Posted by: Ken Homer | March 30, 2008

Changing Historical Discourses

As mentioned in my last post, I am a middle aged (about to turn 51) white heterosexual male. Yep, one of the tribe most responsible for how well, or how badly things are going in the world today depending on your perspective. 

In my post about limitations to public policy participation I mentioned that sociologists have identified the phenomenon of “selectivity of sources” as one of the things keeping people stuck in unhealthy patterns.

Recognizing that I am guilty of flocking with birds who share my feathers,  I am undertaking the practice of seeking out people whose life experiences are vastly different from mine to see what I might learn by listening to them. 

Leading collaborative conversations seeks to alter historical discourses in ways that allow new possibilities to open on both our individual and collective horizons.

But historical discourses are large, impersonal forces that usually represent the status quo and, as such, they are not easily changed.

In many cases, the limitations of historical discourses are not even recognized by those who live their lives structured around the narratives that a particular discourse makes possible – or impossible.

For most people, the historical discourses in which they dwell represent the way the world is. To question them is to risk appearing crazy, stupid, a shit-disturber or even an enemy of  the people.

The question arises then, how do we set about intentionally changing an historical discourse – such as manifest destiny, the divine right of kings, or the natural superiority of man, to name just three that are, even today, deeply held in some quarters – in order to open up new horizons of possibility?

I can think of two ways, though I am sure there are many others. One is to ask different questions, the other to include different voices.

In my last post I suggested that anyone interested in changing our political discourse take a few minutes to listen to the voice of Linda Burnham, who speaks eloquently about her experience and observations about race and gender in the current election cycle.

Another voice that speaks with wonderful clarity belongs to Alice Walker.  Like Linda, Alice has powerful stories of being a woman “of three colors” –  see below.

I think it is pretty safe to say, that rare are the white guys my age who have given much thought to how the struggle for identity a person like Alice has had to grapple with and forge could possibly be of value to them. I think it’s past time for that to change.

Both Linda and Alice are writing about their support for Obama, and I am not linking to them here because I am attempting to sway people to vote for Obama.

Rather, I am linking to them because they represent thinking that is important to me as someone interested in, as the subtitle of my blog infers, exploring conversational frameworks for positive change. Historically black women in this country have been effectively left out of the conversations among those whose decisions shape the course the nation takes.

Here is a brief excerpt from Alice Walker’s post on a blog called The Root:

“True to my inner Goddess of the Three Directions however, this does not mean I agree with everything Obama stands for. We differ on important points probably because I am older than he is, I am a woman and person of three colors, (African, Native American, European), I was born and raised in the American South, and when I look at the earth’s people, after sixty-four years of life, there is not one person I wish to see suffer, no matter what they have done to me or to anyone else; though I understand quite well the place of suffering, often, in human growth.

It is hard to relate what it feels like to see Mrs. Clinton (I wish she felt self-assured enough to use her own name) referred to as “a woman” while Barack Obama is always referred to as “a black man.” One would think she is just any woman, colorless, race-less, past-less, but she is not. She carries all the history of white womanhood in America in her person; it would be a miracle if we, and the world, did not react to this fact. How dishonest it is, to attempt to make her innocent of her racial inheritance.

I can easily imagine Obama sitting down and talking, person to person, with any leader, woman, man, child or common person, in the world, with no baggage of past servitude or race supremacy to mar their talks.  I cannot see the same scenario with Mrs. Clinton who would drag into Twenty-First Century American leadership the same image of white privilege and distance from the reality of others’ lives that has so marred our country’s contacts with the rest of the world.” 

While I am hearing from more and more people that there is not one person they wish to see suffer, it seems this view has  a long way to go before it becomes the organizing principle for the world’s cultures and societies. This in spite of the fact that many of the world’s great spiritual traditions urge us to recognize what biology is now making so abundantly clear: We are One People – like it or not. 

I think it is time guys like me (and many others as well) begin to listen and pay attention to what women like Alice and Linda have to say. Especially, if we want leave behind a world where our grandchildren honor us for our courage and foresight, and not spit on the ground every time our names get mentioned.

As with my last post, I am not asking you to agree with Alice, only to read her words, feel where in your being they resonate, and where they create resistance, and inquire into what that reveals to you about yourself.

I think you’ll find her posting on the blog: The Root, to be another read well worth your time. 

I’d like to thank my friend Catherine for pointing me to The Root and a belated thanks to my wife Diane for alerting me to Linda’s post on Time Goes By – which I read often but not always.



  1. hmm interesting post. i especially like this comment here

    “But historical discourses are large, impersonal forces that usually represent the status quo and, as such, they are not easily changed.”

    also, really moved by the alice walker piece. glad i ran by your blog.

    for perhaps an even bigger challenge to some popular notions you may hold, i invite you to read my blog.

  2. Thanks for visiting. I’ll definitely stop by your blog in the next bit of time. I look forward to having my popular notions challenged!

    Take care,

    PS I actually altered this post slightly between the time you commented on it and my response to your comment – changed the excerpt from Alice’s post.

  3. you may not be ready. 🙂 it’s pretty intense, dug from the gutter, type of well hidden stuff.

    but on the alice walker piece, that was one of the most enlightening piece of her article as well – the part you quoted.

  4. I might surprise you… While I hardly qualify as an expert on the genocide in Rwanda, I know folks who have gone there to do healing work and I am aware that in a very real sense the genocide continues, with people who might pose a threat in terms of coming forward to testify, being hunted to prevent them from doing so.

    As for the AW quotes, I often go back and tinker. Have a look and see if I improved it or screwed it up.


  5. yeah you just surprised me. 🙂 was not expecting your response at all!

    i like the longer one. the one you have now, although i probably would have highlighted the part about hillary being a white woman, not just a woman (meaning universal), especially considering that “white feminism” has often excluded women of color in their discourses which puts hillary’s bid for presidency as a woman into a better context for me anyway.

    and yes i love the idea of womanism, coined by aw.

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