written by AMANDA GROSS
Once you tell a lie, more lies are required to cover it up.
I have a vague recollection of a children’s picture book that had this lesson as a premise or maybe it was a cartoon or perhaps several iterations on the same theme. At some point in the beginning of the tale, the main character tells a lie about something seemingly insignificant (racism calls this a “white lie”) and then finds themselves weaving a web of lies to cover it up – first for their initial lie and then for a gaggle of proceeding lies until eventually it all falls apart until either the character is caught and/or feels so incredible guilty that the entirety of the truth spills out. At the end we learn never to tell the small lie in the first place because if you give a mouse a cookie…
My exposure to this moralistic tale happened first in preschool or maybe Kindergarten around the same time that most children are taught not to talk about race, especially in mixed (read: multiracial) company. This includes learned silence and sometimes shame around noticing, pointing out, and identifying racial difference. For most of us who have come to be called white, this vow of silence applies to mixed company as well as the all-white ones. We were shushed and taught to pretend that we are all the same, that we don’t notice difference because that would be impolite. We were taught to pretend that the differences in our relationships to power are rude to point out.
It is an early lie, more accurately a white one. This lie has required lies upon lies to prop up its initial false claim, creating a (wicked) web* of tangled deception. And we are all caught up in it one way or another because the lie of race has shaped our perceptions, our thoughts, our realities, and our life expectancies. That white people exist as a biological, genetic, or phenotypical category are all lies. That this falsely constructed category of people is superior in any way to other falsely constructed categories of humans is also a white lie, though this time a rather significant one.
As I struggle to breathe amidst the toxic air of my surroundings, I think how these lies of racism show up in my body’s allergic reaction to Pittsburgh’s air (in)equality. My body is creating mucus in record quantities to expel that which is unnatural, that which does not belong, that which threatens the universe of my organism. The earth too is in the process of expelling us humans and our toxic racist lies. My childhood stories ring true, white lies – the small ones and the racial ones – are not so insignificant after all. They build up and create an unsustainable mess.
Truth-telling, like lying, is also a slippery slope. As you may have noticed, lying has been a recent theme of this blog, and by lying I don’t necessarily mean the Who-stole-the-cookies-from-the-cookie-jar?-Not-me!-Couldn’t-be!-Then-who?-ones. I mean the lies that we tell ourselves about our feelings and the one about the impact other people and things are having on us. Mainly, the lies we tell ourselves.
Initially, I wanted to write that truth-telling is complicated or complex or complexly complicated… But in writing that and in being honest with myself, I’m realizing it’s not the truth-telling that’s complicated, but the lying that complexifies my truth.
I have recently set an intention for truth-telling and truth-seeking, which inevitably means the Universe has offered me more than ample practice. It also means more of my lies are being revealed to me. And because I am out of practice, I am noticing my dishonesty several lies in. Several lies behind, I am still not catching the white lie as it leaves my lips.
Like just this week as I observed my gut feelings and knew there was something I didn’t like about an email communication that was unfolding. I also told myself that an email chain was not the place to address this. So I waited. And I waited. And waited for the previously agreed upon moment of in-person dialog to appropriately share the feelings I’d been damming up for days. Then when that moment didn’t happen, the truth exploded – or sort of the truth, but definitely something exploded. Really what happened is that I ended up telling the truth about my feelings by lying about what incited them, leaving a whole lot more mess to clean up. (Tune in next week to see how it ends.)
This mini-white lady processing rant points out a pattern of mine on my journey towards truth-telling and reveals how much I am still attached to the lies of whiteness, how much I am willing to hold onto the toxins and swallow the mucus, how deeply committed I am to following the rules despite what my body communicates to me in the moment. I am still relying on an external playbook and not the inner truth of my being. In this case, I opted to follow the rules of anti-racist racist whiteness that cautioned me to communicate relationally, in person, and definitely not over email.
These moments have also cued me in on another lie I deeply believe: that truth-telling is seamless, easy, effortless, and ends in comfortable happy endings that celebrate the teller of that truth. As I begin a process of telling my family my truths from childhood, there are many (white) lies to untangle – some of which are being loosened, some of which are being pulled tighter because whiteness demands a pretense of invisibility. As I build up my emotional resiliency, sometimes I struggle to stay focused; truths can be so painful.
Clearly, the emperor is standing butt-naked in the snow storm, but our stubborn allegiance to the emperor’s imaginary cloak has become more important than finding him an adequate winter coat. (It would be a lie if we pretended the emperor doesn’t suffer, too.) He stands naked in the midst of the Polar Vortex as the earth seeks to expel both him and humanity’s white lies.
*Wicked Web Workshops forthcoming in partnership with YROL. Please inquire for more details.