Serial's Race Problem

Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Yesterday marked the end of the first season of internet sensation podcast, Serial.

At this point, you’ve probably already listened to it and may be currently going through all the stages of grief. You may be frustrated with the lack of resolution, or maybe you’ve been mentally preparing for this throughout the series. On the off chance that there has been a satisfying conclusion, you might be thrown completely off, as no one, not even the many subreddit theorists could’ve predicted that.

Like many Serial listeners, I’ve parsed over narrator Sarah Koenig’s flip-flopping storytelling, seeking out people to constantly discuss new evidence and continually deliberate the old evidence. I have generally avoided the subreddit conspiratorial minefield, but I haven’t completely avoided the internet conversations. In the past few weeks, Koenig couldn’t either.

As she began to address the audience concerns and criticisms, Koenig’s work began to highlight a major failing or rather a major turning point in the podcast. What at first began as “one story told week by week” quickly grew into several concurrent stories. Beyond the complicated timeline of Hae Min Lee’s murder, there was also the unspoken aims of the podcast. Koenig’s storytelling was blurring the line between her journalistic goals of retracing a tragically compelling true crime story, and her personal relationship with the story. Her challenges and confusion over the issues of race (as they became unavoidable in the story arc), whether through her own playing into stereotypes, intentional or not, or her failure to acknowledge the impact of race within the criminal justice system, point to the way Serial has evolved beyond the story.

Koenig’s failure to address race and her own white privilege has prompted a lot of criticism. Questions have been raised about her portrayal of and reliance on stereotypes of black men, especially in relation to other men of color. Similarly, as her story focuses on Adnan Syed, she fails to create a full picture of Hae Min Lee and give voice to the Korean-American community. With the episode “Rumors,” we complicate these issues of race and stereotypes, as Adnan expresses his own frustration and resistance within the project. The Muslim community in the Woodlawn, Maryland area are alternatively portrayed as fearful and overbearing, secretive and deceptive. What ultimately has happened is that Koenig’s narrative does a disservice in the discussion of immigration, race and the relationships between communities of color within a society that others all of these groups in different ways.

From a social science perspective, Koenig’s bias isn’t questioned or stated because Koenig interprets her role as invited observer and researcher. Koenig was brought into the story because of Rabia. Koenig has experience in the Baltimore area so her familiarity with her court reporting days credentializes her work. However, as a reporter, and as a white woman, Koenig will always inhabit an outsider perspective on the nuances of immigrant experiences and experiences of all people of color that she readily dismisses from her story.

It was this complicated space of erasure and silence that prompted me to continually question Koenig’s storytelling motives especially through long text conversations with other Serial listeners. Below are some excerpts from (extremely long) group texts between myself, Persephone contributor Jazmin and our friend Juli, all of us women of color who took issue with the podcast in the later episodes. Juli and Jazmin both articulate their frustrations with the podcast in ways I initially couldn’t.

December 1st: On the double lives of immigrants and the children of immigrants

Jazmin: I like that the lady from the Innocence Project points out that there was definitely racial profiling involved in the case though

Juli: Yeah totally. I’m surprised at how surprised everyone was when she suggested that.

Jazmin: I’m like DUH

Karishma: That was one of those “lol white lady, of course there was racial profiling” moments

Jazmin: right? I was like um clearly. isn’t that the whole motive? Like the state argues he killed her because his honor was ruined and then she broke up with him

Karishma: Those crazy Muslims

Jazmin: I’m like bruh have you even met Muslims? Most Muslim teens do that. They have to live a double life to make it in America. But I think most immigrant kids do.

Karishma: Also all immigrants.

Jazmin: And like ok but Hae’s diary never painted the picture the state tried to

Juli: Hae’s diary was so heartbreaking… Like, what a teenage girl

Karishma: I can’t tell if this was sarcasm. Juli explain yourself.

Juli: Not sarcasm. Like, it was a reminder of like, this girl was such a 17-year-old girl or whatever. LOOK AT HER DIARY. You know?

Karishma: Oh cuz I thought that was a comment about Sarah’s surprise at how normal it was and it was like why wouldn’t it be a normal teenage girl? She was a normal girl. Don’t Other her, Sarah.

Jazmin: Yeah that made me angry. Like Sarah, this isn’t Brick.

Karishma: This isn’t Twin Peaks.

Juli: Oh no. I was like, this was what my diary was like. Everyone’s fucking diary was like that. My whole thing with the diary was that it was just a reminded what a kid she was and that she was murdered.

Jazmin: In that she was real and not just a story? Cuz that’s so sad. Like yea I’m hooked but also these were all real people.

Karishma: *are real people. 

December 4th: On privilege and the goals of Serial

Jazmin: Btw, did everyone give a listen? Because wow Sarah K, srsly dense about racism. Like proven with this episode.

Juli: Omggg I listened between dying from sickness and I was like, wtf are you even saying

Jazmin: Right? I want all the naysayers to spin that one for me. Cuz I’ve read all the people that say the article in The Awl was reaching and anyone that was criticizing her for lack of race/cultural sensitivity was wrong. Like she denies that Adnan’s mom felt racism played a part. Her incredulous “really?!?!?” And she’s had that reaction every time someone mentions it on her program. There was Rabia, then there was the Innocence Project lady, and now Adnan’s mom. Like let’s deny these people their experiences.

Juli: I felt so terrible for Adnan’s mom.

Jazmin: I feel terrible for all the families. Like can you imagine Hae’s family finally had closure, now this

Karishma: Auuggggggh I’m finally listening and I hate so much everything she is saying. I’m like there’s all this anti-immigrant islamaphobia and she’s still oh wow racism??? [Regarding the recurring idea of honor and misogyny within Islam] Also like white male patriarchy isn’t super permissive and basically white dudes can do whatever they want

Jazmin: I know! Her little surprised “really?!?!?” irked the hell out of me. Oh you’re gonna hate this week’s episode. I’m only a few minutes in and ugh

Juli: Oh yeah, I don’t even know where this is going.

Karishma: Also like let’s be real, she had been flip flopping because it’s better narrative wise. I feel like that whole stealing story, if Sarah was genuinely interested in truth finding versus narrative story, any behavioral expert would’ve been brought in to discuss this. Like this isn’t evidence for or against him, but it is a narrative tool to make her audience change their minds about Adnan.

Jazmin: I just hated the framing of this secretive controlling community in the beginning and then she’s like oh yea but my small town is like that too.

Juli: I JUST FINISHED. But I feel like my whole view of this podcast has changed. I mean, it’s been changing for a long time and now I’m like, fuck I was right. Like, re: her ultimate goal for this podcast. I guess I just always felt like she was after “The Truth” as problematic and bumpy as that ride has been. But after like, maybe the 5th or 6th episode, I started to feel like she wouldn’t find truth and would just try to get as far as she could. But then (and now) I feel like her ultimate goal is just like, this personal story of her involvement with this case. I feel like it’s more about her now.

Jazmin: It definitely shifted towards that. Like this is how this has affected me, this is how it’s changed my view of thugs. *things.

Juli: Freudian slip. That probably is what she thinks.

I don’t think Koenig is malicious in her disregard or reluctance regarding race. Koenig is one of the many people who are lucky enough to not have to have these discussions. Koenig likely hasn’t felt the validity of her American-ness called into question. She likely hasn’t felt the complicated appeal of adhering to some flattering stereotypes that may help survival, or felt the anger and refusal to conform to these notions. The success of Serial season 1 hinges on this last episode, whether she fully acknowledges the failings or her goals of the podcast.  Ultimately, the truest test of Serial and Koenig as reliable and relatable story will be the continued critical engagement with all media as they piece together the stories with her, but that won’t really happen until season 2.

In the meantime, we have great moments in a flawed experiment that captivated an audience larger than anyone could’ve ever anticipated. We also have Mr. S.


Funny or Die may have had the best idea of how to give listeners a satisfying ending.

This story first appeared at Persephone Magazine, a daily blog focused on topics of interest for modern, intelligent, clever women.

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