Rhiannon’s Interview with Andrea Duncan-Mao

Introduction

Andrea Duncan-Mao is a 51-year-old woman born in San Luis Obispo, CA, and grew up in Morro Bay, CA. She now resides in Harlem, New York City, with her two kids and husband. Andrea is a Senior Producer with National Public Radio Station WNYC in New York City. She is biracial, and her ethnicity is African American, Scotch-Irish, and German. 

Early Life:

Andrea was raised in a predominantly white town. The concept of race wasn’t a large part of her upbringing. Her father was one of the very few people of color within Morro Bay, and she wasn’t exposed to diversity until she moved to college. However, when going out in public with her mom versus her dad, she noticed that she was being treated and looked at differently.

When I went with my dad it seemed like people stared at us whereas like when I go with my mom it was like sort of a liberating feeling because no one seemed to pay us any mind but there was always just kind of like and so I didn’t that was sort of my first sort of sense that something was different when I was with my dad compared to when I was with my mom.”

Andrea was brought up in a household similar to what bell hooks describes as feminist parenting, as the breadwinner of her family was her mother. Andrea’s home life went against the parent patriarchy, where the female stayed at home, and the father worked. In hook’s words, “Ending patriarchal domination of children, by men or women, is the only way to make the family a place where children can be safe, where they can be free, where they can know love” (bell hooks). Both parents worked, but her father did more of the helping with Andrea, and because Andrea was able to grow up in a household that went against the patriarchy, she was able to see that women are just as capable as men to work and lead a family. 

Andrea attended UC Berkeley for college, and at this point, before arriving in Berkeley, she never experienced diversity. The first black male that she met other than her father was at college.

“It was the first time that I actually had made friends that were of color like multiple friends and it was kind of when I realized that I was of color.”

Andrea looked back at her childhood and noticed why she felt different. She never felt that she was discriminated against in Morro Bay but understood that there was a reason as to why she felt the way she did.

No one ever asked me anything it was kind of like they just pretended I was just like them and I think in some ways like it was very well-meaning and maybe that was like how it should be but I think there was a sort of [pause] you know there was an implied understanding that I was different in my family it was different but it was like no one felt comfortable talking about it. So, that I think was the problem that no one felt comfortable addressing the topic of race but I think it was more because they didn’t want to seem racist whereas like now I think there are either people who just don’t care if they seem racist or there’s just more of an openness to a discussion which I think is positive, but at that time nobody talked about anything and so when I got to Berkeley and it was sort of like this like awakening for me because like you had all these like there was like the Black Student Union and Black Fraternities and like dorms where Black people lived.”

Andrea’s experience in Morro Bay opened her eyes to how uncomfortable people were when speaking about race. As she stated above, “there was an implied understanding that I was different in my family.” Still, because people didn’t speak about race, it wasn’t until she moved to Berkeley when she understood why her family was seen differently. I believe that Glenn Ligon’s painting “I Feel Most Colored When I Am Thrown Against A Sharp White Background” relates to what Andrea felt when looking back at her childhood. Andrea’s self-realization in college came to life when being surrounded by people of color. She was around people who didn’t ask her questions about why her hair was a certain way or why her skin was darker than theirs. After being in Berkeley and being introduced to Black student life, Hip-Hop, “and all these like cool black people,” she began to realize that this is where she belongs.

To hear more about Andrea’s early life listen here:

World Events:

Andrea lived in Brooklyn Heights, New York, during 9/11. She witnessed the two twin towers fall.

I didn’t realize the sort of like enormity of the event at the time and that shaped my worldview in a lot of ways in that like you kind of are like ‘oh my god’ there are really people out there that will do these crazy things and who would have ever thought that this could happen like someone would hijack a plane and like willingly crash it you know I mean like I think like that just the thought of like that kind of like devotion to a cause that’s so ill-conceived was like really shocking and I think you know really like shook your sense of security, but then it was like the way things evolved from there which was like our policies about Muslims and our crazy war against um, the people who didn’t do it in Iraq and this embrace of Saudi Arabia and there’s just like all this craziness that came after it like that definitely changed me too ’cause it’s like as you know there were shoo- school shootings and mass shootings and there’s been no action to curb those but like you know obviously this was a horrible event but we reacted so quickly and I just I don’t know. It just made me really start to question like wow I didn’t realize there were so many deep-seated biases against people of another faith or another lifestyle or um, then I always knew like there were issues with black people white people in the history of this country but when it was really like this really strong anti-Muslim sentiment was really like discouraging to me.” 

Andrea’s observation of what occurred after 9/11 and the superiority complex that Americans hold over countries such as Iraq and Saudi Arabia connects with Lila Abu-Lughod’s piece “Do Muslim Women Really Need Saving.” In America, there is this underlying belief that Americans are better than everyone else and that they need to “save” people who are from different cultures and or don’t look like them. Especially after 9/11, we can see that the United States of America started the war and prejudice against people who identify as Muslim. Westerners cannot fix everything, and we cannot assume that someone is a terrorist if they identify as Muslim. The USA has not taken accountability for the hundreds of school shootings that have occurred, but with 9/11, our country acted quickly to turn everyone against the middle east. As Abu-Lughod states, “Our task is to critically explore what we might do to help create a world in which those poor Afghan women, for whom ‘the hearts of those in the civilized world break, can have safety and decent lives’ ” (Abu-Lughod). Rather than turn our backs against marginalized groups, we must learn to see the injustices that have occurred in these marginalized groups and listen to their stories rather than silence them.

To hear more about Andrea’s experience with 9/11 listen here:

Working Years:

Andrea entered the media world when she moved to New York City in the early 1990s. Andrea made a large impact in the communications world at MTV because she was one of the only women of color working there. She would work with large and upcoming R&B artists such as Jay-Z, Ja-Rule, Ashanti, etc. Her first job was at Vibe magazine, where she was fortunate because the staff she worked with were extremely diverse, and it wasn’t until she went to work at MTV where she noticed how diverse the environment truly was at Vibe. Andrea felt that she was lucky that she started her media career at Vibe magazine because many people of color were entering into media careers at that time. Andrea stated that working at MTV actually worked in her favor because the environment was not diverse; she could connect to people of color.

I think that’s actually why it worked that like the craziest rappers of all time wanted to talk to me because they were like oh OK she’s sort of like us like you might not sound like us but like she kind of looks like us, she gets it. It got to be- it was pretty exciting like it got to be like anyone who was coming up was like, so we want that girl with the dark hair to interview us it was known as like ‘shorty with the short hair’ short brown hair so it was like they knew that they were somebody if I interviewed them at MTV so that was kind of like where it was really exciting and so I think it helped me because of that, that was the era where a lot of people of color were very much becoming stars in the music industry and so it was really helpful that I was part of this hip-hop media that helped support this whole huge music industry moment you know.”

Andrea created a space at MTV, where artists such as Jay-Z could connect with her. Her involvement at MTV helped to support the rise in Hip-Hop music and support people of color.

To hear more about Andrea’s experience in the media world listen here:

Advice:

Andrea’s advice for any women of color entering the media world is that we face a time where companies are looking to diversify their employees. As a lighter-skinned person of color, Andrea understands that she has a set of privileges and that some of her experiences may not be the same as others, but what has helped her in her career and personal life is that she has never shied away from being who she is.

“I know that I am a light skinned black person, I know that I am less threatening to people, I know I sound different, I know my name is not hard to pronounce, I know there’s a lot of things where I have my own set of privilege as a woman of color and so I understand that, so I know that it may not be as easy for someone who is darker.”

Andrea explains that rather than live up to someone else’s expectations, you must be authentic to yourself. Being who you truly are is attractive and will be attractive to the person who wants to hire you.

So I would say for a person of color like you know you don’t have to play any type of role either that you design yourself or you think they’re expecting to see. If you’re sort of your authentic self and I would say that to any person whether they’re a person of color or not, just be who you are.”

To hear more about Andrea’s advice on entering the media world listen here:

My Perspective:

After speaking with Andrea, I felt incredibly inspired. Learning about her early life and her working experiences that helped expand the Hip-Hop music industry and how she went about it, being true to herself, is admirable. Andrea never let her race get in the way of what she wanted to pursue in her life. Andrea was aware of her race and the impact that she could have on other people when speaking about race. As a white woman, listening to a story such as Andrea’s is helpful in understanding why it is so important to recognize my privileges. I will never face many of the obstacles Andrea had to face in her life due to my privilege of being white. Andrea’s insight into being authentic opened my eyes to how important it is to stay true to yourself and not let society’s patriarchal norms try to dismantle how we view ourselves.

I would like to thank Andrea for sharing her inspirational words and her experiences with me. I appreciate her honesty and transparency and hope to be as authentic as her.

References:

Hooks, Bell. (2000). Feminism Is For Everybody: Passionate Politics. Pluto Press.

Ligon, G. (1990). Glenn Ligon, Untitled (I Feel Most Colored When I Am Thrown Against a Sharp White Background), 1990. from https://whitney.org/media/720

Abu-Lughod, Lila. (2002). Do Muslim Women Really Need Saving.