Below is an excerpt from a larger essay about oppressive practices in classrooms.
“So, what’s your story?”
These four words were triumphantly hurled to an auditorium of 1,100 high school students on a crisp, shimmery, spring day after a two-hour anti-bullying assembly led by a well known national organization. I watched with curiosity as students (most of whom were students of color) in various forms of emotional tumult waited in long lines to speak into one of three microphones for a well monitored two minutes. Student responses ranged from apologies to other students for enacting oppressive behaviors, crushing and choked admissions of being viciously victimized in shocking ways, laser like observations of administrators, teachers, and staff members who openly mistreated students because of racial or socioeconomic identities, and many more. The tears were many and the trauma was individual, institutional, abstract ,and concrete all at once.
As the assembly ended at 10am, students were instructed to move to their next class and the school social work team was deployed in force. Teachers were instructed to ‘support students by making space in their classes to further process their feelings and emotions’. The frenzy was palpable. Seemingly hundreds of students were in various stages of the grief process and the adults in the building seemed to be triggered in a host of ways as well. Needless to say the day of, and the days following the assembly carried a very different weight in the building. Within 48 hours the response from almost all the white teachers was a coolly delivered, clipped, sanitized,
“It’s just so important for them to tell their stories.”
What happened in the assembly and the seemingly universal response to what happened with those students left me with a set of questions and observations I have been lovingly wrestling with for the last several years.
Many, many people are eager to be seen and heard. Even more importantly they wish to be felt, understood, and emboldened. Storytelling feeds some of these instinctive human desires. When the story is told, the unapologetic intimacy of recalling, thinking, forming words, breathing, looking, hearing, listening, acknowledging, receiving, and feeling makes for real and legitimate moments of human to human connection. That pattern of exchange predates, and transcends, the written word.
Of late, I have seen a development of massive industries based on story; there are apps that collate and ‘house’ stories, pay to ‘perform’ story telling contests that charge listeners admission to ‘hear’ those same performers, NPR’s Story Corps, workshops and seminars, some of which cost thousands of dollars to attend, all seem peppered with the demand to ‘share that story’. Such spaces are emerging for the simple yet ironic reason that in a world filled with sound bites, clips, and posts, people need to talk. Young folks got THANGS to say. Elders have generations of ear space to command and contain. Folks with little finances and big talents write, talk, and testify every damn where. Those with lots of cash assets, inheritances, and Cayman accounts have a wealth of something or other to say. The people on this Earth are in essence screaming, singing, wordlusting, writing, talking, posting and literally running with words. I fully understand why spaces to tell stories are ablaze. Simply put, the public has demanded to be heard.
And in that uniquely rich moment of story sharing, as important as it is to recognize the power of a story, it is as vital to call attention to what quickly and seamlessly occurs in the shadows of the story exchange. In schools, classrooms and academic settings in particular, I have watched storytelling be labeled as activism. Of course, the story and the presentation of the story is activism. There are boundless, borderless, and timeless examples of that kind of activism. The issues erupt when that act of storytelling activism follows a pattern of behavior that replicates patterns of soft violence and dominance. Just as there are cultural rules and norms of eye contact, I present the idea that there are cultural rules and norms of ear contact especially during the time when people targeted by racial oppression are sharing their racialized stories with white listeners.
What follows are a developing ideas about the way story telling can become a colonized space especially in the academic setting. Instead of the myth/truth binary, I opted to use the terms convenient and inconvenient truths since ‘truths’, to me, continue to become increasingly nebulous and arbitrary. The responses in the inconvenient truths column will be further developed, but will remain succinct in order to avoid theoretical excess.
The ‘allowance’ of POC’s voice to become central and heard seemingly interrupts normalized habits of oppression since finally there is space to speak, hear and listen to how race plays out on a daily basis. This act and allowance of speaking about race publicly becomes particularly important because one of the most common rules about racial pathology is the expectation that people targeted by racism are not supposed to raise, amplify, or talk openly about oppressive practices that silence and injure them. While people who are being injured in other ways are encouraged to ‘tell someone’, it is noteworthy that racial and oftentimes sexual violence are often expected to be ingested and, at times, tolerated by the victim.
There is often an underlying ethos that when a person of color is sharing their story with white listeners it is with the intention that the white listener can ‘really learn from the story’ and ‘truly understand’ the impact of living a racialized existence in America. Through that personal story the white listener is often expected to gain insight and understanding and in some circumstances then be moved to advocate and support institutional and structural changes to combat racial oppression.
While the authenticity of that POC’s story was usually unquestioned, I consistently observed a parallel process occurring between the teller and some white listeners. Alongside the cathartic release the telling of the story seemingly provided for the victim, I noticed that the same story took on the duty of proving, once again–particularly to white listeners–that racism still exists in its crude and cruel forms. Often the story teller would be asked to repeat or restate the more harrowing parts of their story as many of the listeners of all races would openly wince or even cry. I repeatedly observed that the point of acute connection between the story/story teller and the white listener seemed less about justice and acts of supremacy, but much more about a voyeuristic journey into the pain and trauma of the victim.
It is important to note that designating space and time to tell that story fits into the constructs of permission granting/permission granted power binary where the person who is targeted by the oppressive behavior must wait for the time and space labeled as ‘appropriate’ to express, recollect and revisit what has happened to them. Often there are rules and norms to adhere to that allow control and containment of both the story and storyteller.
There are two noteworthy observations based on this situation.
a. What frequently happens is a form of white racial silencing where many white listeners do not speak about their own racial inheritances imprints, footprints or narratives which leads to…
b. …the focus of racial pathology becomes the person targeted by racism and the perpetrator distills into memory and air.[i]
The acknowledgment of, and catering to, the pain of the victimized storyteller elicited seemingly communal feelings of connectedness, validity, and legitimization. The pain of the darker person seemed to become a way for the white listener to ‘feel’ something related to race. There are historical psychological, and psychic relationships between watchers who are white and the darker bodies of those who are harmed and broken and the remnants of these relationships are revealed and enacted in exchanges of stories.[ii]
The question is not whether or not stories and story telling are legitimate. Time, our hearts, our grandparents, the photo albums in the basements, checkpoint papers, folded pages, our memories in and on our bodies all resoundingly tell us stories and story telling are rollicking lifebloods of humanity and existence. What does deserve to be questioned is how power and racialized domination can easily occur in the storytelling exchange.
[i] Inspired by Robin DiAngleo’s essay, Nothing to Add: A Challenge to White Silence in Racial Discussions
[ii] Inspired by Sherene Razack’s book, Looking White People in the Eye