The Truth About White Lies


By Olivia A Cole

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For fans of I’m Not Dying with You Tonight, this gripping YA novel digs into the historical and present-day effects of white supremacy and the depths of privilege. 

Shania never thinks much about being white. But after her beloved grandmother passes, she moves to the gentrifying town of Blue Rock and is thrust into Bard, the city’s wealthiest private school. At Bard, race is both invisible and hypervisible, and Shania’s new friends are split on what they see. There’s Catherine, the school’s queen bee, who unexpectedly takes Shania under her wing. Then there’s Prescott, the golden boy who seems perfect…except for the disturbing rumors about an altercation he had with a Black student who left the school.

But Prescott isn’t the only one with secrets. As Shania grieves for the grandmother she idolized, she realizes her family roots stretch far back into Blue Rock’s history. When the truth comes to light, Shania will have to make a choice and face the violence of her silence.


Dear Reader,

This story contains discussions of racism and white supremacy in subtle and not-so-subtle terms. There are no outright racial slurs in this book, but their absence may not make its contents less painful. In addition, there are discussions of fatphobia and Islamophobia. Please read with caution.



With her grandmother’s heart and arms too weak to lift the soil, Shania had come to help bury the dog.

“I think under the sycamore is best,” Gram said. “Or maybe by the willow. What do you think?”

Shania surveyed the wide green yard, the chipping white fence that contained it. There were only the two trees, as scrubby and stunted as the rest of her hometown of Morrisville, and Simon had spent enough hours under them, it was true. But like his person, Simon’s true love had been the shade of the garden, and Shania’s eyes fell on the neat rows at the center of the yard. This was where he had often settled his smooth, spotted body while Gram tended the vegetables.

“What about by the tomatoes?” Shania asked. “Is that bad for the garden, to put a dead dog in it? He took so many naps there. Maybe right next to it?”

And if Shania hadn’t been thinking of one kind of grief, she may not have missed the other—the cloud that passed over her grandmother’s face as she considered the garden, the only thing Gram really called her own. Medicine and doctors’ bills took the rest, Gram’s efforts to fix the heart in her chest that didn’t quite know how to be a heart without some help. Gram looked at the tomatoes, and Shania might have seen the remembering, but she was picking up the shovel, testing it against stiff earth.

“Why not?” her grandmother said softly. “Nothing helps growth like death.”

Shania dug while her grandmother watched, both shivering a little in the wind. The sycamore shuddered. At their feet was the bundle of yellow blanket, Simon inside, once a beagle but now just another seed. The wind shifted the fringe of the blanket he had claimed as his own. “Chenille!” Gram had always exclaimed, but she never took it from him. Now it was going in the ground.

“I don’t think I can keep it up,” her grandmother said, but Shania kept digging.

“I’ll help you,” Shania said. “Anything you can’t do, you can teach me, and I’ll do it.”

Shania was busy with the soil, the sharp tooth of the shovel, thinking about how this garden in the middle of Morrisville sometimes felt like the only place with life. Gram saw the whole town as an oasis she would never abandon, and Shania felt a duty to love it a little out of loyalty, but the way the garden looked in February was the way Morrisville felt to her year-round. School was school—her handful of half-friends, theater kids who didn’t mind that she sat silent most of the time. They needed an audience, and Shania needed to watch—at least at first. But first impressions always turned into expectations, especially in Morrisville, where you were cast as the role you auditioned for. In first grade, Shania had been a swaying daisy in the background of the Alice in Wonderland musical, and a swaying daisy she had remained. In Morrisville, a daisy could never become Alice. At least in her grandmother’s garden, Shania was where a daisy belonged.

“There’s something I always wanted to tell you,” Gram said, and Shania looked. At some point while she’d been digging, Gram had crouched down next to the still form that had been Simon. “Something I think you need to know.”

Shania thought it was about her father—a feeling Gram had always had, an omen on Shania’s parents’ wedding night that predicted his eventual departure with a rich woman eighteen years his senior, floating out of Morrisville the way Shania’s mother always wished she herself would. Shania went back to digging. The shovel sounded like a hatchet.

“If it’s about Dad,” Shania said, “I don’t really need to know, okay? He’s a liar.”

And if Shania hadn’t been so focused on the cracking in her heart, she might have noticed the way Gram’s hand had risen to cover her own.

“We all are, sweet pea,” Gram said. A few strands of silver hair had escaped from her hat and fluttered as the breeze picked up.

“We’re all what?” Shania said.


At the moment Shania’s shovel cut through pale roots, her grandmother slumped over in the garden, lips fluttering. Her hat rolled on its brim and came to a rest beneath the tomatoes. Gram and the beagle were two bright, still things under a dishwater sky, and Shania’s scream rose into it, startling the crows, sending them spinning toward the sun, as her mother sprinted from the house.

By the time the ambulance took her grandmother away—Shania’s mother in the back, her eyes dry and grim—the birds had settled back onto their branches. Shania had nothing else to do but put the dog in the hole she’d dug and smooth soil over the top like gauze over a wound.



After the drab blue and gray of the bus’s interior—the color of a public bathroom, the same lingering smell—the blood on the concrete seems impossibly red. Comic book red. A deep, important scarlet. Shania doesn’t notice until it’s already on her shoes.

“Shit,” she whispers, staring down, trying to convince herself it’s paint. She looks up and scans the brick wall beyond the sidewalk. Graffiti, but none of it red. None of it new. She assumes graffiti artists use spray paint, not a bucket that might be tipped. She glances around, but there’s no one near enough to see, and certainly no one she knows. She’s still learning the names of all this new city’s parts, and this is South Blue Rock, or as most people call it, SoBR.

At night SoBR’s streets swarm with bar hoppers, cars with Lyft signs in the windshields. At eight o’clock in the morning, however, just Paulie’s and Goddess are open: doughnuts and cold-pressed organic juice. SoBR has only been a trendy part of town for a few years. Graffiti is starting to peel in places, men with no homes fade in and out of sight like specters, and across the street two thin white women wearing leggings leave Goddess clutching cups of juice and laughing nasally laughs. Shania had applied to Goddess before Paulie’s but didn’t know what wheatgrass was. She knew what doughnuts were. Mr. Ahmed hired her immediately.

She steps inside Paulie’s, where Mr. Ahmed himself stands behind the counter. He’s tall and narrow as a phone pole, with only a slight paunch at his waist to indicate he owns the oldest doughnut shop in Blue Rock. When the door closes behind her, Shania is sealed into the yeasty aroma that only old-fashioned bakeries can emit. She has to swallow then, as she does every time she walks in. The smell is like her grandmother’s house, and as happens often since the funeral, the memories are so loud in her head they threaten to scream.

“You’ve come for your riches,” calls Mr. Ahmed, not taking his eyes off the TV hanging in the corner.

“My minimum-wage treasure, please,” Shania says, but he ignores her, gesturing instead at the TV in outrage.

“A new Dunking Donuts,” he enunciates. “By the airport. Bastards!”

“But the airport is like eight miles from here,” Shania says.

He narrows his eyes at her.

“You think people will not drive eight miles for this? Their cheap coffee? We must have a special now. We will call it Commuter Coupon. You come Monday through Thursday, and then Friday you get free coffee. Eh?”

He opens his arms wide, a demand for feedback.

“That’s pretty good,” Shania says. “Maybe let them choose whether they get a free coffee or a free doughnut. People like doughnuts on Fridays.”

“They do?”

“Yeah, sure. The weekend. You know? I don’t know.”

“Yes,” he says solemnly. “TGIF.”


“Everything is good, working at night?”

“Yeah, it’s good, Mr. Ahmed. Thanks for working with my school schedule.”

He nods, rubbing his short beard.

“You work late. You are a young woman. You have someone taking you home at night?”

“I take the bus,” she says. “It’s no big deal.”

“Your parents are happy with this?” he asks. She thinks he doesn’t really mean happy; he means okay. It’s not okay, but she lies.

“Sure,” she says. “SoBR is really busy at night. It’s not like anything’s going to happen with all those people around.”

“Yes, yes, but this neighborhood… it is changing. Can cause bumps.”


“You know. Like an earthquake.” He places his hands palm down, side by side, then rubs the sides of them against each other. His fingers overlap, then move apart, then overlap again. “When the plates in the earth shift, everything shakes. There is shaking here sometimes. Watch where you put your feet.”

Outside, check in hand, she feels the temporary surge of “having.” A few feet away, two more white women, one carrying a rolled-up yoga mat, prepare to cross the street. The one carrying the mat wears a shirt that reads NAMA-STAY IN BED. She discusses her imminent juice order, and Shania’s eyes flit toward Goddess. The woman is pretty, and Shania considers spending six dollars of her newly acquired money on the bright-green juice, just to have something in common with her. But then she sees the woman’s teeth: impossibly white, all obeying the rules of geometry, a mouthful of blank dominoes. Shania’s tongue finds her top-right canine, which sticks out slightly like a bent spoke on a bicycle. It’s her reminder: Every penny is already claimed. She imagines fixing her teeth will somehow fix all her other problems. But right now she needs to catch the bus.

The Blue Rock Transit Authority app tells her she has four minutes as she trots down the street toward the corner, eyeing the cracked soil on either edge of the sidewalk. Here and there is bindweed, which perhaps someone encouraged to grow, not recognizing a weed when they saw one. The roots, she knows, are nests of pallid snakes beneath the ground—the same plants are outside the dumpy apartment she and her mother now call home, their own roots dug out of Morrisville after her grandmother’s death. First her parents’ divorce and then Gram’s funeral—Shania doesn’t blame her mother for fleeing.

This new state is concave and humid, but it’s green—at least, once you get to the edges of Blue Rock. Gram never visited this city (or any city) and would’ve preferred, if they’d had to leave Morrisville, that they live in the country as she did. “Closer to God,” she always said, and even crocheted it on a pillow. But the countryside doesn’t have the most expensive high school in the region, and that’s why Shania and her mother are really here—a parting gift from her father, financed by “the woman,” as Shania’s mother calls her: If the woman wants to try to buy us off by paying for your school, we’ll let her. But we won’t make it cheap.

Shania pulls out her student ID as she walks. In it, her face smiles out uncertainly, the pastel pink and blue in her hair still fresh from when she had it done over the summer, her eyes the same cerulean. They’d spelled her name wrong: SHANIA GESTER. It’s Hester. But she’s grateful that they at least hadn’t spelled it with an F. The hair had been a “new school” gift from her mother when they decided she’d be going to Bard Academy for Excellence—a bribe for leaving Morrisville. Her life there has faded like the colors in her hair, and she’s glad of the latter, at least. She realized quickly that Bard isn’t the kind of school for unicorn hair. At the edge of SoBR, Bard is something like a hidden fortress in Lord of the Rings, surrounded by (urban) wildlife, populated by the children of the oldest, wealthiest families in Blue Rock. Highlights are always Legolas-blonde at Bard, one of their many codes.

Her phone vibrates—a text from Hallie, the one person from Morrisville who has tried to keep in touch.

Miss you! Guess who just found out she’s on the event planning committee? PROM SHALL BE MINE.

Shania smiles. Hallie is a theater kid but also a big activity girl. Whoever gave her the reins would realize very soon that they may have created a monster. Shania replies with a long string of hearts and a Cinderella GIF. It feels a little strange texting her—like Gram’s death turned Morrisville into a cemetery. Texting Hallie is like communing with the dead.

At the bus stop she almost steps in blood again. The sun has moved just in these few minutes and falls differently on the puddle now. It coats the pavement ahead of her in a wet, crimson splash, an undefined shape like a red cloud or a puff of smoke.

And there she is, appearing as she so often does. Her grandmother—the blood is hers for the instant Shania lets her mind wander. It’s a strange thing, because Gram’s death wasn’t the bloody kind. It was the slow kind, the kind with tubes and shrugging doctors. So perhaps, Shania thinks, the blood on the pavement feels like her own—as if the ripping of her grandmother from her life left a gaping hole, as red and raw as fresh meat.

“Breakfast,” a voice says, and Shania jerks. It comes from a man leaning in the corner of the bus shelter, his dingy gray shirt hanging off his body like a shroud. Shania hadn’t even noticed him.

“What?” she says.

He clears his throat.

“Puts you off your breakfast.” His gums are the bright pink of a kitten’s tongue.

“Yeah,” Shania mutters, looking again at the blood. Her mind reels back from the day in the garden, from the following days in the Morrisville hospital. Now a stab of different unease aches between her ribs, her mind beginning to run away with itself. The man’s proximity, the rasp of his voice, the hole in his shoe with the sock exposed like fuzzy organs through a wound. He, too, is staring at the blood.

“Called the police,” he says. “By the time they came, the thing was gone. Should’ve called animal control. Maybe they could’ve helped it.”

“Helped what?”

“The cat,” he says, blinking at her. “Somebody knifed it up. Started down there.” He points, and Shania follows his finger with her eyes, back the way she had come. She sees the blood now, a trail down the concrete that she hadn’t noticed.

“In front of the hat shop,” he says. “That’s where it happened.”

“You saw it happen?”

“Cops weren’t interested,” he says, nodding. “I told ’em you gotta be a monster to kill an animal like that. No reason. No defense. What’s a cat going to do about a knife? I thought it came here to die.” His eyes are back on the blood at Shania’s feet. “But it ended up somewhere else.”

“Oh,” Shania says. She wants to be on the bus, to be departing.

“Watch yourself out here,” he says, and she thinks it sounds like he’s talking to himself now. “There’s monsters in Southtown. The light is always above them, so they don’t cast a shadow.”

She steps off the bus in front of Bard Academy, and the morning air curls around her ankles like uncut grass. The Farmers’ Almanac, a slim bound book with dates and predictions for the year ahead, says it will be an early fall. Shania carries her own edition, a sad replacement for the one she’d grown up watching her grandmother leaf through. Gram’s copy was out of date—from 1999—but Gram always swore, without explanation, that it was the only year that mattered. It’s been almost seven months since her death, and where some people might get closer to the Bible, Shania has turned to the almanac. She and her mother had emptied Gram’s house after the funeral, Shania searching every inch for the 1999 copy. But like her grandmother, it was a ghost. Shania’s current version is an imitational comfort, and she peeks in her bag to ensure it’s there, tucked in with her book of Anne Stanton’s poetry. Gram had liked Anne Stanton, a woman who wrote about the earth and its creatures. So Shania carries them both: talismans.

Shania climbs the steps, moving between classmates who ignore her. If she had dreams of leaving the role of swaying daisy behind, she has now become a different sort of Alice. The student body of Bard regards her like the talking flowers did on the girl’s first foray into Wonderland: Is she one of us? No, not quite. Her dress is like petals but there’s something that’s off. She must be a weed.

She drops off her bag at her locker. Two girls brush past her, all spray-tanned legs and white, white teeth. They carry overpriced coffee from Rhino. Before she moved here, Shania had no idea people her age drank coffee. In Morrisville, if you were tired before class, you drank Red Bull. Bard is like a movie-set version of a school, and nothing about it feels like home. Except the greenhouse.

It’s nestled in the heart of the building, a humid core of flowers and vines and rows of work planters where every semester the class raises a variety of plants, experimenting with soil toxicity, different pesticides, hydroponics. Shania’s careful little family of hollyhocks and spiderwort are the only relationships she’s been able to cultivate since school began; her tiny crop of green babies is a mere two feet long, but she looks forward to seeing it, like a dog at the end of a long day. Except this day is just beginning. Just sixty-two more until winter break.

Michelle is already there, at the neighboring planter, the only person who might like the greenhouse more than Shania.

“Hey,” Shania says. They usually say hey. Michelle doesn’t hear her today: She has earbuds in, and rap music drifts faintly to Shania’s ears, a small surprise. Michelle looks like a beauty queen, a Black girl with straight hair to her shoulders and a wide, warm smile that belongs at the door of a church. She doesn’t seem like the rap-music type, Shania thinks. When Michelle asked Shania’s name at the beginning of the year, she’d said, “Oh, like the singer?” and Shania had reserved some small hope that perhaps they had some secret common interests. But Michelle mostly keeps to herself, and Shania hasn’t quite mastered the trick of being a normal person in a world without Gram. It’s a little like relearning how to walk.

She almost tries greeting Michelle again, but Adam and JP are blundering in, laughing. Michelle looks up, one hand plucking an earbud out. The music is gone.

“Those are my garden gloves, bro,” JP says, snatching a pair from Adam’s grasp. “You’ve got little, tiny baby-hands. You can’t fit these.”

“Better than your little, tiny baby—”

“Oh, bro, shut the fuck up!”

“What even is that?” JP grunts, pointing at Adam’s planter. “Did you plant poison ivy?”

“No, but that would be an epic prank.”

“Better if you planted some weed.”

Catherine Tane sweeps in, her blonde dreadlocks tied into a thick bushel at her neck. She doesn’t wear the short shorts and sandals that the rest of the girls wear: She swishes around in a long white peasant skirt, three inches of golden belly showing above it before the rest of her is concealed in what appears to be a hand-knit halter top. She’s fond of calling herself a sexy hippie.

“Who’s talking about weed?” Catherine says.

“Michelle,” JP says, pointing.

Michelle rolls her eyes. “Please.”

“I bet you Ms. Hassoon is a total weedhead,” JP says.

“Obviously.” Catherine nods.

“Didn’t she move here from Cali? I’m going to ask her if she knows anybody who owns a dispensary. That’s what I’m going to do with this botany shit.”

“You and a thousand other people,” says Catherine. “By the time you graduate, there’s going to be so many.”

“It’s not even legal here yet! Maybe I’ll be the first fucking one.”

“You need to sell munchies too,” Adam offers. “What are those chips your brother’s always eating, Catherine? The square ones.”

“I don’t keep tabs on Prescott’s snack habits,” she says, staring at her phone. Shania’s heart flips a small, irrational somersault at the mention of Prescott Tane. Catherine’s brother is a Bard golden boy despite missing so much school that the teachers applaud when he actually shows up. He plays lacrosse and has Captain America hair and the same catalog smile as Catherine, though he uses it much less. Shania has never spoken to Prescott, but she sees him and has spent a lot of time thinking about what she would say to him if they did speak.

“Well, whatever they are, I’m going to need them,” JP says. “If I’m going to corner the market, then I need all your support.”

“Too much competition,” Catherine says, still looking at her phone.

JP laughs. “All my competition is in jail,” he says.

“This is the perfect time to become a weed expert,” Adam says with a nod. “You’re going to be rich!”

Richer, Shania thinks, annoyance sprouting in her like a sapling. JP’s car keys are sitting on his work table—she can see the Jaguar emblem from where she sits. If the keys were hers, her tooth would already be in line.

“It’s not really fair that they have to be in jail if it’s legal now,” Shania says. She surprises herself. But there’s no going back now.

“What?” JP’s smirk is the expression one makes at an ant before it is squashed.

“If they’re legalizing weed everywhere,” Shania says, making it up as she goes along, “then, I don’t know, they should let out all the people that are in jail for it from before.”

If Shania’s mother were here, she’d stare at her daughter as if she had grown a second head. She’s worked in jails for the last twelve years, and Shania knows she would disagree with this speech. Shania doesn’t even know if she herself believes it, but the need to be contrary is like a sudden twitch of limbs. This is who Gram had been—tough as a walnut, mouthful of opinions. Shania steps into her shadow.

Adam shrugs on behalf of JP.

“I mean, they broke a law, though. It was illegal before. They need to do their time.”

“That seems like—like bullshit,” Shania says, stammering a little now that it’s settled in that she’s actually talking to these people. “People are making tons of money doing the same thing other people used to get arrested for? That’s… I mean, that’s bullshit.”

“Oh my God,” Catherine says, finally putting down her phone. “You are so fucking woke.”

On her other side, Shania hears the slightest scoff from Michelle, sees the smallest twist of her mouth. Michelle’s eyes dart in Catherine’s direction, then she puts her earbuds back in.

“You hear that?” Catherine says, curling her lip at the boys. “Woke Girl says your dispensary plans are nardshark.”

“What does that even mean?” Shania says. This is part of the Bard lexicon. Nardshark. Quayloo. Tomrom. Nonsense words mostly invented by Catherine that the rest of the student body snaps up like piranhas.

“It means JP is an idiot,” Catherine says happily.

Ms. Hassoon glides in then, the hijab she wears a soft lavender. She’s paired it with a matching gardening apron.

“I’m having a party later,” Catherine says, addressing JP and Adam. “Bring some of your future stock.”

She winks, and then Shania is surprised when those shiny blue eyes are turned on her.

“You should come too. It’ll be fun. I need somebody to tag team JP with when he gets drunk and starts talking about how great Game of Thrones is. Do you hate Game of Thrones? You have the look of someone who hates Game of Thrones.”

“I do.” Shania nods, slipping on the lie like velvet gloves. She’s never seen the show.

“Tomrom,” says Catherine. “I knew it.”

“Pesticides,” Ms. Hassoon calls. “Who did the homework?”

Beside Shania, Michelle strokes the leaves of her roses. Shania looks down at the strong green shoots weaving their way up the trellis of her own planter. She makes plans to read the Game of Thrones wiki. She’s already planning what she will wear. Growth, she thinks. Good.


She shouldn’t have worn a dress.


  • "An honest, searing look at the roots and rotten fruits of White supremacy."—Kirkus
  • Praise for The Truth About White Lies:

    "A brilliant, riveting page turner, Cole has flawlessly crafted an addicting story about the depths and domino effect of white supremacy. Not only is this book the perfect conversation starter in the midst of our society's awakening, it'll also hold a fire under your feet. Everyone is going to be talking about THE TRUTH ABOUT WHITE LIES for years to come." 
     —Tiffany Jackson, NYT bestselling author of Grown & White Smoke
  • The Truth About WhiteLies is ironically phenomenal in its narrative patience. That steadiness is what anchors and sustains an absolutely blistering critique of where white lies have placed us and how we might move more radically if, and only if, we confront these white lies and white liars. This is absolutely necessary work.
     —Kiese Laymon, award-winning author of Heavy
  • The Truth About White Lies is a vicious, incendiary novel, told with clarity and precision, each word a scalpel to dissect white supremacy. Cole has crafted an unforgettable, disturbing tale of one young girl’s descent into hatred, and I expect it to take YA by storm. As it should!”
     —Mark Oshiro, award-winning author of Anger Is a Gift
  • "A powerful, searing novel that doesn't just challenge you to get up and fight... but asks you to listen, in a story that softly builds from a whispered rumor to a shattering roar against intolerance."
     —Eric Smith, author of Don't Read the Comments
  • "At long last: a book that takes a brave and searing deep dive into white supremacy from the side of the privileged. The Truth About White Lies is an essential text--from a different and VITAL perspective--on contemporary American race relations. I hope it becomes required reading in every high school classroom."
     —Nic Stone, NYT bestselling author of Dear Martin
  • "The Truth About White Lies is a chilling reminder of the conspicuousness of white supremacy, the unspoken rules of "white club", and just how easy it is to fall prey to its appeal unless you're unflinchingly self-aware and actively working against it. This is brilliant, brutal, and essential reading for all."
     —Ashley Woodfolk, acclaimed author of The Beauty that Remains

On Sale
Mar 8, 2022
Page Count
384 pages

Olivia A Cole

About the Author

Olivia A. Cole is a writer from Louisville, Kentucky. Her essays, which often focus on race and womanhood, have been published in Bitch Media, Real Simple, The LA Times, HuffPost, Teen Vogue, Gay Mag, and more. She teaches creative writing at the Kentucky Governor’s School for the Arts, where she guides her students through poetry and fiction, but also considerations of the world and who they are within it. She is the author of several books for children and adults. Learn more about Olivia and her work at and follow her on Twitter @RantingOwl.

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