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The Code Switch team picks our favorite episodes from 2021

LA Johnson

Ah, fam. Another year is coming to a close — a year that started with an insurrection and feels like it only barely slowed down from there. Lots happened in the world of race: Kamala Harris became the first woman of color to hold the office of vice president; Deb Haaland became the first Native American cabinet secretary. Violence directed at Asian Americans continued and escalated. We saw Juneteenth declared a national holiday at the same time parents across the country were organizing to keep critical race theory from being taught in schools. Multiple, high-profile court cases that centered around race went to trial. And of course, the coronavirus pandemic has continued to illustrate and intensify disparities among different racial groups.

Through it all, Code Switch has tried to help you make sense of the news. We've also tried to help you make sense of yourselves — to better understand how race and identity shape the decisions that we're all making every day.

As we look back, we wanted to share with you some of our favorite episodes from 2021. This list, curated by members of the Code Switch team, showcases the episodes that stayed with us throughout the year, even amidst all the churn:

<em>Wild Rain</em> is author Beverly Jenkins' newest steamy novel.
/ Harper Collins
Harper Collins
Wild Rain is author Beverly Jenkins' newest steamy novel.

Black Kiss-Story: "So much of what we read, reported and wrote over the past almost two years has been unrelievedly depressing. Last February, I was interested in spiking our timeline with a little joy. It was Black History month and Valentine's Day was hard on its Black Kiss-tory! (Thanks Nico Espiritu for the title...) The romance genre is the Rodney Dangerfield of publishing—it gets no respect—but these books and others like it gave us a glimmer of happy during a very unhappy time. Listen, then read!" -Karen Grigsby Bates, correspondent

Screams and Silence: "Hearing about the shootings in Atlanta in March 2021 of 8 people, 6 of them Asian women, sent me into a tailspin of denial and despair. This thoroughly reported episode grounded me in the history and understanding of what had been going on that led to this moment—including incidences of violence against Asians I had never heard of, disputes among Asians in the U.S., and the links between the U.S. colonial project and the shooting." -Kumari Devarajan, producer

The Kid Mero Talks 'What It Means to be Latino': "I listened to this episode before I was a staff member, so I listened as most people do and it's one that's really stuck with me. I love how Kid Mero explores race and identity in such a deep, casual and smart way! It made me think, and STILL lives rent-free in my head!" -Christina Cala, producer

The Rise of the BBL: "The BBL episode was an incredibly personal one for me to hear with its exploration of how we view Black women and their bodies — it always warranted a deeper discussion. My favorite part of the episode was when Hannah Giorgis recognized that humans don't live in a vacuum, so demonizing people who want the procedure isn't necessarily fair when we're heavily influenced by society on how we love our bodies." -Aja Drain, intern

A young Native American woman sits in a museum display case alongside artifacts and human remains.
/ Gabriella Trujillo for NPR
Gabriella Trujillo for NPR
A young Native American woman sits in a museum display case alongside artifacts and human remains.

Skeletons in the Closet: "Kumari worked really hard on this episode, and it shows – it balances humanity and lightness around a really dark story, and really smartly zooms out to broader ideas about science, bureaucracy and colonialism. I actually went with Kumari to stand outside the nondescript Smithsonian storage buildings in Suitland, Md., that contain the human remains. The mundanity of it still sticks with me." -Jess Kung, assistant producer

The Lost Summer: "One of my favorite episodes of this year was The Lost Summer, on the 2001 UN Conference Against Racism in Durban, South Africa—and no, I didn't just choose this episode because my name is in the title. As a journalist in my early twenties, listening to Shereen revisit this deeply formative experience from 20 years ago, when she first encountered so many of the questions about race that we're still unpacking, makes me consider what it means to be doing this work for the long haul. This episode is so distinctly and quintessentially Shereen—it perfectly captures what makes her such a remarkable journalist. In one of her last moments as host of this podcast, Shereen decides to honor her younger self, to relearn how to think in broader, more expansive ways—it fills me with hope and wonder for what lies ahead, and reminds me to cherish my own beginner's mind." -Summer Thomad, assistant producer

Who Runs The World? Kids.: "This was the first full episode of Code Switch that I got to mix, and I was so proud to be given such a fun episode to put together! It's a sound-rich show, it's full of different voices, and it's so cool to hear what the younger generation is thinking about when it comes to how they identify and relate to their heritage." -Sam Yellowhorse Kesler, Code Switch fellow

LA Johnson / NPR

What Is 'Latin Music' Anyway?: "To me, this episode sounds like natural conversations we have on the team — funny, high energy, thoughtful, full of contradictions and inside references, centered around communities of color in all our diversity, and interlaced with musical interludes from Shereen. I love that we got to team up with AltLatino to do it — their coverage of Latin music and culture is so sharp and insightful and endlessly fun to listen to." -Leah Donnella, supervising editor

The Racial Reckoning that Wasn't: "When we first started reporting on the so-called racial reckoning of June 2020, all our team could think about was: How long is this going to last? We were surprised by how many protests for racial justice were happening across the U.S. and how many white people seemed to be onboard the Antiracism Train for the first time — but weren't sure what would happen in the months to come. So I'm really glad we followed up on those questions we had in the summer of 2021: finding that there was in some ways less support for the Black Lives Matter movement among white folks than there had been before George Floyd's death was really clarifying." -Natalie Escobar, assistant editor

Tulsa, 100 Years Later: "Tulsa, 100 years later is my favorite Code Switch episode of 2021 because it was the first time I've been able to really be out in the field with Karen Grigsby Bates. We were able to capture on the ground the issues that Greenwood, a neighborhood many Black Tulsans thrived in 100 years ago, is facing now. And to be honest, those issues haven't changed that much." -Alyssa Jeong Perry, producer

The Folk Devil Made Me Do It: "My favorite episodes make me see something I thought I knew in a totally different way. This episode made clear the deep historical threads that lead back from the current hype over Critical Race Theory. I had never heard the term 'moral panic' before, and this episode illuminated the common elements in these manufactured cultural crises and showed how they tap, and manipulate, deep fears and anxieties." -Steve Drummond, executive producer

All right folks — now we want to hear from you. What were your favorite Code Switch episodes this year, and why? Tweet at us (we're @nprcodeswitch) or email us ( with the subject line "Best Of" and let us know which 2021 Code Switch episode still shapes the way you think about race and identity. You might just see your response in a future post.

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Leah Donnella is an editor on NPR's Code Switch team, where she helps produce and edit for the Code Switch podcast, blog, and newsletter. She created the "Ask Code Switch" series, where members of the team respond to listener questions about how race, identity, and culture come up in everyday life.