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Storytelling and Racism

By March 20, 2019Storytelling

Just typing the title of this post: storytelling and racism has me nervous. I don’t want to say something wrong, but this topic is coming up again and again in my work. It needs conversation and notice.

While important and helpful in fundraising – client stories must be examined for their perpetuation of showing people of color as “less than” or needing rescuing by me as a donor, or you, or your organization.

The danger we face in our storytelling is of appearing to “do good,” and then place ourselves in the role of hero and person of advantage “doing something” for someone who is disadvantaged and needing help.

white fragility

It’s time for me to listen more carefully as I coach clients and write about storytelling.

In reading the book White Fragility (a must read for us all) by Dr. Robin DiAngelo, and listening to her speak recently — I find myself noticing more and more opportunities of my own perpetuation of unconscious bias and racism.

For a good place to help you start thinking about this topic watch this video of DiAngelo debunking the most common myths white people have about race.

exploring white myths will help with storytelling and racism

As DiAngelo says in her book, “a critical component of cross-racial skill building is the ability to sit with the discomfort of being seen racially.”

I recognize that I do not know all the ways I am racist.

I am choosing, therefore, a journey of an upper middle-class white woman’s discomfort as I notice, uncover, discuss, and wrestle with my own racism. I’m going to do it wrong sometimes. And, if I want to make an authentic difference I have to be okay with my own discomfort and embarrassment when I do it wrong.

Today, I simply want to say, sharing client stories is and will always be a powerful way to put a face on your impact. And on your donors’ impact.

A powerful story should honor the courage, wisdom, and life-choices of your main character. Whether that’s a client, board member, volunteer, or yourself.

DiAngelo reminds us that “the default of the current system is the reproduction of racial inequality; our institutions were designed to reproduce racial inequality and they (and I) do so with efficiency.”

It will take one person at a time to cause the kind of wide-spread change needed to notice and challenge racial inequality.

I commit to the uncomfortable ride ahead as I notice my own patterns and unexamined assumptions. To help with this, I invite you to join me in curating a checklist to be used to help us be certain we’re focusing our storytelling on honoring and not rescuing.

What questions should be on our checklist? Please leave your ideas in the comments. I look forward to hearing what you have to say.



  • Donna Betzer says:

    Really glad you are tackling this topic. I look forward to participating and learning. I have always tried to look at it as if the story was being told about my family. This naturally makes me use words that are more empowering and supportive of the participant. But I know I have a lot of room for growth.

  • Suzanne says:

    Lori I appreciate what you are saying, but does this not apply to most of our missions. The homeless, the addicted, the dying, the sex trade. Are we not trying to empower and give voice to all. We must move from the words, us, we, them, they. Racism, prejudices, come in many forms more than just color. The question who are you trying to save? Are they asking to be saved or supported? What is their story, your gift has always been to gently nudge those words. To shape and support. You have a gift.

    • Suzanne,
      Agreed, honoring of others DOES apply to most, if not all, nonprofit missions. What I’m learning is that racism is the most complex and long lasting social dynamics in our country and likely the world. As white women we can never fully understand what it means to be a person of color with decades and lifetimes of inequality and lack of freedom. If you are able, read some or all of Robin DiAngelo’s book or some of her postings on the internet. She’s got a gift for cutting to the core of this important and often invisible topic.
      And, Suzanne, thank you, as always, for who you are for others.

  • Susan Geller says:

    Thank you for this excellent post. At Interfaith Outreach & Community Partners, this has been a topic of exploration, curiosity and struggle. One of the pieces we have landed on is the importance of talking about context. For example, if you talk about someone who is without housing who finds a home, put it in the context of a shortage of affordable housing and a history of racially biased housing policy and the story suddenly sounds a lot different. One of the challenges is doing this in just a few words.

    • Susan, Thank YOU for the work you are doing both in our community and in your focused communication and story sharing. The work to communicate without bias and judgement is so important. While it does take time, it’s also what will cause lasting change in our sector.

  • Peri Stone-Palmquist says:

    I look forward to seeing your checklist. A few ideas … Is this centering the wisdom, resiliency and power of the people or is it elevating a narrative of white saviorism? Does this frame the problem as a personal failure or recognize the systems failures? Does this focus on assets?

    • Excellent questions, Peri. This is a topic that will take all of us to ask important questions. Stories are powerful, but my own personal mission is that they are used for honoring humans and allowing others to have a glimpse of what it means to walk in someone else’s shoes.

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