By Jaquelin Bautista
The following article was featured in the March 2020 edition of The Campus.
It’s important to share people’s experiences to raise awareness about the obstacles they face. However, some argue that there is a point at which the circulation of stories desensitizes the public to the true suffering they depict. This pivotal point specifically concerns communities of color that have limited opportunity to share their stories and often have their journey told by outsiders, filtered through an Anglo perspective, and thus, effectively whitewashed. These conversations are being had now regarding the circulation of stories depicting suffering in the media to benefit off adversity and generate buzz and social media attention, otherwise known as “Trauma Porn.”
Trauma porn is told and sold in many different mediums: books, news, movies, television, speeches, and advertisements. A contemporary example is seen in the 2020 novel American Dirt, a story about Mexican migrants fleeing the cartel, which has author Jeanine Cummins in the hot seat. The book caused controversy following the revelation that Cummins was, in fact, a white author, attempting to tell an authentic immigrant narrative (emphasis on ‘attempting’). The outrage begot a discussion of who is and is not allowed to tell whose stories? Even Oprah, who not long before had proudly announced American Dirt as the next book for her book club, has come out and publicly stated that while she would not change her selection, she would instead take the opportunity to have a meaningful discussion of ownership and agency in storytelling, especially as it pertains to the story of minority populations.
Similarly, the Netflix original Living Undocumented, produced by Selena Gomez, Aaron Saidman, and Eli Holzman, has come under fire. The series, which aimed to return humanity to the debate on immigration, has been revealed as another situation of trauma porn. The undocumented community depicted in the series came out and blasphemed the injustice the series was doing by telling the stories of undocumented people without including them in the process. Medium subsequently published “An Open Letter from Undocumented Filmmakers to the Producers of Living Undocumented and the Broader Media Industry”, which showcased messages exchanged between producers of Living Undocumented and the undocumented immigrants who were not asked to participate. In one particular conversation, in which producers were asked to consider an undocumented filmmaker for the project, the response was pretty blatant: “As for your question about hiring an undocumented filmmaker, I don’t think that is an option for this project.”
Often, the journeys and stories of undocumented immigrants are shared by members outside of the community. That is not to say there are not undocumented producers or filmmakers putting out work that is authentic and just as captivating. Look no further than Armando Ibañez’s Undocumented Tales and documentaries such as Tam Tran. The unfortunate reality though, is that there are still limited outlets that undocumented immigrants are permitted to invest their talents, and when they do produce their work, they garner exponentially less media attention and public praise in comparison to the big names and the white noise.
Even films such as The Color Purple by Steven Spielberg and Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown are examples of other black stories told by non-black producers and filmmakers.
So, the question remains, who gets to tell these stories?
Cummins had recognized that her book was not her story to tell. She stated, “I worried that, as a non-migrant and non-Mexican, I had no business writing a book set almost entirely in Mexico, set entirely among migrants. I wished someone slightly browner than me would write it.” She continues, “But then, I thought, if you’re a person who has the capacity to be a bridge, why not be a bridge?” Though Cummins brings up an interesting perspective on writing this particular narrative and the many hours she spent researching both sides of the border is applaudable, this response is still constructed, at its foundation, using a white savior ideology. Furthermore, it denies the existence of a multitude of books and other media about the immigrant journey written by actual Latinx individuals. Unknown thus far as they, like many others, remain stuck in the shadows and left behind the curtains in favor of books such as Cummins’ and because of responses such as her own above. Again, the problem is not the lack of content but the lack of publicity for these same pieces of work. These conversations begin to gain complexity as one begins to discuss representation. Youtuber, “Bowties and Books” describes her experience growing up with a limited number of stories told from a black perspective, stating that she either had to read adult books (which were too mature for her to understand) just to be provided with a black narrative, or stick to reading the children’s books, which only depicted white kids. This point continues to be brought up in Hollywood as seen in the controversy that seems to constantly surround the Oscars’ consistent lack of representation and recognition for black filmmakers and storytellers. In 2020 however, there is hope that progress is being made with “Hair Love” receiving an Oscar for Best Animated Short Film, which not only stands as an honor to a black artist, Matthew A. Cherry, the writer, and director but also provides children with the narratives they deserve.
The question that should be in the conversation is not, who is allowed to tell these stories? But rather, where are the black and brown storytellers? Here they are:
Wendy C. Ortiz Elain Welteroth
Gustavo Arellano Luis J. Rodriguez
Ana Castillo Rolando Hinojosa
Guadalupe Garcia McCall Juan Felipe Herrera
Erika L. Sanchez Cherrie Moraga
Maya Angelou Yaa Gyasi
Glory Edim Helen Oyeyemi
Kiley Reid Abu Dare
Jacqueline Woodson Terry McMillan
ZZ Packer Imbolo Mbue
Not only is it crucial to include these stories in the media and give storytellers proper recognition, but there should also be a shift in the academic reading material provided to children and a definitive rethinking of the literary canon. This change is not only necessary insofar as it allows black and brown kids to see themselves represented, but also encourages non-black or brown children to hear and understand diverse perspectives and engage in conversation about them.
Sharing stories of adversity can desensitize the public to these conversations. When we allow the narrative to be led by black and brown bodies, then we return the power to these underserved and underrepresented communities that are facing too much adversity, to begin with.