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Our Stories: Diversity, Otherness, and Commonality

I saw a post on Facebook this morning that a friend had shared that caught my attention. The gist of it was that two women were talking, a white woman and a Latinx woman, and the white woman said that she wouldn't be interested in seeing a play about a Hispanic experience because she had nothing in common with "them" (a quote from the post). The Latinx woman then asked if the first was Jewish, who replied that she was not, then she followed up asking if she liked Fiddler On The Roof, to which she then replied that she did and when pressed on what she had in common with the experience of being a Jew in Imperial Russia had replied that it was "just a good story." The author of the post concludes that they (those of Hispanic descent) have good stories that haven't been told, attempted to be listened to, and that this has resulted in such an intense alienation and othering that it is resulting in them being killed and their children being orphaned. (Original post from Diana Burbano, an actor, playwright, and teaching artist).

I've spent a lot of time over the past few years thinking about the importance of diversity and representation in media (film, games, and ultimately storytelling). It has always been particular sore point when I witness the same tired excuses for why certain roles are whitewashed, for example. Setting aside the "no known actors" argument the main point of contention I see is perhaps the most problematic: "People won't be able to identify with *an Asian in that role." *With a note to insert any ethnicity, background, orientation, etc.

Anyone who has grown up not white or of a historically mainstream lifestyle will understand the irony of being told the impossibility of identifying with a protagonist who doesn't look like you... (funny, I've been expected to do it for thirty-five years and managed to survive...). Perhaps the more insidious side to this argument to me, however, is that the same argument never is presented when movies are presented with anthropomorphized animals or inanimate objects. Fundamentally my takeaway becomes - and I think the larger media machine begins to reinforce - that persons of certain demographics are harder to identify with than animals or talking cars. And, look I get it, perhaps these cars operate in a culture that is more familiar and comfortable to the viewer, however the very idea being voiced that lack of commonality with someone who appears different racially or behaviorally is a wider gap than that between a human being and a talking toaster is beyond problematic and dangerous.

We live in a time when these gaps in the ability to connect are deliberately used to stoke the fires of fear inundating our media streams with the resulting mass violence, intense division, governmentally issued caging and deaths of children, and so fourth. Regardless of your stance on issues of politics, none of these represent the qualities and behaviors that we believe in nor stand for. We as a country are better than this. We as human beings are better than this.

The good news is that, while historically the gatekeepers of Hollywood and publishing companies have unilaterally decided which stories deserved to be told on a large scale - which resulted in a very narrow vision of which stories to tell and how they should be told, things are shifting. With films such as Crazy Rich Asians and Get Out we are seeing not only diverse stories being told by diverse voices but that they are a lucrative endeavor and stories people are interested in hearing.

On an individual scale, one of the biggest initial hurdles is breaking the ice - as demonstrated in the post I saw this morning, convincing people that they have a reason to invest their time and resources into a story they don't think they identify with or have interest in. And it can be hard, as not every story that features diversity is a good story told well. There are a lot of bad books, films, games, and beyond out there and exposure to one when an individual isn't fully convinced they have buy in to "that type" of story can be a turn off. What this really starts to illustrate, however, is the othering mentality we fall under when underexposed to other perspectives, voices, and experiences.

"I don't have anything in common with 'them'," the first woman from the post stated. Oh, but not so. For every joy, loss, fear, triumph, ambition, betrayal, family crisis, mundane boredom, disappointment, balled fist of anger, jealous thought, thudding heartbeat waiting for uncertain news, eyelid barely held aloft after an endless day or night, laugh so hard that tears roll freely... yes, everyone has something in common with them and they with you. We have all experienced some if not all of these things in some form or another even if the circumstances look unfamiliar.

As someone who has historically had a challenging relationship with change (read that as: I straight don't like it), I get that the unknown can be scary. Challenging one's beliefs, world views, or just being introduced to an idea or scenario that is completely unfamiliar can range from being uncomfortable to viscerally painful. However, that is how we learn.

Take, for example, a child learning to walk or transition from diapers to a toilet - it can be a painful time for everyone, the only difference is that there is no choice in certain learning trajectories. With some exceptions, the majority of individuals hit certain expected milestones as they grow and develop even if the learning process is uncomfortable. As adults, though, we get to decide when we stop learning, and as human beings we don't like pain. We tend to shy away from things that threaten our comfort. The problem is that even as adults we need to continue to learn and grow. The crisis is that the stagnation of growth in empathy and cross-perspective understanding is resulting in more than an ethical dilemma. It's resulting in gross injustice and deaths.

So how then can stories and storytelling impact anything so vast? The issue of othering mentality can seem so insurmountable when seen at such a historically massive scale, but change - dirty, wonderful change - happens with simple starts.

We talk to each other, we hold space for conversations in the right context with the right people, and can ever learn something new when caught off guard. We are a social creature and what we really want is to connect. We want to hear and be heard. We want to know that we exist and that we matter, and that our experience means something as we yell into the void.

What I've noticed during my time as a speaker, storyteller, and host is that there is a certain magic in open-mic style storytelling spaces. By logistical nature they tend to be a little smaller and more intimate allowing for spontaneous moments of vulnerability. Even with a theme, they tend to move a little more organically, allowing for snapshots of zeitgeist that can leave a room laughing, be a complete bust, or take a profound turn. I've found, though, that it is a valuable opportunity for these moments of surprise learning disguised as a good time. Strangers share in experiences and drinks and learn they have more in common than maybe they would have thought.

The trick, I think, is bringing together a truly diverse group to partake of the experience, because I'll admit that there are high odds that many who attend the public events I host likely already share some perspectives or views (be it cultural, political, socioeconomically, etc.) even if they are being exposed to new experiences. Still, it starts simple, and despite its simplicity exposure can be a surprisingly big hurdle to overcome. Exposure is the first step to familiarity, though, and familiarity can help remove that fear of the unknown and "their" stories just become stories. Engaging stories. Good stories. Important stories. Our stories.

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