Leah Donnella, 26, thinks a lot about identity, both personally and professionally. As a production assistant for Code Switch, the NPR team of journalists covering race and identity, it comes with the territory.
The Radnor, Pa., native chatted with WJW at NPR headquarters about the chance meeting that led to her job, what it means to be Jewish and, of course, identity.
How did you first hear about Code Switch?
I met [someone from Code Switch] at a wedding. I had never heard of Code Switch and he was like, “Oh, you studied race [in college], you would probably be interested in this.” That was right when an internship there was opening and he sent me a link to it and I applied. It was just a very lucky string of coincidences.
Speaking of code switching, how does that play out for you in your life?
I think it happens so constantly that I often don’t even notice it. Some of the identities are easier to turn on and off. Like, everywhere I go, people read me as a woman.
Being Jewish is the sneakiest one. Because people don’t assume it about me. There are times when I have to be like, “Oh wait, I’m part of this group.” And other times when I overhear a lot things I wouldn’t otherwise, because people say anti-Semitic stuff all the time.
Not realizing there’s a Jewish person in the room?
Yeah. It’s a weird thing to overhear a lot and realize this isn’t something everyone is hearing. And to bring it back to the code switching, those are always the moments when I’m like, “Should I keep listening and figure out what this person really thinks?” Or is this a time to say something?
And then, obviously, also being a black woman. There are just always different times when it’s useful to emphasize what I have in common with people and sometimes it’s useful to emphasize what I don’t have in common.
Race is such a touchy subject for a lot of people. As someone who writes about it, what kind of response do you get?
I think the biggest one is a lot of relief. I think it’s nice for a lot of people to read about something and not have to actually talk about it. People are always afraid of asking the wrong question or saying something that’s not fully formed.
There are definitely people who hate it. There are always people who write in and say like, “Why are you making everything about race? This isn’t real. You’re making these things up.” Or “these conversations don’t matter.”
What’s the most common question or response you get?
I think the most common type of question is, “Is this thing racist?” And I guess the complement to that is, “How can I become less racist?” The other big one we get is, “How can you make it easier to talk about race?” And that’s my favorite one because you can’t. I mean, I think the thing that makes it easier is, it’s always going to be uncomfortable and you just have to sit in that.
Has doing this kind of work changed the way you think about your identities?
It’s made me think less about my identity in a way. I grew up in a place that was very white, and so I think, along with my siblings, we all kind of felt like outsiders. And then growing up you’re always thinking about yourself. So, there was a while where I thought my personal identity was so different and unique and special.
And so I think as a product of getting older and being in this space all the time, it’s a matter of realizing this is stuff that everyone — or most people — deal with and think about or wrestle with. And there’s not really anything that special about it. So, in that sense, it’s made me think about my own identity less, but identity writ large more.
I remember reading a post of yours about how, outside of the community you grew up in, you don’t always feel like you can belong in Jewish spaces and people will ask you why you’re there. So, what does Jewishness mean to you now?
I think a big part of Judaism for me is having to share that responsibility for justice in the world. There are all the cultural things, too. Like the things my mom cooks and the holidays we celebrate. It was a weird moment in my life where I was like, “Oh, not everyone listens to klezmer music.”
And I think questioning everything — that was the focus of my Jewish teaching growing up. I’m going to a retreat this weekend, which I’m told the point is to talk about what it means to be Jewish. But I feel like even the process of questioning what it means to be Jewish is a very Jewish thing.
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I find this situation very interesting–Jews of color and members of other ethnicities, and races are adding to the diversity of this country. These differences make America and other areas where they exist, more interesting. It would be a dull world if everybody was the same.