Discover more from Ijeoma Oluo: Behind the Book
Whose Story Is It To Tell?
Behind the Book: The Ethics of Writing About Real People
“How do I tell my story without hurting my parents?”
“How do I talk about what happened to me when I’m not the only person it happened to?”
“How do I preserve my relationship with friends and family while also writing about ways they have impacted me?”
These questions are ones that I have gotten regularly for years. The ethical questions around writing stories that are not ours alone are ones that many writers struggle with - while others don’t struggle with them nearly enough.
We are social creatures. Even us introverts do not live our lives in complete solitude. When we decide to tell our story, there will always be other people in that story. The majority of the time, we cannot claim 100% ownership of a story. If we are to be ethical writers, we must consider (with some exceptions outlined a little further down below) the other people in the story.
But before I talk about things that I consider before I write such stories, I want to be a little more clear about who comes to me for advice on how to tell these stories ethically - because I really think it matters. The questions, emails, DMs I get come primarily from people in these groups:
BIPOC people: I often find that many Indigenous cultures and cultures of color are more communal in nature, and our duty and connection to community is keenly felt when telling our stories. Many of us are told that stories which may cast our community or family in a negative light should not be told. Some of us are even told that we don’t have a story of our own. Further, white supremacist media actively erases our stories that do get told, reinforcing the idea that our stories are not ours to tell. White supremacy also seeks to exploit stories that we do tell, making it hard for us to tell true stories about ourselves that can in any way play into negative stereotypes about our culture.
Women and AFAB people: Often women and people raised with the expectation of being women are taught that our individual stories matter less than how we can help others with their stories. We are often taught that we shine best as supportive characters and that it is “unladylike” to ever consider ourselves main characters in our own lives. We are also taught to consider the feelings of others before ourselves, and to prioritize any potential discomfort that our story might cause others over any real benefit our story might provide for ourselves or others like us. This is ESPECIALLY true for BIPOC women.
Queer and Trans people: Often people in the LGBTQIA+ community are repeatedly told that their stories are a burden on their families and friends. We are often told to be grateful for what we have and not risk that by discussing harm done to us by those who love us and those that we love, or by sharing any stories that would make cis & hetero people in our lives uncomfortable. When our stories are told, it is often purely for the benefit and “enlightenment” of cis, hetero people and any stories told solely for our benefit or the benefit of our community are seen as selfish or counterproductive.
Disabled and neurodivergent people: More than perhaps any group I am in community with, disabled people are quite often told that their stories are not their own to tell. The stories of disabled people are often stolen and exploited by abled people in order to serve ableist ideas of disabled people as either burdens or living lessons for abled people to learn. Parents of disabled children can build entire writing careers talking about their children as little more than a testament to parental suffering or valor. Disabled and neurodivergent people are often told that the impact of their existence on abled and neurotypical people matters far more than their own thoughts and feelings or how the rest of the world impacts them (btw, check out places like Disability Visibility for words written by and for disabled people). Even worse, it is often assumed that disabled people don’t have the ability to comprehend or tell their own stories. Many disabled people are denied access to opportunities and technologies that would enable them to tell their stories because abled people often discount the very possibility of those stories existing. Many disabled and neurodivergent people who do have access to ways to tell their story still reach out to me questioning their own reality because they have been told time and time again that their own minds aren’t to be trusted.
Not once can I remember a cis, straight white man come to me struggling with the ethics of telling his story. It is important that we be aware of this, not because I think we all need to be abandoning the important work of considering how our work impacts others - as many white man seem to do - but because when we see such disproportionate pressure on marginalized people to not share their stories we must be aware that a good portion of this pressure is constructed for the benefit of oppressive power structures. We must continuously ask who our silence really benefits, even as we talk about how we must care for others impacted by our stories. Our stories must be told.
That all said, let me share considerations that I find quite important when sharing our stories. But quickly, let me add this important note: I’m talking about ethical considerations, not legal ones. I am not a lawyer. I can’t give legal advice (but I will say, after years of working in writing and publishing that chances are someone really won’t sue you because your story made them feel bad, threaten as they might). I am assuming that you are reading these tips because you want to write a story that you know to the best of your knowledge to be true and you have no intention of misleading your readers about the people in your story.
Ok, let’s dive in (btw, this morning I woke up and swore this was going to be a shorter newsletter than the others. ha. ha. ha. ha.). Here are some important things to consider when you are telling your story:
Is it actually your story to tell? I know I just spent multiple paragraphs talking about the many different ways that stories are stolen from us, but that doesn’t mean that this isn’t a question that we need to ask. Did this actually happen to you or were you a main actor in this story? Are you the person in this story who will be the most impacted by the telling of it? If not, and you still feel like this is a story that you need to tell, you should consider focusing on the part of the story that is your own, and work to minimize the impact on others who are more central to the story. Also, see a few points below for power and privilege implications to consider here.
Have you considered how this story would be different if told from the viewpoints of other people there? You don’t have to include other viewpoints in your story, but often, when we tell stories that have multiple viewpoints with the insistence that our story is the only one to be told, we are being unethical and dishonest. We can be certain of our experiences and our viewpoints without writing over the existence of other experiences and viewpoints with an authority that we don’t actually have. Being aware of other viewpoints will often shift how we write and cause us to leave room for their possibility in the mind of the reader, which then helps preserve the ability of others who are a part of your story to tell their own if they wish.
What is your power and privilege relative to others in the story? We must be aware of the power dynamics of our story and who gets to tell the story. If you have relative power and privilege over others in this story, does the act of your telling empower them to tell their own story, or does it disempower? We should never aim to speak for those with less power and privilege than us. And if our work can have a disproportionate affect on those less privileged than us in the story, we must ensure that we are not doing harm, and that we are seeking consent when necessary. Harm is not just, “I wrote this thing and now people are mad at this person.” Harm can also be the act of speaking for someone who didn’t ask you to speak for them, or telling someone else’s story knowing that your story will be the prevailing narrative simply because of your relative power or privilege.
Do you actually care about how this impacts other people in the story? Should you? These basic questions matter because we don’t always care about how this story impacts others who are in it, and sometimes we shouldn’t. If you have been abused or harmed by the others in this story, you should be able to tell your story honestly and openly, without having to consider the impact on those who harmed you. If you are still in relationship with these people and want to continue to be in relationship with them, you may want to give them a heads-up so that they are prepared. But you as the person harmed have the right to claim ownership of this story and the person who harmed you has no claim over it. They alone are responsible for the consequences of their actions, including whatever fallout the open discussion of those actions may be.
What do you hope sharing this story will accomplish? It is important that we ask ourselves this because we need to be clear with ourselves and others of our intentions and we need to do what we can to be true to them. Often our stories are quite emotional. It often takes a lot of courage to be able to tell them. Sometimes we are so emotionally activated by the act of telling our story that we forget why we are telling that or neglect to figure out why we are telling our story at all. It is enough to say that you want the world to know what happened to you. It is enough to say that you want your story to delight and entertain people. It is enough to say that you hope your story will illustrate a larger point. All these reasons are valid. But sometimes we are telling a story to detract from another true story about us and we don’t want to admit that to ourselves. Sometimes we are telling a story in order to prevent others from telling theirs. Sometimes we are telling a story because white supremacy or ableism or classism has told us that we are better at telling this story than the people whose story it actually is to tell. Be honest with yourself about why you are telling your story, so that you don’t to harm, and so that when you are telling your story, all of this hard emotional work will actually accomplish what you want it to.
What about children? We must exercise extra caution when writing about children. Children are whole, autonomous beings and we must respect that in our writing. As a parent, it is important for me to remember that no matter how much I love my children, they are not actually an extension of myself. I try to always keep in mind when I write that one day my children will read everything I’ve written about them. This doesn’t mean we should never write about our children or caring for children, our lived experiences as parents and caregivers matters and those stories should be told. But we should regularly ask whether we are stealing a story that our children may one day want to tell for themselves - or may decide they never want told. My children will likely have little interest in the everyday parenting anecdotes I share, but personal stories about their first heartbreak or times of emotional hardship are stories that they should have ownership of. There are a few times where I’ve written about hard times that directly involved or even centered my children, and it was important that I include them in the process and get their clear consent when necessary. It is important to remember that this sort of consent is only consent if your relationship with the child enables consent. If your child does not feel safe or free to say no or to request changes in how you write about them, then you cannot ethically claim that you got consent. Further, if the child is not made aware of, or doesn’t yet have the ability to understand, the full implications of you telling their story before they gave consent, you cannot claim to have their consent.
Wow, that’s a lot, isn’t it? But I hope that in these tips you find a more clear path to a way to telling your story. It is important that we tell our stories - especially those of us who have been told time and time again that our stories are not ours to tell. We all deserve to be heard, and when we tell our stories with care we not only find healing and connection, we also enable others to be able to tell their important stories. We are all autonomous beings capable of understanding and describing ourselves and the world around us, and we are all at the same time deeply connected and responsible to each other and others’ stories. Good, honest writing honors all of these truths at once.
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