storytelling under white supremacy

Last Thursday, I had the absolute pleasure of facilitating the workshop “Storytelling for Campaign Organizing” for Sustainable Concordia, as part of their Sustain’Alive series. Much of my content came from all that I have learned through organizing community events for the South Asian Women’s Community Centre, such as the Uncensored Chai meetings and the Storytelling is a Love Language open mic.

I have been taught by the amazing community organizers in my life that to build community, organize community and mobilize community, we must build relationships. When you build relationships with people, you build trust, you build intimacy.

Relationship-building asks: Who are you? What is your story? What brings you here today? And where are you at right now? Building relationships and establishing trust requires bringing the act of storytelling front and center. As humans we crave spaces where we feel we belong, where we feel seen and heard. And when we build these kinds of connections, we create a space that people want to return to, to fight for.

Ultimately, what ends up happening is that the more we hear other people’s stories, we become invested in each other. We become invested in each other’s struggle, each other’s freedom, dignity, success, and joy. We become committed to fighting for them.

When Emina and I started the event series “Storytelling is a Love Language”, we were driven by this idea. We are both part of Uncensored Chai, which is a program that provides weekly meetings for South Asian women and non-binary people to come together, share a cup of chai, and check-in about how they are feeling. It is a space of storytelling, and it continues to transform us.

So, we started “Storytelling is a Love Language” with a similar premise: if we ask people, “Tell us a story.”, what will follow is the start of feeling a sense of community. The event was beautiful. And it was powerful.

We are not fooled that the white empire hasn’t been aware of the power of storytelling in building solidarity. White supremacy and European colonialism has always had the explicit objective of using divide and conquer to weaken people of colour communities. And with capitalism as its weapon, it continues to pit marginalized people against each other so that we see each other’s stories and struggles as competition, rather than the arms of the same monster.

White supremacy, and by extension its institutions (the media, government, police), continues to sell us stories to divide us and create hostility between different systemically oppressed groups. For people to recognize that all of our oppression is a function of the same system of white supremacy would mean that we could band together to fight it.

In the context of the current #BlackLivesMatter movement fighting against police brutality and the mass murder of Black people, we must be constantly critical of the stories we are consuming, especially by the institutions operating under white supremacy (such as the media), people who benefit from the empire, as well as people who have internalized its oppression. We must constantly ask ourselves:

Who is telling the stories?
What stories are being told?
Which outlets are being used to tell these stories?
How do these stories reinforce or resist white supremacy and systemic violence?

As non-Black allies for #BlackLivesMatter, or allies of any movement for that matter, we must ask ourselves: Should we be taking up space with our own stories in this situation, and by doing so, are we further marginalizing and silencing the stories that should be taking center stage? We must be critical about whether our own story is relevant to the cause, and if taking up space will do more harm than good. As allies we must know the difference between silence that is complicity and stepping back to give someone else the microphone. We must know when to give someone else the space to tell their story, because their story matters more right now.

In the workshop last Thursday, the first answer to the question “What is storytelling?”, was this single word: listening. True storytelling is not only about what is shared but also about what is received. When someone is speaking, the other person must be listening, absorbing and learning. Both actions are important if we want to build real, trusting and sustainable communities.

As people of colour, we have been conditioned to fight for space for our stories. But what happens when we create spaces where we are no longer competing? What happens when we hear each other, see each other, and then learn to care for one another?

Building strong community means creating safe spaces for people whose experiences and histories have been silenced to share their story, perhaps and more often than not for the very first time. Community that is sustainable evolves to spotlight particular stories as contexts shift. This creates trust, and a system of care.

It says, “I’ll show up for you, just like I know you’ll show up for me”. It says, you are safe because we are together. I am safe because we are together. And together we are powerful.

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