Tallis Polashenski: Talking About Diversity and Primary Sources
Tallis Polashenski, Writer || Gamer || Avid D&D Player
If you haven’t seen our app on women’s suffrage, Voices for Suffrage, you should check it out. It’s powerful to see the decades of work that went into women achieving the vote; a right that many of us take for granted even just 100 years after its ratification. It’s also, unfortunately, discouraging to see how far we still have left to go. Part of my focus when writing content for Voices for Suffrage is to represent history as accurately and fully as I can to educate and hopefully prevent history from repeating itself.
Currently I am writing content for a Guided Tour on Diversity in the movement. Guided Tours are 20-minute guided lessons including videos and interactive activities to teach a specific piece of the movement. The app already features a Tactics Guided Tour, which walks you through some of the different tactics used in the movement and how they changed over the decades, and an Opposition Guided Tour, which provides a deeper look into the opposition suffragists faced. The Diversity Guided Tour is all about the contributions of different minority groups, such as Native Americans, black women, and the poor and working class. These women often had more to lose than white middle- and upper-class women, but unfortunately, their stories often aren’t told.
As I write this tour, I’m constantly left wondering; am I the right person to be talking about diversity? What qualifies me, a white woman, to tell the story of black women who sacrificed their lives and wellbeing for the right to vote? And the truth is, I might not be. But I believe this is a story that needs to be told and I am honored to contribute in its telling. I’m sure that there are many other people out there who are facing the same dilemma as I am; how do we thoughtfully and appropriately talk about something that we haven’t personally experienced?
Research! Research is always important, but especially in this situation. A lot of times we draw upon our own personal experiences when we talk about things, but without personal experience, research is even more important. Find credible sources that you can rely on to tell you the whole truth, even if it’s painful. When I’m researching diversity in the suffrage movement, I’m immediately suspicious of sources that say white and black suffragists were always on the same page. Don’t look for sources that confirm what you want to believe, instead look for sources that challenge your beliefs and help you grow.
Don’t assume. It can be easy to assume that because you’ve experienced adversity in your life, you understand the adversity that someone else has experienced, and how it makes them feel. But that’s not true. As a young woman, I’ve unfortunately experienced (and still am experiencing) bias due to my gender. I, however, have not experienced bias due to my race, sexual orientation, gender identity, or social class (etc.). The biases we face are all real and important, but they are not the same as the biases someone else faces, and we should try not to treat them as such. I don’t know how it feels to be discriminated against because of my race, and I should never assume that I do.
Listen!!! I think this is the most important thing to remember. Sometimes the best thing you can do to further understand and empathize with someone else’s experience is just to listen. When writing about events that occurred over 100 years ago, I unfortunately can’t listen to the actual people it involved. But I try to listen to these women’s speeches and letters, to listen to the challenges that women are still facing today, and to listen to the advice of the experts. Seeking out and listening to feedback from people who know more than you (and there’s almost always someone out there who knows more than you) is an important way to not only learn more, but also check to make sure your current understanding and interpretation is accurate.
Of course, this is just my opinion. I know there’s a lot more to say on the topic, but hopefully this is a helpful starter for anyone feeling uncomfortable by their lack of personal experience. It’s always a difficult line to walk, but with what’s currently happening in the United States, it’s especially important to research, not assume, and listen.
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Excellent commentary and questions! As a fiction writer, I ask myself the same questions.
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