The Stories Whiteness Tells Itself

Racial Myths and Our American Narratives

2022
Author:

David Mura

Uncovering the pernicious narratives white people create to justify white supremacy and sustain racist oppression

From the country’s founding through the summer of Black Lives Matter in 2020, David Mura unmasks how white stories about race attempt to erase the brutality of the past and underpin systemic racism in the present. Mura shows how deeply we need to change our racial narratives to dissolve the myth of Whiteness and fully acknowledge the experiences of Black Americans.

More than anything, David Mura reminds us that history is still just a story, and life and death lies in who gets to tell it and what’s been told. This is a re-examination of the American imagination itself and the myths we need to dismantle for a proper foundation to finally grow. It’s fearless, illuminating, and revolutionary.

Marlon James, winner of the 2015 Booker Prize

The police murders of two Black men, Philando Castile and George Floyd, frame this searing exploration of the historical and fictional narratives that white America tells itself to justify and maintain white supremacy. From the country’s founding through the summer of Black Lives Matter in 2020, David Mura unmasks how white stories about race attempt to erase the brutality of the past and underpin systemic racism in the present.

Intertwining history, literature, ethics, and the deeply personal, Mura looks back to foundational narratives of white supremacy (Jefferson’s defense of slavery, Lincoln’s frequently minimized racism, and the establishment of Jim Crow) to show how white identity is based on shared belief in the pernicious myths, false histories, and racially segregated fictions that allow whites to deny their culpability in past atrocities and current inequities. White supremacy always insists white knowledge is superior to Black knowledge, Mura argues, and this belief dismisses the truths embodied in Black narratives.

Mura turns to literature, comparing the white savior portrayal of the film Amistad to the novelization of its script by the Black novelist Alexs Pate, which focuses on its African protagonists; depictions of slavery in Faulkner and Morrison; and race’s absence in the fiction of Jonathan Franzen and its inescapable presence in works by ZZ Packer, tracing the construction of Whiteness to willfully distorted portraits of race in America. In James Baldwin’s essays, Mura finds a response to this racial distortion and a way for Blacks and other BIPOC people to heal from the wounds of racism.

Taking readers beyond apology, contrition, or sadness, Mura attends to the persistent trauma racism has exacted and lays bare how deeply we need to change our racial narratives—what white people must do—to dissolve the myth of Whiteness and fully acknowledge the stories and experiences of Black Americans.

Cover image description: Image of an extremely thick book that displays the title and author name in black text on white cover. Background is a glaring, solid red.

David Mura is a poet, writer of creative nonfiction and fiction, critic, and playwright. He is author of A Stranger’s Journey: Race, Identity, and Narrative Craft in Writing and the memoirs Turning Japanese: Memoirs of a Sansei and Where the Body Meets Memory: An Odyssey of Race, Sexuality, and Identity. He is coeditor, with Carolyn Holbrook, of We Are Meant to Rise: Voices for Justice from Minneapolis to the World (Minnesota, 2021). He lives in Minneapolis.

More than anything, David Mura reminds us that history is still just a story, and life and death lies in who gets to tell it and what’s been told. This is a re-examination of the American imagination itself and the myths we need to dismantle for a proper foundation to finally grow. It’s fearless, illuminating, and revolutionary.

Marlon James, winner of the 2015 Booker Prize

The Stories Whiteness Tells Itself is the book I wish I could have been handing out during the height of the Black Lives Matters protests. There are many works written about the overarching effects of white supremacy in America, but what’s essential about this book is the clarity provided by the wisdom and holistic vision of David Mura. The Stories Whiteness Tells Itself is the rare book that pulls off the magic trick of taking an incredibly explosive issue and disarming it with such grace as to make elusive truths feel suddenly accessible.

Mat Johnson, author of Pym, Loving Day, and Invisible Things

A powerful meditation on the conscious and unconscious effects of racist narratives. Anyone who's lived through the last three years of racial reckoning and is wondering how we got here and where we go next will find this book useful.

Shannon Gibney, author of Dream Country

With this collection of taut essays, David Mura holds searing light on the epistemology of Whiteness, interrogating the brutal creation and lethal maintenance of this alibi rigged to serve as an identity. Mura, with painstaking patience half-masking anger and grief, offers what so many white Americans claim they want, what so many of the rest of us tire of providing: a rigorous education in perceiving themselves stripped of their dearest myths. I push back on the author’s use of ‘blindness’ as metaphor over the book’s arc, a way the sighted shorthand an inability to perceive. No. For what Mura argues with compelling intelligence is that most white people willfully ignore history and resent being reminded of their place within its present. I suspect some will, as always, manage to ignore this entry into a tradition that includes Baldwin, Morrison, Hartman, and Wilderson, but those who heed it will find themselves fortified for change.

Douglas Kearney, author of Optic Subwoof

The vitriolic discourse against educators and librarians displays the resurgence of overt hostility toward books, in particular stories coming out of marginalized communities. Books written by writers of color and writers writing about how race is experienced by people of color are accused of teaching people to hate America. Meanwhile, there is The Stories Whiteness Tells Itself. David Mura, a gifted Japanese American writer and storyteller is in conversation with gifted African American writers/prophets such as Baldwin, Morrison, Gates, Kendi, and his friend and contemporary Alex Pate, author of the novel Amistad. Together, Mura and the thinkers he’s enlisted serve to shore up the experiences of people of color against the gaslighting we face and provide Whiteness with an opportunity to engage with fuller stories that could bring it out of a ‘distorted reality’ where ‘the oppressor thus lies to himself both about himself and about those he oppresses.’

Sherrie Fernandez-Williams, author of Soft: A Memoir

Contents

Introduction

Part I. The Present Moment

The Killing of Philando Castile and the Negation of Black Innocence

Black Lives Matter and the Social Contract

James Baldwin and the Repetitions of History: From the Harlem Riots to Ferguson, Baltimore, and BLM

Part II. How We Narrate the Past

White Memory and the Psychic Sherpa

How We Think—or Don’t Think—about It: Racial Epistemologies and Ontologies

Jefferson, the Enlightenment, and the Purposes of History

Black History: The Master/Slave Dialectic and the Signifying Monkey

Whiteness in Storytelling: Amistad, the Film and the Novel

Portraits of Slavery: Faulkner and Morrison

Lincoln Was a Great American, Lincoln Was a Racist

Racial Regression: Trump, Obama, and the Legacy of Reconstruction

The Contemporary White Literary Imagination

Racial Absence and Racial Presence in Jonathan Franzen and ZZ Packer

Psychotherapy and a New National Narrative

Part III. Where Do We Go from Here?

Questions of Identity

James Baldwin: I Am Not Your Negro

Abandoning Whiteness

“I Can’t Breathe”

Coda: Daunte Wright

Appendix: A Brief Guide to Structural Racism

White Assumptions: The Current Epistemology of White Supremacy

Acknowledgments

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About E-books

Available in January 2023