Welcome to the
Learning Center.

Welcome to the Mentor and Mentee Learning Center

10. Navigating Identity in the 21st Century--Storytelling as the Underpinning to Difficult Conversations

By: Rachel Godsil and Aya Taveras

Expected Time to Complete: 20-25 Minutes

Toni Morrison said, “...Narrative is radical, creating us at the very moment it is being created.” 

Over the course of the last 10 MLMs you have embarked on the journey of unpacking some of the particular challenges to navigating identity in the 21st century.  In this MLM, we invite you to think about how it will feel to talk about  the issues these MLMs have explored and to offer strategies when it might feel challenging or intimidating.  

For many people, talking about identity -- and particularly race and ethnicity -- is fraught.  The identity anxiety you learned about in MLM 3: What is Racial Anxiety? Talking Back to Colorblindness can be acute when people are engaging across identity difference and talking about those differences.  According to Ijeoma Oluo’s So you want to talk about race?, “These conversations will always be hard, because they will always be about the hurt and pain of real people. We are talking about our identities and our histories and the ways in which these are used and exploited to elevate and oppress. These conversations will always be emotional and loaded to various degrees…”(51). 

Considering the challenges, if there are so many reasons why talking about identity difference can feel like such a risk, why do it?  

Because, as we lifted up in the first MLM: Our Brains on RaceTM:  Navigating Identity in the 21st Century, for people to feel like they belong, we need to be able to have conversations about issues that matter -- such as our identities.  Telling each other our stories, sharing our narratives, in ways that are thoughtful and mutually beneficial, is one of the most effective ways to mitigate the harm that we can cause each other when we are trying to develop deep relationships across lines of difference. 

In her 2009 TED Talk, “The Danger of a Single Story,” Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie shares an anecdote from her childhood in which her perception of class difference caused her to build a narrative around a young man who worked in her family’s home. In turn, when she arrived at college in the U.S. she was shocked to have been perceived through the lens of a stereotype that her roommate had of Africa. She refers to the limited prism through which she was seen as a college student as a “single story.” The way to interrupt the brain’s instinct to rely on a single story is through storytelling -- through genuine conversations.

  • How can you engage in dialogue about identity with others across lines of difference?
  • What impediments or barriers are there to dialogue about identity?

While thinking about conversations about identity and shared storytelling, we want to make sure to lift up power dynamics.  While we are encouraging people across race, ethnicity, gender, age, and other lines of difference to engage across difference, we don’t want to ignore the fact that when people who hold marginalized group identities or when young people are expected to lead in storytelling, it can be exploitative.  

So how do you know when it is or it isn’t?

What we are referring to here as storytelling is not dissimilar from Empathic Perspective Taking and Intergroup Contact, the strategies that we recommend to interrupt implicit bias in MLM 2: What is Implicit Bias? Conversations about identity -- sharing narratives/stories -- are not exploitative if there is  a relationship that is sustained and built upon respect -- not a one-off conversation.  

A primary goal of sharing stories is to ensure that people can show up as their authentic selves -- rather than engage in the emotionally exhausting behaviors to assimilate described below. 


When people are met with the challenge of navigating the feelings that come with being underrepresented in a space it can lead to mirroring, which is the subtle replication of dominant group behavior. Social psychology research refers to this as the “chameleon effect” --the instinct to literally mimic posture, facial expressions, and other behaviors to align with others in the surrounding environment. Researchers explain this as the “perception--behavior link”. Not surprisingly, mimicry tends to facilitate positive interactions -- but at what cost? This poses risk for members of underrepresented groups if people who hold dominant group identities do not engage in the work of identity navigation.

Another potential challenge associated with navigating out-group feelings is covering. Professor Kenji Yoshino, who published his research on covering in 2006, identified the pressure that he experienced to conform as the motivation for expanding on pre-existing research. Yoshino, who identifies as gay, experienced the demand to assimilate--to leave his “personal life at home” (“The Pressure to Cover” 2006). Yoshino writes, “What puzzled me was that I felt that pressure so long after my emergence from the closet. When I stopped passing, I exulted that I could stop thinking about my sexuality. This proved naïve. Long after I came out, I still experienced the need to assimilate to straight norms. But I didn't have a word for this demand to tone down my known gayness.”

An iteration of covering is code-switching, defined in this brief video. As identified, code-switching has historically been used to protect people who hold marginalized identities. However, as the video shows it does not guarantee safety for those who feel the need to employ it in moments of duress. 

Gloria Ladson-Billings, a theorist and leader in the field of teacher education, explained the connection between storytelling and disrupting the internalization of stereotypes for students who belong to underrepresented groups in her work “Just what is critical race theory and what’s it doing in a nice field like education?”  Ladson-Billings writes:

Members of minority groups internalize the stereotypic images that certain elements of society have constructed in order to maintain their power. Historically, storytelling has been a kind of medicine to heal the wounds of pain caused by racial oppression. The story of one’s condition leads to the realization of how one came to be oppressed and subjugated, thus allowing one to stop inciting mental violence on oneself. Finally, naming one’s own reality with stories can affect the oppressor. Most oppression, as was discussed earlier, does not seem like oppression to the perpetrator (Lawrence, 1987). Delgado (1989) argues that the dominant group justifies its power with stories, stock explanations, that construct reality in ways that maintain their privilege. Thus, oppression is rationalized, causing little self-examination by the oppressor. Stories by people of color can catalyze the necessary cognitive conflict to jar dysconscious racism (13-14).

While Ladson-Billings’s focus is the school context, her argument holds true outside of the classroom. Storytelling across lines of difference can serve to interrupt the harmful narratives that people hold about their own groups, which are justified over and over again by deficit-informed representation. 


In the world we live in, conversations about difference and identity can be difficult to navigate among peers. How are you currently having these conversations? What support do you need in having conversations about identity with young people?


Storytelling can support people who feel inclined to “cover” or assimilate to dominant group culture so long as the storytelling is reciprocal.  When you “uncover” and share your own story with your mentee, you are opening up the possibility that they will feel comfortable sharing their own.  Your work is to make sure that you have created the conditions so that your mentee does not feel obligated to “teach you” or somehow perform a particular identity.  Your relationship and ability to support your mentee will be enhanced by the genuine engagement that storytelling allows.  

Almost done, click here to finish MLM #10!