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The podcasts that answered our biggest questions in 2021

CNN logo CNN 12/24/2021 Analysis By Xavier Lopez, Jordan Gass-Pooré and Eryn Mathewson, CNN
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This year had big shoes to fill after 2020's protests sparked by the high-profile killings of Black people opened the floodgates on how racism manifests in America.

The men who killed Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd are now convicted murderers. On Thursday, a former police officer was found guilty of first- and second-degree manslaughter for the fatal shooting of Daunte Wright earlier this year. But in the 18 months  since Floyd's last words were captured on video, what  progress has been made?  Are  protections for people of color getting stronger? Are we any better at talking to each other about race?  

Naturally, as CNN Audio producers, we turned to podcasts for some answers. 

We scoured various shows for big and small analyses as well as fun and serious  conversations about race, culture and politics.  From critical race theory and debates  over defunding police, to the way Dave Chappelle's standup once again put him at odds with many in the Black  transgender community, 2021 was the year Americans were forced to go deeper and think more critically.  

There were too many great podcasts to label which ones were the best -- but here are 10 that helped move crucial conversations forward.

1. Resistance (Gimlet/Spotify) 'F Your Water Fountain'  Hall of Fame Series 

In its second year, "Resistance"  is  back and  stronger than ever with some of the best storytelling about, well, resistance. The show's team really stepped  their game up,  featuring stories about stolen artifacts, religion as an act of defiance, the fallout from the 2020 protests, among others.  The  three-part  "F Your Water Fountain"  Hall of Fame series  stands out because  it  examines activism and tells us it's alright to have fun while doing  it, encouraging  the listener to follow in the spirit of resistance. This series,  which includes the episodes: "F Your Water Fountain," "F Your Bayonet," and "F Your Everything,"  is named after a photo  taken in  the 1950s of Cecil J. Williams, a civil rights pioneer who was photographed in his late teens  drinking water from a "Whites  only" water fountain in South Carolina, looking fly as hell.  All the people featured in these episodes were activists  during the 1950s and  '60s, but their tactics and motivations laid a framework for modern-day protesters  and have had a direct impact on activism to this day. The series also highlights that while resistance is important and serious, it can also be joyous, fun, and you can look  pretty cool while doing it.  

2. Anything for Selena (WBUR Boston NPR/Futuro Studios) 'Big Butt Politics' 

This nine-part series explores the legacy of Selena Quintanilla-Pérez. The "Queen of Tejano music"  was murdered 26 years ago at  the beginning of  her  promising career.  In the episode, "Big Butt Politics," host  Maria Garcia  takes a look at the way Selena influenced  a popular aesthetic and source of controversy today  --  the size of a woman's derriere.  After years of being glamorized in Black  American and hip-hop  culture, more  Americans see the beauty in a big booty. The number of Brazilian butt lift  procedures are rising,  despite the fact that they're not always performed safely or  benefit everyone in the same way.  Garcia argues that the acceptance of this aesthetic has not only contributed to the fame of White and light-skinned  celebrities like Kim Kardashian, Cardi B and Jennifer Lopez, but highlights anti-Black racism in Latino communities.   

3. Feeling Asian (Youngmi Mayer and Brian Park) 'Feeling Asian'   

Perhaps now more than ever, having a community  matters.  It can be a source of healing, of celebration and political context.  After months of watching  members of Asian American communities endure violence during the pandemic, we watched many of them rally and grow even more vocal about anti-Asian hate after the  Atlanta spa shootings  in March. This is why the episode, "Feeling Asian" stayed on our radar. It features an intimate conversation between hosts and comedians Youngmi Mayer and Brian Park about their raw  feelings and reactions to the shootings, how they've been covered by American media, and  their disappointment about  how some of  their  White counterparts  have responded. It's part of an eponymous weekly podcast chat show  that covers a  wide range of topics from sex and dating to the importance of  finding an Asian therapist. 

4. This Land (Crooked Media, in association with Critical Frequency) 'Solomon's Sword' 

© NPR

One of the most talked about podcasts of 2021  focuses on the many ways Native American history impacts the present. The pool of podcasts, especially narrative ones, covering indigenous communities and cultures is small. In its second season, "This Land" examines the Indian Child Welfare Act, one of the most  challenged  laws  of  the past decade.  Host Rebecca Nagle reports on a case that  she's  been following for years about a Native American toddler, the  White couple trying to adopt him, and a  fight for the future of Native American rights. This podcast will no doubt be on many "best of" lists this year because of Nagle's and the team at This Land's storytelling ability. To take a story as complicated as this one, one that is steeped in American Indian  law,  sovereignty issues, and the foster care system, and to make it accessible to a larger audience  is what makes this podcast one of the best pieces of journalism in the past year.   

5. Mississippi Goddamn: The Ballad of Billey Joe (Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting) 'Chapter 5: Star Crossed'  

The US Supreme Court banned anti-miscegenation laws nearly 55 years ago. But social acceptance of the  ban didn't happen overnight and still doesn't sit right with some Americans to this day. Reveal's investigative podcast, "Mississippi  Goddamn" homes in on this and explores  a conversation that is still complex in 2021:  our comfort with Black men dating, marrying and having sex with White women. The seven-part series details the life and untimely death of Billey Joe Johnson Jr., a Black  teenager who was romantically involved with a young White woman in  2008.  He lived and died in Mississippi, which only repealed its anti-miscegenation state laws in 1987. In the episode, "Chapter 5: Star Crossed," host Al Letson  walks us through Billey's relationship with his girlfriend -- their love, their problems, and how some members of  the community felt about it. The storytelling and reporting are compelling. The questions it asks, especially around who and what is considered racist, is haunting. 

© TransLash Media

6. Through the Cracks (WAMU/PRX) 'Relisha Goes Missing'  


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"Missing White Woman Syndrome" -- a phrase credited to the late journalist Gwen Ifill -- became part of the national conversation again this year after Gabby Petito tragically did not return home from a cross -country trip with her  fiancé. Her remains were later found.  The term describes the  disproportionate  media  coverage missing White women  receive in  comparison  to  missing  women  of color.  This can be  frustrating, especially  for  Black, Asian, and indigenous communities, who make up nearly 40% of all reported  missing cases. In 2020,  30% of all reported missing  persons  were Black people. This is  is  why we highlighted the "Through the Cracks" podcast,  which  masterfully narrates the 2014 disappearance of Relisha Rudd from a homeless shelter in Washington, D.C.  Relisha was in second grade at the time. In the episode, "Relisha Goes Missing," host Jonquilyn  Hill  details  the  days leading up to and after the 8-year-old went missing  and  how her community responded.    

7. LOUD (Spotify and Futuro Studios) 'The Zone'  

Some of the  most fun conversations about  race  this year centered around its connection to music. Spotify and Futuro made these connections particularly well in "Loud,"  their new show  documenting the history of Reggaeton. The show is hosted by  the legendary Ivy Queen,  la  Reina (the queen) de  reggaeton  herself. This podcast felt important to highlight in 2021 as reggaeton  gets even more popular internationally. It explains and gives flowers to the Afro-Latino roots of this genre, one that is currently dominated by White-presenting Latinos like  Bad Bunny  and  J Balvin.  In the episode, "The Zone," Ivy traces the roots of this movement to its beginnings in Panama, by way of Jamaica. As the mix of reggae and Spanish  dancehall music took hold,  a new wave emerged.  

 8. Code Switch (NPR) - What It Means to be Latino Series 

Latina, Latino, Latine, Latinx, Hispanic, are all different umbrella terms used to categorize people. But  which is the right one? Well, it's complicated.  Latinos are not a race.  They're a separate demographic that exists outside of race, but also within it. This was one of the big identity discussions of 2021, and Code Switch put together a series of conversations talking about just that. It starts off with one of the illustrious Afro-Latino New Yorkers of late night, The Kid Mero, and then includes radio legend Mario Hinojosa and new radio all-star, Maria Garcia, host of "Anything for Selena," where the two guests  discuss light skin privilege in the Latino community,  as well as the term "person of color,"  and concludes with a discussion about who does and doesn't want to be called  Hispanic  and  why. The series on  Latinidad  gets at some core issues within Latino identity and some of the ways the  catch-all  term can be fraught.  

9. The United States of Anxiety (WNYC) The True Story of Critical Race Theory 

If it's been difficult to keep up with or understand the debates over what critical race theory is or isn't. But at the center of this is how to teach about disparate experiences in our collective American history. The "United States of Anxiety" podcast can help. This weekly show examines history to understand modern-day society and how it could be different. In the episode, "The True Story of Critical Race Theory," host Kai Wright speaks with New Yorker writer, Jelani Cobb about Derrick Bell and the roots of critical race theory. An honorable mention is NPR's "Throughline" podcast, which also examined the debate over teaching race and history by looking at the controversy over the "1619 Project" with author and New York Times journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones.

© Crooked Media/Critical Frequency

10. TransLash Podcast with Imara Jones (TransLash Media) 'Netflix v. The Trans Community' 

The conversation around race and the transgender community was disheartening and  heated this year. So, repeat after me: Transphobic content can lead to real-world violence.  

If  that's not believable, let the numbers do the explaining. This is the deadliest year on record for transgender people. There's been at least 50 transgender or gender non-conforming homicides in 2021, according to the Human Rights Campaign.  

This information is here  because  we -- and Netflix -- need to read it. To provide some context, Dave Chappelle had a Netflix special  that's transphobic. Chappelle's anti-transgender remarks raised protests within  the company's ranks and from activists around the world.  

This episode of TransLash gives the mic to B. Pagels-Minor, a former Netflix program manager who is Black and transgender. They talk to the host of TransLash, Imara Jones, about their firing and Netflix's continued support of Chappelle's special.  

Honorable Mentions 

  • The Red Nation Podcast (Red Nation/Red Media) "Throw Down Unapologetically."   The Red Nation Podcast  is a rare platform that shares critical, left-leaning and unapologetic discussions about indigenous history, politics and culture, by indigenous people. The show is typically hosted by Nick Estes and Jennifer Marley. But in this episode, Marley teams up with Melanie Yazzi (host of the Red Power Hour) to share their hard truths about the Covid-19 pandemic, climate change, and the treatment of indigenous peoples by government officials.

  • Sounds Like Hate (Southern Poverty Law Center/Until 20 Productions) The Unwelcome Part I & II : The Sounds like Hate podcast tackles how Americans feel about the government's response to immigration at the Southern border and where race enters the discussion. In the episodes, "The Unwelcome: Part I & II," hosts Jamila Paksima and Yvonne Latty talk to U.S. Border Patrol agents, vigilante groups, and aid groups about how they address migrants entering Arizona from Mexico.

  • When Diana Met... (CNN) The People: The British royal family and its relationship with race was in more than a few headlines this year. The "When Diana Met..." podcast, hosted by Amintou Sow, looks at Diana's life through the people she impacted. "The People" episode explores Diana's unexpected popularity among Black communities in the UK and abroad.

© WBUR/Futuro Studios
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