Stop Exploiting People's Trauma for Personal Gain

Every time I write something, I ask myself four questions:

  1. Is this my story to tell?

  2. Why do I feel compelled to share it?

  3. Who will be impacted by it and how?

  4. What do I stand to gain from sharing it?

It’s rare that the answers are clear and I’ve chosen not to share some potentially impactful stories because I can’t get clarity on these questions. I spend even more time wrestling with these questions when the story is traumatic or deeply personal to the people involved. Because I’ve been reflecting on these questions in my own life, I’ve become acutely aware of instances where someone is sharing a story that isn’t theirs to tell.

Often it’s well-intentioned. The person sharing the story is trying to bring awareness to an issue. Perhaps they think they are relieving the emotional burden of a marginalized person by doing the emotional labor of sharing the story. Usually they are trying to rally people around a cause. Regardless of intent, it’s important to recognize that when we re-tell a story that is not ours to tell, we insert our own interpretation, we filter it through our own lens, we inevitably use it to promote our own agenda, and ultimately we are the ones who benefit the most. As people in positions of privilege, we need to consider the ways we can elevate the voices of marginalized people rather than exploit their experiences for our own gain.

I’ve recently read several books written by people in positions of privilege where they share stories of people they’ve helped - families who have immigrated illegally, LGBTQIA+ homeless youth, etc. I can’t help but wonder if there was a way the authors could have empowered the people involved to tell their own stories. I wonder if the people involved share the same hopes and goals as the authors. I wonder what it feels like to read about the hardest moment in your life from someone else’s perspective. I wonder if the author is able to be objective about their own involvement. Most of all, I wonder what they do with the proceeds from their books. Do the people they are profiting off of see any of that money? Our nation was built off of exploiting marginalized people and profiting from their labor…is profiting from their trauma all that different?

Even when the intent is good, even when we are attempting to dismantle systems of oppression, we’d be better off to empower people to tell their own stories. When people with power or in positions of privilege choose to center themselves and share a story that is not theirs to tell, they inevitably benefit the most and end up upholding white supremacy culture rather than dismantling it. If we are truly committed to empowering others, if we truly want to dismantle white supremacy culture, if we truly want to share the benefits of our privilege, then we have to be willing to de-center ourselves.

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