Throughout history, members of dominant classes have been telling the stories of marginalised groups, presenting those stories through a dominant lens and tightly controlling the narrative. It’s a system that allows structures of power and oppression to continue, because the people at the bottom of the system have no opportunity to fight those at the top. Instead, they’re forced to sit by while their voices are taken from them and their stories are told by other people, including those claiming to work as advocates; they’re told that other people telling their stories for them are doing a good and right thing, raising awareness, say (I see you, Kristof). Exposing issues to the larger world.
Pushback to these practices is almost as old as the practices themselves. While dominant groups have attempted to control and shape the story, to dictate how it is presented and who presents it, marginalised groups have been telling our own stories. We have produced works of art, we have barged into dominant spaces, we have asserted ourselves as human beings with rights. We have marched in the street to demand that people listen to us, not others taking over our narratives, we have boosted each other up to the speaker’s box in order to give one of our own a chance to speak, even if sometimes it means forfeiting the limelight; because making our voices heard is more important that the achievements of any given individual.
In reaction to this, many dominant groups have worked in an attempt to undermine the voices of the people they consider beneath them; they have created a world where we are considered unreliable narrators, because we are too close to the subject matter. When it comes to identity and the ways in which specific aspects of identity influence your experiences in the world, suddenly we are no longer authorities on our own experiences. Other people are, and they tell us how we are supposed to feel, how we should react to events around us, how we should conduct ourselves. It is an attempt to abstract us and separate us from our very culture and core, to make us very small and insignificant, again, to control the environment.
It is perhaps most confusing and damaging when this comes from people positioning themselves as ‘allies.’ They are eager, they tell us, to tell our stories. Why, we ask, are they telling our stories when we could be telling them for ourselves? What is it that drives them to appropriate our stories and our experiences for their own gain instead of ceding the floor to the people they claim to be advocating for? What is so frightening about relinquishing control of the narrative to people who are in the best position to tell it?
These are tensions within social justice movements that are often not explored by those in positions of power. Many leaders of the movement don’t want to self-examine to the depths required when it comes to questioning how they acquire positions of power, and how they, yes, enjoy that power.
Someone in a position of authority who is viewed as an important figure should be viewed highly skeptically if that person is claiming to be solely interested in ‘the good of the movement.’ That person also wants the fame and what comes with it, right down to being able to survive; I, for example, make a substantial portion of my living doing social justice journalism and writing tied to social justice. Ergo, occupying a higher profile is to my direct financial as well as social advantage. Being respected, being viewed as an ‘important voice,’ these are things that make me feel good about myself, and like any human, I will continue to seek that approval through the expression of my work. Obviously I also care deeply about the causes I work on, which is why I work on them, but I’m not going to pretend you can isolate my support for social justice movements from my desire to eat.
I try to centre my own experiences in my work and to focus on promoting the voices of other groups so they can tell their own stories, because their stories are not mine to tell. But I am by no means perfect; sometimes an article is assigned and I know that it will go unwritten if I don’t write it, so I take up the keyboard. Sometimes I attempt to balance that out by focusing on careful and detailed sourcing, interviews, the actual voices of the people affected, but it’s still ultimately my name on the piece, me who gets the credit. Sometimes I am forced to make complex choices, and sometimes I am criticised for them.
An xoJane reader asked a few months ago, quite reasonably, why I wrote about race so much there. I responded that people of colour and nonwhite people shouldn’t have the sole burden of talking about race, that my work on race is focused on the complicity of white people in racial systems, that I focus on interconnections of structural oppression. And I said that I’d still rather be hearing more about racial topics from people of colour and nonwhite people than white people, that I am not an authority on them. And all of this is true, but the fact is that in a fast-moving media landscape, editors turn to who they know, and editors know a lot of white people, which means they call on people like me to write about race when they should look elsewhere. And sometimes I redirect them elsewhere, and sometimes there isn’t time, or I know my advice won’t be followed.
I struggle with these issues as a writer, as a journalist, as an activist. Hiding from them doesn’t make them go away, and neither does privileged flagellation as seen in the tortured performances made by many ‘allies’ in a twisted attempt to justify their appropriation of other people’s stories. In an attempt to make themselves relevant, to explain why they are not listening; why, instead, they are adding even more noise to make it even more difficult to hear the signal. Reaching a balance point with which I am comfortable is by no means easy, and I know I’m not the only person who wrestles with it.
Because members of dominant groups do need to critically engage with their own role in institutional oppressions and the structures that surround us, as well as our own history. I talk about the history of anti-Asian racism in the US, for example, because it provides valuable context and insight into modern race relations and into events that white people are very eager to erase from our collective memory. It isn’t that we should never talk about these things, but rather that there is a difference in framing that must be considered; are you telling the stories of other people, or are you talking about your relationship to their stories, your own history alongside them, the larger context of those stories? Are you overrunning the voices of people who need to speak when you open your mouth?
In the end, the people most qualified to tell the stories of marginalised groups are members of those groups themselves. And people who aren’t, but tell those stories anyway, including myself at times, should always be viewed with some degree of suspicion as to their motivations; why is it so important for them to tell these stories for people, instead of allowing them to speak for themselves?