I am fascinated with how we choose the details that tell others who we are and what is important to us. Our storylines evolve over time — what is important to share in our youth is generally not how we identify ourselves decades later. Ideally, we are kind to ourselves. Sometimes the narrator in our heads is harsher than any outside critic.

As we are reminded every day, we also carry stories in our heads about other members of our community. Often those are not based on details we know, but are fill-in-the-blank assumptions based on bias from unrelated past experiences, stereotypes, and — as we call them in the pages of Minnesota Women’s Press — “ism schisms.”

Our brains are quick to draw conclusions based only on a person’s (perceived) gender, sexual orientation, political affiliation, religious beliefs, socioeconomic status, or ethnicity. We may even base our conclusions solely on knowing that someone has taken a position we disagree with.

Taking the time to understand and explore nuance and commonality seems to be less available to us in the fast-paced world of our making. We judge. Others believe we judge. We rarely recognize how quickly emotions, rather than reason, influence what we conclude that we see.

Memory expert Elizabeth Loftus has pointed out that even what we think we know is a sum of what we have done, what we have been told, and what we simply believe to be true, regardless of whether it is factual. As experiments about eyewitness testimony have shown, Loftus says, “Our memories are shaped by who we are and what we have been led to believe.” Say the word “smash” instead of “hit,” and a witness is likely to recall the story of a car accident differently.

The Bad News

I recently attended a library talk that featured a new book by Emily Baxter, author of “We Are All Criminals.” The genesis for the project is that Baxter realized every one of us has committed a crime, such as simple thefts as teens. But ... 

“Even when we have the same story, it’s not the same story,” Baxter says.

For example, drug possession for a white person tends to be handled significantly differently than it is for a non-white person. In jail time, as well as post-jail repercussions, the story that society tends to believe — “once a criminal, always a criminal” sentences many to a life that is denied access to housing, employment, parenting time, and community trust and support.

Says one interviewee, a nurse, “I have sold drugs, I have bought drugs, I have done drugs. I grew up with a really strong family base and community support — and that’s important. I’m white, and that always plays a part. It’s a privilege. That’s a hard thing to confront.”

The Minnesota Women’s Press works to confront the ideas in cultural and societal narratives to challenge the status quo in an effort to move towards equality. We will continue this work through the creation of our Storyteller Fund this fall. I hope you opt to be involved.

The Good News 

As we have seen with the #MeToo  movement of late, when society begins to change its mind about what is acceptable, the story can shift.

There are a lot of storylines we need to 
shift together.

Minnesota Women’s Press is dedicated to telling the stories of women who are changing the narratives and amplifying the voices too often silenced or without a space. You will find many examples in this issue about “Story.”