An Uncomfortable Reminder: A Podcast Review of Nice White Parents

November 10, 2020
Title: Nice White Parents
Broadcaster: Serial and The New York Times
Narrators: Chana Joffe-Walt
Start Date: July 30, 2020
End Date: August 20, 2020

Nice White Parents is the new podcast from Serial Podcasts and the New York Times. Produced by Channa Joffe-Walt and Julie Snyder with editorial work by Sarah Koenig, Nancy Updike, and Ira Glass—all names of podcast fame—this podcast is a five-episode deep dive into one New York City public school’s relationship with the students who attend it and more specifically those children’s parents.

That school is the combined middle and high school called “The School for International Studies” or “SIS” as it is referred to for most of the show. Over the course of 5 years of investigative journalism, Joffe-Walt has gotten into the bones of SIS, collected stories of the place, and unveiled a 60-year story of how school segregation and racial biases have affected SIS, specifically the racial biases of white parents deciding whether to send their kids to the school.

We learn that when the school was being built in the 1960s, the board of education was intending for it to provide public education to a primarily Black and Puerto Rican population, and was going to build it near a section of Brooklyn mainly occupied by those demographics. However, there was a big push from white parents who wrote the school district claiming they wanted their children to be educated in integrated public schools. This was around the same time that Brown vs. Board of Education had been ruled on in the Supreme Court and—at least in New York—a social justice fervor was apparently sweeping through. White parents wrote to the school board asking that the school be built closer to their white neighborhoods instead of nearer to the Black and Puerto Rican neighborhoods that it was intended to serve.

These letters all sound great. The parents say that they want to their children to attend non-segregated public school, that they don’t want their children to be a part of white cliques, and that a good education is synonymous with an integrated school system. This push from the parents worked and the school was built on the edge of a white neighborhood in Brooklyn in an attempt to integrate the school. However, when the time came for those white families to send their kids to the school, they didn’t send them to SIS. When Joffe-Walt asks one parent to explain their choice, their answer is, “I remember thinking very clearly that OK, I believe in this. But I don’t sort of want to sacrifice my children to it. I have to look at what they will learn, and what they will do.”

This was not the last time white parents would use their influence to affect the goings on at SIS. A significant narrative arc in the podcast is in 2015, when the school went from being populated by primarily Black, Latino, and Middle Eastern students to having an influx of white kids. Joffe-Walt narrates us through how things began to change when the white families arrived. Specifically, a French program began, and one family in particular put in the work to raise money for the program. Though they started fundraising under the umbrella of the parent teacher association, once it became clear that that the PTA was wanting to use some of the money raised for a broader range of student interests, the money was siphoned more into the specific interests of the French program, which was specifically servicing and drawing in the new white families.

There are many more examples in this excellent piece of narrative journalism. Joffe-Walt guides the listener through a stunning amount of story and history in a relatively short season. She also manages to highlight the hard truths of the situation. Her point is one of illumination, of showing the oftentimes unknown and unintended racial biases and preferences of these white parents and the consequences that happen when they show up and throw their power and privilege around within the school system.

This podcast is at times hard and uncomfortable to listen to. In listening to it, you will have to sit through some pretty painful interviews with folks being asked tough questions about why they behaved the way they did, why they didn’t send their kids to a more diverse school when they had the chance, or why they used their power the way they did.

This discomfort is especially true for those of us listeners who bear the descriptors for which the podcast is named. Nice. White. Parents. For those of us who identify with those words, we are asked to take a moment to look in the mirror and ask how we have contributed to systems, consciously or subconsciously, in ways that have hurt those around us.

Though it is hard, it is work that we are called to do. As Christians, we believe that it is our calling to love our neighbors as ourselves, to help the oppressed to walk free, and to extend the hospitality exemplified in Christ to all who thirst for Jesus’ living water. These callings cry out to us to stay awake to ourselves and how we interact with the world; to notice when we use our power to build up our priorities at the expense of others; to examine how we show up at parent teacher conferences; to stay awake to our privilege and to how we use or abuse it in the systems to surround us.

Staying awake to these issues requires practice and exposure to things which make us uncomfortable. One of the most accessible ways to do that is through listening. Nice White Parents is a good way to practice presence for stories of pain and injustice in the world. You won’t have to listen long before you find ways in which neighbors are not loved, hospitality is not shown, and God’s shalom goes unrealized in the SIS school system. You won’t have to listen long before you start to ask yourself if you’ve ever done something similar to those in your community. It’s hard work, but it is good work.

Nice White Parents currently has only one season and at just five episodes is a perfect podcast for a commute or workout listen. It asks hard questions about privilege, good intentions gone awry, and provides a helpful reminder to white folks—specifically white parents—to be mindful of the way that their power affects the systems around them. While it may not be the cliffhanger-filled, intrigue-laden sort of programing we’ve come to expect from Serial podcasts, it is an equally important and well reported story, and an excellent opportunity for listeners to practice neighbor-care and empathy.

About the Author
  • Jackson Nickolay is originally from the North Woods of Minnesota along the shore of Lake Superior, but has lived in Holland, Michigan for the last 6 years. He completed a Master of Divinity from Western Theological Seminary with a focus on worship design. He has a passion for living into the dual vocation of an artist and a minister and finds application for these callings in worship music, embodied scripture, theatre, writing, and liturgical arts. He is married to Hannah Barker Nickolay who also graduated with a Masters in Divinity from Western Theological Seminary. Together with some close friends they run a small liturgical arts company called Wayfolk Arts, which focuses on crafting liturgies, scripture enactments, prayers, songs, and blessings for small and large ecclesial communities. Jackson is also the co-host and co-founding member of the Podcast No Script, a weekly podcast which centers on unscripted conversations about theatre's best scripts.

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