In 2019, I decided to take a critical race theory elective at the Sydney Law School. There’s probably nothing that impacted my legal career more than this random choice. It was the kind of subject that split your mind open.
In the very first class, we were assigned an odd reading. It wasn’t by a lawyer, or a judge, or even an academic. It was an excerpt from a poem – about a woman giving a colleague a lift after work.
The lecturer walked to the back of the classroom and handed the book to a student. The student was then told to read a passage or two and then – when they were ready – to hand the book to the next person.
And so, that’s what we did in that first class. Each student read one passage out loud and then passed the book on. Until we reached this part:
He tells you his dean is making him hire a person of colour.
You wish the light would turn red or a police siren would go off so you could slam on the brakes, slam into the car ahead of you, be propelled forward so quickly both your faces would suddenly be exposed to the wind.
As usual you drive straight through the moment.
It is not only that confrontation is headache producing; it is also that you have a destination that doesn’t include acting like this moment isn’t inhabitable, hasn’t happened before, and the before isn’t part of the now….
[The] night darkens and the time shortens
between where we are and
where we are going.
– Citizen by Claudia Rankine
I damn well nearly cried.
The strategy of counter-storytelling first emerged across American law schools in the 1980s during the Critical Race Theory movement. It was used by activists to highlight that legal spaces such as law schools or court rooms or parliament and so forth are places where games of truth are played and regimes of truth are played out.
The foundational text of the counter-storytelling movement is Oppositionists and Others: A Plea for Narrative by Richard Delgado. This piece centres on a Black lawyer who unsuccessfully interviews for a teaching position at a law school. In the piece, Delgado recounts the event through multiple standpoints and when the white employer attempts to characterise their account as objective or true, it becomes clear that it’s actually the white or patriarchal or otherwise normative version of event. It prevails not because it is necessarily ‘true’ but because it is the narrative recognized by the law.
Counter-storytelling reminds us to ask: what kinds of things can be understood by the law and what cannot? What do judges, law schools, parliaments and the criminal justice systems presume and what do they actively guard against?
Ultimately, how can counter-storytelling bring forward marginalised ‘truths’? How can stories help change the material reality in which people live and in which the law functions, so we can better ‘see’ otherwise invisible narratives?
As Delgado writes, ‘an out group creates its own stories, which circulate … as a kind of counter-reality to subvert the dominant group’s reality … reality is not fixed, not a given. Rather, we construct it … through our lives together.’
I spent the rest of the semester in that class researching examples of legal counter-storytelling. I focused on two books of poetry: Don’t Let Me Be Lonely and Citizen, both by Claudia Rankine.
The central theme of Don’t Let Me Be Lonely is institutional abandonment – both legal and biopolitical – of black lives. The book, by Rankine’s own description, aims to ‘draw forward the voices of those who have been abandoned by humanity … compounded by multiple lapses on the part of legal and political institutions.’
Citizen – written in 2014 during the Ferguson riots and after the death of Trayvon Martin – is arguably an even more explicit example of a legal counter-story. The work recounts a series of racist micro aggressions including the passage which, like Delgado’s piece, involved an incidence of workplace discrimination. It was the passage assigned in that first class.
In these ways, both texts functioned to illuminate marginalised perspectives on institutional racism, affirmative action, police brutality, race riots, the carceral state. Perhaps, even more importantly, both texts operated as legal counter-stories because of their innovative formal structure.
Legal counter-stories are often disruptive not only in their content, but also in their form. Claudia Rankine’s poems, for example, reject all the ‘proper’ legal scholarship norms that subjugate lived experience – whether such norms relate to authorial voice, point of view, tone, what counts as research or knowledge. In this way, counter-stories can break free from the suppression, omission, and falsification of authorial voice required by the law and legal writing. See this example from Don’t Let Me Be Lonely:
I forget things too. It makes me sad.
Or it makes me the saddest.
The sadness is not really about George W. or our American optimism; the
sadness lives in the recognition that a life can
This examples highlights that counter-stories have the capacity to disrupt paternalistic, heteronormative and hierarchical notions of what it means to have a voice within law. And by redefining what it means to have a voice, we can in turn redefine what the voice, the capital-L ‘Law’ voice, sounds like in the world.
Counter-storytelling remains a vital strategy for resistance. Storytelling not only reveals the inherent subjectivity of the legal system, but it provides an avenue for recognition and affirmation of experiences that may otherwise by denied in a normative legal system. As Richard Delgado wrote, all the way back in 1993:
in the face of institutional disapproval, an outsider will either conform to the dominant objective mode of discourse or continue telling their stories.
The counter-storytelling movement reminds us that – even in the face of juridical violence – we must continue to strive to tell our stories.