Honoring Stories Across Difference

This educator asks, “How can I as a white ally amplify the voices of those affected by racial violence? How can I honor their stories?”

Two nights ago, shooters opened fire on a group of #blacklivesmatter protesters in North Minneapolis, where protesters have been gathered at the fourth precinct since the death of 24-year-old Jamar Clark. Police shot Clark in the head November 15 while responding to a domestic dispute. Details on both the Clark and the #blacklivesmatter shootings are still murky.

Three nights ago, I sat just a few miles from the fourth precinct at a Thanksgiving dinner with friends who had been part of the protests, freshly returned from days of singing, praying and holding hands around fires to keep warm. I smelled the smoke on them as they recounted the day’s events, apologetically checking their phones as videos were released, scrolling through Twitter for updates as they absorbed the warmth of our group, eating potluck turkey.

So this morning when I heard about the #blacklivesmatter shooting, I thought first of my friends. Had they been there? Were they okay? I called, I texted. An hour went by. Finally a response. They were fine.

Up until today, exploding racial violence across the country has affected me, but mostly indirectly because of my work as a social justice educator: local protests springing up, students asking for readings to help them better understand what is happening in our country. I grieved with the rest of the country after this summer’s church shooting in Charleston. I read, cried, posted, discussed in anger after Darren Wilson was not indicted last November. I cared.

But this morning, waking up to news of the shooting near loved ones I had seen only days before, it felt different. It was different. My reaction went from the hypothetical concerns of a white ally to a different sort of connection. After sitting with my friends who could have been the victims, the shootings became part of my own story; they became more real to me.

My experience follows a pattern that social scientists have observed for decades: Friendships across identity groups can promote empathy. It made me think about how to help white students who may not routinely encounter racial microaggressions, discrimination and violence—or know anyone who does—understand these incidents as relevant and critical. Dr. Brittney Cooper, Rutgers professor and weekly columnist at Salon, writes that close cross-racial friendships are difficult and rare in the United States, and that many people do not have a single close friend who is racially different from themselves. If this is the case, how can I as a white ally amplify the voices of those affected by racial violence? How can I honor their stories?

My responsibility as a white ally is to stand with and behind people of color and demand systemic change. It is also my responsibility to recognize that the moment of connection I experienced was a function of my white privilege—and to use this experience to help my students make similar connections. One way I can do this, in cases where my students share few interpersonal connections across identity groups, is to provide opportunities for them to critically engage with the stories of people whose lives and experiences are different from their own. Hearing and reflecting on these intimate stories brings the tellers and their struggles closer, makes them more real and more connected to our own stories.

University of Chicago Professor Martha Nussbaum notes in her book Cultivating Humanity: A Classical Defense of Reform Liberal Education that students must cultivate a narrative imagination in order to connect with the lives of others they do not know. Writes Nussbaum, “This means the ability to think what it might be like to be in the shoes of a person different from oneself, to be an intelligent reader of that person’s story, and to understand the motions and wishes and desire that someone so placed might have.” Stories build empathy, empathy builds compassion, and compassion brings true change—change our country most desperately needs.

Czarnik-Neimeyer is the assistant director and chief of staff at St. Norbert College’s Cassandra Voss Center, which focuses on transformation through initiatives related to race, class, gender and identity.

The following resources support sharing stories across difference in the classroom:

International Human Library Organization

Launched across the globe with the aim to end prejudice and discrimination, organizations can host their own Human Libraries in communities, featuring human “books” and human “readers.”

I’m From Driftwood LGBTQ Story Archive

A collection of narratives used nationally in ally trainings, a great place to start is Orange Is the New Black actress Laverne Cox’s story.

Humans of New York

Offers viral social media postings with photos and quotes that are also good visuals for classroom use, including special recent campaign on Syrian Refugees.


Encourages archiving storytelling across generations and difference, including campaigns to collect family stories during Thanksgiving 

Perspectives for a Diverse America 

Social justice curriculum including over 300 free readings labeled by lens and theme and aligned to the Teaching Tolerance Anti-bias Framework.

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