you know, the best thing is when my participants feel good when they share their stories, because oftentimes it is the first time they hear themselves speak about the subject, and they say, “Oh my gosh, it's so therapeutic!” And it brings me a lot of joy, to do something that actually helps people.
Third, both realms require mastering the language of their respective fields. In academia, this entails conducting literature reviews and using established terminology while developing a unique voice. Similarly, in addressing racism, I learn to navigate the subject's discourse and apply it to my life, enhancing my ability to express myself.
Fourth, both areas involve the challenge of addressing diverse audiences. In academia, you need to consider various schools of thought and methodologies and adapt your writing to resonate with scholars of different backgrounds and interests. Similarly, when speaking at race- and diversity- related events as a podcaster, I must tailor my message to the specific audience, a task that demands careful consideration.
Fifth, the work I do in my Ph.D. program and my focus on racism often complement and inform each other. My work on racism, which revolves around the question of power, provides me with a valuable lens through which I can gain insights into academia, be it through conferences, literature reviews, or the creation of scholarly papers, unveiling previously unseen patterns and dynamics.
Q10. In your experience, do you notice some transferable skills that you are gaining in one domain (i.e., as a doctoral researcher) that you see as being useful when used in the other work domain you are engaging in (i.e., as a founder, business leader/creator) and vice versa?
I've always found the prevailing narrative in the industry that tends to undervalue individuals with Ph.D.s as overly academic, too research-oriented, and potentially unfit for practical industry work, quite puzzling. In fact, I wholeheartedly disagree with this perspective. Of course, it’s important to acknowledge that the skills one acquires during their Ph.D. depends on the field and the specific area of study one pursues, but in general, people often underestimate the array of skills that one acquires during their PhD journey.
For one, among the many transferable skills developed, being a self-starter stands out. I believe you serve as a testament to this notion, Sorina, with your work on the Persuasive Discourse. In the world of academia, you essentially become, or are, your own boss. There are no constant reminders of deadlines, it is up to you to manage your time effectively. While there might not always be hard deadlines, external ones like journal and conference submission deadlines do exist. This situation fosters a strong sense of self-discipline and responsibility, qualities that are highly valuable in any field.
In my case, I find myself juggling multiple responsibilities with minimal supervision. Whether it's managing my podcast or progressing through my Ph.D., the ownership of my work rests squarely on my shoulders. However, there are moments when I wish for the structure of a traditional job where a boss provides clear guidance and ensures that weekends and holidays are a given. In academia, weekends and holidays are self-regulated, and that's where self-discipline and time management skills come into play.
Another valuable skill I've honed during my Ph.D. journey is the ability to embrace mistakes. I've personally struggled with perfectionism and a tendency to overthink, especially when conducting data analyses, writing literature reviews and papers in general. There are numerous ways to approach these tasks, which can be overwhelming. But, I've come to understand that making mistakes is an essential part of the creative process. This skill of not fearing mistakes is highly transferable and valuable in professional settings.
Additionally, I'd like to highlight the ability to accept criticism and rejection as a critical skill developed in academia. It's not a realm where acceptance is guaranteed; it often involves a continuous cycle of writing, receiving (only) criticisms, and rewriting until you feel almost numb. Overcoming this process requires resilience, which is a valuable skill applicable in many other contexts.
Moreover, academia nurtures multitasking abilities, research skills in locating reliable information and sources, and the art of fact-checking. Even as a self-taught podcaster, I've ventured into finding dependable sources to improve my podcasting skills. In essence, both soft and hard skills gained in academia are transferable, with the caveat that their relevance depends on the subject area, as we mentioned earlier.
In summary, the skills acquired during a Ph.D. journey extend far beyond the academic realm, offering a wealth of valuable tools applicable to various professional fields.
Q11. How do you approach the creative process in your work, particularly when working on a long-term project like a podcast? Can you share a specific example of how your approach has evolved or shifted over time?
When it comes to podcasts or the type of work you and I are both engaged in, one important aspect is allowing it to evolve organically. I remember when I first started my podcast series, I had a multitude of ideas swirling in my head and I was consumed by questions like, "What if it goes in this direction?" or "What if it goes in another direction?" It was easy to get caught up in a whirlwind of uncertainties. However, dwelling on these concerns can be paralyzing and hinder progress. So, I made a conscious decision to let it take on a life of its own.
Over the years, as I occasionally revisit some of my earlier episodes, I can see how certain themes have waxed and waned. This is natural and reflective of the ebb and flow of life itself. As a host, I am human, and my interests and perspectives naturally evolve. For instance, I recall a period when I delved into the question of where to draw the line between stereotypes and racism, and it became a recurring theme in several episodes. But while the focus of my series has shifted over time, there is always a common thread that connects the conversations.
So, in general, my approach is to not overthink things from the outset. Instead, I embrace the idea of letting the work take on a life of its own. This philosophy can be applied to any endeavor. It's important to recognize that every project is a living entity that can surprise you along the way. Embracing these surprises is what ultimately makes the journey worthwhile and rewarding.
Q12. Can you tell me more about how the experience of job hunting in Switzerland has influenced your perspective on career and life choices?
I started this podcast while I was in the midst of a job hunt. Alongside the other reasons I've mentioned, job hunting was a significant driver for launching my podcast. My permit in Switzerland had expired, and I was desperately seeking employment. I had a choice: continue applying for jobs and feel miserable from the pile of rejections, or engage in something meaningful. I opted for the latter.
I'm profoundly grateful for this period of unemployment, even though I recognize the privilege I have in saying that. It allowed me to pause, reflect on my life up to that point, and consider my future. I realized that from a young age, I had followed a predetermined path, much like being on a train track. I had gone through kindergarten, elementary school, middle school, high school, and university, ultimately earning my master's degree. However, for the first time, I had the opportunity to ask myself, "What do I really want to do?"
At that point, I was 28 years old, and I contemplated life in terms of time. While I don't want to suggest a fixed retirement age, it was a useful perspective. If I hypothetically retired at 60 or 70, I had already completed a third of my life. This realization pushed me to consider that certain societal structures might limit our pursuit of passions. The traditional model of working in a private company and following a standard career trajectory often restrains us.
Therefore, I decided to find a job that would cover my rent and, ideally, be enjoyable, while also dedicating time to something I truly believed in. I think it's important for people to recognize that certain systems can hold them back from pursuing their passions. The world is evolving, and while traditional career paths persist, they are no longer the only option.
One thing that's become clear to me is that if you're passionate about something, waiting for the "right time" might mean never pursuing it. You are responsible for your own life, and you can't expect opportunities to be handed to you. I've come to appreciate that social media and the internet play a significant role in our interconnected world. When I started, I was virtually on my own, not knowing who would listen or how successful the podcast would become.
However, over time, people discovered my podcast through platforms like Instagram and LinkedIn. They reached out for conversations, collaborations, and more. It's a testament to the unpredictability of life's journey. If you have a passion, don't hesitate to pursue it. Let it take on a life of its own, and embrace the adventure it leads you on.
Q13. What are your views on the value that people place on jobs linked to podcasting and YouTubing given how many people think that they are not “real” jobs?
With our similar backgrounds, perhaps you can relate to the idea that the work we're engaged in, especially in my case with podcasting, isn't always perceived as a conventional job. The perceived value of a job, such as that of a podcaster, is something I addressed in a LinkedIn post. It's been a fascinating experience navigating the world of podcasting within an academic community, which, depending on the specific field and community, can be quite conservative.
Despite the common belief that academia is open-minded, it often becomes more conservative as you ascend the hierarchy. With this conservatism comes certain established notions of what constitutes a legitimate job, profession, or career. Unfortunately, in such circles, unconventional roles like podcasting or YouTubing don't fit the mold because they don't follow the traditional educational path: there's a lack of formal degrees associated with these roles, leading to a lack of recognition.
This lack of recognition often translates into disrespect, and it's a cycle that feeds into broader discussions, including those about racism. The idea of what defines a 'real job' is closely linked to monetization. Ironically, while those holding more traditional roles receive pay, creators like podcasters may not. It's important to remember that people will always have opinions and might criticize your choices. The key is to stay true to your beliefs and persist in what you're passionate about.
Q14. What do you envision for the future of your current podcast?
It's going to be quite intriguing as I move forward with my podcast because I still hold onto this grand vision. Initially, when I launched this platform, my goal was to create a space that delves into not only racism but also other topics we as a society still have difficulty engaging on, such as mental health and unconventional relationships like open relationships. My aspiration has been to craft an extensive repository of diverse experiences where people can not only engage in conversations but also share their artistic expressions, be it through music, pictures, paintings, or other creative outlets. This is because not everyone can articulate their thoughts through writing or speaking; we all express ourselves best in different ways. While I have all these ideas, the realization is that they require a substantial amount of time and effort, something I currently do not have as I am also juggling a Ph.D. on the side.
Despite the challenges, I'm genuinely excited about this project, which I feel I can carry forward for as long as possible.
Q15. What advice do you have for individuals looking to navigate multiple fields and wear ‘multiple hats’ in their career?
Navigating different worlds and wearing multiple hats has been the story of my life and a significant part of my journey. I can't stress enough the importance of keeping an open mind and not confining yourself to just one path. Trust that everything you experience will eventually come together to form a unique tapestry. I've always been someone with a wide range of interests and, honestly, I didn't always know exactly what I wanted to do in life. Unlike some of my friends who had clear career goals early on, I took a more exploratory approach, trying out various part-time jobs such as translation, event organization, and even retail at Banana Republic.
At the time, these roles seemed entirely unrelated, but I've come to realize that they all contributed to my skill set and personal growth. The diverse experiences taught me different skills that later proved valuable. Now, my work encompasses my Ph.D. and my podcast, and at first glance, they may seem worlds apart. Yet, as I mentioned earlier, I've discovered significant commonalities and ways in which they complement each other.
There's a prevailing notion that one should be an expert in a single niche, but I strongly disagree. In an increasingly interdisciplinary world, having a range of skills and the ability to wear multiple hats is an asset. It enables you to bring different perspectives to the table. Another reason for embracing this approach is the opportunity to be part of various silos or communities. By immersing yourself in different environments, you expose yourself to diverse backgrounds and communities with their unique languages, not just spoken languages, but the ways of thinking and communicating.
For instance, I began my career in international affairs, particularly focusing on global health, which revolved around organizations like the WHO, Global Fund, Gavi, and other UN-related organizations. I've since shifted gears to the field of information systems. These two worlds have their own distinct languages and audiences, but they often discuss similar topics, such as digital health. It's unfortunate that these discussions don't always intersect.
This is where the importance of having a foot in different places becomes useful. It allows you to gain a more holistic understanding by connecting the dots between seemingly disparate areas. It's easy to fall into the comfort zone of your own silo, a habit that becomes more entrenched as you get older. However, it's vital to continuously step outside your comfort zone. I personally transitioned from working in international affairs to diving into information systems at the age of 28, and it was a challenging process. It was challenging because I had to learn everything, from its literature and jargons and faces in the field, from scratch.
Despite all these challenges, though, it's been incredibly rewarding. It has broadened my perspective, enabling me to see issues from various angles due to the language and insights acquired in this new domain.
So, my advice is simple: don't become complacent in your comfort zone. Stay curious, accept that you don't know everything, and embrace humility about what you know and what you don't. This mindset will help you build meaningful relationships with people from diverse backgrounds, expand your horizons, and, most importantly, lead you to grow and become more human.
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Research Associate & Doctoral Candidate
Institute of Information Management, University of St. Gallen
Founder at #OUR_
Producer & Host of #OUR_racism | Switzerland
Illustrations: The main article photo was taken while Fumi Kurihara addressed the topic of "privilege" during her talk at the at the 2022 DE&I Week, which was organized by the Competence Centre for Diversity and Inclusion (CCD), at the University of St. Gallen (link here). The profile photo was made available by Fumi Kurihara.