Equity & Diversity Opinion

Islands and Myths: What Happens When We Don’t Value Storytellers

By Christina Torres — April 22, 2017 3 min read
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“I think it’s beautiful,” the man said to me.

“What is?” I blinked back at him. We’d been discussing Hawaiian Sovereignty, but I was back in the small, south Orange County suburb I grew up in for a friend’s rehearsal dinner. We’d had quite a few celebratory beverages, so I wanted to make sure I had understood him correctly.

“Well,” he continued, “just the whole story. The fact that the Queen gifted the island to the United States—"

“Wait, I’m sorry,” I interrupted him, “she ‘gifted’ it?”

“Well, isn’t that what happened?” he asked me. “I swear I remember learning that in middle school.”

“No,” I looked him dead in the eye as I replied. “That is absolutely not what happened.” I went on to tell him about the violent overthrow. The imprisonment. That ‘Aloha ‘Oe,’ a song often associated with tourist longing to reside on pristine beaches, was actually a mournful goodbye of Queen Liloukulani to her people as they knew their kingdom was being wrenched from their hands.

“Oh,” he looked uncomfortable after my long rant. “I never learned that.”

In the past weeks, there have been quite a few stories that have reminded me just how important storytelling is. Whether it’s the recent dismissal of Hawai’i as an “Island in the Pacific” (I’ll link to The Atlantic‘s Alia Wong and her brilliant piece, though this response in the New York Times is funny) or the doubled-down on the Model Minority Myth and used it to perpetuated anti-Blackness in AAPI communities (NPR Codeswitch‘s Kat Chow has a fantastic response), when stories are told by other people, it can warp the way we view not just others, but ourselves as well.

After the election, a number of my students felt disillusioned with the entire process. Hawai’i’s election results rarely matter on a national scale—we’re just an “Island in the Pacific,” after all. People often assume that my students, the majority of whom are AAPI (Asian-American Pacific Islander), are easy and smart and stable because Asians are “the good ones,” a myth that makes it harder for my students to reach out when they struggle and embeds a deep sense of guilt in them when they don’t meet some ridiculous standard society has created for them.

The thing is, we’ve stopped valuing authentic storytellers as a culture. We’re all about the quick, exciting (and often white-washed or Eurocentric) version of history. It’s digestible and easy. It makes us feel comfortable.

But when we tell the story of a people instead of allowing them their own voice and agency, we teach entire generations to be disempowered. Instead of hearing that their federal judge stopped a racist travel ban, my students could just learn that the highest lawmaker in our country doesn’t care about them. Instead of learning the history of political activism both from Hawai’i and from other AAPI leaders--and their allyship with the Civil Rights movement—they could isolate themselves from the world and struggles of others. They could buy into the two-parent-quiet-security nonsense some misinformed writer spews about them, and believe they have nothing to complain about, that they are somehow lesser-than when their much more nuanced lives don’t fit that narrative, and that they have no reason to stand up for themselves. Worse, they could resent those who do stand up for themselves.

We end up teaching our students that their own power is a myth. We end up putting them out on an island far away.

When our students hear authentic voices, they can begin to see how nuanced history is. They see not just the power of other voices, but how those voices can align and ally for greater gain. It is only through the rising of this knowledge and their own voices that the next generation can return, powerful, back to the center—right where they belong.

Photo Credit: Christina Torres

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