“What are you reading these days?” a family friend asks at a baby shower. Sheepishly, I tell her that I am reading true crime.

My rueful admission is met with a flurry of high energy, a suddenly bright and fluttering conversation, freed of mandatory small talk. We are newly ravenous in our conversation, eagerly sharing our favorite true crime books and documentaries and happily interrogating one another about our reading lists. Have you read Dead by Sunset? It happened just a few miles from here. Have you seen Evil Genius? What did you think of Serial? Are you excited about Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile?

This has become a regular feature of my social life with other white women. Light and inconsequential conversation suddenly turns voracious, insatiable in its dissection of so many violent crimes, all of which happened to real people, none of which seem like they did. Our voices become percussive, eager cymbals and snares, bright with the promise of gruesome new murders to explore.

In recent years, I have met dozens of true crime fans. Over time, it has become apparent that often, we are more alike than different: mostly women, mostly white, usually citizens, and largely middle class. My fellow true crime fans are often straight and feminine. Many also espouse centrist or left-leaning politics. And we all share a seemingly endless appetite for murder.

The more true crime fans I meet, the more I see myself reflected. And the more troubled I become.

I do not know when my personal fascination with true crime began, or precisely why. I remember watching “ripped from the headlines” Law & Order marathons while writing term papers in college, and surreptitiously reading about serial killers in high school. I remember watching Richard Linklater’s Bernie with my mother, the two of us laughing lightheartedly about such a quirky, sweet murderer. As I write this, I struggle to recall when my empathy so readily disappeared.

My appetite for true crime stands in stark contrast to my own internal life. I am deeply anxious, diagnosed with a wide range of anxiety and panic disorders over the course of my life. In the first grade, following fire safety, I became convinced that our family home would burn to the ground and I would be trapped in my room, unable to escape. As a DARE student, I was certain I would become addicted to cocaine, steal from my parents, run my nascent life into a ditch. Drug crimes terrified me; murders intrigued.

Despite all of this deep, pervasive anxiety, I have long had an iron stomach for grisly, detailed true crime and dark thrillers. Over time, I have come to understand that true crime offers a steam valve to the pressure cooker of my turbulent internal life. It nurtures my anxiety, grows it, then offers a controlled path for that anxiety to escape. My anxiety finds real-life events to cling to, and a real-life resolution to soothe it.

Beyond that, the genre offers me what it offers many fellow fans. As I write this, I have spent nearly 35 years on this earth as a woman. Perhaps the most pressing skill taught to me as a child and adolescent was how to avoid the violence that would inevitably befall me. Never walk to your car alone. Call someone on the phone if you have to walk alone at night. Wedge your keys between your fingers when you’re alone — like brass knuckles. I knew some women who owned mace, and others who owned pistols. Sexual assault and other forms of violence were to be expected, and it was up to us to learn how to defend ourselves.

These conversations, though, exclusively took place among women. When men were present, these tips were not discussed, not shared. Because while we were each responsible for warding off violence and violent men, we were not to hurt their feelings in the process. Our job was to look pretty, make men feel better, smooth things over. Act as a gatekeeper to your own body, but give in for your own safety.

True crime, by contrast, offered acknowledgment of the dangers of life as a woman. When I worried that my anxiety was just in my head, true crime reassured me that it was real and warranted, more survival skill than pathology. And when the world at large refused to acknowledge the perils of moving through the world as a woman, true crime offered those threats in painstaking and gruesome detail, a bizarre kind of affirmation. When I wondered if I had imagined what lurked behind the long and steely glance of a stranger, true crime reassured me. You’re not imagining it. Your fears keep you safe.

But those fears aren’t just mine. They are fugue states and fever dreams shared by so many other white women. Yes, true crime offers so much illumination. But what does it keep hidden?

Since the 2014 premiere of Serial, true crime has faced a major surge in popularity. S-Town, Making a Murderer, My Favorite Murder, the Keepers, Dirty John, the Staircase, the Jinx and countless others have become smash hits, thrusting otherwise forgotten or overlooked grisly crimes into the spotlight. While true crime has been around much longer, the last five years have seen the genre’s profile raised significantly, finding particular popularity among white women like me.

Intrigued and troubled by the homogeneity of the true crime fans I knew, I started looking into the genre’s most prominent creators, reporters, and personalities. Like the fans I knew, most were white, and plenty were women. Serial’s Sarah Koenig, S-Town’s Brian Reed, Karen Kilgariff and Georgia Hardstark of My Favorite Murder, Making a Murderer’s Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos — these creators overwhelmingly lived in major coastal cities, and were overwhelmingly white. And the stories they told were disproportionately focused on white people, too.

This isn’t to say that there aren’t true crime stories being told by folks of color or effectively centering race. Most recently, Viola Davis premiered The Last Defense on ABC, which investigates charges against a multiracial group of incarcerated people. Payne Lindsay’s Atlanta Monster shed light on a serial murderer of Black men and boys in Atlanta, giving airtime to the man currently incarcerated for those murders. Missing and Murdered tackled the endless disappearance of Native women in Indian Country. Yance Ford’s Strong Island explores the murder of his own brother. There are plenty of true crime stories told by and about folks of color. But while they are critically well received, they do not become the juggernauts that My Favorite Murder or Making a Murderer have.

The science is increasingly clear: white people do not empathize with people of color, especially Black people, the same way we empathize with one another.

This pattern — white creators focusing on white victims and white perpetrators — stands in stark contrast to what we know about who is charged and sentenced in the U.S. Black people are incarcerated at five times the rate of white people in the United States — and in some states, that disparity nearly doubles, with Black people sent to prison ten times more frequently than white people. In 12 states, the prison population is more than half Black. While the raw numbers of inmates are decreasing, Black people still make up roughly 13% of the U.S. population, but nearly 38% of the prison population. And two out of every five current death row inmates are Black. Meanwhile, the stories that are lifted up in true crime — and those currently experiencing major surges in popularity — still focus on white folks.

This disproportionate focus on white stories could be explained a few ways. It could be that programs created by and starring white people are more likely to make it to air. It could be that creators want to start a broader conversation about the criminal justice system, but know (or think) that in order to make it palatable, they need to center white stories. It could be that as they read the news, these were simply the stories they connected with most.

But whatever the reason, underlying these storytelling disparities is a growing body of research that points to an unsettling truth: overwhelmingly, white people cannot or do not empathize with people of color. A 2016 study found that half of white medical students believed patently false, often “fantastical” myths about Black people experiencing less pain than white people. (Relatedly, white people are more likely to receive treatment for the pain they describe to their doctor.) Research at the University of Southern California shows that the empathy gap even extends to white social workers, who believe themselves to be empathetic, but who struggle to empathize with clients of color.

The science is increasingly clear: white people do not empathize with people of color, especially Black people, the same way we empathize with one another. Whatever we want to believe about ourselves, our intentions, or our politics, we simply do not connect across lines of race. Given the pervasiveness of this empathy gap, it’s highly likely that predominantly white creators more readily gravitate toward white subjects, while white audiences more readily watch them.

Regardless of why these storytelling disparities exist amongst true crime creators, subjects, and, anecdotally, fans, the true crime genre often underplays these racial inequities of empathy, prison populations, access to services, and more. Some, like Serial, contain some limited discussion of race, and the utility of that discussion is hotly debated. Others, like Making a Murderer, forgo conversations about race altogether.

Because who wants to mess up a good story with its own uncomfortable truth?

At the baby shower, I ask the family friend if she has seen Ava du Vernay’s 13th, or read The New Jim Crow or Are Prisons Obsolete? She looks at me blankly.

“I’m not familiar.”

Another friend jumps in to explain their premises — work by Black creators about the ending legacy of slavery, Jim Crow, and mass incarceration. I ask that friend if she’s read or seen either. She shakes her head.

“The true crime stuff is just for fun. That feels like homework.”

The longer I listen to, watch, and read true crime, the more aware I become of its vulnerabilities. Things that used to seem like subtle irritants, distractions from the wings, are now center stage, plainly laid out beneath an unforgiving spotlight.

During live shows, the hosts of My Favorite Murder announce life sentences to thunderous applause. In studio, they interview a detective effusively, launching fan art projects and mild worship of the same police departments that are regularly being held accountable by Black communities for their constant killings of unarmed Black people.

I wonder how these interviews, overflowing with praise, are received by those whose family members have been arrested, incarcerated, killed. I wonder if they feel enticed, thrilled, engaged, or if they feel re-traumatized, taken advantage of, erased. I become acutely aware of my whiteness, as I am so rarely called to do. I remember that nearly every time I have encountered police, I have been let off with a warning. I wonder what it feels like to hear these true crime stories if you have not been taught, over and over again, that the system will forgive you.

Later, when I listen again, I find myself looking up interviews with true crime auteurs, searching for some mention of Black, Latinx, and Native incarceration rates, some indication that they are gently leading us into a broader conversation about race, criminal justice, and the prison system. Some acknowledgment that the United States imprisons more of its residents than any other nation in the world.

Instead, I find obligatory caveats, tepid responses only offered when the question is called. The question is rarely called.

I meet friends for a weekly happy hour. One of my friends tells me about getting drunk regularly as a teenager in an all-white town of 174 people.

Cops found him, stumbling drunk at 15. They offered him a ride home, never confronting the illegality of his actions, or even telling his parents.

That night, while we drink, prosecutors announce they will file no charges for the murder of Alton Sterling. Four days later, Stephon Clark is murdered by police, who claim they believe his cell phone was a gun.

I bring up both when we meet the following week. My white friends shake their heads and wait for the discomfort to pass.

I cannot tell you what to make of your own true crime consumption, but I can tell you what mine means for me.

Increasingly, true crime takes three steps too many for me. It doesn’t just relish the relief of feeling a little bit safer, it seeks a pound of flesh, some measure of punitive retribution for whoever it sees as having been wronged. It doesn’t just celebrate the end of violence, it conflates prison sentences with justice — as if some wrong could be truly righted by simply locking someone away. And in failing so frequently to discuss race, these true crime sensations create a warm Petri dish for their fans’ subtle racism to grow, cells dividing and multiplying with frightening speed, until we are awash in its bacteria.

There are crucial opportunities for conversation in true crime that are too often overlooked, and that fuel the blissful ignorance of so many white listeners to the realities of the criminal justice system. I find myself increasingly concerned by the passive, joyful reception of prison sentences. I find myself deeply disturbed by auditoriums full of people cheering for death penalties, applauding the impending murder of anyone marked criminal.

More and more, I am troubled by the investment that true crime can foster in the prison system, even as it points out its vulnerabilities. And I worry that too often, true crime finds us reducing the very real lives — of offenders, victims, and the families of both — to a spectacle for sport, a two-dimensional plot with surprising pop ups and satisfying twists. Suddenly, so many lives torn asunder become hobbies.

Too often, true crime regards the stories of incarcerated people with suspicion, the fact of their residence clouding our perception. That suspicion is readily fostered in audiences, who regard the real people in real prisons with all the gravity of a murder mystery dinner party. True crime disconnects us from the real and deep suffering caused by every facet of the criminal justice system. And I worry that my friends who love true crime so dearly do not know the rolling waves of sadness, the tsunami of grief and pain that sweeps me away when I step inside a prison.

Too often, true crime fans like me and my friend at the baby shower haven’t heard from people who have been incarcerated, or from their families. We leave the story when the mystery is solved, only rarely requiring ourselves to grapple with the painful and often counterproductive truth of life for incarcerated people, and the devastation that can cause for their families. We learn whodunit, indulging our own gendered and racialized fears and leaving the story when it becomes most inconvenient to us: when we are forced to confront the impact our retributory impulses has on the people who are then incarcerated, sometimes even sentenced to death. Any unsettling truths we may learn about life in prison, we decide, are the fault of the prisoners themselves. He should’ve thought of that before he did it. If you’re going to do the crime, you’ve got to do the time.

We engage with the criminal justice system uncritically and unquestioningly because most of us have been taught that the job of police is to protect and serve us. And overwhelmingly, our experiences bear that out. As white women, so many of us have stories of calling the police to complain about neighbors, and being believed, quietly becoming our own Permit Patties. So many of us have friends who were caught high or drunk while underage and were subsequently never charged by the police who found them. Many of us know someone who has driven recklessly or under the influence, only to be let off with a warning. We believe we can trust police — and as white women, we often can.

But we do not seek out the voices of people of color, immigrants, people without housing — those who law enforcement is more likely to target than help. We change the channel when faced with the stories of Black people who have been shot by police, or sentenced to cruelly long prison sentences. We eagerly take in the mystery until it is solved, then turn away when the narrative challenges us to reckon with the impact of our media consumption, our unchecked desire for a pound of flesh.

We do not seek out the voices of those who have been incarcerated, and we tune out tales of inhumane prison conditions. We do not seek out the voices of the families that prisoners have left behind, left to fend for themselves. And when their voices are offered to us, we haven’t listened. We have politely, quietly sidestepped the pain, complexity, and trauma that threatens our good time.

I do not want to believe that I need to see real trauma of real people laid bare in front of me to feel entertained. I bristle at the thought of myself as some Roman emperor in a coliseum, watching men fight to the death for sport, demanding destruction to feel amused. But in my heart of hearts, I know that true crime fosters that in me.

I have not stopped watching or listening to true crime. But over time, those cumulative worries have manifested first as a subtle breeze, now as a sharper wind, and the pilot light of my interest is flickering. I know that it will be extinguished soon.

Until then, for every work of true crime I take in, I have committed myself to watching or reading another on the perils of prison expansion, the quagmire of mandatory minimum sentencing, the firsthand accounts of victims and survivors, and the words of those still in prison.

Until then, and beyond, I am redoubling my commitment to end prison expansion, for-profit prisons, and the sentencing policies that allow their inhumane practices to flourish. I am redoubling my commitment to organizations like the Innocence Project, Black Lives Matter, the TGI Justice Project, Californians for Safety and Justice, and more. And I am redoubling my commitment not just to volunteering or donating, but to putting my body on the line for those whose bodies are caged for years, decades, lifetimes.

Until then, I have committed myself to broadening my own lens, and that of my fellow white women who love true crime. Until then, I will push beyond the gossip-tinged conversations about suspects, the intentions of law enforcement, or the flattening of the lives of the real people involved in true crime. We cannot simply lift up wrongful imprisonment without grappling with its systemic causes and the institutional solutions to it. And it is at our own peril — the lives of the accused, the peace of the victims, and the souls of the audience — that we conflate prison sentences with real justice. Real justice is one that makes us all more whole, and more human.

Until that pilot light is extinguished in me, I will return to that family friend and the conversation I left behind. And until the prison system resembles something my soul can bear to witness, and something that considers the humanity of the people confined within it, I will act.

What will you do?