Wednesday, June 24, 2015

The Telling Life: Bridge over troubled waters

Welcome to the first substantive installment of The Telling Life, a weekly column where I or another storyteller shares observations about what it means to live the artist's life. If you're curious about the thinking behind this, you can find more here.

There are times when social media becomes irrelevant. When whatever the next planned tweet or post or image would be is, at best, out of sync in the light of a more pressing national or global concern. At worst it becomes tone deaf, evidence that the writer is ignoring issues far more important and urgent than her own concerns. This past week has been one of those times when it seemed to me that my plans needed to be set aside and instead I've been looking at the national mood. The recent shootings in Charleston, SC, have brought issues of race and racism in America to the forefront. Addressing anything else in this post would be tone deaf.

That being said, there is a place for a conversation about storytelling in the context of these murders. The Telling Life is devoted to personal reflections by storytellers about the impact and use of the art, so here are some personal thoughts about the role of storytelling, tellers and my own response in the face of such clear evidence that the U.S. is still a deeply divided country. This is not an easy column to write, it feels like I'm jumping into the deep end, but we need to talk about these things. Remaining silent gives hatred a safe place to incubate. This is a long post and a bit unfocused because I'm struggling to make sense of it myself. Thank you for your patience.

Brother Blue used to say that he told stories to save the world because, "How can people kill each other when they've heard each other's stories?" I know, the specifics of this can be argued, but I think he's right. When we know each other, when we listen to each other's hopes and fears, loves and concerns, we realize that we are all more alike than we are different. We all fret about our families, want the people we love to be safe and happy. When we break it down, we all struggle with the same things, maybe on a different scale or with a different emphasis, but we all yearn for safety and happiness. We all yearn to live in peace. We all yearn to be loved and fulfilled. The stories we tell reflect this; every culture has its own version of happily ever after.

I've never had an easy understanding of racism. I was a white kid in a well-integrated neighborhood with parents who believed in civil rights. When I was in grammar school my best friend was black. In third grade some white kids, including the boy I had a crush on, started teasing me about being a "n- lover." You know the word I am not writing. I got really angry and ended up in a fight with them. You remember that kid in grade school who no one picked on because if they got into a fight they went crazy and didn't hold anything back? Yeah. That was me in this fight. No one said anything like that to me again nor did they pick on my friend when I was around which, at the time, I thought was a pretty good outcome. Looking back I doubt if those kids learned anything other than to leave me alone.

Many years later I found myself deeply in love with and married to a black man. The color of his skin had very little to do with why I love him - he was a marvelous person inside and out. In the early days of our relationship many of my white friends asked me terribly inappropriate questions. You can certainly guess some; others were even worse than what you're thinking. Does the color wash off his skin? Aren't you just a little scared, I mean everyone knows black men are dangerous. Do you eat more chicken and watermelon now? I kid you not, people who I've known and loved for years asked these questions. At first I was furious. The first few times I was not gentle in my response. "What gives you the right to ask that? Do you really think black people are any different from any other kind of people?" which shut down the conversation and the questioner. It was the same as getting into a fistfight.

After a while I realized that the people asking these questions were doing so because they felt safe with me. I was a place where they could expose their assumptions and ask. Yes, these questions came out of ignorance seasoned with prejudice, but if I didn't answer them then I was only burning a bridge. I didn't often directly answer the question. Instead I would ask them, as gently as I could, why they were asking. This led to conversations about racial assumptions and I had the opportunity to talk about how people are people regardless of the color of their skin. That our biology, our cares and concerns, our preferences for a given food are the product of our culture and upbringing. If color doesn't wash off of white skin it's not likely to wash off of black. That danger is more a product of economics and opportunity than anything else and the color of someone's skin does nor predispose them from birth towards violence. That chicken and watermelon are delicious; so are salad and scallops and a nice glass of wine.

The questions gave us a chance to build bridges. The stories we told each other helped us reach out and connect. My husband had these experiences every day and was more generous in his response than I typically was. Many of his stories were about his experiences as a black man, told to largely white audiences.

So how does all of this relate to #tellinglife? How does this relate to the murders of nine black people by a self-avowed white racist? We change the world with the stories we tell. When we reach across racial, social, religious or other divides and share our experiences we are reminded that we are so similar under the skin. It is my duty as a storyteller to tell the stories of ignorance and knowledge. Maybe if the shooter had heard some of these stories, had taken an opportunity to listen to black people, he would have realized that his prejudices weren't a reflection of the world as it is. And then maybe he wouldn't have been so scared as to pick up a gun.

I am fortunate. I was raised by parents who believe that everyone has potential to be a miracle or monster. Now, as a storyteller, I have the opportunity to build bridges with words and by listening. So do you. Being silent won't change the world.

My name is Laura Packer. I am a middle-aged white woman living in the middle of the United States. I have experienced white privilege and sexism. I have made stupid assumptions based on race or religion or other factors. I am trying to not do that again and to help build a better world. By naming these things I hope to remove some of the stigma. By telling these stories I hope to create more open dialogue so we can build bridges. You can too.

Join me.

(With thanks to Janice Del Negro for helping me think this through.)

(c)2015 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License


  1. I certainly agree about the importance of listening to each other's stories; that's the ONLY way to break down prejudice. What strikes me about the Charleston killer was how adept he was at NOT listening even when stories were right in front of him; how he attended the church, sat among the people he hated, never listened. His name is Legion. I am horrified by that.

    1. That hour was the last link in a very long chain; I don't think his opinions could have been easily swayed at that point. I also wonder if, even if he had second thoughts, he felt as though he couldn't back down.
      I am horrified, too. I think we need to begin listening and teach listening early. We need to know we can own our failings safely so we can overcome them. Storytelling has a place here, because it's a way to build empathy and know we aren't alone.


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