In Aditya Desai’s recent piece in The Aerogram (Did Serial Fail South Asian Americans?), he argues that the main problem with the reporting in Serial is that Sarah Koenig belabors the split cultural worlds Adnan Syed lives in as a South Asian American living in suburban Baltimore, Maryland. Millions of hyphenated youth in America live the same experience. Instead of getting to the more complex issues of race at play in the story, why does she fixate on Adnan’s American attitude and South Asian Muslim upbringing, in pursuit of a resolution to this whodunnit?
Sure, Desai is right. It is not easy being both desi and American, and it’s no help that we’re surrounded by liberal white reporters constantly flitting around the issue. Where are you really from? Are you going to be arranged-marriaged? Here’s the thing: The expectation that Koenig shouldn’t make that inquiry, because she as a white, liberal reporter should somehow magically understand everything from Adnan’s point of view makes little sense. The critical feature of Serial is that in the process of probing Adnan’s double life, America got an unexpected study of Asian-American subjectivity. Koenig explored how Adnan adapted to his circumstances, family, hyphenated, and otherwise.
“In the process of probing Adnan’s double life, America got an unexpected study of Asian-American subjectivity.”
There is a bigger problem Koenig has in Serial: There was never any serious discussion about the racial context of the tale. Set in a predominantly black Baltimore, MD, the first offense is that Serial constantly demonizes Jay, a young black male, who was described repeatedly as an outsider in many ways, a “Dennis Rodman” of the high school community (Wow. Just wow.). In fact, in the context of what is happening nationally after the acquittal of white police officers who killed Michael Brown and Eric Garner, we would argue that Serial is so popular precisely because it plays into the anti-black narratives that define American life.
Koenig overlooks–as does Desai in his piece — another important fact. That Adnan is not just any kind of -American but specifically a Muslim-American is significant, and Desai does not address this. Koenig similarly claims that she doesn’t think that anti-Muslim sentiment motivated the prosecution, proceeding then to provide very real evidence that it was (Episode 10).
Just to repeat the obvious: In American popular culture, mainstream media outlets, and TSA checkpoints everywhere, Muslim-ness is other-ed and criminalized — and in the shadow of blackness in this country. The experience of a non-Muslim, non-Black American in the U.S. is not an appropriate analogy; in fact, the racism all desis face comes out of a genealogy of violence that begins with Orientalism and most recently operates through post-9/11 racializations of Muslims and Muslim-Americans as uncivilized, anti-feminist, and terrorist.
“Serial fails desis and Muslims in this country because it fails black people.”
Serial fails desis and Muslims in this country because it fails black people. Before the show even started, listeners are primed to receive Koenig’s central characters as thugs. Adnan is situated in the trope of Muslim other-ness, Jay in the trope of urban black masculinity. But only one of the communities living in these tropes is killed every 28 hours by a member of law enforcement in the U.S.
These are the terms of the liberal tradition that Koenig is working within — without Orientalism/colonialism and slavery, this story along with its normative narrative violence against black and Muslim alterity would not exist (see Andrea Smith’s “Indigeneity, Settler Colonialism, White Supremacy” for excellent descriptions of the three pillars of white supremacy).
The “neutrality” of her reporting is built on a presumed criminality of black people that Muslim-Americans most recently have been enveloped within, and, whether we like it or not, it is the reason people love this show. Racialized archetypes of criminality make for excellent entertainment! They engage the fundamental logics that make white life valuable in this country, and Adnan, Jay, and all the other characters in the story come to life in this context.
And, of course, at the end of this riveting “story,” Hae Min Lee’s death remains permanent. When we have finished discussing all the what-may-haves, could-haves, and should-haves, her family and loved ones will continue living in her silence. May she rest in peace.
Akhila Ananth is an assistant professor of criminal justice at the California State University, Los Angeles, and Vivek Mittal is an immigration attorney and federal litigator practicing in Los Angeles. Together with their newborn, they support various anti-racist and anti-incarceration initiatives across the country.