Long uncomfortable silence

Serial just ended. Like most people, I listened to the entire series, and looked forward to each new podcast on Thursdays. Like most people, I also have an opinion about the series. The main critique I’ve heard about it is that it’s racist. Personally, I think that’s a counterproductive accusation. Let me explain with an old anecdote.

Back in the 90s I was an undergrad at the liberal bastion that is Brown University. I was taking a class called Urban (B)Lights about cities in America and the city living experience. It was a fantastic class, as can be guessed by its title. Halfway through the semester we read Native Son. The TA asked our section how the protagonist (who is a young Black man) is feeling through the book. Crickets. Even a loudmouthed, opinionated nerd like me knew to keep my mouth shut. It was all-white with a smattering of Asians in that classroom. No one dared answer the question, through what is still one of the longest, most awkward silences I’ve ever witnessed.

All this because as white people we didn’t feel we had a right to even talk about how a character in a novel felt because that character was Black. To me, that silence was and remains a missed opportunity for meaningful if very uncomfortable conversation. I had lots to say about Native Son and I’m sure my classmates – those who had done the reading, anyway – did as well. But nope. Too scared.

So today we’ve got Serial, a story of a Pakistani-American, a Korean-American, both in a mostly Black school in a city that has plenty of racial tension to go around. And yes, Sarah Koenig is white, and yes her thoughts and point of view are influenced by that. So racist in that there is race involved? Definitely. But racist as in it’s wrong for this white journalist to even THINK of covering this story? I don’t think so.

Realistically, if it wasn’t for this white journalist and her ilk, no one in America would know Adnand Syed’s case. Hae Min Lee would be forgotten. Instead, people are now talking about the case, talking about the justice system, talking about ethics, about race, about reasonable doubt. About stuff we should all be thinking and talking about, in other words. I fail to see what’s wrong with that. So yes, it’s NPR, and as Michael Che said: “for much more [on Serial], ask a white person.” But isn’t it better for white people to be talking about this rather than UGGs and I don’t know, pumpkin-spice lattes?

The other two critiques of the podcast are more minor but I want to address them anyway. First is that the podcast sensationalizes a real crime. Related to this is that the end of the podcast isn’t really an ending. Again, I think both these critiques are unfair. People watch Law & Order: Unspeakable Crimes all the time. Those are ripped from the headlines ALL THE TIME. We as a culture sensationalize real crime ALL THE TIME. This at least is good reporting and tries to be fair to everyone involved. This at least doesn’t sell Viagra and Chevys (though I have been thinking about MailChimp more than I should. Or is it MailKimp?)

And like real life there is no easy answer and no pre-wrapped ending. I’m no criminal justice expert but I’m guessing lots of cases are really not cut and dried. Are without a solution. I don’t feel like I’ve been strung along on a fruitless 12-hour road. I feel like I’ve learned some very difficult stuff about how unsure things can be, and how huge consequences can be.

It’s the second time in less than a month that I’ve addressed race in this blog. As I stated last time, I don’t make it a habit to discuss current events. Current events are gonna keep being an exception rather than the rule. But race is worth discussing and discussing some more. I’ve come a long way from that undergrad too cowardly to speak about race. Thankfully, I’ve also come a long way from thinking I had all the answers. I know that listening to others is even more important than speaking. Point is: talking about race is a good thing. I’ll keep doing it here and in my courses, even when the unavoidable long, awkward silence takes place. I can wait.

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