Complicated Courtesies: Storyteller Kimberly Dark Tells It Like It Is

Mar 24, 2014

Kimberly Dark
Kimberly Dark
Credit courtesy of Kimberly Dark

Sociologist and storyteller Kimberly Dark will be in Kalamazoo this week as part of the annual diversity program Respecting Differences. Dark will give performances at Chenery Auditorium on Tuesday and Wednesday. She'll also perform at Western Michigan University on Friday.

Dark is famous for talking about those things you’re not supposed to mention at the dinner table.

“We’re talking about really interesting, vital things in the social sciences. Things like race and class and gender and all of the ways that appearance causes privilege in our culture or fails to cause privilege. But I also realized that no one will ever care about those magnificent things if we remain boring.”

And Dark is far from boring. Through her personal narratives, Dark makes the audience laugh and then think about their own place in society. Dark says everyone has multiple identities that determine privilege in the U.S., including herself.

“I already mentioned I’m middle-aged. I’m also fat. I have some beauty privilege nonetheless. You know sometimes that’s easy to see in looking at me, although being fat is one of the quickest ways to cancel out female beauty. We usually know that as well. I’m a mixed race person, but I have white privilege. And I do talk about that in the performance too. I tell a story about how actually in America though we like to cling to the idea that somebody’s Irish or somebody is Italian in their heritage, the fact that we live in a country that has a history of colonialism, of slavery means that a lot of us don’t actually know whether we’re mixed race.”

Dark says laughing at how ridiculous society can be is fun, but don’t forget the punch-line. How we treat ourselves and one another leads to social change.

“We are actually powerful social creators. That the way we interact with our own identities, with our own bodies…I mean, just think about this, what kind of revolution would it be if every woman woke up tomorrow and decided not to hate her body for any reason? Decided not to talk about her thighs disparagingly, or what kind of…you know how much weight she would like to lose, or what kind of way she’d like to sculpt herself. What if that were no longer on the agenda for anyone? It would literally change an entire culture. So obviously we can’t synchronize that sort of thing in such a dramatic way, but it really does matter what kind of messages our children hear from us about our bodies.”

Dark says humor can help us to have these wince-worthy conversations. But after the laugh, it’s time to get serious.

“If I’m a guy and we’re laughing at the way gender norms work," Dark explains. "At the end of that conversation, it’s important to…for the man to look at his wife or his loved one and say, ‘Yeah, actually that’s not very funny is it that I feel ok walking home from this restaurant at night and you don’t. That’s actually not funny and how can we change that?”