Anyone can tell a story, but who should tell a story?
There’s an age-old warning storytellers flirt dangerously closely with and that’s the risk of telling other people’s stories. The guilty commit misrepresentation. And in the case that they tell the stories of the lesser privileged, they are complicit in adding to the weight that smothers the solidarity and unique strengths of marginalized groups. While marginalized individuals must both raise their own voices and then learn to like how their voices sound, appropriating their stories is an easy way to muffle, if not silence, them.
It happens all the time. Remember when Mickey Rooney played Mr. Yunishoni in Breakfast at Tiffany’s? That was 1961. Then in 2015 Emma Stone was cast in Aloha as an Asian character. I don’t know how that happened—she has red hair and freckles—but I guess her character is only supposed to be a quarter Chinese so what do I know.
Poor Emma, she didn’t realize she did anything wrong until she was under heavy fire for her role in telling that story. It’s quite the cautionary tale: beware the consequences of appropriating stories! But what if people whose work we deeply admire aren’t innocent of the ultimate storyteller’s sin either? Jennie Livingston, the director of Paris is Burning, a seminal documentary (and one of my favorites) that follows a black transgender community in New York, is a white gay woman. She may not conform to heteronormativity and she may not be a man, but she’s nevertheless an outsider to the community she portrays.
The question of “who tells what” is one I’ve been striving to answer for most of my adolescent life and I think I’ve gotten a bit closer to that answer after the District Six staff invited their three interns (Nate, DJ, and myself) to a nearby library to hear a talk from Rita Coburn Whack, the co-director of Maya Angelou: Still I Rise. She said that we remember Maya Angelou as a writer, but she was more. She was a Civil Rights activist, she was a survivor of sexual assault, she was a performer. The world has heard her stories through her poems and commencement speeches, and now it needs to hear her life story. Whack also spoke about The Help, which, written by a white woman, is the story about black women and their experience as domestic workers in the 1960s South. Whack herself is a black woman who proudly feels most comfortable telling the story of other black women, but she defended the heavily criticized Kathryn Stockett for The Help because although she was born onto the side of the oppressor, she lived what she wrote. She was born in 1969 in Jackson, Mississippi. “It was her story to tell.”
Following the talk, I realized that we can’t ask other people whether we’re allowed to tell a story because no one really knows. Who can take away your right to tell your own story? If we obey others in telling us what’s right or wrong, we don’t exercise our own moral judgment. That becomes a problem because exploiting others through storytelling sneaks into our lives in ways we can’t anticipate; it reveals itself simply in the language we use whether we’re actively speaking on behalf of others or not. Our personal judgment becomes key to mitigate, ever so slightly, society’s blatant preference of one group over another. Maybe the next time Cameron Crowe casts a beautiful and supposedly Asian starlet he’ll pause for a moment to think, and then maybe, just maybe, he won’t automatically cast a white actress. It is crucial to be honest, genuine, and vulnerable. The lines are not always as clear as Mickey Rooney’s nightmare of a performance of a Japanese neighbor. But looking ahead, as times change and contexts vary, the goal is to grow with that change. To learn about yourself and others. Nothing is holier than your own judgment.