Repeat or Tell a Different Story?

Reading Hilde Lindemann Nelson’s Damaged Identity, Narrative Repair has been a transformative experience. This philosopher has given me a way of thinking and talking about how it feels to mediate between two cultures.  She argues that our identity is formed in relation to two narratives: the story we tell ourselves about who we are and our agency (our ability to act in the world); and the story others tell of us on a broader, cultural level.

This broader “master narrative” might be positive or neutral.  It doesn’t have to be pejorative or derogatory–though it all too often is.  When it is a demeaning master narrative, there is every chance that it will work to “infiltrate consciousness,” changing a person’s sense of herself and her ability to act in the world.

Confronted with a demeaning master narrative, it’s really not enough for an individual to love and respect herself.  That master narrative functions as a sort of ideological force-field. It can work to infiltrate and distort a person’s sense of herself.  Put differently, it really does take a village to form an identity, to develop a sense of agency and to work for positive change in the world.

Lindemann Nelson’s analysis of the master narrative pushes hard up against one of the central myths of U.S. culture: that the playing field is level.  If you happen to be one of the perpetually down-and-out, then it’s because you haven’t worked hard enough. This myth cloaks the role of bigotry and racism in the demeaning master narratives this culture tells about those who are not part of the (perceived) majority.

Consider Ortner’s argument again: it’s not that women are their bodies; it’s that women are perceived this way.  And culture, which I would simply define as a series of accepted practices, perpetuates this misperception, until women’s almost universal second-class status becomes “normal,” what Lindemann Nelson would term the “master narrative” about women, the story that infiltrates their consciousness and changes their sense of agency.

Much as women’s issues have been rendered invisible for centuries, the story of those (Latin) Americans who cross the border into this country has also been rendered invisible, a blatant denial of how all of our lives intersect, and a blatant erasure of history, past and recent.

What is the master narrative about immigrants? Not the now acceptable immigrants, the ones who passed through Ellis Island or the ones that might drift across the U.S./Canada border, but the ones who are barely given the grammatical status of a noun (a person), reduced as they are to the status of an adjective: “illegals.” How does the master narrative about American exceptionalism and individualism render their stories? What happens to their human identity and agency in relation to that master narrative?

Millions of Americans saw “The Farmer,” the recent Dodge ad that ran during the Super Bowl.  Now watch the video Cuéntame, a group of Latino/a activists put together:

This short corrective video reminds all of us of the power of “counter narrative,” a term used by Lindemann Nelson to describe the story that forms the cracks in what once appeared a seamless and impenetrable master narrative. Please, cuéntame mas: tell me more empowering stories.