Monday, October 28, 2013

This (White, Straight, Cisgender, Male) American Life

Love ya TAL, but let's work on the whole inclusion thang
I've spent a lot of time alone in cars lately, and find that the way to get wherever I'm going quickest is to podcast the drive away. Given that Chicago Public Media's 'This American Life' has been around for almost 20 years, they have plenty of archived shows to listen to, and I usually enjoy the way the journalists let their stories unfold, and the interesting way very different stories are tied together on a theme, and anything frequent contributor David Sedaris has to say.

But it struck me, listening to 4 or 5 shows this weekend, how few identities are reflected in the show. The show's default is featuring white, straight, cisgender, male people. This is not to say they don't have incredible stories, like three (white, straight, cisgender, male) American soldiers stationed in Iraq reading aloud excerpts from their different experiences there. Or a recent show with a fascinating prologue and two acts all about different kinds of confessions...and all three sections were narrated by white, straight, cisgender men, interviewing white, straight, cisgender men. The segments were all well done, with a lot of interesting tape...but how can the show purport to represent 'This American Life' when it frequently just focuses on a narrow slice of it? Yes, women are sometimes included, and some gay white men here and there, and less frequently than that people of color, but these voices are the exception, not the rule. And having listened to at least 300 shows, I don't think I've ever heard a story with a trans or genderqueer voice on the show.

So how did I--who have listened to the show for years--not realize this until now?

Sociology can help explain. Results from Karp and Yoels's research, published in Sociology and Social Research, found that more than 90% of the students in their study said there was no difference between how often female and male students participated in class. Yet, when these very same classes were observed, male students did indeed participate more. So because students of all genders were used to the gender imbalance in who talked, they didn't see the imbalance.

I think same goes for us in other parts of life. We're so used to hearing stories about white, straight, cisgender, male people (politics, action movies, U.S. history, philanthropists, Wall Street...I could go on) that the imbalance starts to become the norm.

This plays out starkly in whose stories are deemed important enough to get recorded and saved. Growing up we hear a whole heck of a lot about Founding Fathers, but you have to dig (or have 'radical' teachers like I did at a Quaker school) to find out what women were doing, what indigenous people were doing, what the life of slaves were like, and so on. What created the circumstances in which these FFs had the time, money and education to be able to write a Constitution and whatnot? (Plus the whole Founding Fathers-only thing is further absurd because if you carry through the procreation metaphor, how exactly could these Fathers created any 'new life' in this country without Mothers? Or is it really a gay family narrative thing we have going, with all these men creating a 'new life' together? I would love the middle school history teachers to use that angle.)

Unsurprisingly, the lives of LGBTQ people of all genders and races were (unfortunately, often still are) particularly absent from the historical record. The LGBTQ individuals, their families and their biographers (if they have one) frequently destroyed or censored records of same-gender relationships or LGBTQ identification.

So let's change that.

One of the ways I'm angling to rectify this gap is working on an LGBTQ Oral History Project at my school of employ, partnering with a Women's Studies professor who teaches an oral history course, an archivist in the library, and a passionate team of students. The goal is to capture LGBTQ histories with people of a variety of ages who have some connection to the College, whether they are alums or employees or former employees. We piloted the project for two weeks this summer, with myself and two student research assistants getting trained in oral history methods and interviewing 10 people. It was simply incredible. As someone who was once a journalist, it was fascinating to learn how oral history interviewing is really different than journalistic interviewing--your role as interviewer is to be an active listener, to allow the narrator's truth to come through, whatever that truth may be. Your role is not to find out exactly what happened when, but to document how the narrator remembers and what stands out to them, what memories and experiences have shaped who they are.

For the next stage of the Project, our team's goal is to get some financial support from alums so that we can expand the project, and collect hundreds of LGBTQ stories to be available for students to use in their research, for their personal knowledge and of course be open to any other researchers using our College library. I have high hopes for the project.

And who knows, maybe 'This American Life' will want to play some of the stories we collect, because they too, are important and compelling stories of this American life.


  1. Oh man, this is so true about This American Life! Have you sent this to Ira?!

    1. Haha, no not yet, but perhaps I should...