Narrative Change

People are defined over time by the unique stories told about them by family, friends, teachers, and even those they barely know or may view through a derogatory demographic lens. Stories are constantly told about each of us, ascribing to us a place in the world through perceptions and personal encounters. Just as important are the stories we tell about ourselves, manifesting our own self-worth as we attempt to carve out our place in society.

Collectively, these stories forge the prevailing narrative about an individual, the living map that travels with each of us throughout our daily activities, whether at work, school, or play. When a law enforcement officer pulls someone over for a “routine” traffic stop, for instance, the narrative he or she consciously or unconsciously believes about the driver largely determines whether a gun is drawn or the greeting is a friendly smile. Thus, as our nation is learning, narratives can have profound implications during an encounter with police—or during a job interview, or at the hospital emergency room, or during countless other social interactions.

Narratives also have the potential to accentuate and perpetuate existing social biases and to make people more or less empathic and generous. Thus, “narrative change” is a critical component of the Truth, Racial Healing & Transformation (TRHT) enterprise. TRHT is seeking to change the conditions for the development of stories, both real and imagined, so that all diverse groups will be exposed to full and accurate representations of themselves and be able to articulate their truths.

False narratives

Throughout our nation’s history, a hierarchy of human value—based on physical appearances, ascribed intellectual characteristics, ancestry, and other such factors—has created a ranking of racial groups that can be recognized as modern-day racism. This hierarchy continues to inform the narratives we tell ourselves as Americans. Research from organizations like Race Forward, the Kellogg Foundation, the Hollywood Diversity Report, and the National Hispanic Media Coalition shows that Americans are rarely exposed to full, complete, and unvarnished truths about the lives of people of color.1 Instead, we are often distracted by stereotypes and mischaracterizations.

The slur “illegal alien” has been used in the news media to describe undocumented immigrants, despite the deleterious impact the term has had on law-abiding people, most of whom have come to this country seeking a better life for themselves and their families. The term “illegal alien” has complicated the immigration reform debate, casting immigrants as undesirables, when, in most cases throughout our nation’s history and still today, nothing could be further from the truth.

The narrative about Native Americans is too often relegated to the footnotes of the story told about the United States. The history taught in schools across the country begins with the discovery of America by Christopher Columbus in 1492, a false narrative that serves as the basis for US policies and practices that marginalize the contributions, rights, and histories of native peoples from Connecticut to Alaska and everywhere between. A more complete and fully truthful account would cast that “discovery” as a European invasion of the Americas that began shortly after Columbus came across the “New World” in 1492.

Similarly, a more complete and truthful narrative about early American history would not simply highlight the perseverance of “settlers” as they searched for homes and land. Instead, it would also emphasize the plight and resistance of native peoples as European colonizers sought to snatch their farmlands in order to generate crops for themselves and for the growing populations of Europe. Otherwise, without the proper narrative context, the true significance of bitter conflicts over land—Little Big Horn, Sitka, Wounded Knee—is left unrecognized. How can elected officials, ordinary citizens, and our children be expected to understand, respect, and help protect the cultures of native peoples when their stories are so distorted and hard to find?

The nation also has adopted a false narrative about Asian Americans, an ethnically diverse demographic group composed of those with ancestral origins in as many as forty-eight countries, including China, Japan, Korea, and India. Weaving together misleading information about this groups’ relatively high income levels, superior academic achievement, low crime rates, and high family stability, the “model minority” narrative is used to make comparisons with other demographic groups—notably African Americans and Hispanics—and to refute calls for social justice. In addition to discounting cultural differences, the “model minority” narrative neither accounts for nor even recognizes the distinct political histories of these Asian American communities—the exploitation of Chinese immigrants during the construction of the transcontinental railroad (1863–1867), for example, or the incarceration and forced relocation of between 110,000 and 120,000 Japanese Americans during World War II. And it ignores the role of US immigration policy, which favors highly educated and highly skilled applicants from Asian countries.

The model minority narrative presents itself as complimentary and is used as a rationale for limiting the role of government in reducing discrimination, whether through enforcement or policy development. In fact, this narrative marginalizes the painful history endured by many Asian Americans, while also purporting that they are immune to the challenges faced by other people of color. Asian Americans have higher unemployment and poverty rates relative to whites, as well as their own share of immigration issues. For Asian American communities, the fact that few narratives link Asian Americans to government services has grave public policy implications.

The narrative associated with affirmative action and the African American community is marked by misconceptions of unqualified people seeking unearned advantage, and accordingly it tends to stir up passion, frustration, and distrust. In fact, affirmative action programs were designed by President Kennedy in 1961 as a method of redressing the discrimination that had persisted in spite of civil rights laws and constitutional guarantees. Legal challenges to race-conscious programs have continued to work their way through the court system ever since, angering people right, left, and center along the political spectrum and sparking debates across the nation.

For example, in 2008, Abigail Fisher, a white woman, sued the University of Texas, claiming that she had been denied admission on the basis of her race. The case, Fisher v. University of Texas, was ultimately decided in 2016 by the US Supreme Court, which held that the university’s race-conscious admissions program was, in fact, constitutional. Yet, despite that final outcome, the damage had been done: press coverage of the case had seeded further doubt about affirmative action and the qualifications of African Americans and other college students of color.

These kinds of narratives tend to play on an infinite loop in our minds, engaging our biology and often predisposing us to respond in certain ways to given scenarios. Breakthroughs in the mind sciences, especially those related to neuroplasticity, have furthered our understanding of how changes in behavior, environment, neural processes, thinking, and emotions can lead to changes in neural pathways and synapses in the brain. Narratives, or stories, gird the broader schemas and implicit theories that organize our socialization and our responses to the world. They affect how we view the world, how we behave in response to sensory perceptions, and how we interpret ambiguous stimuli.

Technology and empowerment

Today, the United States and the world stand at the crossroads of truth, sharing, and technology. The availability of new tools and media for engagement empower us to communicate in new ways and to tell new, more authentic stories that honor the full complexity of our history. The Narrative Change Design Team sees in this a unique opportunity to harness the power of stories to help forge a more equitable future.

Traditional information sharing and storytelling through a one-to-one exchange of data between a sender and a receiver are increasingly rare. Today, information is shared and stories are told through a wide variety of old and new media according to four primary patterns of exchange: one to one, one to many, many to many, and many to one. Among adults in the United States, 90 percent own a cell phone (64 percent own a smartphone), 32 percent own an e-reader, and 42 percent own a tablet.2 It’s no surprise that Facebook has nearly two billion active users per month, that Instagram has a hundred million users, or that Google processes an average of more than forty thousand search queries every second.

Technological innovation has provided the foundation for impactful storytelling and for sharing information in ways that can fuel movements like the Arab Spring; the Ferguson, Missouri, protests; Occupy Wall Street; and the recent failed coup in Turkey. Philip Howard, an associate professor of communication at the University of Washington, conducted an analysis of more than three million tweets, gigabytes of YouTube content, and thousands of blog posts—a cascading chronicle of messages about freedom and democracy across North Africa and the Middle East.3 He found that those forms of social media were critical in elevating political uprisings globally. Along with the seemingly never-ending stream of cell phone videos depicting law enforcement officers brutalizing the US citizens they are duty-bound to protect, these examples illustrate the impact mobile platforms, social media, and even more traditional outlets can have by seeding stories and by informing, engaging, and impelling people to action rooted in the perceived narrative.

The time is now, and our vision simple: we must be empowered to discover our common humanity, to achieve “narrative justice” by retelling the whole of our collective story—including necessary and uncomfortable truths. Such a narrative is restorative because it recognizes the pain and suffering of racism and the resistance and resilience of its targets to overcome its effects over the years, and it is transformative because true stories function as active, broad, and inclusive funnels to new narratives. The TRHT vision foresees people of all races, ethnicities, faiths, cultures, and socioeconomic statuses coming together to shape narratives about the past, present, and future—accurate stories that honor the full complexity of our humanity as the nation forges a more equitable future.

Notes

1. See, for example, Jamilah Bradshaw Dieng, Jesús Valenzuela, and Tenoch Ortiz, Building the We: Healing-Informed Governing for Racial Equity in Salinas (New York: Race Forward, 2016); Matt A. Barreto, Sylvia Manzano, and Gary Segura, The Impact of Media Stereotypes on Opinions and Attitudes Towards Latinos (Pasadena, CA: National Hispanic Media Coalition, 2012); Darnell Hunt, Ana-Christina Ramón, and Michael Tran, 2016 Hollywood Diversity Report: Busine$$ as Usual? (Los Angeles: Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies at UCLA, 2016).

2. “Mobile Technology Fact Sheet,” Pew Research Center, December 27, 2013, http://www.pewinternet.org/fact-sheets/mobile-technology-fact-sheet.

3. See Philip N. Howard, Aiden Duffy, Deen Freelon, Muzammil Hussain, Will Mari, and Marwa Mazaid, “Opening Closed Regimes: What Was the Role of Social Media During the Arab Spring?” (working paper, Project on Information Technology and Political Islam, Department of Communication, University of Washington, Seattle, 2011).

 

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