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The Stories We Tell Ourselves About Race

Narrative theory provides insights about race relations and producing change.

“You might think that the world is made of atoms, but the world and, in particular, human history and the moment we’re living right now, is made out of stories.”

-John Powell, Director of the Othering & Belonging Institute at UC-Berkeley, as quoted in a recent episode of the Science of Happiness podcast

Note: This article was written with Whitney Harper, a Ph.D. Candidate at Katholieke Universiteit Leuven.

An increasing body of research shows how central narratives are to human experience. We all create stories to make sense of experience, and these stories go on to determine how we frame our lives, our contexts, and our decisions about the future. When we encounter a person or situation, we intuitively interpret and narrate as we place this person or situation in the context of past experiences, making connections and judgments automatically. For example, when I interact with a man in his 20’s who is wearing boat shoes and pastel clothing, I have a certain narrative framework that gets triggered about what his background might be, what he does with his free time, and how he feels about certain political issues – stories and stereotypes that have been (rightly or wrongly) constructed and associated with these fashion choices.

Narrative theory goes beyond analyzing automatic associations, though, and also helps us make sense of larger, complex stories of past, present, and future. For example, when I (Whitney) am in a fight with my sister, I understand our current conflict within a wider narrative. I know from the past that we need to take space and cool off because we both got this wonderful trait from our dad that makes it so we have to have the last word; I know from the present what is going on in each of our lives and what else is weighing on us and on our relationship; and I know that no matter what, I do not want to lose our future relationship (regardless of how wrong I think she is).

Narrative theory also looks at interactions between people as inherently situated within the larger structures of society. For instance, my relationship with my sister is also informed by the narratives of what being “sisters” and “family” mean – narratives that can change and take on different meanings across cultures, and that have been built up across history. Of course, in the middle of fighting, I may not think about the layers of narratives that play into it (I often am much more focused on my next response and how I can shut my sister down) – but the point is that this complex history of being sisters deeply impacts my current interactions.

Similarly, narrative theory can help us make some sense of the multi-layered, complex narratives surrounding race relations in the United States today. When we address racial inequality in the United States, we often frame these discussions in terms of “racist” vs. “not racist” or “color-blind,” but research points to how reality is much more complicated than these labels allow for, and shows that the racialized frameworks developed throughout our history continue to frame our interactions today even in situations where we have little to no awareness of their impact. When we become more aware, changing these narratives becomes more possible.

As Chimamanda Adichie explains in her TED talk, “The Danger of a Single Story,” it matters greatly where we begin our stories. If we begin to tell the story of race with the Black man we see on the news who was brought into custody because of armed robbery, we arrive at one perspective. If our story of race begins with the recent police violence and the arrest of George Floyd, we arrive at another perspective. But, imagine if we recognize the history of race in America, and begin the story with colonialism, slavery, or hundreds of years of frustration among people of color in the United States. We gain a completely different and potentially more grounded and contextualized perspective, one that helps us make better sense of why a white police officer, with knowledge that he is being filmed, kills a Black man in broad daylight with seemingly little to no fear of repercussions.

British Library | Unsplash
Source: British Library | Unsplash

Imagine if, as many have suggested, we changed our story from the idea there are some “bad apples” in the police to a story where there are entire systems of “bad barrels” that taint everyone in the system. This story would point to the need to change structures, including laws and practices that allow individual biases to go unchecked.

Or, imagine if we changed our narrative of racism from a “personal evil” to a narrative of “disorder.” If we told this story, we might recognize that racism does not always indicate personal “badness” – providing only another way for us to shame and judge others – as much as it indicates a problem that needs to be acknowledged, understood, and treated, both at the personal and societal levels.

As we consider the narratives we tell ourselves about race, perhaps the most important step is to acknowledge how we are all “tainted apples,” influenced by the wider narratives of our society that feed into our interactions. If we take this as our starting point, we open up the potential to move beyond the either/or frameworks surrounding race today and can instead focus on how wider narratives are showing up not only in spaces where the violence is as obvious as kneeling on someone’s neck, but also in spaces where inequality is perpetuated despite good intentions.

Perhaps recognizing the many nuances and complexities of our interactions today can also make space for the voices that are drown out by the rigid narratives put forth by politicians and commentators with the resources and platforms to do so. And, perhaps it is in this space of listening, learning and, at times, intense discomfort, that we can find a new way forward.


Meretoja, H. (2018). The ethics of storytelling: Narrative hermeneutics, history, and the possible. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Lewis, A. E., & Diamond, J. B. (2015). Despite the best intentions: How racial inequality thrives in good schools. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.