Storytelling and Antiracism

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

Storytelling is one of the most valuable tools in antiracism work. Story is the best way to learn, to teach, to connect, and to learn empathy. Our bodies are addicted to storytelling, creating dopamine and oxytocin when we are the thralls of a story. Dopamine which helps us to enjoy and remember the story and oxytocin which helps us feel connection and safety in a story. Furthermore, our brain waves synchronize with a storyteller’s brain waves. Even more magically, if you tell someone else the story, their brain waves sync with yours, which will replicate the storyteller’s brain waves.

Are you seeing how this is powerful stuff?

When we choose to be antiracist, we become actively conscious about race and racism and take actions to end racial inequities in our daily lives. Being antiracist is believing that racism is everyone’s problem, and we all have a role to play in stopping it. – Being Antiracist, Museum of African American History and Culture

Antiracism is active. You can’t think or believe in antiracism. You must do antiracism. That means taking action, working on your own racist beliefs, and disrupting the systemic racist systems we all live in. When it comes to systemic racism, you’re either supporting the system or working to dismantle it. You can’t just live in it. If you “just” live in it, you are supporting the system.

Antiracist Responsibilities

So, then how can story and storytelling make such an impact in antiracism? Today, I’m looking specifically at how stories can play a role in the six responsibilities of white people who want to take on antiracist work. This list was originally created by Tema Okun and I found it as part of an excerpt from the Racial Healing Handbook by Annaliese A. Singh. The six responsibilities are:

  • Read
  • Reflect
  • Remember
  • Take Risks
  • Expect Rejection
  • Relationship Building

Let’s look at how each of these looks in the context of storytelling.

Read

Reading is all about education, learning, and getting active about working on your learning. This is one of the hardest parts of antiracist work, because there are no gold stars or public recognition for working on your education. You don’t graduate, there is no ceremony. Instead, it’s work that you do and then continue to do for a lifetime.

Singh writes that the goal of reading is to learn about the “effects, impacts, and other structures of racism.” You can learn a lot about these things through stories. You can read memoirs and biographies of famous and not-so-famous people of color. A list like BookRiot’s 50 Must-Read Contemporary Memoirs by Writers of Color is a great starting place. As you learn about individual people and how systemic racism has impacted their lives, you will also get a glimpse of the policies and social expectations that they lived in. Reading fiction by people of color can also be eye-opening. When I read Chinatown Interior by Charles Yu, I was surprised to learn about all kinds of laws that codified racism against Asian minorities.

Book lists and a directive like “read and educate yourself” can be intimidating. It is a whole lot of work. My suggestion is that you pick a topic, group, or theme that is close to your heart, experience, or interests and focus on that. I’ve decided to spend 2021 reading more Asian authors and in particular, more Taiwanese American authors. It gives me a sorting criteria when I look at a list of 50 books. Starting is what matters, so get started!

Reflect

If you’re going to do a lot of reading, reflecting on that new knowledge is vital for incorporating it into your antiracism practice. This includes asking yourself what the stories you read or hear mean to you and examining the worldview through which you interpret and understand those stories. How do you reflect on your reading? Here are a couple ways you can try out. 

I’m a huge fan of journaling and write in my journals about books as I’m reading them. I also write fuller reflections on them after finishing them. My monthly book reviews have become a useful tool for reflecting on what I learned or took away from a particular book. The value I have in this process is one of the reasons I keep writing a book review. I have retained a lot more about my reading since I started writing about books. 

Another great way to reflect on books is to do it with friends. I co-founded a book club in 2015 and we read diverse authors, usually international and mostly women. Our membership is international, mostly female, and age diverse with regular attendees in their 20s and in their 60s, so we get many different perspectives in our discussions. I can only encourage you to find a community of book lovers (or found one) that will get you thinking you as much as mine does!

Over the past year, I’ve also met a couple times with smaller groups of three to five people to discuss specific texts like a rereading of Beloved by Toni Morrison and Between the World and Me. For these groups, I’ve been much more selective in who I have the conversations with, seeking groups that will feel safe above all. Antiracism work is hard work and some of it will be easier to do from a safe space than in front of a crowd – and that is OK.

Remember

Let’s look at what Singh says about remembering. She writes that this step requires that you “remember how you participate in the thoughts, beliefs, and actions that uphold racism, whether you intend to or not, and how you ‘forget’ that racism exists. Identify internalized racial attitudes you have about people of color.” This is the place where fragility can get right in your way.

We often retell the stories we hear. It’s hard work to find our own examples, so stories circulate and recirculate until they feel canonical. I realized I was doing just this as I created my Professional Story Formula course. While I was creating the course, I was also doing diversity and inclusion work. The more diversity and inclusion work I did, the more the examples I used in my course, often the same stories I’d been using for years, glared out at me. They were populated by many white men. That’s me participating in actions that uphold racism and misogyny. That isn’t what I want to do. So, in addition to reading more books by Asian authors in 2021, I’m compiling a list of inspirational women and their memoirs and will start chipping away at that list as well.

So ask yourself, which stories am I telling? Which stories do I believe in? Which role models do I follow? Can I expand that? Are the posts I’m sharing or the articles I’m posting perpetuating systemic racism or are they introducing complex and complicating perspectives? Am I able to take in new resources and to see them as reliable when they don’t fit a model I’ve been using? Am I open to new ways of communicating facts? These are the kinds of questions you’ll be asking yourself to stay on alert and keep your mind open.

Take Risks

The work we’ve been covering so far is mostly internal. It’s work you do on your own or in a safe space in order to work on your own perceptions and actions. You start taking risks when you take action outside of your safe spaces. That means challenging racial stereotypes when you encounter them or realize you’re taking part in them. It means speaking up to question stereotypes in personal and virtual conversations. It means supporting people of color in personal and professional settings, making sure their voices and stories are heard.

In my case, a risk I’m taking is using my platform as a storyteller to share my thoughts on antiracism. I’m certain it won’t be welcomed by everyone who’s used to me writing about storytelling and the books I’ve read. But this is something I can do to hopefully encourage people. My other option is to say nothing. Saying nothing supports the system. I’m just not willing to do that anymore.

When it comes to stories, it means sharing stories that disrupt systemic racism and calling out stories that support systemic racism. These may be characters or situations you aren’t familiar or comfortable with. Particularly speaking out can be frightening because it is so easy and expected to go along with what the group is saying. But let’s be honest, that’s the behaviour that has been enabling systemic racism for centuries. We cannot make changes unless we are willing to take risks and get awfully uncomfortable.

Expect Rejection

Now that you’re taking risks and speaking up against systemic racism, you’re going to have to be prepared for some rejection. Only here’s the kicker: it’s going to come from all sides. Those people who don’t agree with you calling out stereotypes, for example, are going to reject your calls to use different language. People of color are going to reject your attempts to tell their stories. You are going to make a whole lot of mistakes and that’s OK. If you’re making mistakes, it’s only because you are trying and we need a whole lot of people to try if we want to see any changes.

I’ve certainly experienced rejection in trying to discuss racism. Sometimes and with some people and in some situations, it’s alright. Other times with other people and in other situations, it has ended relationships. And I have also certainly offended people who rejected my questions and curiosity and simple ignorance. My actions have also ended relationships or put them under serious strain. 

So here’s the thing. You’re going to do your reading and your reflecting and your remembering and then you are going to start taking risks because antiracism is action. And then you’re going to find out you got it wrong or misspoke or that there are even more problems you never thought about. Remember two things. One is that you cannot learn unless you fail along the way. In our family, Shakira’s Try Everything (sung by a gazelle) is the keep trying anthem. “Nobody learns without getting it wrong,” she says and she’s right. If you’re experiencing rejection, congratulations. The second is that if we don’t try, you and me, nothing is going to change. That’s unacceptable. So let’s agree to keep trying and putting ourselves out there. Let’s keep going.

Relationship Building

This is the fun part of antiracist work and probably the most rewarding. As you do your antiracist work and look for people to learn from and new resources and new stories, you are going to meet new people. They will be from different backgrounds, some like yours and some entirely different. They will have different stories, some like yours and some entirely different. Here’s what you can do: listen to their stories. Listen with all you’ve got and ask questions about the gaps. Ask about their experiences and their perspectives. Respect and treasure their stories. A personal story is a gift from one human being to another. It’s a most precious gift.

My journey into diversity and inclusion and antiracism work has been unexpected and intimidating. I know so little and am always keenly aware of how much I need to learn and how much work there is to do. But I’m committed to continuously moving forward. Along the way, even in a short time, I can tell you that the people this commitment has put in my path and the relationships I’ve started to build with them are beautiful. It’s a whole new world and I am thrilled to be diving in.

Stories are the foundations of friendships. In the beginning, we share our stories with each other in an effort to get to know one another. We look for shared experiences and values. Then we start having experiences together and sharing those stories with others. And one day, we find ourselves with old friends, reminding each other of shared experiences, telling each other stories about things we did together for the joy of reliving them. Telling those stories to others for their entertainment and ours. 

I believe that stories are the key to antiracism work and in particular, the work we need to do ourselves to learn as much as possible. We have to seek new stories and examine the stories we hear and the stories we’ve been telling ourselves for years. It’s a hard thing and a good thing. And the thing about stories is always that they are a joy to listen to. They are a wonderful way to learn and expand our worlds.

So go and do your antiracism work. Seek new stories. Share new stories. Let’s make some change happen.

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