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all that we are: an exploration of race, truth, and the stories societies tell

hannah's picture

Thomas King opens each chapter of his book the same way – with a story about turtles. The whole world, he says, is balanced on the back of a huge turtle, and that turtle on another turtle, and that turtle on another, etc. etc. etc. He changes the question-asker a little, varies the gender of the storyteller, puts in a few extra details. But the story itself is always the same; “it’s turtles all the way down.”

It’s a recurring theme in The Truth About Stories… the idea that the worlds we know are formed by stories, one on top of the other, all the way down. In the words of Julie Beck, a writer for the Atlantic: “in telling the story of how you became who you are, and of who you’re on your way to becoming, the story itself becomes a part of who you are.” As human beings, we are made of stories. This isn’t just limited to individuals – instead, the stories we tell ourselves and others often contribute to the ways in which we enter and are perceived by our environment. Here, examining King’s The Truth about Stories through the lens of race in America, we see that the stories that we tell about race do three things: they indicate the “truth” that is racial impact in society, they mystify our understanding of racial experience, and they serve to further reinforce racialized structures and identities.

i. the truth about stories is that that’s all we are

In Thomas King’s book, he chronicles the photography project of Edward Sheriff Curtis, who went out determined to capture the image of the North American Indian during the early 1800s. But not just any Indian; he wanted to find and to photograph the Noble Savage, the heroic and wild (and dying) Indian, the one that writers romanticized about. And so out he went, in search of his belief, even willing to put wigs and costumes and blankets on the actual living Indians he did encounter, all in the name of authenticity. In King’s words, Curtis was willing to “sort through what he saw to find what he needed” (37).

Curtis finished his project some time ago, but this concept – that of ignoring reality in search of a previously-constructed racial idea – isn’t by any means an obsolete one. Michael Omi and Howard Winant explain in their sociological text, Racial Formation in the United States, that “there is no biological basis for distinguishing among human groups along the lines of race…the categories employed…[are] at best imprecise, and at worst completely arbitrary” (223). And yet, they continue, the effects of racial identity and the social meanings assigned to race still remain. “Racial legacies” in America are passed on through beliefs, “beliefs which… are central to everyone’s identity and understanding of the social world” (Omi and Winant, 223). We can’t simply rid the world of these beliefs, nor can we deny the “truth” of their influence.

This in turn prompts the question -- how do we determine truth? If there is no concrete reality on which race is based, and yet its effects continue to create both social and political struggle, is the existence of race a “truth”? Regarding Curtis’s work, King notes: “Never mind that race is a construction and an illusion… never mind that it does not exist in either biology or theology… never mind that we can’t hear it or smell it or taste it or feel it. The important thing is that we believe we can see it” (44). Narratives which we associate with racial difference have very real social implications -- despite the fact that no scientific facts back them. The truth that is racial impact is based on a fiction that is race, and the stories that we tell about race and racial impact continue to inform and reinforce its effects on others.

ii. the truth about stories is that that’s all we are

Thomas King notes, however, that it isn’t just others who internalize, interpret, and base their actions around the idea of race; we’re affected by our own perceptions and experiences with race, too. This form of “double interpretation” serves to further complicate our conception of race. It isn’t simply that “we believe we can see it,” – King claims that “we hope we can see it” (45). He explains this with a story from his time in university, when he wanted to be seen and recognized as an Indian… and yet, in a vaguely ironic twist, his simply being Indian was not enough for that recognition. In order to be read as Indian, it was necessary for him to perform “Indian-ness”. “We dressed up as the ‘Indian’ dressed,” King remarks, “we dressed up in a manner to substantiate the cultural lie that had trapped us, and we did so with a passion” (45). Even those who were granted Indian status under the state were not considered real in society until thus proven, for “to be seen as ‘real’, for people to ‘imagine’ us as Indians, we must be ‘authentic’” (King 54).

If this sounds confusing, that’s because it is. The parameters of race are confined to society’s interpretation and expectation, and thus any attempt to claim a specific racial identity must therefore fit into the box of that expectation. The same narrative that mystifies race and creates racial expectations also fails to encompass the ways in which race is performed by individual persons. Racial Formation addresses this as well, noting that “we expect people to act out their apparent racial identities; indeed we become disoriented when they do not” (Omi, Winant 226). This further explains why King may have felt the need to fit the stereotype of the American Indian –there are social repercussions for his not doing so. However, these stereotypes are monolithic and exaggerated characters based on our perception of a particular race or culture, and they’re unable to coexist with the actual people; “the Indian and Indians cannot exist in the same imagination” (King 36).

Yet Omi and Winant argue that they are also indicators – indicators of the way in which social structures mystify our understanding of race by shaping the experiences of individuals. It’s a type of catch-22: we expect race-based difference, therefore we attribute our differences to race, therefore we “prove” that differences are racially based, and thus we continue in our assumptions. But as King’s experience illustrates, these structures aren’t solely based in external expectations from other people; the stereotypes are internalized, given value and meaning, and even reinforced through performance of that very stereotype. This performance-interpretation-performance model only feeds into the system. King notes that “I want to look Indian so that you will see me as Indian because I want to be Indian” (59). In other words, the stories that we tell about race affect how we approach and interpret our own experiences, further serving to obscure the actual meaning of race.

iii. the truth about stories is that that’s all we are

Thomas King mentions one more thing about the complications of being North American Indian: during his time as a speaker/performer, he once decided to stop being what he called “a caricature of protest” and arrived in a suit and tie (67). One of the young men in the audience stood up and called him an “apple” – a derogatory term for an Indian who is “red on the outside, white on the inside” – and he was deeply hurt. He discovered a dilemma: “As long as I dressed like an Indian and complained like an Indian, I was entertainment… if I dressed like a non-Indian and reasoned like a non-Indian, then not only was I not entertainment, I wasn’t an Indian” (King 68). In the liminal space between performing as Indian and performing as non-Indian, he doesn’t find a way to present himself in a way that recognizes the multiplicity of his identity. In an even more interesting sociological twist, there doesn’t seem to be a way for him to occupy both identities at once; they appear mutually exclusive.

Omi and Winant would characterize this as an example of the way in which power structures centered around race serve to reflect and reinforce their values. As stated in Racial Formation, there are institutional and organizational forms of racialization that identify and standardize racial difference (Omi, Winant 227). These affect individuals as well -- King mentions a stark contrast between his perception and performance of himself as Indian, and how he thinks other people will see him. Omi and Winant argue that “Everyone learns some combination, some version, of the rules of racial classification, and of her own racial identity… thus are we inserted in a comprehensively racialized social structure” (226).

In other words, the way that we perceive our own identities is racialized and stereotype-based, simply because of the stories that have been passed down to us and the power structures which we inhabit. This, together with the mystification of race mentioned earlier in this paper, causes us to “play into” the idea of race, and in turn to grant even more influence to systems that emphasize racial difference. King quotes Ben Okri, a Nigerian storyteller, saying, “we live by stories, we also live in them… if we change the stories we live by, quite possibly we change our lives” (153). It follows, then, that we grant implicit power to the stories we live by— our living sustains and supports, perpetuates and preserves the racial narratives of American society. Is there any other way?

Just as he begins each chapter with the story of the turtles, King ends each chapter with the same words: “Don’t say in the years to come that you would have lived differently if only you’d heard this story. You’ve heard it now” (King 89). It’s a kind of challenge, a way to ask the reader what they’ve taken away from the story and to hold them accountable for their actions afterwards. Applied here, perhaps it’s a recognition of the way in which the stories we tell about race shape our reality, and how we as individuals use that story-based reality to reinforce the racialized structures of American society. These structures in turn change our interactions, our perceptions, and our identities… so much of our world is based solely in stories.

That’s the truth, isn’t it?

That’s all we are.


King, Thomas. “You're Not the Indian I Had in Mind” and “Let Me Entertain You”. The Truth About Stories: A Native Narrative. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota, 2005. 31-89, 153. Print.

Omi, Michael, and Howard Winant. “Racial Formation in the United States”. The Inequality Reader: Contemporary and Foundational Readings in Race, Class, and Gender. Edited by Grusky, David B., and Szonja Szelenyi. Westview Press: Boulder, Colorado, 2011. 2nd ed. 222-227. Web. 


Anne Dalke's picture


You structure this essay with a nice “turn” on King’s practice of opening and closing each of his essays with the same refrain; you open each of your sections w/ the same refrain, but each time you emphasize a different section—and so prod yourself, with each round, to tell a slightly different story. Nice!

For me, the beating heart of these repetitions-with-a-difference appears in two places: first, in your claim that “we expect race-based difference, therefore we attribute our differences to race, therefore we ‘prove’ that differences are racially based, and thus we continue in our assumptions”; second, in your observation that “the way that we perceive our own identities is racialized and stereotype-based…because of the stories that have been passed down to us and the power structures which we inhabit…together with the mystification of race.…[This] causes us to ‘play into’ the idea of race, and in turn to grant even more influence to systems that emphasize racial difference.”

I think this is a pretty accurate description of some of the dynamics playing out in our cluster; and I think it’s also a pretty bleak account of “turtles all the way down.” If each story grows out of one before, and is determined by it, there’s really no “way out” of these tales of race-based difference, no altering of what we already think we know.

I want to offer an alternative reading. Yes, “all we are is stories.” But the stories themselves do not always have to remain the same, especially if we can develop the capacity to read them critically (see hsymonds’ essay /oneworld/poetics-and-politics-race/literacy-beloved for more on this).

I first learned about “turtles all the way down” from the infamous anthropologist Clifford Geertz, who opens his essay on "Thick Description: Toward an Interpretive Theory of Culture" with this passage:

There is an Indian story--at least I heard it was an Indian story-- about an Englishman who, having been told that the world rested on a platform which rested on the back of an elephant which rested in turn on the back of a turtle, asked...what did the turtle rest on? Another turtle. And that turtle? "Ah, Sahib, after that it is turtles all the way down."

Nor have I ever gotten anywhere near to the bottom of anything I have ever written about....

Cultural analysis is intrinsically incomplete. And, worse than that, the more deeply it goes the less complete it commit oneself interpretive to commit oneself to a view of ethnographic assertion as "essentially contestable." Progress is marked less by a perfection of consensus than by a refinement of debate. What gets better is the precision with which we vex each other.

For Geertz, the myth is patently wise, teaching us that we will never get to the bottom of things. He read the story metaphorically or allegorically, not as a way of saying that we are trapped in our original stories, that the story itself is always the same, but rather that we can never fully understand these stories; there’s always more to know.

When you come to my office the next time, take notice of all the turtles on my shelves…