Interview by Fionnán Mac Gabhann
Fionnán Mac Gabhann: Overthrowing the Queen represents one of several objectives devised as part of a collaborative project you initiated for the purpose of addressing stereotypes and perceptions of public assistance in the United States. Could you describe the origins of this project and the collaborative efforts that lead to this book’s publication?
Tom Mould: As you know, the book is an attempt to look at all the different stories that are told about public assistance and people who receive public assistance. And so it includes the spurious legends about welfare queens but also spends equal time, if not more, on stories told by aid recipients. I do come at this topic as a folklorist, which means I pay attention to genre, narrative, performance, and context. But I’m also drawing links to a lot of other disciplines like psychology and sociology, anthropology, political science, communication, and so on. This is a question that spans more than one discipline, so I really felt that it required an interdisciplinary approach, and collaboration. There was no way this project was going to work if I wasn’t collaborating with people who spend their lives, day in and day out, working as aid providers or struggling to make ends meet as aid recipients. And then, of course, I collaborated with people who are telling these stories, doing the kind of good, strong ethnographic field work that folklorists and anthropologists are known for.
So I’ll give you the origin story. It was 2011, and I’m at a dinner party, a big organizational kind of thing with hundreds of people in attendance from across the spectrum in terms of class, race, position, and so on. I found myself talking with a woman—a fairly wealthy local community member—about the Affordable Care Act, which was being discussed and debated in the public domain at this time. The conversation was a little heated. We didn’t agree on almost anything in terms of the merit of the Affordable Care Act. I was more in favour of it, the person I was talking to was quite against it. Finally, we found one point of agreement which was that we both agreed that using the emergency room as your primary care provider was terrible for financial-economic reasons, for health reasons, for the pressure it places on institutions such as hospitals, and so on. So we could all agree on that. And I thought, “Great, I’m going to leave while we finally have something we can agree on.” And she said, “but,” and I’m thinking, “Oh no.” She continued, “You’ll never convince me that those people aren’t just going to take advantage of the system anyway.” I sceptically responded, “What people?” She proceeded to tell a story positioned in ways that I’ve heard this story told since I was a kid. The story was the classic welfare queen legend of the woman in the grocery store. And this woman told the story as something that she had seen herself and been present for in the not too distant past. She said, “I was in the grocery store the other day; I was checking out; there was a woman in front of me. She had nice clothes, jewellery, nice hair, and she had all of this food, steaks, and so on. She was buying dog food, and the woman behind the register said, “I’m sorry, ma’am, you can’t buy dog food with food stamps.” And she said, “Well, this is ridiculous.” And she kept pushing it and finally she said, “Fine,” and she marched back to the meat counter, grabbed a couple of steaks, brought them back and said, “All right, I’ll just feed my dog the steaks instead.” The narrator in this case did not say that the woman at the grocery store climbed into a Cadillac but that would be a common conclusion to the story.
I’ve heard this story so many times, but I thought it had risen to prominence during the Reagan presidency and declined in Reagan’s aftermath. I thought these stories were waning. They aren’t, they weren’t, and this project makes it quite clear that these stories are very much still being shared among friends, family, co-workers, colleagues, and so on.
So I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t get this story out of my head, I couldn’t believe it was still being told; and I was looking for a new project. I’m always interested in narrative. I had come off of a couple of other projects that were very focused on sacred narrative, but I’m also interested in how narrative is used in political spheres.
Long story short, I went and followed up with some colleagues on the Board of the Women’s Resource Center and folks I knew in the Department of Social Services. We convened a group of about nine of us who were working both in government and non-profit organizations, and said, “Hey, I heard this story. I want to do more about it. What do you think?” And people responded with, “Oh my gosh, we hear that story every time we present publicly.” So we sat around and for the next couple of months, threw out ideas for what we might do, what specific problems we wanted to address, how I could be helpful—because I’m not an economist, I’m not a policymaker, I’m a folklorist. So how can I bring my skill set to the table? After about a year of conversations and collaboration we had 10 goals or outcomes that we wanted to reach, we had an advisory board and group of people, and we had students who were signed up for a class to do some of this work.
Fionnán Mac Gabhann: In the book you describe your struggle with the question of how to write about stories of public assistance in the United States without reinforcing the very stereotypes that have caused so much damage and which you are attempting to undermine. One solution you offer is to take a performance-centered approach to analysis of stories of public assistance. How did this study benefit from folkloristic and linguistic anthropological insights on performance?
Tom Mould: Firstly, I’ll say that folklorists in general, because we pay attention to genre and process, are particularly well positioned to consider rhetorical strategies. I don’t want to critique the whole field of anthropology, but I think that sometimes the discipline has spent less time thinking about epistemology and the construction of knowledge, focusing more so on what it is rather than how it is produced. Of course, this situation has changed over time. But I think that folklorists do a really good job of thinking about how knowledge is produced, and that’s what a performance-centered approach does. It asks: who’s in the room, what are their rhetorical goals, what are their histories, what do the participants bring to the table? And with this kind of information we can understand why a particular story is being told and how we should be understanding it. A performer-centered approach also encourages us go beyond the immediate situational context, to work even further back, and to look at how a person is positioned, whether in terms of a particular role—a recipient or provider of public assistance for instance— or in terms of their own personal biographies and lived experience. Both of these moves help to bring context to the table so that we can unpack these kinds of stories.
As you know, one of the incredibly grim things that I discovered early in my fieldwork was that aid recipients replicated welfare queen legends very frequently. In fact almost every aid recipient had at least one kind of a welfare queen legend that they told. Rhetorically this makes all the sense in the world when you consider the larger social context. Aid recipients are aware that if they don’t acknowledge the welfare queen narrative and disassociate themselves from it they won’t be taken seriously because their interlocutors are already bringing that prejudicial narrative to the table.
And I’ll just add, finally, that a performance-centred approach encourages us to pay more attention to the audience and how people are responding to stories. For example, there was a wonderful moment captured by one of the students I worked with, Jessica Elizondo, who spoke with a group of conservative, white, upper middle class, older businessmen over coffee. These men were very bold in their views and stories, but you could see them sussing each other out in terms of what their positions were on welfare. Once agreement started getting shaped and formed more and more stereotypical stories were shared with that comfort that was being built. This kind of context is crucial for understanding why even self-professed liberals will sometimes share these welfare queen stories.
Fionnán Mac Gabhann: One of your major contributions to narrative scholarship in this book is your proposed reorientation of approaches to the study of legend. As you illustrate, most previous definitions of legend foreground the negotiation of truth as the essential characteristic of the genre. Contrastingly, you argue that legend is distinguished by the doubt it engenders and you advocate for a “doubt-centred approach” to the study of legend. Why have you adopted this approach, and what do you suggest are the benefits of such a reorientation?
Tom Mould: When I started this project I did an exhaustive literature review of legend and ended up with something like 84 different definitions that scholars have articulated over the years. So we haven’t settled the debate, and that’s okay. I mean, we all need an operational definition to move forward with, otherwise we’re sort of crippled intellectually. But that work really helped me realize that what makes a legend distinctive is not effort to convince someone of their truth but rather people’s expression of doubt.
I need to be really clear here because I’ve published some articles on this subject before this book came out and it’s really easy for folks to misinterpret what I’m arguing. Many people have said, “I can’t believe you are suggesting that we should be doubting all the people we talk to,” and I said, “No, no, no, the doubt is not our own.” The goal with a doubt-centered approach to legend is to look to see where audiences and participants are doubting, not to bring our own doubt to the table—my gosh, I can’t think of anything worse, and yet we do it all the time. I mean, when you actually think about what folklorists study as legend, it’s things we doubt, it’s things we think aren’t true. So, actually, maybe paradoxically, ironically, a doubt-centered approach actually helps us get away from that bias. And so, if somebody is making an argument for something that’s true and nobody doubts it, then it is just news or then it is just fact. We don’t call that legend, it’s not part of the legend process of debate, discussion, and belief. But the minute somebody starts to doubt it, then it becomes legend.
I’ll give you an example. When various folks on the right were claiming that Barack Obama couldn’t be President because he wasn’t a US citizen you had the birther movement—people who question the validity of Obama’s birth certificate—claiming that the story that Obama was born in Hawaii was a story to be doubted. The story that he is secretly a Muslim born in Kenya was the story to be believed, from this group’s perspective. So for them, the first was legend, the second fact. Then you had others—the mainstream media and investigative journalists, for example—for whom the reverse was true, where the story of not being a citizen or a Christian was the legend. So paying attention to where people are doubting is a crucial move here.
And doubt is not just the other side of truth. One of the things I found in this work was that people would often accept as true, let’s say, that an event had happened at a particular point in time but they doubted the degree to which these kinds of instances were common or generalizable. If you took a truth-centered approach to the same exact stories you wouldn’t necessarily recognize that people were actively trying to convince you the story was generalizable. The same goes for an interpretation. Many people think “Oh, the story speaks for itself.” Well, a lot of our research shows that it doesn’t. There is great open-endedness to narrative; stories require interpretation.
The doubt-centered approach I took highlighted a whole series of rhetorical strategies that would not have been identified with other varieties of analysis focused on how people are establishing credibility. So, that’s part of the argument. There are other benefits to a doubt-centered approach, however. One of the biggest ones being that it is emic; it encourages us to consider how people within the community are interpreting the narrative. It also brings more focus on audience interpretation and audience reception, which I think folklorist have not done as great of a job at as we could, in terms of analysis.
Fionnán Mac Gabhann: You published three monographs prior to Overthrowing the Queen, all of which revolve around oral narrative: Choctaw Prophecy: A Legacy for the Future (2003), Choctaw Tales (2004), and Still, the Small Voice: Revelation, Personal Narrative, and the Mormon Folk Tradition (2011). How does Overthrowing the Queen compare and contrast with these previous works?
Tom Mould: With Choctaw Tales I was following very much in traditional folklore footsteps by setting out to record the local traditions and stories. This was a book that community members wanted. In fact they sort of said, “You can write your Choctaw prophecy book but you have got to give us Choctaw Tales.” Part of the reason why they wanted Choctaw Tales was that they are still incredibly stigmatized and discriminated against in their home state of Mississippi. People still don’t understand who they are, what their traditions are, what their stories are, the depth, and richness, and beauty of their culture. So this is kind of a classic Boasian moment: go in, identify that, write about it, and let the work speak for itself. I think that was an implicit move behind both Choctaw Tales and Choctaw Prophecy.
When I first started working with Latter-day Saints people kept saying, “Are you coming to expose us? Are you coming to pile on?” When the book was published people were pleasantly surprised. Having a non-member write emically was ground-breaking for so many of them because they were not used to that. That wasn’t an explicit mission of mine, but in all of my work I certainly aim to present an honest, accurate, fair, and also empathetic view. If we really take cultural relativism at its face value then there is something to value here and the question becomes, what is it?
To get to your question. I had been focused on sacred narratives. I had been focused on stories that were grounded within a particular community and which bound folks together. I can’t say that welfare legends bind people together, certainly not the non-recipients. Even among aid recipients, there’s some recognition of shared plight in this narrative tradition, but it’s not the kind of community building or cohesive kind of tradition that folklorists often study.
So when I came to the welfare project I was interested in exploring more explicitly the possibility of putting my social conscience into my work. Every folklorist is going to be different and no folklorist should be obligated to do anything of this sort. But I felt compelled to do this, especially after studying the narrative traditions of a church whose leaders took political stances against things like same-sex marriage that ran counter to my own views. So when the story of “the welfare queen” was told to me at this dinner party, it landed in my lap at a time when I was thinking, as a folklorist, what if I brought my study of narrative and applied it to what I was doing in my off time, in terms of social justice and in terms of diversity, equity, and inclusion work? Could that be a happy marriage? I would argue that it has been, and I also appreciate that there are going to be folklorists who don’t see it fitting within the parameters that they’ve often operated under. I just think it’s a missed opportunity if we don’t explore this also. I think our tent is big enough for both.
Mould, Tom. 2018. “A Doubt-Centred Approach to Contemporary Legend and Fake News.” Journal of American Folklore 131(522): 413-420.