Also in the second episode of Serial, Koenig reads passages from Hae’s diary. Koenig notes, “Her diary, by the way—well I’m not exactly sure what I expected her diary to be like but—it’s such a teenage girls diary.” (My emphasis added.) This statement seems to suggest a colorblind ideal: In Koenig’s Baltimore, kids will be kids, regardless of race or background. But I imagine there are many listeners—especially amongst people of color—who pause and ask, “Wait, what did you expect her diary to be like?” or “Why do you feel the need to point out that a Korean teenage girl’s diary is just like a teenage girl’s diary?” and perhaps, most importantly, “Where does your model for ‘such a teenage girl’s diary’ come from?” These are annoying questions, not only to those who would prefer to mute the nuances of race and identity for the sake of a clean, “relatable” narrative, but also for those of us who have to ask them because Koenig is talking about our communities, and, in large part, getting it wrong.
The accumulation of Koenig’s little judgments throughout the show—and there are many more examples—should feel familiar to anyone who has spent much of her life around well-intentioned white people who believe that equality and empathy can only be achieved through a full, but ultimately bankrupt, understanding of one another’s cultures. Who among us (and here, I’m talking to fellow people of color) hasn’t felt that subtle, discomforting burn whenever the very nice white person across the table expresses fascination with every detail about our families that strays outside of the expected narrative? Who hasn’t said a word like “parameters” and watched, with grim annoyance, as it turns into “immigrant parents?” These are usually silent, cringing moments – it never quite feels worth it to call out the offender because you’ll never convince them that their intentions might not be as good as they think they are.
Koenig does ultimately address Syed’s Muslim faith in Serial, but only to debunk the state’s claim that Syed’s murderous rage came out of cultural factors. The discussion feels remarkably perfunctory—Koenig quickly dispenses with Syed’s race and religion. She seems to want Syed and Lee, by way of her diary, to be, in the words of Ira Glass, “relatable,” which, sadly, in this case, reads “white.” As a result, Chaudry believes Koenig has left out an essential part of Syed’s story—that his arrest, his indictment and his conviction were all influenced by his faith and the color of his skin. “You have an urban jury in Baltimore city, mostly African American, maybe people who identify with Jay [an African-American friend of Syed's who is the state’s seemingly unreliable star witness] more than Adnan, who is represented by a community in headscarves and men in beards,” Chaudry said. “The visuals of the courtroom itself leaves an impression and there’s no escaping the racial implications there.”
I found myself nodding as I read Jay Caspian Kang's excellent piece on the new hit podcast Serial.
The dancing around race throughout Serial has been the most glaring and particular choice in the series. I'm enjoying Serial, it has us all questioning why no one ported the serial genre to the podcasting medium earlier, but the more episodes I hear, the greater my frustration with having my attention in the case narrowly focused by Sarah Koenig's world view, and the more I just want to throw myself into the Serial subreddit, spoilers be damned, and start hearing from a more diverse group of detectives.
And I did, just for a bit. Rabia Chaudry, the civil rights attorney who originally reached out to Koenig to see if she might be interested in the case, posted a link there to a piece he just wrote about episode 8: Confirmation Bias FTW:
Raise your hand if you were surprised by what Jay had to say in this week’s episode. No one better have their hand raised. If you thought for an instant that “Mr. Your-Plea-Deal-Is-Good-Unless-You-Change-Your-Story” was going to do another “ok I come clean” when two random women show up at his door, I’ve got a bridge and a mid-east peace plan to sell you. You may have been surprised, however, with how Jay was described. Or you may have been confused. His is a catalog of contradictory personality traits, from goofy to mean, from animal lover to rat-eating-frog enthusiast (sorry, you kind of can’t be both – Google that ish and you’ll see what I mean). Unlike Adnan, who has overwhelmingly been described in similar terms by most people who know him, Jay poses a challenge to us. Other than being identified as the odd guy out, there was little similarity between what people had to say about him. What to make of his conflicted, yet beautiful, unconventionality? Nothing. That’s right. You make nothing of it. Because at this point if you really think you can assess the truth and reality of who a person is through a superficial, carefully edited and crafted, partial but maybe not impartial treatment of his (or any) character in a production, then you will forever be lost in crazy-making cognitive mazes. Is it too much of a stretch to say unless you know someone personally, you can’t really know them? You can’t. Trust me on this. Listeners will never be able to figure out whether Adnan is a sociopath or a nice guy, Jay is a psychopath or a victim, or Sarah is a bewildered glutton for punishment or a master weaver of addictive narrative (come on now). So let’s stop pretending we can psychoanalyze the depths of the souls of these people through 30-40 minute podcasts. If you still think you’re just special that way, I recommend you watch the documentaries “Paradise Lost“, “Paradise Lost 2: Revelations“, and “West of Memphis” and get back to me. A TL;DR of that experience is that you, as the consumer of a show, are at the mercy of the storytellers, second and third hand narrators, and incomplete profiles of people. The only thing you can do in such a situation is try and pin down what you can, make an assessment with a sack of salt, and then forget that assessment the minute a new tidbit of information is revealed.
Like many other listeners to Serial, I've been bracing myself for the possibility of an open-ended conclusion, one in which we never learn whether Adnan was really guilty or not. Even if we find out he's innocent, maybe we never learn who the actual murderer was.
But perhaps we're obsessing too much over the details of one particular case, one which may be unsolvable with the facts at hand. The greater legacy of the podcast may be the exposure of the insidious ubiquity of confirmation bias, nesting in on itself recursively so that it's almost impossible for us to trace back to the origin.