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‘Serial’ team’s new podcast spotlights the anti-racist work that needs to be done

If the title of Serial Productions’ new podcast makes you uncomfortable, good. That’s the point. 

It’s emblematic of what makes Nice White Parents such a powerful, vital example of the anti-racist work white Americans need to be doing right now if we have any hope of even beginning to make good on our recent promises to support the equality of Black lives.

Nice White Parents, released on July 30, is a five-part limited series from the team that redefined podcasting back in 2014. Instead of complex true-crime cases, however, Nice White Parents puts a different criminal on trial: the white liberalism that has helped perpetuate the segregation of public schools in America for decades under the guise of progressive ideals.

The path to upholding white supremacy can be paved with good intentions, especially when it comes to unwitting white parents.

This American Life alum Chana Joffe-Walt tells the story through an on-the-ground investigation into the School for International Studies (SIS), a New York City public school that was predominantly serving students of color. That is, until a flood of white parents who couldn’t get their kids into preferred white schools instead decided to enroll them there,  causing it to become a battleground of racial tensions and inequalities. It’s a story that comes from a personal place for Joffe-Walt. She began reporting on it after shopping around for schools as a new parent herself, only to discover she was part of a larger history of white parents who have shaped our public school education system into what it is today — which is to say, a system that overwhelmingly and repeatedly fails students of color. 

On its face, the integration of white kids into an underfunded school of mostly Black and brown kids might sound like progress. In reality, the podcast reveals, the path to upholding white supremacy can be paved with good intentions, especially when it comes to unwitting white parents just trying to do what’s best for their kids.

Quickly, Nice White Parents shows that, rather than making schools better for the Black and brown families they integrate with, influxes of white families basically do the public school equivalent of gentrification. They come into underserved communities of color and capitalize on the opportunities those underprivileged communities can’t, all while promising that the wealth and resources they bring will improve life for everyone. Instead, the wealth and resources white folks bring into these public schools only displaces the underserved communities that were there before them, replacing what they built with whatever serves the needs and desires of the white families. 

For example, in the case of SIS, a white father new to the school offered to use his skills as a non-profit fundraiser to bring more donations into the school than the PTA could’ve ever dreamed of before. But what was sold as a golden opportunity for all soon leads to racial disparity and divides. He creates a fundraising group separate from the PTA, which was predominantly led by Black and brown parents. That new group of white parents then gets sole control over where those funds get allocated, putting a lot of it toward a bilingual program for French. It’s a decision that flies in the face of the needs and preferences of the PTA parents and their students of color, many of whom come from households that would benefit much more from an Arabic or Spanish language program.

Like all of Serial Production’s podcasts, from its flagship season on Adnan Syed to S-Town, Nice White Parents zooms in on the specificity of a single case only to reveal how it’s part of a larger pattern of national (if not universal) importance. It doesn’t matter if you don’t live in New York, don’t have kids, don’t attend public schools. If you’re a white American, the problems raised by Nice White Parents are your problems. Like so many other issues of race in this country, they won’t get fixed until white people do the uncomfortable work of recognizing our role in creating the problem, and consequently taking responsibility as the only people who can fix said problems.

The two episodes of Nice White Parents we received early access to expose facts I can’t believe I hadn’t known before. New York City, for example — both the symbol of America as a diverse melting pot and as a bastion of white coastal elitism — has one of the most segregated public education systems in the country. If you’re an underprivileged person of color living there, you probably already knew that. If you’re white, you probably had the privilege of not knowing or reckoning with the enormous consequences of this racial disparity. 

Joffe-Walt has been reporting on the failures of the American public school system for years. But the cutting poignancy of Nice White Parents lies in how she owns her personal role — along those of with other well-intentioned, often liberal white parents — who have perpetuated the segregation of schools for so long after the Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional. 

What’s happening at SIS now isn’t new, but rather history repeating itself. Back when Brown v Board of Education outlawed school segregation, a rash of white parents sent letters demanding the new integrated school of SIS be built closer to their white neighborhoods so they could send their kids there. So it was. The problem was that none of those progressive white parents supportive of racial integration actually ended up sending their kids to SIS. Their performative allyship instead only succeeded in moving the school further away from the predominantly Black and brown communities that did attend the school.

Nice White Parents reveals the uncomfortable truth that, both then and now, white supremacy is very often not cloaked in a white hood. It can be cloaked in virtue signaling and white saviorism that’s harder to identify, particularly when it comes to the desegregation of public schools.

Here’s how it happens: Parents from a racial majority understandably always want their kids to benefit from every possible privilege they can afford. But those privileges are also the benefits inherited from white supremacist structures. So even the nicest white parents, the ones most vocally opposed to racism, keep taking advantage of those systems that give their kids a leg up, all while robbing Black and brown kids of those opportunities.

White supremacy today is not always communicated through the explicit terms of white power, either. Rather, it’s left implied through far more subtle language, like a wealthy French donor explaining that he wants to invest in SIS’s French-language program because he believes French culture will be spread across the world to those who’ve never encountered it before via “soft power” initiatives like this.

Today, segregation gets to hide behind white liberal evasion.

Ironically, though, none of the white parents or liberal donors at SIS who are repeating the same mistakes of the past are at all educated or even aware of the racist history they’re perpetuating.

In some ways, the segregation caused by nice, progressive white parents is more insidious than the racial segregation of public schools that came from outright bigotry and racism. At least before, the phenomenon of white parents protecting their children’s privileges at the cost of everyone else in American society was called by its proper name. 

Today, segregation gets to hide behind white liberal evasion. Mayor Bill de Blasio, for one, blames  housing issues for the racial inequalities of New York’s public schools, placating concerns over it with a “diversity task force.” But how could his task force fix a problem he refuses to call by name (segregation), caused by something he’s even less willing to recognize (white supremacy)? When pressed about his refusal to say the word “segregation” by a reporter during a press conference excerpted on the podcast, de Blasio dismisses the criticism as him not wanting to “get lost in the terminology.” 

But whatever terms we use, the same harm is being done to underprivileged families of color. Only now they have to deal with the racial gaslighting of folks refusing to recognize that racism is, in fact, what’s happening.

When the issues of segregation in public schools are pointed out to white people — particularly white parents — they blame forces larger than themselves, pointing to inherited issues that aren’t their individual fault or aren’t within their power to fix. It’s a sneaky way to pass the buck to Black and brown people instead, asking them to fix issues of race-based poverty, housing inequity, and lack of school funding, despite all of them being directly inherited from that same history of slavery, immigration, and white supremacy they also certainly did not create nor have the power to dismantle.

Recent Black Lives Matter uprisings seem to have finally gotten allies to understand that the work of dismantling white supremacy needs to start at home, where we must confront embedded racism not only within ourselves but also the families that raised us. 

The necessary tension Nice White Parents forces you to sit with is the fact that the fight for equality isn’t just about personal sacrifice or labor. It requires an even more fundamental evolution away from the tribalism of individual family legacy, and toward a worldview that values our larger human family as much as our immediate flesh and blood.

The first couple episodes focus on identifying the pattern and history of public school segregation rather than offering any solutions. But in a meta way, the uneasy labor of this podcast is precisely the first step that needs to happen, not only to fix school segregation but for so many of the issues caused by systemic racism in America.

People like to say that racism is taught, learned behavior rather than instinctual. Well, this is how it’s taught. It’s not just openly racist white parents teaching their kids that whiteness is better. It’s the far more subtle and wordless behaviors of an education system that values whiteness over all else, and encourages white kids to take up all the resources and space previously given to Black and brown kids. Meanwhile, those Black and brown children are taught that their cultures and communities are inferior and expendable, forcing them to take up less space if they want to continue to participate in our public education system.

When it comes to kids, we’re not only talking about the next generation who will make up the future of our society. Because when we look ahead at our children’s imagined futures, we’re also in conversation with our own past: what we wish we’d grown up with, what we promised we’d do better when we became parents ourselves. Kids are our legacy and, as such, kids are where we lay down the groundwork that continues the deep-seated racism that has always defined America’s past, present, and future — until white people actually start doing something about it, that is.

When white parents look at their kids, they get to see all the opportunities that lie ahead of them in a world systemically built for their success. But the futures of Black and brown kids are marred by the visible and invisible forces of racism that try to rob them of opportunity, hope, and sometimes their very lives.

Surprisingly, perhaps no one has highlighted the power and importance of Nice White Parents more than Fox News, which reported on the conservative backlash triggered by a mere three-minute preview clip of the podcast.

“Everything has to be a race war,” said Fox News pundit Lisa Kennedy Montgomery, coming to the defense of those nice white parents being “blamed” for racism. “But this really upsets me.”

Good, Karen. It should upset you. The realization that you are the driving force behind white supremacy should terrify and upset us all. So sit with those feelings of being unsettled, upset. Then go do something about it or shut the hell up.

Nice White Parents is available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and Google.

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