Sara Hunter and Katani Sumner are the hosts of Zebra Friends, a podcast that navigates the minefields of Black/White race relations within the context of a best-friendship. Educator and Singer/Songwriter Katani grew up in Boston. Sara spent her childhood in a woodsy suburb far from the city. Their worlds collided on the soccer sidelines of their kids’ elementary school. Through honesty, humor, and years of shared experience, they have learned the joys, the challenges and the rewards of Zebra Friendship. Their mission: integration in the best way possible: friend by friend. Join the growing circle of Zebra Friends. Learn how on this month’s podcast. It’s time for real conversation in a safe space. Listen as they talk about how they first became friends, why they decided to produce a podcast, and what they’ve learned along the way. In a world seemingly defined by our differences, Hunter and Sumner fight the forces that divide us.
Katani Sumner: [00:00:00] Out of our ignorance, you know, it was like, really, what is this green bean casserole thing or whatever? And she would say, how do you not know what that is? And I’m like, that is a totally white thing.
Sam: [00:00:11] Sarah Hunter and Katani Sumner join us on the show today. They’re the hosts of the groundbreaking podcast Zebra Friends, where they stomp through the minefields of racial sensitivity to ask the questions only two best friends can. Why do white people eat green bean casserole? And why do black movie audiences talk to the screen? Katani is an educator and well-known singer/songwriter from the heart of Boston. Sara is an award winning children’s book writer, raised in a woodsey white suburb. Sara and Katani, it’s just a pleasure to have you both with us on the show today.
Sara Hunter: [00:01:08] Thanks for having us.
Katani Sumner: [00:01:09] Happy to be here.
Sam: [00:01:12] So what made the two of you start Zeba Friends?
Katani Sumner: [00:01:18] Sara?
Sara Hunter: [00:01:18] Well, I would say that it has been a gleam in our eye for a really long time. We’ve been friends for 25 years. We’ve had a really rich friendship and enjoy each other’s company. And Katani is someone so honest and giving, I’ve always been able to ask her any questions about growing up black in Boston. And we have a lot in common in terms of at our basic core and then culturally, she’s just taught me a lot. And we just– for me, I just always noticed there was not an opportunity, once I left secondary school and college, for social diversity, for socializing and going to a party and having a lot of black people there in the white suburbs where I live for our boomer age group. There just wasn’t enough opportunity to have friends and talk to each other and ask questions we needed to. And it’s just always seemed like a kind of a screaming gap in the social conversation.
Katani Sumner: [00:02:30] And I would just add that I think as our friendship developed, we felt more and more comfortable asking questions that you typically wouldn’t be able to ask someone that you weren’t friends with. And often the responses were really funny because out of our ignorance, you know, it was like, really, what is this green bean casserole thing or whatever? And she would say, how do you not know what that is? And I’m like, that is a totally white thing. And so we would just have these conversations and I go, that is not a white thing, that’s a black thing. So we realized that we needed to be able to share this experience with other people who may not have access to folks who are not from their cultural background or racial background.
Sam: [00:03:08] So, you know, in today’s charged and polarized socio-political environment, it’s become increasingly difficult, I think, for our generation to have an objective, balanced conversation about race, about political correctness and all kinds of other topics that come up. And we all feel this and yet there are few solutions that really exist for this. I think our children’s generation is different because this is an ongoing conversation in schools. And, you know, I truly think that this next generation will end up being effectively sort of race blind to the extent that that’s possible. So what was it about now? What was it about this moment that made it feel right for both of you?
Katani Sumner: [00:03:51] Well, actually, sorry Sam, the moment started like 15 years ago when we first tried to do this and we thought, oh, we should try this out. And so the climate hasn’t changed and hasn’t gotten much better, unfortunately. And I have to also say as an educator, the issues are still very much steeped in elementary through middle and high school, where the students were saying there need to be more conversations so kids can talk about race at a younger age. So it hasn’t gotten as good as I thought it might or hoped it would because our country is still very segregated, unfortunately. So we’re not having many opportunities to interact. Thankfully, YouTube and, you know, the Web exposes our young people to different cultures, but there’s still a lot of racist behavior and talk that’s perpetuated because we haven’t really, you know, pulled the layers down and talked about what’s at the core of this. That’s my perspective.
Sara Hunter: [00:04:43] And we’re passionate about integration, friend by friend. I mean, relationships, we all know are so powerful. And they’re the one thing that can dissipate harmful stereotyping and hatred and fear based on ignorance. It is so powerful to even have one friend who you say, no, I know that person. And that is not true because we all base our experience on relationships. And it was crucial starting in 2005 when we first had a radio offer to do a radio show with this. That, I mean, that was Katrina. And it was really bad. You know, now in the pandemic, we’ve got figures that show, you know, three times the percentage of black people know someone who’s died from Corona. It’s an in-between. There are joyful experiences with President Obama, but then there is Ferguson. And it’s not that our podcast is dealing with socio-political, but we’re having fun and a joyous time dispelling through humor some of the charged atmosphere that you’re talking about and also opening up the conversation so that black and white friends can ask us questions. And we’ve we’re having Zebra Friends gatherings. And no matter how big or small or whether they’re Zebra Zooms or they’re live and what city they’re in, that is a dissipation of the tensions that we’re talking about. And you would think from how we’re talking right now that our podcast is completely serious. Well, it isn’t. We’re usually laughing with or at each other. But humor and joy, we feel, is one of the most powerful things to improve the atmosphere.
Sam: [00:06:45] Absolutely. But I have to tell you that I’m feeling a little bit left out that I’m not being included in these Zebra Friends Zoom calls.
Katani Sumner: [00:06:52] Oh you can be, we haven’t started yet.
Sara Hunter: [00:06:55] Okay because, yeah, we’re gonna do a live gathering as soon as we can. We’ve got a big New York/Westchester Group. So we’ve got you Sam and also Zebra Zoom we could do globally because we have from, we’ve got London. We’ll get you in there.
Sam: [00:07:16] Awesome. So, Katani, maybe you can talk a little bit about how your friendship developed together.
Katani Sumner: [00:07:25] Well, my children were a part of the METCO program in Weston, and I also worked in Weston. And so when my oldest daughter, who’s in the same grade as Sarah’s oldest child, was playing soccer…You know, we’d be at the soccer field and watching our kids chasing or looking for dandelions versus trying to kick the ball. And it was just pretty funny because my child’s calling was not for soccer. Can’t speak for John– and so we just realized we had a really good vibe and a really good energy. And I think it started from that. So we didn’t think about a podcast or anything like that until years later when people would say we were really funny, like, you guys are so funny. We’re like, we’re not trying to be funny, but okay, you think we’re funny, then let’s bring it to the masses. So I think that’s how the friendship developed. Our kids were in school together and then it went from there.
Sara Hunter: [00:08:15] I mean, I still remember being in awe of Katani when she didn’t even know me and when I was producing a documentary about this voluntary desegregation program that she herself was enrolled in. And then her kids, luckily for our family, were enrolled in our suburb of Boston. And she was an administrator for that program and ran amazing assemblies and was a well-known gospel and pop and everything else singer in Boston. But particularly would perform with the Boston Pops at Gospel Night and was the original M.C. for the House of Blues. So I thought she was just the coolest. And so on the soccer sidelines, it was so much fun to talk and get to know each other. And then we began doing different celebrations, sharing with our two families, which has continued through the years, and then two of our kids, two daughters, switching to a private school together. And that was a wonderful overlap. And then Katani and I attended the same graduate school. Then we started having adventures together, which was the best. To Washington, Europe, and all kinds of crazy things.
Sam: [00:09:42] I love that story. Thank you both for sharing it. So you get approached back in 2005 about a radio show and then you start the podcast together. How did you go about finding your audience for the podcast? I mean, there are all kinds of statistics nowadays about how many podcasts there are. You know, while podcast listenership is on the increase there’s still this challenge of sort of finding and growing an audience. How did you two think about that? Katani, do you want to go first?
Katani Sumner: [00:10:16] You know, I would happily go first. I just have to say, Sarah, I hope you agree. We kind of stumbled into this. I wasn’t really thinking about an audience. I was thinking about how there’s a need for this. And I didn’t really see anything out there similar to this. So I really loved the movie Field of Dreams, kind of that if you build it, they will come.
Sam: [00:10:36] That was a great film.
Katani Sumner: [00:10:36] –Exactly, we approach it with: I think there’s a need for this, people need to be able to laugh and have conversations. So let’s just give it a shot and see what happens. And our personal friends gave us such positive reactions that seemed somewhat unbiased. So then as it spread out to people who we don’t know, who also love it, we’re like, okay, we might be onto something. So we’re just gonna keep, you know, plodding along and hope our audience finds us as we just keep putting out quality products.
Sara Hunter: [00:11:05] And we in ‘05, so fifteen years ago, here we were and Katani– so we had done an experimental version of it with that, actually, if you can hear some of the, ah, one minute pilots in Episode Five. And actually John Krasinski’s brother, who is a radio guy, is a digital media guy, heard it and liked it, said let’s try this. And for various reasons, he moved on. We were doing other things and it didn’t happen. But that was a really cool thing because here we are 15 years later and there’s podcasting, which wasn’t even a word 15 years ago. And for us, we’d toyed with different channels, print, you know, doing a book, whatever. But both of us are sort of hammie and performers and our chemistry, which is really hard to write down, worked way better in just live performance plus it was just a blast. And we just, I loved Katani’s answer. We saw the need and we’re really passionate about filling the need. We’re completely mission driven.
Sam: [00:12:23] It’s you’ve you’ve really cottoned on onto the exact right forum, I think, because so many people, I think, have fallen in love with podcasting because it’s both a method for entertainment, but equally learning. And I love that your podcast combines both those aspects.
Katani Sumner: [00:12:42] Thanks.
Sara Hunter: [00:12:42] Thanks.
Sam: [00:12:44] So you both come from backgrounds in the arts and education. Katani, you’re an educator as well as a singer. Sara, you’re a writer of several amazing books that our children have loved and enjoyed over the years.
Sara Hunter: [00:13:03] Aw, thanks.
Sam: [00:13:04] Tell us how those backgrounds or those kinds of skills and abilities have informed you, your podcast, and your conversations together on Zebra Friends.
Katani Sumner: [00:13:19] Sarah?
Sara Hunter: [00:13:20] Okay, let’s see. I would say several, several ways. One of the ways is the marketing piece, because I’ve written 10 kids books and I always get out there in front with the books. Except for maybe the ones I did for Jim Henson Productions and when I was writing for Warner Brothers, they had a big marketing arm. But for the most part, even then, I’m out with my books and my creative endeavors. Engaging with, doing speeches, going to schools, reading to kids, meeting parents, connecting with independent bookstores and obviously with a podcast, that marketing arm is really important if you want your voice to be heard amidst all the noise and the podcasts. So and also just coming from a background of having to pitch my work and be in front of people reading and performing with books, that definitely made a difference.
Katani Sumner: [00:14:29] And I think for me, before my education, my career in education, my first career was actually in sales management with the consumer products company. So I knew all about things, so it was like product shelf placement and marketing and getting information out on PR and then starting a little record label so I could produce my own music. Just knowing the importance of graphics and how things look in appeal. So when we designed our podcast cover, we were very intentional about the way we did it. The music, the intro music, it’s supposed to sound white and black. So it was very intentional. We both have those kinds of creative minds. And also I’m a music consumer, so I know what I would like to hear, what I would like to see. So I always think, would this be funny to me, you know?
Sara Hunter: [00:15:14] And also, I mean, I think we’ve had so much fun doing it. And we both have networks of friends that we’ve built on. And I have a good dedicated E list. I mean, that I’ve gone out for my books, who also is a really good audience for the podcasts of thinking, you know, questioning individuals of all ages. And then Katani has this amazing network with the schools and her family. They’re all gifted speakers and presenters. And one was the subject of a documentary. Another is a minister. And so Katani has a broad reach.
Katani Sumner: [00:16:05] Wait a minute. So another thing is that I wanted to say that my network is nowhere near like Sara’s E-network. So Sara is the friend that I wish everybody could have. Okay? Black, white or indifferent, because she’s like, hyping me up like I’m the superstar diva. And I’m like, yes, Sarah, thank you. I feel so–
Sarah Hunter: [00:16:24] You are!
Katani Sumner: [00:16:25] But wait. Sara, you have this amazing E-List and such that when I did my grad party at the House of Blues, Sara just invited her E List to help support my C.D. project. And people started sending me money that didn’t know me because Sara thought it was a good idea.
Sarah Hunter: [00:16:40] No, because you were a good singer.
Katani Sumner: [00:16:42] Sara, I don’t even think they heard me sing. So I just love you and your friends. So that’s when I knew. This is a beautiful world that I know not of.
Sam: [00:16:53] And I love that. I mean, those are just such great, great anecdotes. So I have to ask. What is one thing that each of you has said to the other that, you know, might have seemed insensitive because of the openness of your dialog and how did you tackle that?
Sara Hunter: [00:17:18] That is a good question. I can think of. Well, there’s always things that surprise me. So that’s one of the reasons I really wanted to do the podcast was I feel like I mean, sometimes I can be dumb, but I think I’m pretty typical of a certain peer group in that I just didn’t, there are things that I just didn’t know that offended. And luckily, Katani has been so used to educating white people because she’s been going to an integrated school since she was six and figured out, you know, I’m on my own. I need to figure this one out and probably teach these people, which she has. But, for example, I can think of one thing in particular. That was, the thing about Katani introducing you to my kids as Katani thinking that that was a term of endearment. And then learning through the years – well, especially learning from your reaction. But then I’ve seen it again and again. Even that webinar we did this week with that black film director of Self-Made referred to black actresses as Ms. and Miss. And I got in trouble from Katani because I introduced her to my kids as Katani instead of Ms. Sumner.
Katani Sumner: [00:18:48] Or Ms. K or Ms. Katani, just put a tag in the front.
Sara Hunter: [00:18:54] That was a new one on me. And I have been so careful ever since because it’s because of the respect thing. And that’s why I think it was good we actually have that in this episode of the podcast that’s dropped this month because people don’t know that.
Sam: [00:19:13] So I hate to sound, you know, this is gonna come out totally the wrong way-
Sara Hunter: [00:19:19] Don’t worry. We– I always do.
Sam: [00:19:23] So I need to be educated on that front. So is it Sarah, were you accustomed to introducing all of your friends on a first name basis? And so that’s why you introduce Katani that way. And really like all friends.
Sara Hunter: [00:19:40] No, no and she asked me that too thinking that it was really a cultural thing. And I was– I only did it sort of a term of endearment. And when I felt like we were buddies and we were all spending a lot of time together and I’ve tried to explain to her that –and Katani, I’ve said this and I think it’s probably right that it’s not necessarily a cultural thing, because I bet Sam does not introduce her friends by their first name to her children. So it was me being a little more casual, but it still was really interesting to just realize how important it was not to do that.
Katani Sumner: [00:20:27] No, it is a cultural thing. I explained to you that for African-Americans and black people in general, because of the history of being talked down to or, you know, infantilized, you know, made to seem small or less important and people would just casually call, you know, even call black men “boys”. But that’s why I don’t want to be introduced to a child by my first name, because I don’t care how much of a buddy I am with your mom. I’m not your friend. I’m still an adult.
Sarah Hunter: [00:20:53] And to stay your friend, I never introduce you to children anymore as anything but Miss Sumner.
Katani Sumner: [00:20:59] And it’s not just you. I mean, I told you at my school, you know, I had to train teachers when they’d bring their toddlers in or we have a preschool at our school and they bring their kid out of preschool. And they go, hi, say hi to Katani. And I’m like, no. Hi, I’m Miss Sumner or Miss K or you know, for other kids might be Aunty K or something like that.
Sara Hunter: [00:21:19] But, you know, a black person would not do that to you.
Katani Sumner: [00:21:22] Well, I don’t know this generation maybe, but typically those who are, you know, above a certain age, they don’t want to be referred to by their first name like little kids unless they’re trying to be super cool, like the mom in, you know, what’s it called? I forget that movie.
Sara Hunter: [00:21:40] Tell the story, though, about your mom that you told me. And she was such a force.
Katani Sumner: [00:21:49] Not on the podcast. We don’t want to go there.
Sara Hunter: [00:21:50] Yes, of her on the train.
Katani Sumner: [00:21:52] Yeah, yeah we did talk about her on the bus. Yeah, yeah.
Sara Hunter: [00:21:54] Oh, okay.
Katani Sumner: [00:21:55] Yeah, moving on.
Sam: [00:21:57] That’s a story for another time, off-line. So, Katani, tell me about an episode like that that you think happened with you, with Sarah, if there was one.
Katani Sumner: [00:22:09] You know what, I was thinking about the fact that we haven’t really had too many disagreements. And I think it’s because we love each other enough and we trust each other enough that the issues are kind of like, whoa, that was not a good way to say that. But nobody gets really angry or upset, which is another reason I think our podcast is different because I listen to some other kind of black/white type podcasts and they seem more adversarial. And it was like, ooh, like, do they like each other? Are they friends or are they just trying to make a point? So like, I just happened to be black. She happens to be white and we come from very different backgrounds. But we’re hoping to show people that once you get to know people, you have much more in common than you think. But I think this fear is what creates this distance. And, you know, I think our current administration prefers to promote fear and the other versus wait a minute, once I get to know you, ultimately we all want to have healthy relationships, live a good life and have freedom. So we have the same things in common.
Sara Hunter: [00:23:05] And we’ve always said that the basis of our friendship podcast and what we believe is between our spirituality, our humor, our joy, but the reason it works and why offending each other turns out to be an educational thing and not a barbed thing. Is this mutual atmosphere of trust and affection that sees through it all. And I mean, I have to give Katani props for the fact that because she went as a child well, really all starting in first grade or kindergarten. Katani?
Katani Sumner: [00:23:51] First grade.
Sara Hunter: [00:23:51] Going out to taking a bus out to white suburbs and then graduating from that high school 12 years later and then going to Brown University, which was diverse but still predominantly white. Katani is the one who’s educating me. I mean, I’m much more likely to stumble and say something offensive. And I’m really lucky because she is somebody who is a fantastic bridger and has spent her life educating. I mean, that’s probably the scariest thing to me, that learning in this podcast is for all of my friends who are listening. And we do have a growing audience. Is how little people know and how the burden is so heavily on the minority population to educate. And I just think about it. And it’s exhausting how much I have to explain after a podcast episode. And then I think, oh, my gosh, you know, this is Katani’s life. So anyway.
Sam: [00:25:05] That is so true what both of you said earlier about sort of fear and judgment and, you know, in many ways your friendship has sort of created the safe space that allows for a safe exploration of all of these issues without any of the fear and judgment. And I think it’s what people really struggle to find, you know? And I mean, just it’s become such a charged environment that you’d rather not say anything than be misunderstood or misinterpreted. And then, you know, and then have that sort of dog you for– until the end of time.
Katani Sumner: [00:25:43] Can I add that, I’m sorry. I think it’s really important that for the benefit of young black people who grow up in this city who may never get a chance to hang out with, you know, friendlier white folks. I’ll say, because my experience as an elementary student was growing up in the early 70s when, you know, there was a lot of anger and violent acts because of forced bussing in Boston.
Sara Hunter: [00:26:08] Especially in Boston.
Katani Sumner: [00:26:09] I remember the privilege of– I hate to use the word privilege, but the experience and the benefit of meeting what I called nice white people because I really did not know there were nice white people. And I think there are many people of color who, unfortunately, if they now have to look at what’s on television and just hear the rhetoric from the administration, you may also think there are no nice white people. They want us all to leave or they hate us or whatever. So I’m hoping this is also a bridge for people from my community to say, you know what, there are some nice white people, but we don’t get a chance to talk to each other much. But if we can, let’s, like, bridge the gap and cross over and have conversations.
Sara Hunter: [00:26:48] And have some fun.
Katani Sumner: [00:26:49] Yeah.
Sam: [00:26:50] Totally. So as podcast entrepreneurs, what do you feel is a lesson that you’d like to share with other podcasters?
Sara Hunter: [00:27:01] I would say, I thought about this a little bit. I would say, first of all, have a good technician nearby when you’re launching your recordings and have a resource, if you’re not really good techie person. Have somebody who can help out. That has been invaluable for me. And we have this great producer, audio engineer Tom Segale, who has been amazing. And second, I’m so grateful that I didn’t just give up when we had this idea almost 20 years ago because we wanted to share how much fun we were having and these conversations in a safe space. And then we sort of had a false start fifteen years ago and then we’ve talked about books and constantly gone through different conversations through the years. But it’s never too late if you have a good idea. Because here we are with a new technology 15 years later, having a ball. So if you’ve had an idea, stick with it. And then I guess the third thing, which is probably kind of obvious and somewhat cliche, is if you have a vision that is different from what you’re hearing other people do…that is a great sign. It means there’s a gap to be filled. And I can remember people when I would say we’re going to do this discussion or conversation or radio show or podcast where it’s we talk about black/white issues and Katani and I just go back and forth and go at each other in a fun way. And sometimes people would, you know, look at me like I was crazy. Well, that’s a good sign. It means you need to keep going.
Katani Sumner: [00:28:54] Was that really just the third thing Sarah? I think that was four.
Sara Hunter: [00:28:57] Four or five.
Katani Sumner: [00:28:57] I’m sure it was. I would just add that I think so many of us focus on ‘what are we going to do’? And I would say pause and say, what’s the why? Why are you doing it? Like, is there a reason? Is there a need? Is it just because you want to be heard or is there really, you know, an intentionality to it? Who is your audience? Why do they want to hear this? Why do they need to hear this? That’s all.
Sara Hunter: [00:29:26] Damn, that was really good.
Katani Sumner: [00:29:29] Sara swearing on the podcast.
Sara Hunter: [00:29:31] Shoot, I know, but I’m feeling really competitive. Darn that was way better than mine.
Sam: [00:29:37] I’d like to commend both of you.
Katani Sumner: [00:29:39] Exactly.
Sam: [00:29:41] I’m sorry, Katani. I cut you off.
Katani Sumner: [00:29:44] No, I said if we did it together, it’s not competition. It’s synergy. Synergy.
Sara Hunter: [00:29:48] OK, good. But I’m just feeling like a moron. And my answer compared to your’s. But that’s okay.
Sam: [00:29:57] I think, Sara, I’m feeling like a moron compared to Katani too, but it’s been such a pleasure to have both of you on the show today.
Katani Sumner: [00:30:08] Thank you so much for having us.
Sara Hunter: [00:30:11] Thank you, it’s so much fun Sam and we love your show. We love Sam.
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