“All of the debates that shape public life are, at the deepest level, debates about national myths and the interpretation of those myths.”
~Ira Chernas, The Meaning of ‘Myth’ in the American Context
WHAT IS A MYTH?
Those of us who want to fight for racial justice need to understand the concept of myth.
Not myth, as in “a lie or legend.” But myth, as in “a story tied to an ideal or worldview.”
Racism and white supremacy are embedded in the very structures of our American society. They are also embedded in our national mythology. If we want to dismantle white supremacist structures, we’ve got to understand the symbols that support them.
I encourage everyone to read Chernas’ entire essay to learn more about the concept of myth in general, and about American myths specifically.
KEY POINTS FROM CHERNAS’ ESSAY:
- Myths are narratives, told explicitly or implicitly.
- Myths rely on vivid, evocative symbols to tell their story.
- Myths provoke a powerful response from those who accept them. They affect our intellect and our emotions, both consciously and unconsciously.
- Myths express something fundamental about our worldview, values, and lifestyle.
- Myths create an idealized picture of life. They give a sense of coherence and meaning to the world, and so help us cope with life’s difficulties.
- The myths that affect us most blend empirical truth with fiction. The more truth they contain, the more influence they have, and the harder they are to refute.
- Myths turn literal truths into vehicles for symbolic meaning, thus creating pictures that are oversimplified, schematized, and therefore easier to grasp and respond to.
- Two examples of American mythical symbols are the Pilgrims and Rosa Parks.
- The specific components of each American myth are connected to the components of all other American myths, creating a network of interlocking myths, or a mythology.
- Words like progress, exceptionalism, and freedom conjure up our complex American mythology.
- When Americans share in the repetition of their myths, they reaffirm their connection with each other, as well as their difference from non-Americans.
- There is a relatively fixed set of American myths.
- Our mythology functions like a language—it sets limits to what can be said meaningfully in national debates on any issue.
- Those in power largely control the myths. Therefore, wealthy, white, Protestant men have historically wielded the most control over America’s myths.
HOW DOES INTERROGATING AMERICAN MYTHOLOGY RELATE TO RACIAL JUSTICE WORK?
When we white people enter into anti-racism work, we experience cognitive dissonance and emotional anxiety—both within ourselves and in our interactions with others. Because doing this work requires us to challenge our deeply-rooted American myths. This not only disrupts our worldview, it also threatens both our individual and collective identities as Americans.
We must learn to push through this discomfort, and help fellow white people do the same.
If I had to sum up the American mythology in one phrase, it might be, “We’re the good guys.” But more and more Black, Indigenous, and people of color are pushing back on that oversimplified narrative. In essence, they are saying, “We need to talk about the fact that sometimes ‘the good guys’ weren’t so good. Sometimes, they were actually ‘the bad guys.'”
We cannot hide from our nation’s history. We must integrate the good with the bad in order to get closer to a shared truth.
The goal of interrogation is not to simply destroy traditional American myths (although some might need destroying), but to deconstruct our old myths and create new, better, more truthful myths. We need to internalize 1619 in order to create a more truthful 1776.
LET’S GET TO WORK
I plan to create a new series on the website where we’ll examine specific American myths. Until then, here are some questions for reflection:
- What would you say are some of our American myths? When you think of America, what stories, ideals, or symbols come to mind?
- White people: What kind of emotional response do these myths and symbols evoke in you? Do any of our American myths produce internal dissonance? Can you imagine these myths and symbols evoking responses in BIPOC that are different from yours?
- Societies often have designated “myth-tellers.” Who are our modern American myth-tellers?
- President Trump excels at the employment of mythological symbols and languange. Can you identify some of his favorites from the last four years?