Storytelling and Antiracism: Choosing Stories

This blog post is the second in a series about Storytelling and Antiracism. Click here to read the first post: Storytelling and Antiracism. Click here to download your FREE Storytelling & Antiracism summary and reading list.

Storytellers do a lot when they tell a story. The storyteller’s voice occupies a space between the story and the audience. They mediate the story for their audience. If you’re an audiobook fan, think about the difference between listening to an audiobook read poorly and one read by a skilled reader or actor. The storyteller shapes the story as they tell it.

Storytellers are powerful. When you choose to tell a story, you choose to not tell dozens, hundreds, even thousands of stories. When you choose to tell one story, you give that story, that author or person, a platform through your voice. You help them reach a wider audience. An important part of antiracism work is being aware of the platform you have and the way you use it. How you use that platform is an important choice.

So, let’s talk about how you can do antiracism work when it comes to choosing stories. 

Why are you telling a story?

Storytellers must carefully consider the purpose of their story. On the top level, you might be telling a story to teach, share, or introduce yourself. But dig a little deeper every time and think carefully about what you want to teach, what you want to share, or how you want to introduce yourself. Remember, stories are dense. They convey a lot of information, far more than plot and characters. They also convey worldviews and values. Every time you tell a story, you are borrowing your listener’s time and attention. You owe it to them to make the most of it.

I give storytelling workshops to diverse audiences, from arts students to science PhDs to entrepreneurs and education professionals. A storyteller must start a workshop with a story and I start most workshops with a personal story. When I tell my story, I have multiple purposes. I want to show that I can tell a story, to connect with my audience, and to give an example of how I use my storytelling in a context familiar to them. I choose my introduction story based on what I want to accomplish and who I’m trying to accomplish it with. It’s important to choose a story knowing what the story must and can accomplish.

Stories are important tools in antiracism work because they give audiences insight into other peoples’ lives and experiences. Some of the purposes you might have in telling a story include;

  • Sharing the experience of someone with a different skin color
  • Exposing the impact of white fragility on people of color
  • Examining a historic or current event from a different point of view
  • Raising questions about opportunity, equality, or equity
  • Reframing diversity and inclusion challenges

Think carefully about why you are telling your story and what you want your listeners to take away from the experience. Always ask yourself, is there a latent racist message that you can avoid sharing? Is there a racist norm that you can disrupt with your story? Could that be part of what you want to convey in your story?

Who is your audience?

Storytellers must consider their audience. Every audience is different every time you meet them. Who will you be telling your story to this time? No story fits every audience, not even Little Red Riding Hood. Every story must be adapted to the audience and the moment. That means a story might tell a story differently in the morning than in the evening around the campfire, for example. Asie from questions like an audience’s age, interests, and knowledge, an antiracism storyteller should take more into account.

Not every audience will be equally receptive to a story that disrupts systemic racist norms. Not every audience will be equally interested in or open to stories about people who are not like them or the norm they live in. You may find yourself encountering resistance, rejection, and white fragility if your story challenges your audience. That might be exactly the thing you want to do with your story. If it isn’t, then take that, too into consideration when you choose your stories. 

I am not advocating avoiding antiracism work because things are going to be hard. After all, at its heart, antiracism work is about ending systemic racism that has been in place for centuries. You won’t get much done by asking politely every time. Sometimes you’re going to have to insist. What I suggest is that you think about your audience and yourself. How much energy do you have? How much can you absorb if resistance, rejection, and fragility come your way? What can you do to prepare?

When it comes to my introduction stories, each audience gets a story that’s tailored to the situation. Medical audiences get the story about how I worked with my MD/PhD husband to convince him to use storytelling and his success with the methods. Workshops about telling your professional story get two versions of stories I tell to introduce myself to show the same person, multiple stories approach. When I give workshops about life as an American in the Netherlands, I start with stories about my pain and how I coped.

Here’s the truth, though. I do not tell stories about racism I have experienced, particularly not in the Netherlands. Why? I’m not ready to deal with the audience’s reaction. I’m no longer willing to endure the rejection and gaslighting that my stories have elicited time and time again in small private groups and conversations. Some audiences aren’t ready for my story and I am not ready to tell them.

So, thinking about your audience has two parts. On the one hand, it’s important to think about who your audience is, what they can relate to, and how they might respond to your story. On the other hand, it’s thinking about what you are ready and able to share in your story as well as what you’re willing and able to absorb in terms of your audience’s responses. You might not be ready to tell your own story but be able to tell someone else’s story. Remember, there are thousands of stories. The right story for you and your audience is out there.

Which stories are you telling?

It’s easy and comfortable to tell the same stories to willing listeners over and over again. But which stories are you telling? Whose stories are you telling? What latent messages are in your stories? The traditional fairy tale story in which a damsel in distress is saved by a brave white man has seen its heyday and we are lucky to live in a moment when some of the movie makers are making new fairy tales, with more and less success. But how do you find and choose a story?

I initially had incredibly mixed feelings about stories from non-European sources. After all, I have grown up, been educated in, and lived in European dominated paradigms all of my half-Taiwanese life. I have had the great fortune to learn storytelling from wonderful teachers who introduced me to new-to-me stories like a beautiful Taiwanese folktale and the Mulla Nasrudin stories. I delighted in these stories. I loved a Taiwanese folktale that recalled the way my mother thinks. I cackle in delight (if you’ve heard me laugh, it’s a cackle) when I read and retell Nasrudin stories. They are witty and funny and wise. But initially, I hesitated to tell these stories. I worried that my audience would reject them. I worried that it was plain weird for me to tell these stories. I noticed that I was much more nervous telling my favorite Nasrudin story than I ever was telling Little Red Riding Hood.

Why? Because it was so easy and comfortable telling Little Red Riding Hood. It’s a story I and many people in my audiences have grown up with. I’ve stood in front of rooms with people from twenty different countries where people from three different continents told me they also grew up with Little Red Riding Hood, or a version of it. It gives us something else to have in common, to connect over. It was different to stand in that place and tell a story originally told by a Middle Eastern man and one that only a few people in my audience might recognize. In fact, I live in a country that’s not always welcoming to its large Turkish immigrant and descendant population. 

But I had the stage. I had my audience’s attention. I had a story that would make them think twice about the meaning of learning. I found myself nervously explaining about the origin of the story the first time I told it. I was relieved when one person in the group of 80 I first told it to knew who Nasrudin was. But can I tell you – that story was a delight to tell. It had a completely different energy than other traditional stories I’ve told. Stories give something back to the storyteller and this story gave me joy and freedom. And that’s the thing. If we keep telling the same stories, whether they are fairy tales or business success stories, we will all only ever taste one flavor. We will only ever see the world through one lens

You may think a story is just a story, but ask yourself, do my stories consistently feature men saving women? White characters as heroes and colored or othered characters as villains? Are the people or color in my stories complex or are they stereotypes? Do non-white characters in my stories have agency? Can they make things happen or determine their own fates or do things usually happen to them? These are questions you can ask yourself when you’re reflecting on which stories you tell. 

Who should tell the story?

This is complicated. If you’re not telling a personal story, if you’re not telling a fairy tale story, if you’re not telling a story of a person who’s far from your reach but the story of someone you know or could contact, who should tell the story?

When I tell a story, I take ownership of it. I voice it, interpret it, claim it. I add it to my repertoire, no matter who it belonged to before. Particularly when we are talking about issues of race or culture, about stereotyping and racism, we have to think about who should be telling those stories. If you are an intercultural trainer who is a white woman, should you tell the story of an Asian or Black person? Take it one step further, considering my Nasrudin experience, would you feel comfortable telling their stories? Are you avoiding telling those stories because you’re worried about how they will be received or to avoid appropriation?

Sometimes, the answer is going to be to have someone else tell the story or to find a story someone else is telling. That could be in the form of an article or a short story. You can also use a video or a video conference or recording. We have the technology to bring other people and their stories into our spaces in our back pockets. An inspiring example of what this could look like is the #sharethemicnow campaign on Instagram. People like Kourtney Kardashian, Senator Elizabeth Warren, and author and activist Glennon Doyle , some with tens of millions of followers, used their instagram accounts to amplify the voices of Black women by sharing account takeovers and having conversations. In another setting, it could be inviting a person of color to tell their own story. Please remember to compensate that person for their contribution. Because their time and expertise and experience are valuable.

Choosing a story is challenging every time. As a storyteller, you want to connect and teach and entertain. By taking a little extra time to ask yourself these simple questions; 

  • Why am I telling a story?
  • Who is my audience?
  • Which story am I telling?

You can take an important step towards being more effective when you use stories in your antiracism work.

This post is based on a webinar I gave for SIETAR EU on 3 February 2021. Click here to watch the webinar. Click here to download a free summary and reading list.

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  1. Pingback: Spiritual Ancestors 2: Storytelling | UU Wellspring

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