Framing Our Story

Stories matter. Many stories matter. Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign. But stories can also be used to empower, and to humanize. Stories can break the dignity of a people. But stories can also repair that broken dignity. – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Narratives are hardly straightforward or unanimous; rather, they are contested, negotiated, multiplicitous, and embedded in structures of power and histories of oppression. The university is a site of narrative negotiations and struggles as people and ideas come together to share social and intellectual space. Yet, not everyone will experience the university space as welcoming, collegial, or as promoting fellowship and belonging. Some bodies are more accepted, able to pass through the space as a familiar, while others are marginalized, relegated to the social and historical periphery.

History as told through lived experience can help illuminate what’s been forgotten, decentered, moved to the periphery, and excluded. It can also serve to relocate particular narratives to the center. MVisible Voices is about recognizing the lived experiences of people whose narratives are not always visible, heard, or centered, but whose stories are very much a part of the university’s history.[1] These stories can challenge, be a form of resistance to dominant narratives, and further collective struggles for change (Solorzano & Yosso, 2002). They are not only formed in response to dominant narratives, however; they comprise knowledge, wisdom, and power in and of themselves.

In their introduction to The Racial Imaginary (2016), Beth Loffreda and Claudia Rankine write, “We are all, no matter how little we like it, the bearers of unwanted and often shunned memory, of a history whose infiltrations are at times so stealthy we can pretend otherwise, and at times so loud we can’t hear much of anything else. We’re still there – there differently than those before us, but there, otherwise known as here” (p. 13). Embracing their literary latitude, they choose not to write about race in terms of scandal, sentimentality, or jadedness, but rather, to go off script and reflect on race in their work and creative processes. And while, they argue, “race is one of the prime ways history thrives in us,” they also point out that “it matters that each writer says her own thing” (p. 14). MVisible Voices is a project that does just this – it embraces memory, and allows individuals to say their own thing. Through the medium of podcasting and the form of shared storytelling, MVisible Voices listens to the stories and experiences of people whose life paths took a turn to the University of Michigan. MVisible Voices is a means to learn and understand how the experiences of people of color and others who often find themselves at the periphery are stories of community, love, struggle, empowerment, resistance, survival, and success.

Some of these accounts will challenge a harmonious institutional narrative, but it is within these stories we can learn not only of the lived experiences of individuals and groups, but also of the complex, multifaceted relationships between the university and its denizens. In her book, On being included: Racism and diversity in institutional life (2012), Sara Ahmed explains that doing the work of diversity can be transformative, but it requires coming up against “the brick wall,” letting the stories that go against the institutional narrative surface. The wall, as Ahmed describes it, is “the sedimentation of history into a barrier that is solid and tangible in the present, a barrier to change as well as to the mobility of some, a barrier that remains invisible to those who can flow into the spaces created by institutions” (p. 175).

Ahmed argues that doing the work to center diverse perspectives leads to an engagement with the wall, which feels like an immutable force that surfaces when people “attempt to alter the conditions of its existence” (pp. 174-175). She writes, “only the practical labor of ‘coming up against’ the institution allows this wall to become apparent. To those who do not come up against it, the wall does not appear—the institution is lived and experienced as being open, committed, and diverse” (p. 174, emphasis in original). This wall can appear as we explicitly try to transform the institution or when our own experiences are not the institutional norm. The storytellers in the MVisible Voices series may be well aware of the wall, but they are also aware of transcending the wall through their engagement, activism, and sometimes, by their very presence. Thus, the visibility of the wall is linked to the visibility of the non-normative, the non-hegemonic, the subaltern.

As part of the 2017 University of Michigan’s Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Symposium, writer and poet Claudia Rankine gave a talk titled, “American racism and the scholar activist” (Jan 17, 2017). During this talk, which was sponsored by the Institute for Social Research, Professor Rankine explained how institutions have made “an investment in whiteness.” She stated, “The insistence that white supremacy doesn’t continue to be our dominant frame takes work.” She argued whiteness is at work “privileging the white imagination, keeping their notions of their normality, universality, and transcendence intact, thus making participation a struggle for the nonwhite student.” Further, “when a student takes the time to point out the inequality determining, governing, and policing white spaces … the student is often viewed by white authority figures and peers “as problematic, difficult, and ungrateful. The now silent student of color is overly sensitive, angry, unable to fit in, and in short, a problem.” Silence renders the student invisible, even as she is hyper-visible through her perceived difference. Yet, through the personal stories and experiences shared through MVisible Voices we can move away from the frame of problem to a frame of power, inspiration, and humanity.

MVisible Voices is a means to remember the experiences of those who do not fit the dominant frame. It is an opportunity to change the narratives by centering those who are familiar with the brick wall, who have known what it feels to be a stranger to the institution. This collection of narratives from students, faculty, and alumni seeks to rewrite history from what Sara Ahmed refers to as “the experiences of not being able to pass,” from the perspectives of those who know the wall, and who seek to transcend and transform it.

As the University of Michigan reflects on its 200-year history, it is important to remember that the institution is situated within particular social and political moments. In today’s political climate, the search for knowledge, for the truths that cannot be washed away in 200 characters or less, we see the deliberate misrepresentation and erasure of information. Researchers are scrambling to protect their data from these political moves and citizens are using technology to capture information, stemming from a threat to our collective capacity for free knowledge exchange. Yet, the processes of erasure, the privileging of new and negating the old (Galleta & Ayala, 2008), of subverting some narratives by inserting others are not new. Erasure is an intentional way to promote a specific narrative, one that is highly political, and often used to maintain bolster, extend, or support certain structures of power.

The institutional narrative exists and is embedded in structures of power. The narrative may indeed address the challenges of the university, but it is one often seeking reconciliation, even to the point of erasure. This narrative privileges and represents some experiences over others. This project intentionally diversifies singular frames of celebration and reconciliation because we believe transcendence and transformation requires attention to the messy and complex spaces of social relationships, and specifically, attention to those whose stories remain in the periphery. It is not our intention to place the institution in a poor light, but it is our intention to recognize and center the stories that are often on the margins. We choose to make visible, not solely through seeing, but through listening, feeling, and expanding our senses as we learn from the stories of so many who have traversed the University of Michigan.

[1] We use visibility to connote perceptibility and prominence, and hearing to connote awareness and existence. We do not use the terms solely in reference to functions of the eyes and ears, but to the various mechanisms of learning, understanding, and meaning making.

References:

Ahmed, S. (2012). On being included: Racism and diversity in institutional life. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Galletta, A., & Ayala, J. (2008). Erasure and survival: Creating a future and managing a past in a restructuring high school. Teachers College Record, 110(9), 1959-1985.

Rankine, C. (Jan 17, 2017).  “American racism and the scholar activist.” Talk given at the Institute for Social Research, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.

Rankine, C., Loffreda, B. (2016). The racial imaginary: Writers on race in the life of the mind. Rankine, C., B. Loffreda, M. K. Cap (Eds). Albany, NY: Fence Books.

Solórzano, D.G., & Yosso, T. J. (2002). Critical race methodology: Counter-storytelling as an analytical framework for education research. Qualitative Inquiry, 8(1), 23-44.

Method

By integrating technology and shared storytelling, MVisible Voices offers stories and experiences of people whose life paths brought them to the U-M. MVisible Voices seeks to learn, understand, and amplify how experiences of people of color are stories of community, love, struggle, empowerment, resistance, survival, and success. In addition, each podcast episode is supplemented by archival research and scholarship to situate stories in national, state, and institutional contexts. Student and staff researchers are trained in critical historical methods, including archival research, oral history, and counter-narrative construction.

Themes

MVisible Voices uses podcasts to capture voices of U-M faculty, staff, students, and alumni of color as they reflect on their lived experience of race at U-M through a variety of topics, such as safe spaces for African Americans; the founding and development of the Asian Pacific Islander American Studies program; how Latinx students have found community and support; and what “Homecoming” means to Native Americans.