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Bonnie Sutton

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started by Bonnie Sutton on 08 Jun 12
  • Bonnie Sutton
    The Storytelling Project Model: A Theoretical Framework for Critical Examination of Racism Through the Arts

    by Lee Anne Bell & Rosemarie A. Roberts - 2010

    Background/Context: Research in Europe and the United States shows that racial position shapes and gives voice to the stories people tell about race and racism, and filters how such stories are perceived and understood by listeners. Although not uniformly the case, people from the majority White racial group tend to emphasize forward progress and the declining significance of race. Minoritized people of color more often note the enduring impact of racism as a barrier to racial progress.
    Purpose: This article describes the evolution of a theoretical model for teaching critically about racism and racial stories utilizing the arts. We reflect on the collaborative theory-building process used to develop the model, our use of the arts to create spaces of learning where racial stories can be unsettled and reexamined, and the potential of this model to guide educational projects in which participants construct alternative stories geared toward social justice.

    Research Design: This is an analytic essay that describes the development of a theoretical construct.

    Conclusions/Recommendations: We discuss plans for future research on the relevance of the model for teachers, teacher staff development, and curriculum design in secondary and postsecondary classrooms and in community-based dialogues and collaborative action networks.

    This article discusses a new approach to social justice education that looks at diversity through the structural dynamics of power and privilege: the Storytelling Project (STP). Our goal for the project was to develop a theoretical framework to guide the design of curricular and professional development activities that can effectively engage people in a critical examination of race and racism through storytelling with the arts. The STP model that emerged provides a methodology for examining race and racism through multiple lenses using four story types, a process for moving from hegemonic stories to counter stories that challenge racism, and a theoretical/conceptual framework that can be effectively applied to a wide range of audiences, contexts, and applications. This article describes the evolution of the model through our research, experimentation, and collaborative theorizing.

    The project investigated the role that storytelling plays in either reproducing or challenging the racial status quo. By exploring both the power in stories and the power dynamics around stories as these shape learning and practice about race and racism, we examined how social location (positionality) affects racial storytelling and explored ways to construct stories that account for power, privilege, and position in analyzing racial issues. In particular, we sought to determine the potential of storytelling to expose and confront colorblind racism and to suggest creative approaches for consciously and proactively tackling racial issues in diverse communities.

    The Storytelling Projectbrought together a diverse team of scholars, artists, public school teachers, and undergraduate interns for an intensive process of collaborative exploration, experimentation, and collective theory building.1 Drawing on our various identities and locations in relation to teaching and learning, and united by our interest in addressing racism through education and the arts, the creative team spent 10 months reading, discussing, and exploring various art forms and scholarly and popular literature on race and racism. We spent a full day together once a month for an entire academic year. In preparation for these intensive meetings, team members read articles on critical race theory (CRT), social justice education, the psychology of race and racism, and critical art theory.

    During meetings, we explored the links between theory and practice through experimenting with various art forms and engaging in a dialogic process to debrief our experiences and connect them to the theoretical material we were reading. We examined theoretical concepts about race (identity, positionality, racial formations) and racism (power, privilege, resistance, collusion) through the vehicles of poetry, creative writing, dance, spoken word, theater games, film, and visual art. At each meeting, we explored one or more art forms, reflected on our experiences with these forms, and discussed the issues thus raised for understanding race and racism and teaching more effectively about this topic. We kept careful notes that were collated for distribution to and analysis by team members after each session in preparation for subsequent sessions and to evaluate our process at the end of the year. The format of the team notes consisted of the agenda for each session, with process notes about what was discussed attached to each agenda item, usually in the form of bullet points with key words or phrases attached. Two student interns also took notes at each meeting; these were collated with our notes and then distributed to the rest of the team for corrections or additions. The resulting team notes served as a running record of our meetings and highlighted key themes and topics that emerged in our discussions. Here we draw from the bullet points and key phrases of our meetings to elaborate in narrative form the major insights derived from our collective work.


    In this section, we discuss concepts that informed our work as a creative team and the evolution of the STP model. We begin with a discussion of the role of collaborative theory building in the development of new constructs. Next, we review concepts from the scholarship on race and racism that underlies our theoretical approach. Then we reflect on what we learned about the power of storytelling and the arts as vehicles for critical teaching about racism and other forms of injustice.


    The STP creative team operated as a "knowledge-building community" (Lave, 1991; Lave & Wenger, 1991; Murray, 2006; Stahl, 2000). "Knowledge building draws on the collective intelligence of a group engaged in researching, theorizing, critiquing, doing, and synthesizing in order to progressively evolve some body of theory and practice" (Murray, p. 212). The members of the team were selected for the diversity of experiences, perspectives, and expertise they could bring to the project and were explicitly invited to experiment and think in new ways about race and racism, antiracist pedagogy, and the potential role of storytelling through the arts as a vehicle for learning and action. The structure and agenda for our meetings were cocreated to draw on the collective intelligence of the group, emerging and developing dynamically through interaction with and input from all group members. By design, leadership and facilitation were shared and rotated as members led from their various areas of interest and expertise. Although the authors, as leaders of the project, developed initial reading assignments and coordinated the distribution of materials and logistics for each meeting, group members regularly contributed readings and agenda topics once we got started.

    Murray (2006) noted that knowledge-building communities struggle with "balancing critical rigor, reflective self disclosure, radical openness to the perspectives of others, and an authentic reflection on power and privilege" (p. 214). These issues seem particularly salient for theory building in a racially diverse group on the topic of racism. From the outset, we underscored our commitment to noticing, surfacing, and discussing how our various racial (as well as class, gender, and nationality) locations informed our experiences and ideas. As we moved through this process, we realized that the power in collaborative theory building resides in the commitment to stay engaged through the tensions that arise in order to reap the benefits of new learning that such engagement makes possible.

    In our first meeting together, as a way to begin to get to know one another, we each related a personal story about ourselves that connected to or illustrated an experience of racism in our lives, told through the sentence stem "I remember. . ."2 The stories evoked by this prompt brought forth personal experiences with racism and pointed out broader themes that reveal how racism functions as a system of oppression that transcends and encompasses individual stories. The discussion that followed the activity brought out rich themes that we returned to repeatedly throughout the course of our work together.

    One key issue, for example, was to notice the ways in which story, as a form for exploring race/racism, can be problematic. The process of analyzing the "I remember…" activity revealed the potential for unspoken, taken-for-granted narratives to stifle or efface individual stories. If these individual stories are recognized, they can help to identify features of power systems not previously considered. As we went around the room sharing our stories, one member who was born and raised outside the United States exclaimed in frustration, "This doesn't apply to me!" Explaining how her experiences of racism shifted as she moved from one national context to another, she not only brought our attention to transnational features of racism but also helped to establish a norm of honesty that opened up space for others in the group to challenge our operating questions and assumptions and to expand the frame for our analysis. Even more exciting, these challenges brought forth new connections across stories that uncovered not only how racism affects people differently at the individual level but also that it functions at the social, cultural, national, and transnational levels in a range of ways that reify certain narratives and conceal others. We experienced the value of a process in which divergent perspectives can push individuals working together to interrogate how stories both conceal as well as reveal, foster lying as well as truth-telling, silence as well as give voice, and betray as well as sustain antiracist thinking and actions.3

    Our commitment to work with and through contradictions and divergent experiences, to continually invite challenges and questioning, was an essential first test of our capacity and commitment as a theory-building community, playing a key role in the development of the model that emerged. This process reflected the "cycle of social knowledge-building" described by (Stahl, 2000), one in which diverse perspectives can be expressed "in a context relatively free of hidden agendas, power struggles and un-discussed prejudices" (p. 72) and through which new forms of shared understanding can emerge.


    We were interested in both diversity-how race is constructed as a form of difference-and social (in)justice-the unequal ways in which social hierarchies sort difference to the benefit of some groups over others (Adams, Bell, & Griffin, 2007). We wanted to explore creative strategies to teach about race and racism in ways that connect individual, psychological (micro-sociological) with systemic/social features of racism. Four key interacting concepts were most salient from our reading and discussion of related literature: race as a social construction (Omi & Winant, 1986), racism as an institutionalized system of hierarchy that operates on multiple levels (Bonilla-Silva, 2006b; Feagin, 2006; Steinberg, 2007), White supremacy/White privilege as key, though often neglected, aspects of systemic racism (Bonilla-Silva, 2001; Doane & Bonilla-Silva, 2003), and colorblindness as a problematic notion that serves as both an ideal and barrier to racial progress (Frankenberg, 1993; Guinier & Torres, 2002). Our thinking as it developed in the project for each of these concepts is discussed next.

    Race as a social construction. We understand race as something that is socially constructed rather than biologically given (Omi & Winant, 1994)-that we are all members of a human community that shares the same biological characteristics, exhibiting more variation within so-called racial groups than between groups. Thus, the commonly held concept of different "races" is an illusion (Adelman, 2003; Haney-López, 2006). Nevertheless the idea of race as a set of biologically determined attributes has come to signify a great deal in our culture; race is a concept that shapes the intimately lived experiences of people assigned to various racial categories in powerful ways (Feagin, 2001; Fine, Weis, & Powell, 1997). The chimera of race, because it is widely believed to be true, has well-documented material consequences in a society where it shapes access to resources and life possibilities in ways that benefit the White racial group at the expense of groups of color (Katznelson, 2005; Lipsitz, 2006; Marable, 2002; Massey & Russell Sage Foundation, 2007; Oliver & Shapiro, 1997). The racially shaped distribution of resources was illustrated in a compelling video we watched and discussed in one of our early sessions (Adelman, 2003).

    Racism as a system that operates on multiple levels. We conceptualize racism as a system of interpersonal, social, and institutional patterns and social hierarchies in which Whites as a group benefit at the expense of other "racial" groups-African Americans, Latinos, Asian Americans, Native Americans, and Arab Americans (Bonilla-Silva, 2006b; Feagin, 2006; Haney-López, 2006; Massey & Russell Sage Foundation, 2007). We understood racism as a phenomenon that operates historically to sustain and inform the present, but in ways that often don't leave tracks (Winant, 2004). Because it saturates our institutions and social structures, it is like the water in which we swim, the air that we breathe (see Tatum, 1997). "It codes everyday life in an infinite number of ways" (Winant, 2004, p. 36), shaping our government, schools, churches, businesses, media, and other social institutions to reinforce and sustain an unequal status quo (L. A. Bell, Love, & Roberts, 2007). In place for centuries, "business as usual" is sufficient to fuel an institutionalized system of racism that often operates outside of conscious or deliberate intention. Thus, for racism to be a construct of use to educators focused on social justice, we must understand its ubiquity in order to effectively challenge its hegemony. The quotidian vehicle of story, we felt, offered a promising way to get at the commonplace of racism in daily life and to discern the structures that keep it in place.

    Conscious awareness of racism varies widely among different racial groups, however, and thus shapes the stories to which each group has access (van Dijk, 1999). Whites, as a group, tend to be less conscious of racism and/or more likely to believe that racism has been addressed successfully in our society than people of color who experience the ongoing effects of racism daily in their lives (L. A. Bell, 2003b; Bonilla-Silva, 2006a; Solarzano, Ceja, & Yosso, 2000). Because racial position (as well as class, gender, and other social group markers) so powerfully shapes the stories we hear and tell about racism, we grappled with how to account for positionality as we developed the Storytelling model. One concern was to think about how stories make visible and tangible that which is so taken for granted about racism and to consider the potential of stories to foster critical analysis of the normative patterns that sustain it.

    White supremacy and White privilege. Many scholars have focused on exposing the ways in which Whiteness works as the unmarked but presumed norm against which people from other groups are measured (Frankenberg, 1993; Hitchcock, 2002; Myers, 2005). Such a shift in analysis positions Whiteness as a central feature in the study of racism and enables us to identify the power dynamics and unearned advantages that accrue to White people as a group within the system of racism (Frankenberg, 1993; Katznelson, 2005; Lipsitz, 2006; McIntosh, 1990; Oliver & Shapiro, 1997). This shift shines a spotlight on institutions that maintain and bolster White supremacy-advantaging Whites and disadvantaging people of color through normative practices that are marked as neutral (Berger, Ewald, Roediger, & Williams, 2004; Dyer, 1997; Kendall, 2006). Again, as educators addressing issues of social justice, we were interested in how stories that explicate Whiteness, in a sense naming the unnamed, might open up analytic possibilities for challenging its hegemony, just as stories by and about people from oppressed communities offer critique and strategies for challenging domination.

    Colorblindness. We view colorblindness as the problematic minimization and justification of racism (L. A. Bell, 2003a; Bonilla-Silva, 2003) in ways that reinforce inequalities, hierarchies, and racial divisions. When Martin Luther King put forth his eloquent vision of a colorblind society in his famous "I Have a Dream" speech, he imagined a future where the eradication of racism would eliminate barriers for people of color. King's vision of a colorblind future in which barriers to people of color are eradicated requires that we first see and account for race in order to create institutions that do not replicate patterns of racial inequality that have been made acceptable through normative practices of exclusion. The invocation of colorblindness all too often glosses over current inequalities in the name of a "prematurely imagined community" (Williams, 1998) where race no longer plays a role in allocating access and opportunities. Thus, our intentional and sustained focus on race and racism in the STP was an effort to challenge colorblind discourse by creating stories that illustrate racisms' differential impacts on White people and people of color.

    Critical race theory and counter-storytelling. In the STP, we were also influenced by scholarship on CRT, particularly the idea of counter-storytelling as a strategy for challenging racism and the narratives that support it (see D. A. Bell, 1992; Delgado & Stefancic, 1995; Williams, 1991). Like CRT scholars, we see race and racism as central to our analysis of inequality. We found great resonance with this and other CRT principles, including doubt toward claims of neutrality, objectivity, colorblindness, and meritocracy, and insistence on the importance of historical context and analysis to understand racism (Dixson & Rousseau, 2006). We also recognized as key the experiential knowledge that people of color bring to understanding racism, adding our belief that White people can construct knowledge from conscious and honest examination of the lived experience of the advantages associated with Whiteness and use this knowledge to cocreate with people of color a critical understanding of racism. Like critical race theorists, we use the idea of hegemonic (stock) stories and counter-storytelling to denote narratives that counteract or challenge the dominant story (Dixson & Rousseau).

    However, unlike others who use CRT, in the STP, we differentiate counter stories into three types: concealed, resistance, and emerging/transforming stories. Concealed stories include narratives told by members of minoritized groups that counteract the grand narratives of the dominant group (Delgado, 1989) and portray the strengths and capacities in marginalized communities that are so often ignored or devalued by mainstream society (Yosso, 2006). Concealed and resistance stories that expose normative White privilege are most often told by members of marginalized groups, who usually see more clearly what those in the center take for granted (Collins, 2000). However, members of the dominant White group can also expose the workings of privilege as insiders who commit to working against racism (McIntosh, 1990; Tatum, 1994). Concealed and resistance stories are framed as excavated and revealed knowledge, and counter stories are (re)constructed, experiential knowledge based on concealed and resistance stories. Our elaborated definitions of these different types of story are discussed in the section entitled "Four Story Types for Analyzing Race and Racism."


    It is our position in the STP that the aesthetic experience of stories told through visual arts, theater, spoken word, and poetry can help students think more creatively, intimately, and deeply about racism. Too often, when we dare to talk about racism, name White privilege, and challenge color privilege, we tend to use abstract language that creates distance between ourselves and the emotionality that can accompany such talk, treating racism as something "out there" but not "here" in our daily lives. Aesthetic experiences offer a productive space wherein provocative, charged topics can be encountered and engaged on an embodied level (Roberts, 2005). They provide a means for engaging emotion, ideas, worries, wonderings, questions, for keeping us aware of the hidden and unconscious ways that social issues operate in our society and more intimately in our lives, in our communities, and in our schools to shape what we take as given or imagine as possible. The various forms of artistic expression we performed in our work as a creative team in the STP elicited visceral, emotionally powerful, and vivid reactions to the topics of race and racism.

    During one of our monthly meetings, we divided into smaller groups to dramatize physical representations of power, oppression, and resistance-concepts that underlie race and racism. After small groups developed their scenarios, each group took a turn performing their embodied story for the team as a whole, using postures, gestures, and movement to give shape with our bodies to expressions of power, oppression, and resistance. Team members "mov[ed] between immediacies and general categories . . . participat[ing] in some dimensions that we could not know if imagination were not aroused" (Greene, 1995, p. 186). The language we used to debrief these tableaux was full of emotion and sensation, as individual members narrated feelings of powerlessness, fear, tension, excitement, bounded-ness, freedom, motion, strength, weakness, weight, and weightlessness provoked by the embodiment of power, oppression, and resistance. Through this exercise, we experienced the power of embodied performance as a means of traversing the boundaries of individual experience to connect with the experiences of others different from ourselves. We discovered that we could "write" emotionally charged stories with our bodies, even if they were not our own. Although the destabilizing weight of oppression and the physical sensation of pushing against an obstacle were new to some and familiar to others, the performative space created by the exercise provided an opportunity to step into and experience the familiar and unfamiliar, to stimulate deep learning (Eisner, 2002), to keep us radically open to the ways in which racism works in our society, and to envision new possibilities for challenging and changing oppressive circumstances (Greene, 2004; Roberts, 2005). In so doing, the arts created an opening in which the "commonplaces of racism could be unsettled, in which racism [could] be addressed as a framing of meaning [that can be challenged] rather than taken as natural" (Thompson, 1997, p. 34).

    Through helping us to encounter others in more authentic and honest ways, the arts also opened up new possibilities for dialogue about charged topics like race and racism within diverse communities (Soohoo, 2006). Aesthetic experience, and storytelling specifically, created what Maxine Greene (1995) would call an opening for the teller and listener to "extend, and deepen what each of us thinks of when [we] speak of a community" (p. 161). Through empathic engagement, the stories we created in our project began to set the stage for affective change (Bruner, 1986; McCrary, 2000; Sarbin, 1986). This change, when it occurs at a visceral level, can generate a capacity to create new narratives in which participants situate themselves as responsive moral agents and imagine new ways of behaving in line with social justice goals (Wortham, 2000).


    We were drawn to the particular form of story in our project because stories operate on both individual and collective levels and can thus build a bridge between the sociological/abstract and the psychological/personal contours of daily experience. Stories are one of the most powerful and personal ways that we learn about the world, passed down from generation to generation through the family and cultural groups to which we belong. As such, stories are never solely individual but collective (Ewick & Silbey, 1995), carrying within them the historical/social formations they reflect and the sedimented ways of thinking that Gramsci called "commonsense" (Gramsci, Hoare, & Nowell-Smith, 1971). hooks (1989) noted that stories "can provide meaningful examples and ways to identify and connect" (p. 77), becoming a potent vehicle for linking individual experiences with systemic analysis. Such links allow us to unpack, in ways that are perhaps more accessible than abstract analysis alone, racism's hold on us even as we move through the institutions and cultural practices that sustain it.

    We hoped that a focus on stories about race and racism would have the potential to highlight social/racial positionality and to raise consciousness about systematic White racial privilege and the historical relations that perpetuate it. Critical analysis of the stories we tell about race and racism, we theorized, would also potentially enable the conscious construction of stories that contest the racial status quo and provide alternative visions of democratic and socially just race relations (Delgado, 1989; Guinier & Torres, 2002).

    We also recognized the problematic nature of story, noting that the reception and understanding of story depends on context, on the relationship between narrator and listener, on genesis and purpose, and on power relations within society (Harris, Carney, & Fine, 2001). Although the diverse groups that make up the United States provide a rich source of stories to draw upon, in a deeply racialized society stained by structural racism, not all stories are equally acknowledged, affirmed, or valued. Operating as a racially conscious knowledge-building community, we viewed the arts as a means of contending with and negotiating the real divisions and differences between us (Williams, 1998) and of extending and deepening our own psychic and social sense of "we"-or what Dewey called "the area of shared concerns" of citizens of democratic process who act toward equity and social justice-without rushing toward an inauthentic community of sameness.

    We explored these issues through a range of creative writing activities. For example, one writing prompt asked of team members: "Write about the first time that you felt different," followed by "What did a loved one teach you about race?" After a period of individual writing, we read our stories aloud to each other. The stories revealed deeply personal memories of the early "lessons" we learned about race as we metaphorically sat on the knee, or at the foot, of someone we loved. Some of us narrated stories about loved ones who prepared us for the unforgiving, unrelenting world of racism. Others unearthed unspoken messages about race, recalling a raised eyebrow or the sudden grip of a hand in the presence of racial "Others." Committed to reflective self-disclosure and radical openness to the stories generated across our racially diverse group, we were cautious of the tendency to distance ourselves from the trauma of stories that elicit feelings of shame, anger, or embarrassment or that privilege some stories over others, seeing memory as "a significant site of social struggle" (Levins-Morales, 1998). Our emotional engagement with these issues helped us distinguish between "passive empathy," which, according to Boler (1999), "produces no action toward justice but situates the powerful Western eye/I as the judging subject, never called upon to cast her gaze on her own reflection" (p. 161), and "testimonial reading," wherein we "recognize oneself as implicated in the social forces that create the climate of obstacles the other must confront" (p. 166). Rather than consuming one another's stories as separate and unrelated, we excavated their relational nature to analyze the dialectic connections between and among our stories. We constantly reflected on the danger that story will support an individualistic relativism that elides differences in power and privilege, recognizing that some stories are supported and reinforced by the power structure, whereas others must fight tenaciously to be heard. As hooks (1989) commented, "For some, openness is not about the luxury of 'will I choose to share this or tell that' but rather 'will I survive-will I make it through-will I stay alive" (p. 2).

    For people from marginalized communities, stories are a way of bearing witness to struggle and survival in a racist system (Silko, 1986; Levins-Morales, 1998). Such stories persist through often tenacious resistance in the face of a status quo that marginalizes4 and silences their telling, submerging what might be learned from their truths/lessons (Levins-Morales). Standpoint theory (Collins, 1997) provides a framework for understanding how location, in relation to power, shapes historically shared, group-based experiences and stories and for understanding what is missed when the voices and stories of marginalized people are suppressed or silenced. CRT (Delgado & Stefancic, 1995; Dixson & Rousseau, 2006; Ladson-Billings & Tate, 2006; Matsuda, 1996; Solarzano et al., 2002) also emphasizes the importance of stories to give voice to the experiences of those oppressed by racism.

    For members of the dominant group, critical analysis of stories provides a way to get access to what Anzaldua (1990) called "racial blank spots"-the selective editing of reality that allows White people to disengage from the racial advantages they enjoy. Too often, discussions of race and racism in the mainstream society reify and repeat "stock stories" developed by the dominant group to put them and their group in a favorable light vis-à-vis other racial groups (van Dijk, 1984, 1993, 1999). Frequently, they are stories of forward racial progress that rationalize White privilege and the status quo (L. A. Bell, 2003b). These "stock stories" can serve as a useful entry point to critically examine race and racism, foster recognition of how racism operates on both individual and systematic levels, and understand the persistence of racism and the factors that enable it to endure (D. Bell, 1989).

    If, as Anzaldua (1990) asserted, disengagement is "a sanctioned ethnocentric, racist strategy" (p. 17), then critical engagement with stock and concealed stories offers a way for White people to stay engaged and thus responsive and responsible to racial others. Thus, we can use stock stories to identify the patterns by which institutions reproduce themselves in the interests of the dominant group and use concealed stories to unpack how group interests are hidden in the individual vehicle of story. Figure 1 shows our representation of the model; we discuss each aspect further in the following section.

    Figure 1. The Storytelling Project model

    click to enlarge


    We have discussed in detail our theory-building process and our quite conscious decisions at different points in our work together to lay bare our theorizing and the scaffolding through which the Storytelling Project model was constructed. As a creative team, our work was guided by a social epistemology whereby "a series of representational schemas" was developed and modified over time to express our shared knowledge as it evolved (Stahl, 2000). The STP model encapsulates the issues and ideas with which we grappled and the concerns that informed our thinking about stories as tools for understanding racism as a structural force that threads through individual discourse.


    At the heart of the model is attention to the dynamics of consciously creating a community in which stories about race and racism can be openly shared, respectfully heard, and critically discussed and analyzed. Our team discussions frequently centered on the challenges of and strategies for establishing a multiracial community of storytellers where issues of social power and privilege are exposed for critical analysis. Recognizing that people of color tend to bear the weight of talking about race and racism and that White interactional styles often impede or "gloss over" race talk (Haviland, 2007), we sought ways to help members in racially diverse groups share this burden more equitably. Noting as well that many White people also yearn to make sense of race and racism and to find ways to challenge practices of racial stratification (Burns, 2004), we focus on addressing the barriers that prevent White engagement in honest dialogue about racism.

    More often than not, public discourse asserts colorblindness as the "fair" approach to addressing racial issues and actively avoids color-conscious discussions of race and racism. The STP model, in contrast, actively constructs community in which color-conscious/power-conscious discussions (Frankenberg, 1993) are expected. We introduce the language of "comfort zone" and "learning edge" (Griffin & Ouellett, 2007) to indicate a commitment to risk discomfort in order to stretch beyond what we already know so as to invite new learning. Like Pratt (2002), we see this as a "contact zone" (rather than a comfort zone) in which people from different "cultures [can] meet, clash, and grapple with each other, often in contexts of highly asymmetrical relations of power" (p. 4), and we recognize that an overemphasis on creating comfort can prevent movement toward transformative engagement.

    For storytelling in diverse groups to be meaningful and honest, hooks (1989) asserted that we need to clearly articulate the "terms of engagement." The STP model, accordingly, invites the careful creation of a storytelling community through articulating terms of engagement. Participants invite constructive dialogue that recognizes the challenges of countering inequality embedded in the different social positions occupied by members of a racially diverse group. Our goal is to develop community norms that assume that race and racism will be openly discussed, that each person's voice and story will be heard respectfully, that stories will be held up and scrutinized in terms of their relationship to systems of power and privilege, and that practices of power that differentially privilege or mute particular stories will be interrupted. The model asks that we set forth these intentions with a new group to engage them in naming and practicing guidelines that support these intentions so that when conflicts or disagreements arise, they can be used to facilitate thoughtful face-to-face exploration and resolution. Although specific guidelines will likely differ from group to group, what matters is that guidelines are conscientiously used to facilitate explicit dialogue about race and racism. Establishing such a community is an essential first step and foundation for effectively exploring the story types introduced next.


    We began referring to our work as an exploration of the genealogy of racism. As the creative team engaged with stories from poetry and literature, as well as individually authored and collectively generated stories enacted through different art forms, we grappled with the limitations and opportunities provided by stories and tracked questions and contradictions that surfaced for critical analysis. We theorized that stories can be truthful but can also be masks; they can allow us to take on the burdens of racism as well as escape or avoid issues of racism. Because our identities are multiple, our stories also speak to this multiplicity and cannot be oversimplified. We found that the act of remembering collectively often stimulated memories about the pains of racism or the rewards of privilege that had been submerged or "forgotten." This awareness helped us to be more vigilant about the normative discourses that make conscious, honest dialogue about racism so difficult to sustain. We wrestled with how, in a culture that valorizes individualism, alternative stories can be productively used to excavate sociocultural practices that challenge the dominant cultural view (Peck, 1994). Such conversations led us to differentiate story types, building on ideas about hegemonic and counter-stories (L. A. Bell, 2003b; Delgado, 1989) as we began to flesh out the model.

    The model we ultimately developed identifies four story types to describe how people talk and think about race and racism in the United States: stock stories, concealed stories, resistance stories, and emerging/transforming stories. As Figure 1 illustrates, constructing a counter-storytelling community is the essential center for exploring these four story types; each story type builds on and leads into the next as new content and stories are introduced, and movement through the cycle is used to generate ideas for action or change. The story types reinforce the intentions of our guidelines by providing language and a framework for talking explicitly about racial stories and for making sense of how racism operates in the social stories we tell. Through the four story types, we explore the societal genealogy of racism, the conditions that generated it, and the ways in which it has been transmitted to the present through the stock stories that keep it in place. We also look at alternative stories that offer ideas and tools for generating stories and actions to challenge racism.

    Stock stories. We begin with stock stories because these are the stories about race and racism that are most public and ubiquitous in the mainstream institutions of society-schools, businesses, government and the media-and because the other story types critique and challenge the presumption of universality in stock stories. Thus, they provide the ground from which we build our analysis. Stock stories are those told by the dominant group that rationalize the status quo and are passed on through historical and literary documents and celebrated through public rituals, law, the arts, education, and media representations. Because stock stories tell a great deal about what a society considers important and meaningful, they provide a useful starting point for analyzing how racism operates.

    In our work as a creative team, we analyzed, for example, stock stories about the American Dream. We examined poetry, political speeches, songs, and public art that delineate aspects of this iconic story, repeating themes of rugged individualism, meritocracy, and inevitable forward progress for all who embrace the Dream. For example, we read, analyzed, and compared references to the American Dream in speeches by Barack Obama and Arnold Schwarzenegger at the 2004 Democratic and Republican conventions, respectively. The ubiquity of references to the American Dream in our culture speaks to the power of stock stories in our public imagination, rituals, and documents and to the difficulty of unsettling their taken-for-granted primacy. Critical analysis of stock stories leads to exploration of less well-known stories that expose and question their presumed normative status.

    Concealed stories. Concealed stories exist alongside the stock stories but most often remain in the shadows, hidden from mainstream view, and they provide a perspective that is often very different from that of the dominant group (Scott, 1990). Concealed stories reveal both the stories told from the perspective of racially dominated groups and stories uncovered by a critical analysis of statistics and social science data about the differing ways that race shapes experience in our society. Through concealed stories, people who are marginalized and often stigmatized by the dominant society recount their experiences and critique, or "talk back" to the mainstream narratives; they portray the strengths and capacities in marginalized communities-what Yosso (2006) called "community cultural wealth"-that are so often ignored or devalued by mainstream society. Though usually invisible to those in the dominant society, concealed stories are circulated, told, and retold by people in the margins whose experiences and aspirations they express and honor. Their life-saving importance is stressed by Levins-Morales (1998), who wrote, "We must struggle to re-create the shattered knowledge of our humanity. It is in retelling of stories of victimization, recasting our roles from subhuman scapegoats to beings full of dignity and courage, that this becomes possible" (p. 13).

    Following the lead of CRT, which underlines the value of experiential knowledge about race and racism, and using the knowledge building processes of our team, we searched for stories that describe racial oppression through the experiences of people of color (Delgado, 1990; Delgado-Bernal, 2002). These stories tend to narrate the past and ongoing realities of racism that are either invisible or only glimpsed in the stock stories. Such stories guide the search for concealed structures of racial inequality and the hidden stories of White skin privilege or advantage embedded in social science data about the racial distribution of life opportunities and access. Concealed stories operate as analytic tools that reveal the underside of racism and identify the hidden advantages for Whites and the penalties for people of color. What are the stories about race and racism that we don't hear? Why don't we hear them? How are such stories lost or left out? How do we recover these stories? What do these stories teach us about racism that the stock stories do not?

    One source of concealed stories is in the arts, particularly in art created within communities of color. The creative team examined concealed stories found in the poetry, literature, and art by artists of color, many of which comment on the American Dream and show how access to the Dream is mediated by race and racism. For example, we read and analyzed concealed stories in Pedro Pietri's poem, "Puerto Rican Obituary," which reveals stories of back-breaking labor and poignant allegiance to the American Dream, of commitments that do not lead to progress, of merit thwarted by pigment, and of dreams deferred.

    Although concealed stories are often eclipsed by stock stories, they can be unearthed to challenge the stock stories, exposing the self-interested nature and purported universality of the stock stories. The process of deconstructing stock stories through comparing them with concealed stories raises up different perspectives and knowledge that yield a fuller picture of our society and its institutions. For example, the stock story that anyone who works hard enough can make it in this society is challenged by concealed stories of those who, regardless of how hard they work, are never able to get ahead. Such comparisons help us understand how stock stories maintain the institutional and social status quo, scaffolding and perpetuating a racial system that harms everyone by preventing realization of our stated ideals as a democracy committed to equality (Guinier & Torres, 2002; Marable, 2002).

    Resistance stories. Resistance stories are the third type of story we examine in this model. These are stories, both historical and contemporary, that show how people have resisted racism, challenged the stock stories that support it, and fought for more equal and inclusive social arrangements-but that are rarely taught in our history books or represented in popular culture. Resistance stories include the reserve of stories built up through the ages about people and groups who have challenged an unjust racial status quo. They comprise stories of "sheroes" and "heroes" who have been excluded (though sometimes included and vilified) in history books but who have nevertheless struggled against racism. Too often, the notion of resistance is reduced to iconic stories of heroic individuals that sanitize the collective struggles that drive social change and thus fail to pass on necessary lessons about how social change actually comes about (Kohl, 2004). Resistance stories teach about antiracist perspectives and practices that have existed throughout our history up to the present time, thus expanding our vision of what is possible in our own antiracism work today. What stories exist (historical or contemporary) that serve as examples of resistance? How have people from all racial groups resisted racism? What role does resistance play in challenging the stock stories about racism? What can we learn about antiracist action by looking at these stories? Good examples of resistance stories by ordinary people can be found in history books and curriculum guides that focus on the lives and actions of people on the bottom (Menkart, Murray, & View, 2004; Zinn, 2003).

    Emerging/transforming stories. Emerging/transforming stories are new stories deliberately constructed in a storytelling community to challenge the stock stories, build on and amplify concealed and resistance stories, and offer ways to interrupt the status quo to work for change. Such stories enact continuing critique and resistance to the stock stories, subvert taken-for-granted racial patterns, and enable imagination of new possibilities for inclusive human community. Building on existing resistance stories, we generate new stories in which we imagine alternative scenarios of racial equality and develop strategies to work toward the imagined changes. What would it look like if we transformed the stock stories? What can we draw from resistance stories to create new stories about what ought to be? What kinds of communities based on justice can we imagine and then work to enact? What kinds of stories can support our ability to speak out and act where instances of racism occur? For example, if you take the stock story of bootstrap meritocracy and contrast it with concealed stories of those whose lives show it to be a lie, you can then draw on examples of how others have contested this story in the past and generate counter stories that confront the lack of opportunity and fairness in how systems work. With this information as a base, people can then imagine and work toward alternative arrangements.

    These four story types are intricately connected. Stock stories and concealed stories are in effect two sides of the same coin, reflecting on the same "realities" of social life but from different perspectives. Resistance and emerging/transforming stories are also linked through their capacity to challenge the stock stories. Resistance stories as examples of past challenges to racism become the base on which emerging/transforming stories can be imagined and serve to energize their creation. Emerging/transforming stories then build anew in each generation as they engage with the struggles before them and learn from and build on the resistance stories that preceded them. Once enacted, emerging/transforming stories become examples of resistance stories for future generations, who can then create their own contemporary counter stories.

    In placing diverse stories side by side as worthy of critical inspection, we see that the mainstream story is not normative, but one among many, and thus contestable. In learning to attend to stories from the margins as sources of crucial information, we think in a more critical and encompassing way with questions of democracy, equality, and social justice, and we consider what it would take to enact an American Dream open to all. Through using the arts to engage our emotions, physical senses, body, and imagination, we commit more deeply to the knowledge that emerges in these explorations. In so doing, the STP model offers a theoretical lens and a pedagogical process that can be applied to many areas of analysis and critical learning for social justice (Moje, 2007).


    The collaborative theory-building process by which we worked as a creative team offers a model for theorizing about, and creating curriculum tools to address, issues of social injustice. Similar to participatory action research (Weis & Fine, 2004), it invites multiple perspectives, it recognizes the role of power dynamics and social positionality in shaping the way we understand the world, and it generates active responses to injustices we see. Since developing the model, we have created an experimental curriculum based on the model and followed its implementation in two high school classrooms. This research is reported in Roberts, Bell, & Murphy (2008). Our findings suggest that the curriculum offers an intellectually engaging way to address concerns felt by many students in our schools, particularly disenfranchised students of color. The students who participated in the experimental implementation of the curriculum found the model to be a meaningful framework for analyzing race and racism in their school and community and for empowering alternatives for change. We hope to continue to follow the implementation of curriculum based on the Storytelling Project model through observing in additional classrooms and interviewing the students and teachers who participate.

    Teachers who participated in a weeklong summer institute in 2005, where we implemented the STP model, were overwhelmingly positive in their response to the model, describing it as "innovative and powerful" as a means for raising and looking at issues of race and racism in their classrooms, and they indicated that the STP model can be a successful framework for teacher professional development. The data we gathered from the summer institute and from our ongoing work using the story types in preservice teacher education will be analyzed and reported in subsequent publications (see for example, L. A. Bell, in press).

    Our goal in the STP is to continue to engage students and teachers in using the model and the experimental curriculum so as to further refine it as we learn from their experiences and responses. To this end, we have provided a free downloadable PDF of the curriculum for teachers to use. The curriculum includes lesson plans, activities, materials, and a guide to resources for implementing the curriculum and using the story types in their own classrooms. We are currently tracking user responses and feedback through a sign-in process that allows us to do follow-up surveys and interviews with users. The PDF is available at Our hope is to more formally and systematically evaluate the model through follow-up interviews with users who are adapting the STP model to their own situations. As of this writing, 585 users have downloaded the curriculum and will be contacted for follow-up as part of our evaluation of the curriculum.

    Responses to the model from educators in higher education, community agencies, and activists at national conferences such as NCORE and among teachers, teacher candidates, and students lead us to believe that the model resonates with many people and role groups who see its value for their own social justice work. Because it is a model that can be fashioned by different groups to engage racism in their local situations, we believe that it meets Lewin's criterion that "there is nothing so practical as a good theory" (Lewin, 1952).

    The STP model asks those who use it to consider what we lose when stories of and by diverse groups are concealed or lost, and what we gain as a society when we listen to and learn from the multitude of stories available for our consideration. It invites people to tell their own stories and through such telling envision a future that embraces inclusion, equity, and justice for all the diverse people who make up our society. As Martin Luther King (quoted in Barlow, 2003) reminded us, "We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly" (p. 4). We are convinced that the Storytelling Project model offers a practical and powerful theoretical framework for understanding the stories that keep racism in place and for generating new stories that foster cross-racial alliances and inclusive visions for a society where race no longer determines life chances and opportunities.


    The Storytelling Project was made possible through generous funding from the Third Millennium Foundation. We are grateful to Marco Stoffel, Director of the Foundation, for his personal encouragement that we take risks in our work and generate something new. We hope we have done that here. Our collaborative work was inspired by the hospitality and creative space provided at the International Center for Tolerance Education in Brooklyn, New York, a project of the Third Millennium Foundation. We are especially grateful to Carol Stakenas, director of ICTE, for her help and support throughout this project and for providing such a generative space in which to work creatively.


    1. We were incredibly fortunate to work with an amazing team of teachers, university faculty, teaching artists, and Barnard students throughout the 2005-2006 year. We want to acknowledge them here: Thea Abu El-Haj, Roger Bonair-Agard, Anthony Asaro, Vicki Cuellar, Dipti Desai, Zoe Duskin, Leticia Dobzinski, Christina Glover, Uraline Septembre Hager, Kayhan Irani, and Patricia Wagner. Their creative energy, intellectual insights, and challenging questions pushed this work forward and stretched us to go beyond existing boundaries.
    2. The "I remember. . . " activity comes from Beverly Daniel Tatum, who used it in an institute on social justice education that we co-led at the National Conference on Race and Ethnicity in American Higher Education (NCORE).
    3. Sample excerpt from team notes: "Themes to explore further: the idea of fitting in: how to find authenticity, challenge prevalence of in-group/out-group dynamics; fitting into our history, traditions, family, our own experiences notice power dynamics and contexts international contexts and how these shape experiences of racism how do we define racism; how to develop a more sophisticated definition stories can allow or help us to take on the burdens of racism, and sometimes take off the burdens/both/and remembering collectively allows us to remember things we forget as individuals identities are multiple, stories cannot speak to one aspect of identity alone stories can be truthful but they can also be masks, they can be told as exceptions to the rule or they can tell of an autonomous self that does not fully exist storytelling can be a methodology for addressing socio-cultural issues…" The list continues. These notes then shape the agenda for the subsequent meeting and the readings we select for further discussion.
    4. The definition of marginalize is "to take or keep somebody or something away for the center of attention, influence or power."


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