Notes on:  Delgado, R. (1989) Storytelling for Oppositionists and Others: A Plea for Narrative, 87 Michigan Law Review. 2411--2440. Available at:

Dave Harris

Story writing is common, such as Bell's Chronicles, and there are other dialogues, stories and meta-stories [all referenced in the article]. There is personal writing as well in otherwise scholarly articles and even in teaching [all in jurisprudence]. Often these people belong to outgroups who feel they've been suppressed or devalued. Stories have created bonds, cohesion, shared understandings and a stronger outgroup, 'a kind of counter reality' (2412). The dominant group has stories as well with similar functions [references to fairytales propping up the world of whites in the antebellum South]. Particular myths are taken on, for example that black people have cultural lag or fail to enforce current beneficial laws, to be countered by the idea of the dominant groups' mindset which has a racial hierarchy. Stories, parables and narratives are a good way to destroy this mindset — 'the bundle of presuppositions, received wisdoms, and shared understandings against the background of which legal and political discourse takes place' (2413). These are nearly invisible and rarely focused upon. They are ideology — 'the received wisdom', justifying oppression as natural.

Storytelling or counter storytelling is a cure. Stories can shatter complacency and challenge the status quo. They are often 'ironic or satiric' (2414). This type is widespread in black culture and in Spanish traditions. They build communities and challenge the received wisdom, show us new possibilities for life, offer rich imagination, combine elements from the story and current reality and so they 'may construct a new world richer than either alone' (2415), stir imagination more effectively than conventional discourse. They can also show that current beliefs are 'ridiculous, self-serving or cruel'— 'the destructive half of the creative dialectic'. They 'must be or must appear to be non-coercive', inviting the suspension of judgement in deciding on their truth. They offer a respite from 'linear coercive discourse' characteristic of legal writing.

They have a use in the struggle for racial reform. He tells the story of a 'single race tinged event ' with five stories followed by analysis. Then he goes on to counterstories and then outlines the general case for counter storytelling.

There is no single all-encompassing description of an event. Social and moral realities are particularly subject to interpretation. 'Much of social reality is constructed' so we decide 'what is, and, almost simultaneously what ought to be' (2416) and this becomes habitual, tempting us to believe in inevitability and not explore alternatives.

The majority story of racial reform says that there was slavery which was unforgivable. It ended with the Civil War but the vestiges were gradually eliminated and now blacks have civil rights and are protected from discrimination. The gap between blacks and whites is steadily closing but we should not go too far in giving special treatment for blacks because this will produce dependency and welfare mentality and reverse discrimination. Most Americans are fair-minded without racial prejudice and those who have it can be punished. However there is another story of black subordination, violence, rape and brutality [reference to Bell and another source], which continues into the present and is shown in relative high infant death rates and unemployment rates, gaps in income, wealth and life expectancy are not changed, despair and drug addiction, low enrolment rates in universities, legal doctrines as sham. The stories are at war.

He illustrates this with different accounts of the same event — a black lawyer applies for a position at a major law school and is rejected. The stock story says that white people discussing the event referred to the absence of minority candidates, but the particular flaws of this one, his teaching interests in peripheral areas, lack of rigour, focus on civil rights, that he would be a risk, was unpublished, that they would still want to find a qualified black person and would do so in due course. Delgado comments that this is the stock story picking and choosing from among the available facts, justifying the world as it is, emphasising benevolent motivation and good faith, stressing stability in the world to avoid risk, assessing the black candidate through the pre-existing criteria, and appearing 'scrupulously meritocratic and fair' (2421), but ignoring the fact that these criteria of merit are chosen and are linked with institutional power. The selection of a black character might have introduced different criteria. The reasoning focuses on procedure rather than substance. It seems neutral and avoids matters of blame. It is apologetic but also 'deeply coercive' (2422) — the prof holds all the cards and is able to persuade the other more junior member [who had reservations].

The same event can be told from the point of view of the unsuccessful candidate who receives a rejection letter which is cheerful and helpful, and says that he doesn't fit the prime emphasis on filling particular areas of the curriculum. It doesn't mention rejection. Recalling the interview, he tells a colleague that he wasn't sure he would want to teach there because he did not feel that comfortable, they looked bored or puzzled and were aggressive or indifferent, not very interested in his work. They were worried he would challenge them. He feared he would be marginalised and ignored or co-opted. Delgado comments that this shows how different neutrality feels if you are an outsider, and that 'facts, sequences, tones of voice and body language' look different (2425). It is not so generous to the school. It challenges its meritocratic premises. It is more slanted and also exaggerated but 'this is perhaps natural and understandable… His account is self-serving'. He says his hearing was 'biased by racism'as well as by other defects, but still accepts the dominant values and wants to win — hence his resignation — maybe he has internalised victimisation. Apparently after consultation with other faculty members he learns that he has been attacked, that he has been researched, that he wouldn't be a good role model and that the faculty had disliked him, and so he had taken out a lawsuit.

The lawsuit: alleged discrimination because of race and colour, so he lost wages because of illegal employment practices, that he would not fit in. The suit was dismissed on the grounds of no evidence except his own assertion. The judge said that 'is not surprising that white faces should pre-ponder rates on a law faculty… By itself does not constitute invidious discrimination' and went on to say it was just like finding more black faces on a football team (2427). Delgado says that 'putting the facts in the linguistic code required by the court sterilised them' (2428) [a real problem that BLM protesters have when they see black people killed on the streets but cops acquitted]. The interview was abstracted and lost its meaning for the complainant, 'its power to outrage'. 'Civil rights legislation also demeans, humbles, and victimises the victim… Converting him or her into a supplicant' (2429).

'Stories do not pose these risks', but subvert the very '"institutional logic" of the system'. Even when law reform litigation is effective for black people, there is often 'narrow interpretation, foot dragging, delay and outright obstruction', but the success of stories means 'a telling point is registered instantaneously and the stock story wounds will never be the same'. Going to court 'also gave the judge an opportunity to tell his own story — dismissive, curt, verging on insult, and give it circulation and currency'.

Finally there was a counter story by a certain Noel Al-Hammar-X, 'leader of the radical Third World Coalition' who gave a speech outside at the law school which was 'scathing, denunciatory and at times downright rude'. He accused the faculty of racism and of being an all-white club and urged the students to press them to address its ethnocentricity by boycotting or disrupting classes, withholding alumni contributions and various other things. The talk received a lot of attention. It 'is an authentic counter story' (2430), directly challenging the corporate story and rejecting most of its premises and excuses. The reasonable discourse of law was rejected, anger displayed, and others listened. The audience was overwhelmed. It was a call to action. The subsequent reporting however was garbled as insisting that the law faculty should appoint people even if they were unqualified, and the faculty were able to dismiss him as an extremist. By the end of the week, he was seen to have gone too far, someone with a chip on his shoulder, irresponsible.

Eventually the law faculty formed a special committee for minority hiring with 'practically every young liberal on the faculty' (2431). An anonymous leaflet appeared condemning the appearance of yet another committee seeking a total paragon and thus engaging in a purely ritualistic search, ending with someone that they will have to hire, luckily having acquired them through contacts and so they are '"almost always white male and straight… We rarely know blacks, Hispanics, women and gays"' (2432). So minorities can only be hired if they meet the formal criteria 'that is by being mythic figures', never by meeting the informal ones that have to be applied when the first criteria failed to deliver. Occasionally they managed to appoint exceptions and this leads to a great deal of self-congratulation. Should the exception succeed, this annoys the rest of the faculty and they give the minority professor a hard time.

Delgado says that this is a less frontal attack focusing on a general mindset. It includes careful observation and it does manage to strike close to home. It generalises and exaggerates as 'part of the narrator's art' (2434) it is realistic but then shades off into caricature. It is accusatory but only attacks a mindset not a person. It invites the reader to separate themselves from the events. It makes insinuations. It tries to seduce the reader by its logical coherence and it is a plausible counterview. Yet it still places 'the majority-race reader on the defensive' (2435).

Subordinated groups have always told stories, for example black slaves describing the wrongs they suffer and mocking the whites especially their veneer of gentility. Mexican-Americans also, and Native Americans. Stories have always been an essential tool to survival and liberation, 'psychic self-preservation' (2436) and a means of 'lessening their own subordination' as they become tellers and listeners gaining moral and epistemological benefits.

Demoralisation of marginalised groups arises from self condemnation and internalising dominant images. The therapy is to tell stories becoming aware of their own facts and all the violence, murder and deceit associated with them. This need not lead to violence itself, but to 'healing, liberation, mental health' and group solidarity, a new voice. Stories also have an effect on the oppressor who become aware of oppression and challenge the usual stories and stock explanations and the complacency that goes with it. Stories can also overcome the otherness of black people acting as 'the oldest, most primordial meeting ground in human experience' (2438).

Why should members of ingroups listen to these stories? Delgado says 'in order to enrich their own reality' (2439) because we suffer if we are isolated from diverse stories, and do not participate in the dialectic of listening and telling. We can overcome ethnocentrism and acquire 'the ability to see the world through others eyes'. It can 'reduce the felt terror of otherness' (2440) [very ideaistic].

In conclusion stories humanise us emphasise differences but this can bring us closer together because they show us how the world looks for someone else. They invest text with feeling, give voice to those who were taught to hide their emotions, invite participation, challenge assumptions jar complacency. They invite listeners to suspend judgement and test the story against their own versions of reality. This is essential in a pluralist society like ours [hints of US pragmatism/melting pot here?] It is necessary, for 'all movements for change must gain the support, or at least understanding, of the dominant group which is white'. Traditional legal writing claims to be neutral and analytic but often is not because mindsets are unthinking and wisdom is received, producing a 'supposedly objective point of view [which] often misses characterises, minimises, dismisses, or derides without fully understanding opposing viewpoints' (2441). Insisting on objectivity 'obscures the moral and political value judgements'. Legal storytelling breaks social complacency.