The Ethics of Storytelling

img_1739When I arrived at the opening ceremony of the New England Storytelling Conference in Plymouth, Massachusetts, I realized that I was one of the few people of color in the Cape Cod ballroom. I was saddened, but not surprised.

Despite the conference theme, Voices Across Borders, the attendees were a fairly homogenous crowd: white, Baby Boomers, career storytellers. They told true tales about crossing racial or socioeconomic lines to help—read: save—black, brown, or otherwise vulnerable communities. While I admire the work of a female Chaplain in a maximum-security prison and am grateful for the protection that wealthy Chicago Christians afforded their local mosques after 9/11, I am disappointed to hear the same, dominant narratives: white people saving their disenfranchised neighbors, speaking up for the voiceless.

But it’s not that people of color cannot defend or advocate for themselves—rather, the problem is that society does not listen and dismisses the validity of their stories. Structures like these enforce a suppression of narrative.

While the conference was well intentioned in its themes, it restricted people of color and working-class storytellers from participating because of its remote location and exorbitant registration, lodging, and travel costs. Moving the conference to a diverse, accessible, and urban area like Lawrence or Lowell, Massachusetts would have allowed local storytellers to share their craft and their own experiences without sacrificing their jobs, family care, or expenses—truly pushing the participants “across borders” and honoring the diversity that can and should speak for itself.

We strive to avoid neo-colonialism in development work by collaborating with community partners; we respect diverse cultures in anthropological study; we protect patients within clinical trials. But we must also recognize the neo-colonialist rhetoric that pervades the stories we tell about “other” communities.

Instead of discussing the “Other” as less civilized, less capable, or in need of saving, it is essential to champion diversity.Invite members of that community to speak for themselves, allow them to place themselves  within the story as equals. We need to think critically about positioning them as outsiders, and respect, rather than co-opt, the experiences and agency of individuals.

Written by Devika Ranjan, F’17.