“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
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 need 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.
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. 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.
Click on the boxes below to examine specific American myths.