Exploring Twists and Turns of Identity
Personal journalism offers intimacy, emotional impact
It was in the painful memories of her Japanese-American childhood, spent in a World War II internment camp, that Emiko Omori found a sense of identity and the dramatic story she would tell in a highly personal documentary film. Lonnae O’Neal Parker found a story in her own basement where her cousin lived and where both women – one proudly black and the other passing as white – confronted each other on race, identity and culture. Lynn Redmond’s story about the loss of identity found its way to a Wisconsin high school where she met black students accused by other African Americans of turning their back on friends and community and “acting white” in order to succeed academically.
For all three journalists, their stories not only explored the issue of identity but also forced them to take stock of their own beliefs in balancing the personal and professional, a journey that O’Neal Parker acknowledged requires risk-taking. “There is no purpose doing it,” she said, “if you’re not willing to go to what I call the race place.”
O’Neal Parker’s first-person account in The Washington Post, which was honored at the workshop, had ventured into that place. The story revolved around her cousin Kim, who had moved into her basement and, although half-black, considered herself white. As O’Neal Parker told readers, the story showed how “a family can split right down the color line without ever saying a word about it,” and then how two women can begin to talk about their individual identities and shared history.
From that collaboration emerged the voices of both the writer and the cousin as the story probed sensitive areas beyond the comfort zone of most journalists. Such personal pieces involve risk, O’Neal Parker said, but they also can yield enormous reward, allowing writers to become intimate and make points blunted by conventional journalism. The stories can “begin to feed this national hunger for a way to understand each other,” she said.
The key, she argued, is for journalists to tell not just the “what” but also the “why” of a story – even if that means examining attitudes and issues that others prefer to remain untouched. “If you tell some truths that are uncomfortable, people are going to feel uncomfortable,” she said. “They are going to resent that you bring up what is kind of a family secret…a not-in-front-of-company kind of thing.”
Sharing family secrets was only part of what filmmaker Emiko Omori did in her documentary “Rabbit in the Moon,” which was honored by the workshop. She also exposed conflicts within her ethnic community by looking at the lingering tension over the internment of Japanese Americans.
A former camera operator with KQED in San Francisco, Omori had taken her story-telling skills to the world of film where she has freelanced as a cinematographer on documentaries, features, commercials and educational films. But it was “Rabbit” – winner of a Sundance Film Festival award – that encountered resistance, particularly from those who wanted to forget an ugly period in their lives and who preferred to ignore the fact that some Japanese Americans collaborated with their captors.
Omori, however, persisted in telling the story of how her family and other internees were stripped of their rights and dignity, and how some of those who had resisted their incarceration were suppressed in the camps. It was a story, she said, that needed to be told to the outside world.
“I think the other thing I was very concerned with was speaking to our community,” she said. Noting that many Japanese Americans remain in denial over the internment, she acknowledged that she, too, once shunned the subject. So as the film evolved, she said, “I used myself as sort of the example of what other people must be going through.”
Among the difficulties in making her 84-minute film, she said, was blending the personal with the factual and the historical, and making an old story fresh to viewers. She sought to do that by telling the story from the viewpoint of those inside the camp. “I think it was crucial for this expose to come from within, from a Japanese American, and it helped to have been an internee,” she said. “Perspective matters.”
Being black also was an asset for producer Lynn Redmond as she put together her piece for ABC News “20/20,” which was also lauded by the workshop. Her story looked at race and education, exploring why some African-American teens who tried to achieve in school were accused of “acting white” by other blacks.
Initially, Redmond told the workshop, she had to overcome her qualms about the “acting white” story idea, which was suggested by her white executive producer. Redmond feared that the topic was merely an “embarrassing idiosyncrasy, a club secret” with little potential for a story. But while researching the topic, Redmond found that social scientists were investigating the hypothesis that there may be a link between the “acting white” accusations and the performance of black students on standardized tests.
As the story evolved, Redmond found a Wisconsin high school where she interviewed students and school officials about the issue, and then took part in the critical decision of which correspondent should front what was certain to be a highly sensitive racial story. When a workshop participant asked why Charles Gibson, who is white, was ultimately selected, Redmond answered that she wanted someone who “could get it, was really smart and could really help elevate the whole topic. And that could have been [someone] black or white.”
But in the name of balance, she thought it would be good to work in tandem with someone who had a different background. “I felt perhaps that if you had a black producer and a black correspondent there would be a greater tendency to short hand, or just to think the same way,” she said, “and it wouldn’t be as expanded as bringing someone with different viewpoints to the table.”
Asked if she minds being approached by other producers to do race stories because she is black, Redmond replied, “I don’t mind being approached as long as I have the right to say no.” Other minority journalists at the workshop seemed to agree.
- Encourage personal racial stories as a way into the big picture.
- Don’t underestimate the audience’s capacity to “get it.”
- Acknowledge your own prejudices, fears and knee-jerk reactions.
- Don’t be afraid of anger. It’s part of telling the story of race.
- Beware of sentimentality. Don’t be too manipulative of emotions.
- When dealing with a racially sensitive story, bounce concerns off trusted colleagues who belong to the race you’re covering. That’s not a cop-out, but research.
- Make the people in your story feel valued for their contributions.
- Spend sustained off-duty time with someone of a different race. It can be eye-opening.
- Be innovative in your presentation. Use media partnerships and the Internet to reach more people.