Unraveling the Myths White America Tells Itself

David Mura, author of "The Stories Whiteness Tells Itself," on actively combating racial bias and thinking

Photo by Shari Sirotnak on Unsplash

When David Mura’s parents were eleven and fifteen, they were forced, along with their families, to board trains from the West Coast to remote camps in Minidoka, Idaho and Jerome, Arkansas, where they spent much of World War II. A few years back I visited what is left of Jerome— the same “camp” where my father-in-law, aged four, was imprisoned during what became known as the internment. The 120,000 Japanese Americans who were forced to leave the West Coast lost all their land and possessions from before. They also lost their cultural identity. “My dad’s white teacher in the Jerome, Arkansas camp said to his class, ‘When you get out of here you should try to be not 100% American but 200% American,’ ” Mura explains, “So in both conscious and unconscious ways, my parents took as the meaning of their imprisonment that their crime was their Japanese ancestry—and this involved both ethnicity and race, since neither the Italian nor German American (i.e. white) communities were subject to mass imprisonment. Accordingly my parents raised me to assimilate into a white middle class identity as they did.” 

As a consequence, Mura learned to “think like a white person…what I wanted to be,” worshiping patriarchal white heroes like John Wayne and Robert E. Lee. However, in his twenties, “as a result of reading Black writers like Frantz Fanon, James Baldwin, and Toni Morrison, I finally admitted to myself that I was not white and would never be white.” Mura began a lifelong quest exploring his own racial and ethnic identity through essays, poetry, performances, and his memoirs, Turning Japanese: Memoirs of a Sensei and Where the Body Meets Memory: An Odyssey of Race, Sexuality, and Identity. Throughout his career Mura has been exploring the ways he had been taught by whiteness to think about race, only to realize that these stories were filled with lies, distortions and denials.

In his latest book, The Stories Whiteness Tells Itself, Mura examines works by Faulkner and Frantzen, popular films, as well as foundational narratives of white supremacy—Jefferson’s defense of slavery, the whitewashed history of Reconstruction, slavery’s re-creation via mass incarceration—to show how white identity is based on a shared belief in a false history which allows whites to deny their culpability in present and past inequities. Pointing out how implicit and explicit biases regarding Blackness lead to the murders of fellow Minnesotans Philando Castile and George Floyd, Mura demonstrates why we must as a culture change our internalized narratives regarding whiteness, because this ignorance, as most recently illustrated with the murder of Tyre Nichols, is literally a matter of life and death. 

Deirdre Sugiuchi: You live in Minneapolis/ St. Paul. You raised your family there. How did living in this community, the one time home of Philando Castile and George Floyd, inspire you to write The Stories Whiteness Tells Itself? Can you discuss the urgency you felt?

David Mura: I often drive the road where Philando Castile was murdered; I’ve even received a couple speeding tickets there (it’s a notorious speed trap). But as an Asian American I was never in danger the way Castile was.

George Floyd was also murdered a few miles from my home. My middle son, who works at a nearby high school, knows Darnella Frazier, the brave seventeen-year-old who took the video of Floyd’s murder. The demonstrations at the 3rd Precinct were close enough that I rode my bike there.  

When I began the essay about Castile’s murder in 2017, which started my book, I began reading widely about the issues of race in history, political science, economics, law, etc. I quickly realized how intricately the roots of his murder go back in our history—to the ontology of slavery and the division between whiteness and Blackness; to ideological defenses of slavery by Jefferson; to pseudo-scientific studies in the 19th century which viewed every crime by a Black person as evidence of intrinsic Black criminality (crimes by white people did not cast a stain upon white people but were regarded as the acts of specific individuals, often explained through socio-economic circumstances). The idea that the racism of the past—particularly the racist thinking of the past—has no influence on the systemic racism of the present is utterly false, complete nonsense, and is another example of whiteness gaslighting BIPOC Americans. 

That my book ends with an essay on George Floyd’s murder and a coda on the murder of Daunte Wright, is a tragic, cruel and telling irony— in the time since we have continued to see more murders and beatings of Black citizens. 

DS: Can you discuss how the prescriptions of whiteness, “the behaviors and beliefs that have served to protect and preserve the racial status quo since America’s beginning,” impacts the way white America narrates and interprets not just our racial past but also our racial present?

DM: America began with two contradictory goals: One was to establish freedom, equality and democracy. The other was to institute white supremacy and maintain white oppression of Blacks and Native Americans. White America is fine with telling its history through the lens of the first goal, but is decidedly not fine with telling its story through the second lens. In this, the experiences, consciousness and narratives of Black Americans are deemed un-American or too distant in the past for us to consider, unnecessary blemishes or accidents or even harmful, or at best secondary and minor.

Whiteness, as I define it, is a set of beliefs, ideas and practices which, from our very beginning, established white supremacy as a guiding ideology for white people. White people learn and practice this ideology both consciously and unconsciously—hence conscious or explicit bias and unconscious or implicit bias.

My book examines the epistemology of whiteness: white knowledge is always considered objective, valid, true and official; Black knowledge is considered subjective, suspect or invalid, untrue and unofficial—unless whiteness decrees it. You see this in the telling of our history, in Black patients telling doctors of their pain, and in the differences between the ways whites receive police accounts as opposed to Black accounts of police encounters (whether white or not, police uphold the rules of whiteness). In the past few years, it’s not so much that white America has started to believe the narratives of Black people about the police, but that technology—dash cams and cell videos—caught up with police racism. 

DS: In your chapter Philando Castile and the Negation of Black Innocence,” you discuss how since 1619, Blacks in America, as slaves, were regarded as property, as less than human or inferior human beings, and how viewing Black people as property led to viewing Black people collectively as criminals. How did this mindset, of viewing Black people as inherently criminal, impact how the police officer viewed Castile? How did such biases influence the way Castile was covered in the media after his death?

DM: My book takes sometimes difficult academic theories, synthesizes them, and tries to make them comprehensible to non-academic readers—Afropessimism, Hegel’s Master/Slave dialectic, DuBois’s double consciousness, the ontology and epistemology of race, Gates’ Signifying Monkey, Critical Race Theory. I explore these theories because they help us to understand how deeply racial bias and Whiteness are embedded in the American psyche and how complicated that process is. The simplification of race by conservatives and even liberal whites is partly a way to obfuscate the workings of racism and partly a way to silence any racial critiques of whiteness. And yet, BIPOC understand, see and know the reality of racism in America. As one older Black woman said to Wilderson when he addressed a community meeting in the Bay, “I’m not a scholar like you, I didn’t go to college, but when you talked about slavery, that is how I feel. Like a slave.”

The idea that the racism of the past has no influence on the systemic racism of the present is utterly false and is another example of whiteness gaslighting BIPOC Americans.

Officer Yanez, who murdered Castile, had attended a police training, “The Bulletproof Warrior,” which states that the first and primary duty of the police officer is to ensure their own safety and that that the officer’s role is like that of enemy troops in a foreign country—i.e., you are not protecting and serving your fellow citizens. To Yanez there was no possibility of seeing Castile as a fellow citizen, much less “Mr. Rogers with dreadlocks.” Castile was a priori cast in the tautology Black=criminal; whether this association was conscious or unconscious made no difference. Yanez was supposedly responding to his “feeling” that Castile, with his dreadlocks, looked like two Black men who had held up a local convenience store. But Castile was riding with his Black girlfriend and her four-year-old daughter—whom Yanez did not see. In other words, Yanez was incapable of seeing any of the Black occupants in the car. This inability to see the humanity of Black Americans goes back to the original ontology of slavery and white fear of Blacks. 

DS: Can you discuss the danger of proposed legislation like Senator Tom Cotton’s “Saving American History Act,” which prohibits federal funding from being made available to teach the 1619 Project curriculum in elementary and secondary schools, and the various attacks DeSantis has made on education in Florida including the retraining of librarians and refusing to approve AP African American studies. How is this related to racial backlash historically? 

DM: Cotton’s “Saving American History Act” is a prime example of what he purports to not exist—systemic racism. So is DeSantis’ recent attacks on CRT, his administration’s canceling of Florida’s AP African American history, and his working to ban the term “systemic racism” in schools. Both white politicians are trying to silence the experiences, consciousness and narratives of Black people—and this, again, is proof that white supremacy and systemic racism continue to exist, both in our education and government, but also at an epistemological level.   

White America keeps saying the problem is not that white people have abused Black people throughout our history; no, the problem is that Black people keep remembering this history and telling it to white people—which somehow victimizes white people. My verb choice is deliberate: what whites like Cotton and DeSantis exhibit and what whiteness often embodies is the psychology of an abuser, who blames their victim both for the abuse and for not forgetting the abuse. 

Now it’s no surprise that Cotton, DeSantis and white politicians like Trump are engaged in a backlash against racial progress. Obama’s election became a signal to white America of the growing political and cultural power of BIPOC Americans; it made concrete the fact that some time after 2040 white people will no longer constitute a majority. We will all be racial minorities then. And white people are freaking out about their loss of majority status. 

But the same thing happened after the Civil War when, for a brief moment, Black people could vote in the South and won positions in government and began to exercise their rights as citizens. In our schools, we rightly celebrate the Emancipation Proclamation and the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments. What we don’t examine, though, is how, throughout the post-war South, there were society wide efforts to re-establish the norms and practices of slavery; this involved not only violence and white terrorizing of the Black population, but complicated legal maneuvers and theory, racial pseudo-sociology and medicine, government laws like the Black Codes, discriminatory economic practices, racist organizing and the creation of the myth of the Lost Cause. This myth pictured the ante-bellum South as a valiant, noble way of life; it argued that the true causes for the Civil War were Northern aggression and the defense of states’ rights and not slavery, since Black slaves were not exploited but treated well and were perfectly fine with their lot. Eventually this myth became accepted by the North as part of the bargain the North made to ensure white and national unity. You can see this in the success of Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation and in Gone with the Wind, both the novel and the film. 

Similarly, after the passage of Civil Rights laws in the 1960s and efforts to desegregate public schools, the South began a campaign of backlash and resistance to these laws. The North followed suit when these laws began to be applied to Northern school systems. There was the establishment of systems of religious or private schools, as well as efforts which continue to this day to publicly fund private schools at the expense of public schools. In the South today there are schools and areas as segregated as they were in the 1950s.

Again white America is fine with telling the American story through the lens of racial progress. But it is not fine with telling the tale of white racial backlash, which has followed each and every move towards racial progress. 

DS: What do you think about the Moms for Liberty, a right-wing affiliated group who claim to be “fighting for the survival of America by unifying, educating and empowering parents to defend their parental rights at all levels of government” and are leading book challenges nationally?

America began in the lie of white supremacy and it still has not abandoned that lie.

DM: In the recent controversies over CRT, conservatives like Moms for Liberty are so afraid of Black narratives that they believe the story of six-year-old Ruby Bridges desegregating a New Orleans school in 1960 in the face of a hostile, shouting, spitting white crowd will hurt their fragile white children— rather than leading to their children to be inspired by a brave young Black girl. And yet these white conservatives never seem to be concerned for the “fragility” of Black children and the fact that almost every Black parent must tell their children narratives of police brutality and killings in order to instruct their children how to respond when they encounter police. White children are oh so fragile and need protection, but Black children, why would Moms for Liberty care about them?

DS: You end your book with a call to white Americans to transform their thinking about race.  You once undertook a similar journey. Can you discuss the rewards? 

DM: We all must work on knowing more, on actively combating racial bias and thinking, both in others and particularly in ourselves.

Baldwin stated, “The question of identity is a question inducing the most profound panic, a terror as primary as the mortal fall.” To question one’s identity is as frightening as confronting one’s mortality. And yet, white America, and indeed all Americans in our increasingly diverse country, are confronting experiences and people in our society that challenge our racial identities, the ways we think about and understand race. For white Americans this involves confronting how the ideology of whiteness has shaped their thinking, their beliefs, their practices, and the conditions of their lives. 

In this process, white America must go through stages much like what Helen Kubler-Ross outlined in On Death and Dying: 1) Denial; 2) Anger; 3) Bargaining; 4) Grief; 5) Acceptance. Most white conservatives are in the first two stages; white liberals in the third. They all are in a state of denial, and this denial keeps them trapped in weakness and self-deception.

America began in the lie of white supremacy and it still has not abandoned that lie. When individual white Americans admit this lie, they experience a sense of grief at first—they’ve lost their sense of innocence about America and themselves. But with acceptance comes not just psychological strength and courage, but a sense of relief: Oh, I no longer have to continue defending against the truth, repelling the truth, and thus, I no longer have to push away the experiences, consciousness and narratives of BIPOC Americans. When a white American does this, they come to see that we have never had a pure white America, that the American story cannot be told without the narratives of all of us. 

The shame white Americans feel over being white can only begin to dissipate when a white American accepts the truth about the racism in our past and the racism that continues to function in our country. What should come up then is less about guilt but responsibility and acceptance that we all have a role to play in making this country live up to its ideals. And then that white person can finally admit that the greatness of our country is due in part to the work of Black Americans to make this country more equal. Black Americans have always been on the right side of our racial history—and yet white America has never turned to Black America and said, “You have always been on the right side of history and white people did not recognize this. So now, in the present, we’re going to listen to you, we’re going to follow your lead.” To use Baldwin’s phrase, part of the price of this ticket is learning what BIPOC communities can teach white Americans about what it means to be an American. 

When white America finally does this, when it abandons its loyalty to white supremacist epistemology and narratives, we’ll know we’re on our way to real change and racial equality. 

More Like This

The Buffoonery of White Supremacy Trying to Disguise Itself as Literature

Tracing the history of white supremacy storytelling back to William Faulkner

Jul 27 - Ellen Wayland-Smith

We Deserve More Black Stories with Happy Endings

This country hasn’t shaken off its segregated past, but I want to help find a new narrative for the future

Jan 21 - Exodus Oktavia Brownlow
Thank You!