the real villain

photograph of a sculpture in Borgarnes, Iceland titled “Brákin.” the sculpture overlooks a body of water and then a mountain range covered in black dirt. the sculpture is a curl of concrete, six feet tall, curled with ridged sides to resemble a ram’s horn. a piece of metal looks like stylized wings coming off the horn, which is meant to resemble a cloth being pulled away from the center of the horn. the sculpture itself is on a stone pedestal, which is itself on a wide wooden pedestal. i learned this sculpture represents the saga of an enslaved Celtic nursemaid killed while defending her charge from his father. it’s an interesting story (and this article delightfully compares her staying power to Drag Race’s Miss Vanjie).

Last weekend I was talking with my friend Tom about a webinar we are taking together. The facilitators created a five-week session series about BIPOCs surviving predominately white institutions. The first session was an introduction to the program and a foundation-laying for where we are meant to go. Peppered throughout our two hours together, panelists and participants shared their workplace horror stories. Each story described a racist act or microaggression that that person had experienced.

When he and I debriefed a few days later, I learned that the session affected us in different ways. When I hear stories like the ones told last week, in a morbid way I find them somewhat validating. Sometimes I share my own stories with others just to vent. Other times I do so to make a point. Sharing my experiences can help me feel less alone in the world. But for Tom, hearing story after story started to feel overwhelming. The stories start to blur until they repeat, over and over, with minute variations. The perpetrators were colleagues, bosses, customers. They were tone deaf or threatening. It happened in an office, at the park, or in a grocery store. Our conversation has had me thinking ever since.

a story about stories

I was in another zoom meeting (I’m relatable, right?) with a focus on ending hunger. I participated in a breakout session with four women who identified as white. One person told a story about a young woman she had met at her local food pantry. This person “shared” the young woman’s story with us all. She rattled off a litany of life experiences that the woman had faced. In doing so, she reduced this person’s entire life into a list of hardships. None of us knew her, or knew her story the way she would tell it. The speaker’s goal for the story may have been to elicit empathy for the young woman. But she shared this story not to inform or persuade. It could have been one in a collection. In an article about Amy Comey Barrett describing her adopted Haitian children in terms like “happy-go-lucky,” Régine Jean-Charles characterized this type of reduction as the person becoming the sum of their trauma.

and what are stories among fellow BIPOCs?

Many organizations employ a lot of white people. At the least, their representation is disproportionate to their region’s demographic. For the few or even one BIPOC staff member, sharing stories can help remind us that these experiences are wrong. Sometimes that’s all we need avoid feeling gaslit at the place they pay us to be. If you immerse yourself in the stories, it’s easy to feel like there’s no safe quarter anywhere. This is especially true if you already feel powerless at your own job. We may feel surrounded by whiteness, with no visible escape route. Some people can experience microaggressions or worse several times a week for a lifetime. These stories, too, need to have a purpose. They must embolden us to join together and demand change.

there’s no story because you don’t deserve a story

In the stories above, I was careful not to give too many details. They weren’t necessary. You have already heard the stories, or ones that are close to the stories I could’ve shared. I believed too many stories with oppression as their feature would dilute the message behind them. For the listeners, if the pain is commonplace, how do you persuade someone that it’s wrong? For the storytellers, how do you get away from something that is so pervasive?

I don’t force people who are supported by my programs to talk about their experiences. For some people, telling their story can be like experiencing the trauma all over again. It can be healing for some and triggering for others. We shouldn’t risk potential trauma if we aren’t willing to do anything about it. Stories can be valuable lessons for how we design our services for others who need them. They can help us better understand the effects and consequences of our work. Most importantly, they shed light on the true villain in many of the stories we hear: systemic racism!

stories are for fighting

I use stories to draw people’s attention to the larger picture. I share stories not as a list of individual struggles, but as a pattern of systemic issues. When you share what you learned from the stories, you remove the anonymous victim that your audience didn’t get the chance to know. You don’t need to air their trauma to tell people what we should do about it. You can talk about your takeaways. You can talk about the urgency of this cause. You can focus on the villain.

I’m part of a few race-based affinity groups or caucuses. These spaces are confidential to ensure we can share our story without others retelling it. There’s an explicit agreement at the core of groups like these: “Share the lesson, not the story.” Rather than taking a person’s story as your own, you share how that story made you feel. To some receivers of stories, it can feel like our goal is to soften the tone, convey urgency, or create empathy where there was none. Instead, these stories should horrify us. We don’t need to be passive receivers of the traumatic stories that others share. We don’t need, for example, to transmit videos of police murdering Black people before society should take notice.

I share my stories as a way of saying, “this shouldn’t happen anymore.” Whether we hear a story or tell our own, we should be demanding a world where it won’t.

i made you dinner!

a cropped photo of Sanamluang Thai diner in north Hollywood. part of a neon sign is visible on the restaurant’s facade. a circular open sign in neon hangs on a window.

“Hey, you should come over for dinner,” I say in kind of an abrupt way. It’s the after-times, when the pandemic is over, but it was the first time it started to feel like the before-times.

“That’d be great! What’s the occasion?” You ask.

I give you a placid, friendly smile. “I wanted to do something nice for you. I know you’ve had a rough time recently, and I thought I could do a little something to help you out.”

“That’s so nice, thank you!” Your mood brightens. “Sure, I’d love to come.”

“Oh that’s great!” I say. “So what kinds of food do you like to eat?”

You give an exaggerated sigh and fan your face dramatically. “It’s been so hot recently! I’ve been eating a lot of summer meals, you know? Cool weather foods. Salads, fresh vegetables, things like that.”

“Oh, that’s perfect,” I say, nodding with enthusiasm. “I love those. Okay, so I’ll make a beef stew.”

Your expression flashes to puzzled, then shifts to cockeyed. Is this a joke?
“That’s…” you stammer.

I interrupt you with, “Okay, great! See you tomorrow at 3 PM for dinner!”

This very scripted example is how some organizations build their programs. We cook up an amazing meal, something we ourselves might like to eat. We spend the day buying groceries, putting the placemats justso. And for all our good intentions, we spend countless dollars and effort doing the wrong things. And why should we go through all the trouble of making someone dinner when the end result is stew? (if you love stew, this example won’t make sense to you).

Why do we seek the voice of the customer?
We don’t know what people need. We often must take educated guesses when we build programs. But rarely do we have such intimate knowledge of the problem that we craft the perfect solution. If we’re going to put the work into doing something, we should make sure that it’s wanted.

If I want to make you dinner but I don’t care what you like, there’s a slim chance you won’t like it. Some people will love it (some people love stew!), but others will hate it or be non-plussed.

It takes work to involve people. It can slow down our timelines, but arbitrary deadlines are another trap we fall in. But if I’m going to go through the trouble of making you dinner, why not make it something you want? Why isn’t it worth it to take the time to get to know you?