Storytelling, Not Labeling

How Words Can Uplift Us All

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I am an invisible man…I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me. When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination— indeed, everything and anything except me. 

That invisibility to which I refer occurs because of a peculiar disposition of the eyes of those with whom I come in contact. A matter of construction of their inner eyes….

-Ralph Ellison, The Invisible Man

In honor of Black History Month, let’s pay homage to those writers who made the invisible visible, who helped so many, including me, feel seen and validated.

Ralph Ellison’s The Invisible Man made me feel visible; he invited me into his world and allowed me to more clearly see my own. The same can be said for me of so many other Black writers— Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou, Zora Neale Hurston— that helped me discover myself, as well as other people and cultures more fully, generating an ongoing reverence for the power of language in helping us to know and to represent others. 

I’m Korean-American. When I was younger, I was called “Oriental,” and sometimes, “Chinese.” These days “Asian-American” is the socially accepted and widely used term. All of these labels fit like hand-me-downs. Too loose, too tight— those trappings were not made for me. The trouble is, they are inaccurate, vague, or reductionist, but they are also convenient, and they help the mind do what it naturally wants to do: make things easy to understand.

In my role leading CollegeSpring, a non-profit whose mission is to provide equitable access to standardized test preparation, my job is to get people to “know” the communities we are serving and to raise money on behalf of the programs that serve them. To be an effective fundraiser, people expect a strong elevator pitch. I’ve heard a version of the following scenario numerous times from fundraising trainers: “Imagine you see Mr. Millionaire (and it’s always a Mr.), and you have two minutes to pitch why your nonprofit is the best before the elevator doors open again. Prove why your cause and the community you are serving is the worthy one.” That constraint and construct is designed for me to be as pithy and concise as possible; it mimics real-life conditions in which you only have someone’s attention for a few minutes, and reflects a competitive marketplace where communities are for sale. 

Let’s deconstruct the impact that framework might have on a fundraiser like me. I’m incentivized to make sure my words pack a punch, use signifiers that might conjure up multiple images instead of one. After all, efficiency. I could say “underserved students” because that implies they are poor or uncared for, and you might think of the scores of other “underserved” folks that live in their neighborhoods. The prefix “under” might trigger you to think of your own “over-served” children and unknowingly begin thinking these parents and children I speak of are the opposite of you and your own. Now you get it and want to help! And we would go off into our corners of the world, each of us feeling pretty good about our benevolence.

What if, instead, in that elevator, I focused not on the quick story or the quick fix? Instead, I could describe a system first, the one we are all a part of. Rather than describing “underserved students,” I would talk about the ways in which we as a society are failing to serve Black and LatinX communities. Let’s talk about us, as part of one system, and see how a shared sense of belonging and humanity start to emerge. 

That’s what the stories of the Black writers above did for me. In the telling of their stories, though in many ways vastly different from my own experiences, they showed how we were all connected, and they showed me the complexity of identity based on very specific lived experiences. Nothing was exactly the same, and yet it was.

In our own journey towards becoming an antiracist organization, CollegeSpring has become more mindful of the language we use. We think about what words the student might choose to introduce themselves in that elevator. It’s unlikely they’d use prefixes like ‘under’ or ‘low’ to paint a picture of who they are. So we strive to take an asset-based approach to student storytelling, focusing on student accomplishments and strengths. At the same time, we refer to the challenges and obstacles students face in a realistic and factual way, being as specific as possible instead of lumping them into broad categories overshadowed by loose labels.

It’s possible you might read this and think this is an exercise in wokeness, a fixation on words, not problems. But if the first couple of months of 2021 have taught us anything, it’s that words matter. Words create perceptions, and perceptions create reality. So let’s choose and use our words wisely. We may not be able to write like Ellison or Morrison, but we can resist the urge to take shortcuts–and that can bring all of us more understanding.

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