At the outset of Serial, the popular new podcast from This American Life, host Sarah Koenig describes the tale of Hae Min Lee and Adnan Syed as a “Shakespearean mash-up.” The true story of the 1999 murder of 18-year-old Hae, Koenig says, combines the “young lovers from different worlds thwarting their families” of Romeo and Juliet with the “final act of murderous revenge” of Othello. Koenig’s description is both an explanation of her year-long fascination with the case and a promise to listeners that we won’t be disappointed by the slow unfolding of the story. The metaphor strains to accommodate Adnan, Hae’s Pakistani-American ex-boyfriend who was convicted of her murder, but Koenig runs with it anyway: Adnan is “not a Moor exactly, but a Muslim all the same.”
Koenig’s attempt to slot Adnan Syed into a classic racialized trope is indicative of how she treats her subjects’ racial and ethnic identities. As Jay Caspian Kang has pointed out at The Awl, Serial suffers from what Kang calls the “definition of white privilege in journalism” — a white interpreter “stomping through communities that she does not understand” and presenting her simplistic conclusions as journalistic truth. Koenig otherizes and fetishizes immigrant cultures while failing to draw any distinctions between Hae’s experience as a first-generation Korean immigrant and Adnan’s second-generation life in a Pakistani-American family. For many people of color, I imagine listening to Koenig talk about what it means to have “immigrant parents” is akin to the experience of the Chinese students in the audience when Mark Zuckerberg spoke Mandarin for 30 minutes last month. It’s nice that you made the effort, but that doesn’t mean you’re making any sense.
But in the latest episode of Serial, “The Deal with Jay,” my reaction to Koenig and her all-white production team’s attempts to portray non-white subjects tipped from discomfort to distress. The episode provides the series’ first in-depth discussion of Jay, a black friend of Adnan’s on whose testimony the entire case rests. The problem of Jay’s inconsistent but damning testimony has been teased since the beginning of the podcast — Adnan is only innocent if Jay is lying. Koenig’s treatment of Jay provides the ugly counterpoint to her portrayal of Adnan and Hae. In Episode 8, it becomes clear that Koenig is deploying another classic racial trope — that of the “model minority.”
Both Hae and Adnan received the model minority treatment from Serial from the beginning. Hae is introduced to us as “smart and beautiful and cheerful and a great athlete” as well as that most Asian of Asian stereotypes — “responsible.” Adnan fills the role as well. Koenig allows Rabia Chaudry, a family friend, to provide our first portrait of Adnan: “He was an honor roll student, volunteer EMT. He was on the football team. He was a star runner on the track team. He was the homecoming king. He led prayers at the mosque. Everybody knew Adnan to be somebody who was going to do something really big.” Koenig largely confirms Chaudry’s description, with the caveats that he was paid to be an EMT, wasn’t a “star” on the track team, and was prom prince, not homecoming king.
Adnan’s ability to fill the role of the model minority is, quite explicitly, the impetus behind Koenig’s entire involvement with the case. He’s the good, South Asian son, and that doesn’t mesh with the idea of a violent killer. She describes his “giant brown eyes like a dairy cow” and asks, “Could someone who looks like that really strangle his girlfriend?” She says, “He just doesn’t seem like a murderer.” After six months of investigation and phone conversations with Adnan, she responds to his question about why she is so interested in his case by saying, “My interest in it honestly has been you, like, you’re a really nice guy.”
The problem with the model minority myth — besides the fact that it stereotypes and dehumanizes millions of people — is that by its very nature it requires a “bad” minority to balance the scales. Asians in the U.S. didn’t go from being “The Heathen Chinee” to “The Asian-American Whiz Kids” because white Americans suddenly realized we were good at math. Instead, championing Asian-Americans (including South Asians like Adnan) has been a useful way to denigrate black Americans and deny the continuing existence and impact of racism. If Asians can succeed, the myth’s champions insist, that proves racism is over and black people are responsible for their own failure to thrive. It’s an insidious and dismayingly persistent narrative, one that remains a linchpin of ongoing anti-black racism among whites and non-black people of color.
Koenig’s frame for Adnan’s case fits this dynamic all too easily, and her inability to treat race with nuance and insight leads her to paint Jay as the model minority’s counterpart: the threatening and untrustworthy black man. Seven months after the investigation begins, Koenig visits Jay’s house to seek an interview. After the unrecorded meeting, executive producer Julie Snyder (also a white woman) says that Jay was “very polite” and “sweet” but that “you could kind of see him about to hit something, but in a more frustrated, understandable way.” Koenig’s discussion of Jay is in some ways a mirror image of that of Adnan and Hae: Every positive detail is surprising, while the potentially negative details are assumed. “He played lacrosse, for Christ’s sake,” she says with bemused exasperation. (Hae also played the stereotypically white sport.)
After numerous interviews with Jay’s friends, Koenig sums Jay up: “Jay didn’t come from the same kind of household as a lot of the other kids he hung around with. He lived with his grandparents and his mom, but his friends say it seemed like he was more or less taking care of himself. He always had a job, his mother depended on him.” It’s an evocative picture of a stereotypical urban black youth, but it’s notable that Koenig did not comment in the same way on the fact that both Hae and Adnan also had jobs, and, according to the Baltimore Sun, Hae’s father was not in her life. Koenig quotes sources describing Jay as “quote unquote shady, that you wouldn’t want to push him,” and a suggestion that his “thuggish vibe was a pose, something Jay put on to seem tough.” Perhaps the greatest mark against Jay is phrased in a prison metaphor — not one that Koenig came up with, but one that she chooses to use nonetheless: “Jay wasn’t in the magnet program at Woodlawn. He was ‘gen pop’ — their term, not mine — like general population at a prison,” Koenig says.
Koenig even suggests that the state and Adnan’s jury were more likely to believe Jay’s testimony because of his race: “Jay seems like the underdog. It’s Baltimore. Half the jury is black, seven out of twelve actually. Jay probably comes off as this nice young man, and this white lady is yelling at him.” The idea that Jay or any black person would be treated as more trustworthy by this country’s criminal justice system by virtue of his blackness is just an astoundingly ignorant suggestion for anyone to make. Whether or not black jury members were predisposed to believe him, Jay had already run the gauntlet of the police and prosecutors in a system designed to criminalize him. The fact that he made it through without being incarcerated is remarkable. That Serial has stepped in to criminalize him in the state’s stead is infuriating.
The intersection of black and non-black communities of color in the U.S. has always been complicated and charged. It’s a history that includes outbreaks of anger, violence, and resentment, as well as moments of solidarity and mutual support. I can’t argue that Jay is innocent, or that Adnan is innocent, because I don’t know. None of us do. I do think it’s obvious that Adnan was convicted without sufficient evidence, and I hope that Koenig’s coverage of his case results in something closer to justice. But Serial is as much about the construction of a narrative as it is about Hae, Adnan, and Jay, and the narrative Koenig is building is a harmful one. By flattening Hae and Adnan into stereotypical model minorities, and by using Jay as their “thuggish” black foil, Serial is feeding its listeners a steady dose of racist tropes. When aiming for Shakespeare, it’s best to avoid the vile stereotypes of The Merchant of Venice. Everyone involved in this story deserves better.
An earlier version of this story indicated that “The Deal With Jay” was Episode 7; it is Episode 8.
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