About five years ago, This American Life producer Chana Joffe-Walt began exploring her options for sending her child to public school in New York City. It turned out she had many: She could choose her local zoned school, or a magnet school, or a gifted program, or perhaps a language program. In order to decide, she started touring the schools, and quickly noticed she had something in common with virtually every other parent being guided through the halls: She was white. This was true even though the administrators giving the tours, and the children in the classrooms, were almost always people of color—with the exception of the gifted classrooms. They had the white kids.
Joffe-Walt recounts this anecdote at the beginning of her new podcast Nice White Parents, which arrived in late summer to a country grappling explicitly with racism amid the pandemic, an audience of exhausted parents, and a predictable conservative backlash. She acknowledges that, as a veteran education reporter, she “knew the schools were segregated” and “shouldn’t have been surprised.” And yet, as she told me recently, “There’s knowing, and then there’s, like, knowing.”
“When we look for what’s broken, for how our schools are failing, we focus on who they’re failing—poor kids, Black kids, and brown kids,” Joffe-Walt says in the show’s first episode. “We ask, why aren’t they performing better? Why aren’t they achieving more? Those are not the right questions.” Instead, she suggests, we should be looking at who is benefiting from the status quo, and thus has an interest in impeding change. Enter the nice white parents of the title, whose actions, Joffe-Walt argues, consistently conflict with the progressive values they claim to uphold.
Chronicling the sixty-year history of a single public-school building in Brooklyn, Joffe-Walt reveals that, at every turn, whether or not white parents were physically present, their power shaped what happened inside. The story unfolds in five episodes and is crafted to take white listeners on a journey from shaking their heads in a general way, to feeling directly implicated. From knowing to knowing.
Nice White Parents is produced by Serial Productions, which was recently acquired by the New York Times. It quickly became the #1 podcast on iTunes when it was released earlier this summer. (It also drew thousands of one-star reviews, many of them written before the first episode was even released, accusing the show of being “anti-white” “left wing” “racist garbage”—though the five-star ratings far outweigh those.) I spoke with Joffe-Walt about who she thinks her reporting is talking to, her own place in the story, and how she feels about integration now.
— DJ Cashmere for Guernica
Guernica: The title feels intentionally ironic. As far as I can tell, “nice” serves as shorthand for “liberal and affluent.” But I’m wondering if that’s how you see it?
Chana Joffe-Walt: I think in a lot of the story it does operate that way.
We talked about the title so much and went back and forth about both the title and how much the show was really focused on whiteness. But in the end it felt like what the story had to offer that was different from other stories was that it could be pretty narrowly focused on liberal white parents: white parents who believe schools should be integrated, espouse a lot of the values that should lead to more equitable schools, and then make choices that seem to contradict those values.
Guernica: I had some questions about that focus on whiteness. It is clearly filling a void. There’s so little feature-length education journalism that deals with educational inequities by focusing on the people that the system often benefits.
You’ve collaborated with Nikole Hannah-Jones in the past. She said something at the Education Writers Association National Seminar this summer that really stuck with me. She was talking about distinguishing between who her stories are written for, which is usually marginalized people of color, and who they are written to, which is the readership of the New York Times. If you apply that lens to Nice White Parents, who do you think the show is for, and who do you think it’s directed to?
Joffe-Walt: The honest answer is that I don’t know.
I think this is the first reporting I’ve done where I have been very aware of narrowing an audience, and that different people will hear different parts of this in different ways. I certainly had liberal white parents—people who are very much like me—in mind in the way I was interacting with the material.
The main thing I thought a lot about in terms of audience, and especially in terms of the liberal white audience, was not wanting it to be possible for people to listen through the whole series and remain at a distance. In the first episode, it’s easy to kind of think, Well, a lot of this seems sort of absurd, and that’s not me. But the further you get, the more opportunities you have to see yourself and try to place yourself in the story. For me, that definitely happened further along. The more reporting I did, the harder it was to sit at a distance from the material.
Guernica: In Episode Two, you talk about the “innocence” and naiveté of white parents. One of the things white supremacy does really well is shield white people from having to reckon with the harm that’s being done on their behalf. Were you specifically thinking of the show as an antidote to innocence? Did you have an anti-naiveté mission in your reporting?
Joffe-Walt: Definitely, yes. It started for me with an interest in speaking about and talking to people about white supremacy in public education. It was evident in so many ways in my own experience as a reporter, and as a parent, but was not explicitly being spoken about in a lot of reporting or my social circles.
There are these racial realities that shape so much about public schools that white people see, but I don’t think it’s something that is spoken about explicitly. Instead, we use a lot of language in talking about schools—schools that are “good” or “bad,” or why we couldn’t send our kids to certain schools—and we use words like “chaos” or “disruptive” or “the test scores.” Which are considerations. But we also know that race is a big consideration for white parents in thinking about schools. And that doesn’t get spoken about clearly.
How can you understand how this whole system works, and our own relationship to it, and the ways in which we’re implicated in it, without speaking about it?
Guernica: There are moments sprinkled throughout where the listener learns that you yourself are a white parent living in Brooklyn. It felt intentional that you were naming that fact. At the same time, it also felt intentional that we didn’t learn a ton about your experiences as a white parent, or the choices that you made with your own kids. How did you decide how much of your own story to put in?
Joffe-Walt: It felt intentional that you didn’t learn more about me?
Guernica: The moment I noticed it was when you said that the white kids at your child’s school were mostly tracked into a Gifted and Talented program, but you never explicitly said whether your kid was in the program. Also, there was never a moment at the end where you were like, “And then I decided that I was going to do this totally other thing with my kid instead.” I felt like there were moments where you could have gone further about yourself but you didn’t.
Joffe-Walt: It felt clear to me that it needed to be stated up front that I’m a white parent and this is my subjective narrator’s relationship to the material. Beyond that, I’m a shy and private person, and so I have my own reluctance to include that much about myself in the story. And as a reporter, I feel like it’s not supposed to be about me. And who cares what I’m doing?!
I think the way I started to think about it was in large part due to conversations with my editor, Julie Snyder, which was that the spine of the series is the history of the school building and white parents’ relationship to it. And then the parallel thread through the whole series is the evolution of my thinking about segregation and power in schools.
The second part was really Julie saying to me over and over again, “This story doesn’t really have something propelling it forward without you as a narrator bringing your own questions to it, and then changing.”
Guernica: I was looking at the folks who helped make the piece: people like Julie Snyder, Sarah Koenig, Neil Drumming, Ira Glass. This is obviously such an incredible all-star roster of audio folks. It’s a pretty short list and a pretty white list. Was that intentional? There’s an argument to be made that this is the kind of story that is white people’s responsibility to tell. I was just wondering about that—the diversity behind the scenes in creating the project.
Joffe-Walt: I would not say that it was intentional. Mostly just in terms of who is in place to work on shows like this—that wasn’t designed by me. So it wasn’t intentional.
I did think a lot about who was hearing the series. Every person who heard this in edits really responded from their own experience. Which I think is always true with stories, but maybe was even more evident with this.
Julie and Sarah are both white moms who really identified with a lot of the white parents in the story in a similar way to me. It was useful and helpful to talk to them about that. And also, I was aware that we had that constituency covered.
I wanted to make sure we had people involved who knew education, history, and race—and the way those things intersect. That happened a lot in the reporting because I talked to so many different people in trying to sort out my own thinking. And some of it was that we had two formal editorial consultants [Rachel Lissy and Eve L. Ewing] who were pretty deeply involved.
We thought a lot about who was part of the team hearing this. It was really evident how different people brought different things to it.
Guernica: I was a teacher before I moved to journalism, so I was definitely bringing that with me. I taught in segregated schools in Chicago for eight years. I probably taught about 500 kids. Two of them were white. But I don’t remember any parent ever bringing up integration. I was thinking about that in Episode Five, where you talk about the fact that, for a lot of Black and brown parents today, integration isn’t really a top priority.
What do you make of that? Especially given the moment in Episode Three when Eve Ewing asks you why you’re obsessed with integration. Thinking about the difference between how much you care about it, and how much others do or don’t care about it, I’m curious about where you ended up.
Joffe-Walt: I’m less fixated on integration as something that is about different bodies in a building. I feel less fixated on that and more fixated on power and equity. And the hoarding of the resources of a public system by privileged and/or white families. That is something that needs to be directly addressed. That feels like the primary thing to me. Or one of the primary things.
Your other question is about what I make of people of color’s reluctance to push for integration. I think it makes a lot of sense. A lot of integration efforts were sort of perverted to mean something very different than what people of color were pushing for. Integration, even in many of the cases that led up to Brown vs. Board, and the movement for integration in New York City [following the Brown decision], was about a remedy for inequality. It was about material resources.
I think whether or not integration is the tool that achieves equality is less important than actually achieving it.
Guernica: At the end of Episode Five you say something that I think is getting at exactly that point. You’re addressing white parents directly, and you say, “We should know it’s within our power to help create” a more equitable system—by demanding one. Does that conclusion mean that you think things are only going to get better for children of color if white parents decide that it should? Or is that too narrow a reading of that closing statement?
Joffe-Walt: No, I don’t think that’s true. I think the way things are going to get better is, hopefully, with a multiracial group of Americans pushing for things to get better for public schools. I think white parents within a white supremacist system are privileged and listened to and have power. And they should use that power to push for more equitable systems for everybody, but also to listen to our neighbors of color about what they want and hope for schools. And to support them in demanding that, even in cases where it doesn’t necessarily directly benefit us or our kids. What have been effective are movements that have been largely led by parents of color to push for more equity in schools.
Black-led movements for change actually have quite a lot of power in terms of shaming parents who are attached to our progressive identities. But I don’t think that happens by white people on their own waking up and saying we should stop hoarding resources. I think that it happens by people of color pushing for what they want and white people hopefully supporting that push.
Guernica: I have another question about the way you wrap things up. You explore three models for limiting the power of white parents: two on the school level and one on the district level. And you essentially argue that none of them are widely replicable blueprints for long-term systemic change.
There’s long been a trend in education reporting to point to a promising new thing and imply that it’s a silver bullet. And you’ve resisted that consistently, in pieces you’ve done about restorative justice, or efforts to expose low-income students to affluent educational spaces, or integration efforts.
Did you not end Nice White Parents by offering a solution because you didn’t find one in your reporting? Or because it’s a personal preference? Or neither of those reasons?
Joffe-Walt: By the time the fifth episode came out, we had gotten a lot of feedback that white parents in particular wanted a model. So I felt aware of that. And I was aware of not feeling like it was possible to provide individual white people a template for how to create more equity in their specific school—or life.
For me, what was really helpful was knowing the story. Knowing this history felt instructive to me. There are all sorts of moments that you can anticipate and name using correct words.
The woman in the fifth episode [Miriam Nunberg, a white parent and integration activist] provides a model: She stays engaged. She learns. She continues to opt in over and over and over again.
But I don’t think there is one template that leads to more equitable schools that are going to affirm and support every single child in every district in the country—partly because the facts on the ground are different in different school districts. The inequities are rooted in white supremacy. That’s the disease. But it changes and takes many different forms.
I didn’t end this feeling like I came to the solution. I felt like I tried to lay out a story and a problem. And to argue that it’s important to know and look at that story and try to learn from it.