Janet Helms’ work on Black and White Racial Identity has been very informative for me in describing the process an individual might go through in developing a deeper awareness of what it means to be “raced” in the United States, and how one can become a healthier person even while living a midst an unhealthy racist environment that attributes certain meanings and benefits/disadvantages to a person based on skin color.
Helms does not speak about narrative theory or re-narration; her theory is from the field of counseling psychology and developmental psychology and not from literary theory or philosophy. But I found real similarities between her discussion of persons’ responses to varying interpretations of their own racialization, and the theories of narrativity put forth by old white men such as Alasdair MacIntyre, Paul Ricouer, and H. Richard Niebuhr.
These narrative theorists draw from diverse understandings of “narrative” but connect it to the interpretive process each person goes through in self-understanding. As a self, I am not isolated but am surrounded by a variety of “narratives”–my own understanding of my personal history, the history of my family and their relationships with others, the narrative of the historical context in which I grew up–my neighborhood, my religious affiliation, my self-understanding of my citizenship in a local, regional, and national body.
But what happens when my self-understanding or interpretation of any of these stories changes? What happens when I learn other stories that contradict a dominant narrative I’ve carried with me? After growing up “Remember[ing] the Alamo!”, what happens when I learn the stories of Mexican Americans who continue to experience racism and discrimination in my home town? Does my narrative of the Alamo change? Or do my feelings about the narrative change into something more ambiguous when I see the story played out as “Whites-as-victims” in contrast with the harassment of Mexican Americans that continues in my home town and across the state?
I grew up with the narrative that Hispanics were now “in charge” over the local city government, that affirmative action policies for construction contracts were limiting the success of my father’s business, and that an overly-sensitive-political-correctness was causing chaos in the city by changing the names of certain streets, like from “Durango” to “Caesar Chavez Blvd.”
More recently, the high school I attended was noted in the news last spring for insulting another school at the end of a regional basketball game. Alamo Heights, a predominantly white high school, won the game against a team of all Hispanics from a predominantly Hispanic school. When the team from Alamo Heights received their trophy, fans in the stands began chanting “USA! USA! USA!” The chanting lasted for around ten seconds, but the coach immediately tried to stop it. The other team and school district was deeply offended and filed a complaint against Alamo Heights which issued an apology.
On the web, comments on the news webpages reporting this story showed the deep contrasts in narrative. The majority of comments were from persons who were enraged that this was noted a “racist” chant, citing instead the First Amendment and the lack of patriotism of liberals who in their political correctness would have people not expressing their appreciation for their country. Missing from these comments was the concern of the other team, that chanting “USA” at an all-white team who has won the game excludes the losing team from one’s concept of American citizenship. The implications are that Hispanic team must not be from the “USA.” While comments suggested the other team was being overly sensitive, the fact that there were others who were offended (including the Alamo Heights coach) sends the message to Alamo Heights that: you’re being under-sensitive to the daily challenges these students and their families face to seeing themselves as “American.” Because of their brown skin, they are automatically suspected of being “illegals.”
The high emotions signal a conflict of narratives, and the emotions indicate a certain stage of racial identity within Helms’ theory. Following a stage of “disintegration” where one’s white identity is challenged or one becomes aware of racism, there is a stage called “reintegration” in which one returns to an understanding of being white that denies the reality of racism. In this stage, a person turns any negative feelings that one may have experienced about oneself as a result of learning about racism, back onto persons of color or other “white liberals” as being the source and cause of one’s negative feelings. This stage of reintegration is common as a predictable stage of white racial identity development. White persons who move on to other stages are helped in their process towards a more differentiated and non-oppressive white identity by acknowledging the reality of reintegration as a common stage, being able to identify it in themselves so they can work through those negative emotions without transferring them onto others. It is also helpful for persons to know that these stages are not “static,” that is, a person can cycle back through earlier stages as a result of a negative experience, such as the one cited above, like being charged with racism because of chanting “USA” after basketball game.
Part of the challenge of re-narration is that there are plenty of stories than support one’s current narrative, making it hard for a person to consider other narratives as offering a satisfactory alternative. So returning to the multiple narratives I mentioned above about Hispanics in charge of the city government and pressures on business to hire minority-owned companies in construction contracts, it is easy to see how the basketball game incident would easily be placed within the narrative of Alamo Heights’ whites as being another form of reverse racism or rampant political correctness. If white people in Alamo Heights already felt like they were in the minority in their city, why would they feel the need to be sensitive towards those they deem to be much more powerful than themselves? Especially in town famously known for the Battle of the Alamo in which (white) Texans fought and died for freedom against Santa Ana and his Mexican army?
Are there other stories that need to be told? Are there other experiences that need to be shared for persons to expand their narratives? What are the experiences of students of color in predominantly white schools? What are the experiences of persons of color living in San Antonio attending other schools? Having a conversation with someone with a different experience may help us come to see our own experiences in a different light. Perhaps we need to re-remember the Alamo, not as a lasting narrative that continues to justify whites’ views of themselves as victims, but as one tragic moment in our history, a history full of battles for land and legitimation. Can whites in my home town see themselves as part of a different narrative, one that we can share with persons of color? If so, then we first need to learn a few more narratives to hear what kind of role we have played in the lives of others, perhaps unbeknownst to us.