Tuesday, July 29, 2008

On Storytelling, Privilege, Individual Pride, and Yes, Finally, a Work Presented in Chicago

Be warned at the outset that this post will be quite the mishmash. (The one-sentence takeaway: go hunt down Marisa Zapata and her Chicago paper; they are both very much worth engaging with.)

To start with an anecdote from the PhD Jamboree in Vancouver last year (which is how I met Jason and annalise): as a prelude to Ken Reardon's discussion of his community-empowerment work in St. Louis and New Orleans, Leonie Sandercock played a tape of an African-American woman singing a song of lamentation. Afterwards Leonie explained that the song had been recorded by a New Orleans native (if I remember correctly) after Hurricane Katrina hit, and that she herself thought the song's observation -- that, essentially, nothing had changed and the position of African-Americans in the US was just as lowly and brutalized as it had been since before the civil rights movement -- was spot-on. In the audience, I bristled. This was due less to their being wrong than to personal events the week before the Jamboree having left me in superdefensive mode. But the immediate reason I bristled was I felt that what Sandercock and later Reardon did -- compare New Orleans 2005 with Oxford 1962, and find essentially no difference -- was to conflate two different instances of societal failure, and to do so somewhat smugly. Not that I get to make the last call on the narrative of Katrina and the position of African-Americans in the US; but I wasn't willing to cede it to them, either.

I thought of that when I read this essay by Charles Johnson (via A&LD), calling for a "new narrative" for African-Americans. Johnson's argument rests, not solely but largely, on the accomplishments of individual African-Americans: doctors, lawyers, CEOs, PhDs, actors, engineers, writers, and presidential candidates. He does not mention New Orleans 2005 in his argument, and while I haven't yet gone looking for counterarguments (and The American Scholar doesn't post trackbacks), I would guess that the aftermath of Katrina figures pretty highly in the arguments of those who would tell him that the old narrative appears, unfortunately, to have a lot of life left in it.

The tension here seems to be that between celebrating individual accomplishments and acknowledging the larger obstacles facing the individuals as a group. Does the average African-American child born in 2008 have a better chance of becoming the next scientist, lawyer, artist, philosopher, politician, or CEO than he or she would have if born in 1948? Either you say "yes," because so many legal and societal obstacles have fallen, or you hesitate, because so many societal and economic obstacles still exist. Your answer will spring from the narrative you subscribe to. The groups who usually hold power in the US (I originally wrote "the US" and then realized I needed to be more specific) have a long history of privileging stories of individual accomplishment; and those stories can be very useful and inspiring -- not least because it's easier to get relate to the story of an individual than of a group, on average. But one can point to, in discussions among Americans at least, a tendency to use narratives of individual accomplishment to dismiss the narratives of discrimination against the group.

Then today I read this and this (courtesy of Megan McArdle, an ex-co-worker of mine) and thought the two posts together wonderful, for the author's frank discussion of the fact that narratives of individual empowerment are... well, empowering (I did this) and when you start placing such narratives in the larger context of the group (you did this, but in part because you benefited from certain privileges that you lucked into, and not everyone gets those same privileges, and you can't swear that you would have been able to accomplish that same thing without the privileges) will almost certainly meet resistance.

When I wrote earlier that storytelling is dangerous, I was speaking from a fairly self-serving point of view. Here is a larger point: if storytelling is to become an effective planning tool, American planners (I can't speak for other cultures) will bump up against this tension time and again. A good many of us will want to tell stories to bring attention to underserved communities. But to tell such stories in ways that inspire helpful, rather than defensive or guilty, reactions, is tricky. Including stories of individual accomplishment can help inspire, but may also seduce the audience into thinking that things aren't so bad after all. And the underserved community itself may be divided as to which stories should get privileged.

I want to conclude by pointing to Marisa Zapata's work, because I got to see her presentation at Chicago and many other people didn't (it was in the last session of the last day). One point she made at the end of her talk about a planning process that deliberately sought out people from different cultures was that at the end, the white participants felt depressed and worried for the future, while the Latino participants were energized. Zapata suggested (I may be putting words into her mouth here) that this was a reflection of different cultural norms: that the Latino participants were much more comfortable with a process that focused chiefly on problems and not on easily implementable solutions. I suspect that this tension was similar to that between individual-focused and group-focused narrative; and if I'm right, that may suggest that, one, such longing for the individual-focused, inspirational narrative is not universally subscribed to in the United States, and two, there are ways to introduce other narratives, other approaches.

Finally, I will say that, to avoid overgeneralizing, I end up talking a lot in ways that put a white woman front and center ("I bristled... I felt... I read... I got to see"). Such is another danger of storytelling; but that one's more easily solved -- by making sure that other stories get space as well.

1 comment:

annalise said...

Hi Jessica,

Interesting blog. Wish I coulda' been there to hear Marisa discuss her paper.

Yes, storytelling is a tricky thing because it can be used to reinforce many stereotypes (and I remember Reardon and Sandercock appropriate the song by Mavis Staples to introduce his presentation - I bristled too for reasons I'll keep to myself for now).

I want to add a little something to what you wrote. With the right skill and consciousness, storytelling can be a very liberating tool. But, beware. A good story/storyteller has the courage and power to tell and expose truths, and, from the time we are infants, many of us are learning to distort truths (often to avoid punishment or rejection). So, distortions and denials are more common than truthtelling - and this is true for academicians. Think about it: does data report the truth, or does it reinforce a certain supposed hypothesis or bias that is not really concerned with truths? When truth narratives are told in the academy, we should expect discomfort and/or chaos because truthtelling is not THAT popular among academicians (in fact, it is often discouraged for tenure's sake). I hope that will change in the twenty-first century.

That said, the narratives that challenge and/or disrupt white heterosexual male power/privlege can exist powerfully, alongside the privileged ones. I heard Troy Duster suggest this about two years ago; it reminded me of the wise saying that goes, "let the wheat and tare grow up together." Duster is the grandson of Ida B. Wells, the late nineteenth century anti-lynching advocate (some have actually named her as one of the nation's first sociologists). He is also a very distinguished scholar and the former prez of the American Sociological Association.

My theological training and my experience as a United Methodist minister has helped me to understand the wheat and the tare metaphor with some grace, because there is absolutely no way to stop stories (discourses) of privilege. Trying to do that would be totally insane and a waste of precious energy that can go toward doing greater, more important things. My past (and especially the American past) has empowered me to believe (or hope), as far as narratives or stories go, that there will be a reckoning, though not in an apocalyptic sense. As it comes (and it has been coming thanks to the efforts of many prophetic truthtellers), it is imperative for those with a mind to do so to offer narratives that REALLY speak to community and empowerment and not individualism, which, I propose, is not the same as putting the spotlight on an individual. [Where I come from, sometimes the efforts of one individual can empower an entire community].

Finally, speaking of efforts, I must report that as of August 15, 2008, I will join the staff at J.J. Wright Institute at Claflin University, a historically black college/university in South Carolina. Just a bit of my own truthtelling coming to pass!

Let's talk soon offline.

annalise fonza,
Faculty Fellow
J.J. Wright Institute
Claflin University