Examining White Supremacy in “The Truth About White Lies”

In The Truth About White Lies by Olivia A. Cole, seventeen-year-old Shania’s life is disrupted when her grandmother passes away. This unmoors Shania’s sense of self as she adjusts to her new home of Blue Rock while trying to fit in at an expensive private school called Bard. Before her passing, Shania’s grandmother made some cryptic statements and wrote notes in an almanac she cherished. Armed with these fragments of information, Shania must decide if she should dig up the truth about her family or settle back into the comfortable lies she’s always been told. In this contemporary young adult novel, Shania works her way toward understanding her family history, her new friends, and herself, while Cole gives new life to old tropes, like the outsider main character and a potential love triangle.

Shania “wants very much to be different but isn’t sure what she wants to be different from.” Blue Rock is rapidly gentrifying, and racial tensions are high at Bard. Shania, who is white, thinks of herself as “not racist,” and she becomes annoyed with her classmate Michelle, a Black academic star who does important community work, who pushes her to see her own whiteness and the troubling history of her new hometown. Shania wants to belong at Bard, which to her means being rich and white, but characters like Michelle unsettle Shania’s vision of success and belonging. Shania pulls away from people like Michelle and her friend Willa as she becomes closer with the wealthy Tane family, especially Catherine and Prescott.

In comparing Michelle and Catherine, Shania thinks:

"There’s something unattainable and unreachable in the photo of Michelle [...] It’s a club Shania can’t even find the door for, and the feeling of imagined rejection hits her so hard she feels it in her ribs. But Catherine is a club she could be a member of if she tithes just right. She wonders about the price."

The “club” Catherine represents seems attainable to Shania because it’s based on skin color and money, while Michelle’s success is based on intelligence and hard work. Shania’s ideas about what it means to belong at Bard are highlighted by her motives for working. Shania holds a job at a local donut shop, and she asks for additional hours by working late night shifts, against her mother’s rules, so that she can save up money to fix an out of place tooth that makes her particularly self-conscious. Rather than working hard to distinguish herself academically like Michelle, Shania seeks to earn money to alter her appearance and be more like Catherine.

Shania often uses metaphors to organize her thoughts. Because of her grandmother’s devotion to gardening and Michelle’s work at the local community garden, plant imagery and references are used frequently. These references gain additional weight as the family mystery unfolds. As her understanding of her family develops, Shania faces even more challenges in her new school and new friend group. Shania discovers that her grandmother has secret ties to Blue Rock, and this discovery makes the tensions among students at Bard take on more meaning for Shania. With her growing knowledge of her family and the city, she can no longer remain neutral or claim ignorance.

Cole uses juxtapositions and binaries — rural and urban, natural and manmade, Black and white, rich and poor, truth and lies — to distinguish the novel’s anti-racist message. Shania eventually sees that by trying to be “color-blind” or “not racist,” she is actually upholding white supremacy, but of course, readers realize that before she does. The narrative is not straightforward or simple; and though Shania makes progress, these “white lies” she tells herself haven’t all gone away by the book’s end.

Readers of The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas will find “Hailey” characters in Cole’s novel. In the acknowledgements, Cole thanks Thomas for telling the truth about Hailey. In her own book, Cole has provided further truths about the Haileys of the world. The book does not make excuses for these characters, and it doesn’t let them off the hook, but it does allow space for examination. A reader who can identify with Shania stands to learn a lot, and while The Truth About White Lies will likely make some young white readers uncomfortable, it is a necessary discomfort for these times.

The Truth About White Lies
By Olivia A. Cole
Little, Brown
Published March 8, 2022