Japanese American writer David Mura was aware of race from an early age, and it gave him a perspective on whiteness that he uses to great effect in his brilliant new book, "The Stories Whiteness Tells Itself."
Mura's awareness of race in America grew from his own desire to be "white." "The internment camps criminalized my parents' race and ethnicity (nothing similar was done to German or Italian Americans)," he writes. "Growing up in a white, mainly Jewish, suburb of Chicago, I, like my father, diligently worked to blend in with the white majority, to erase my difference. … When I write here of whiteness, I am in part referencing my younger self and what America taught me about the practices and beliefs concerning white identity."
Mura co-edited last year's "We Are Meant to Rise," a collaborative effort among various writers to tell stories of the search for justice in Minneapolis and beyond. In his latest book, Mura argues that despite Minneapolis encompassing multi-ethnic neighborhoods, the killings of Philando Castile, Daunte Wright and George Floyd expose the deadly effects of whiteness.
One of the most pernicious ways that racism works is that it has created two separate realities. Mura demonstrates this in looking at reactions to scenes of police brutality. White Americans' insistence on interpretations that favor the police "stem from two very different epistemologies and ontologies, two very different ways of witnessing and interpreting not just what happened on Larpenteur Avenue on July 6, 2016, but our entire history and who we are as a nation."
Unpacking these separate ways of being and of "what we know," Mura offers a masterful class in American history, politics and culture, especially films and literature. In addition, he examines the emotional results of such interpretations. He addresses the psychic costs of these stories for people of color, especially for Black people, on whose enslaved labor a large portion of American wealth and power were built.
In multiple instances, "white" is a default assumption — whether in the reading of novels or in the telling of history — and it allows whites amnesia about America, Mura notes. White becomes the "neutral" race, allowing white people to see stories told by Black and other people of color as filtered through their race while refusing to acknowledge just how racially filtered white experience really is.
One of the triumphs of "The Stories Whiteness Tells Itself" is that it lays out the problem, but then offers solutions not only for individuals but for our nation going forward. For white people, change will require a new understanding of our own minds, a willingness to do the emotional work. Recognizing racism can create feelings of shame and anger, but just as integrating trauma and pain into our psychic life eventually leads to healing, the process of recognizing racism can create feelings of shame and anger that must be acknowledged and worked through.
On a larger scale, this type of truth and reconciliation will lead to a more just America for all of us.
Lorraine Berry is an Oregon-based writer.
The Stories Whiteness Tells Itself
By: David Mura.
Publisher: University of Minnesota Press, 304 pages, $24.95.
Events: Book launch, in conversation with Alexs Pate, 7 p.m. Feb. 8, Minnesota Humanities Center, free tickets at bit.ly/3ZJzkqw; Fireside Reading Series, 7 p.m., Feb. 15, Hamline-Midway Library, St. Paul; 6 p.m. Feb. 27, Next Chapter Booksellers, St. Paul; 7 p.m. April 27, East Side Freedom Library, St. Paul.