Facing institutionalized racism within myself
[Editor’s note: Amanda is a regular teen volunteer with the Sisters of Providence]
At first, I wasn’t sure it was my place to write about institutionalized racism in America. After all, I’m not black. Do I really have a right to talk about something that doesn’t affect me? But I realize that institutionalized racism does affect me. It affects everyone that lives in America, whether we realize it or not.
The definition of “institutionalized racism” from Solid Ground is “the systematic distribution of resources, power and opportunity in our society to the benefit of people who are white and the exclusion of people of color.”
My own experience
Let me tell about my own personal experience of institutionalized racism. While it’s been a hard truth for me to accept, I realize that I don’t think of black people the same way I do white people.
I went on a mission trip a few summers ago to Memphis, Tennessee. I was assigned to help at the local Boys and Girls Club. As soon as I walked in, I felt uncomfortable. The group of other teenagers I was working with, our group leader and myself were all white, and we had just entered a building where everyone else was black. It was a startling experience for me. Raised in Terre Haute, Indiana, I had never been in a room or situation where there were more black people than white people. In that moment I first recognized the deeply rooted feelings and thoughts I had, and still have, about black people.
I’ve never considered myself racist, I always do my best to treat everyone fairly. But in that moment, I realized that skin color is something I notice and something that matters to me, not in conscious higher-level thought, but almost at an instinctual level. I was aware of that race barrier, and I felt a very distinct sense of “I am different from you.” This is where my own self-awareness began. When I am in a room with black people, I don’t think of them as lesser, simply as other. And that’s a problem.
When the current police brutality and violence began being publicized, it brought this realization again to the forefront of my mind. I’ve since been searching for reasons, both in my own life and in a broader societal and historical context, that I think the way I do.
History of race relations
Firstly, let’s take a quick look at the history behind the relation of black and white people in America. My reference for this is a video by Steve Heimler, who is an AP World History teacher. (His channel is called Heimler’s History, if you want to check it out). Going way back, the first meeting of black and white peoples in North America was through slavery. Slave traders brought over a boatload of Africans to work as slaves. As demand grew, they brought more and more Africans. Socially, this did something important. It established the relationship between black and white as that of slave and master. This level of slavery required dehumanization, or the viewing of another human being as less than human. White people had to tell themselves that the slaves they forced to tend their lands were less than human, less than them, less in general, to justify their own behavior. And the dehumanization went both ways. Black people also saw the people who cruelly bought and sold them like animals as being animals themselves. This began that thought process of “other” between these two races in our country.
Whitewashed and under represented
The vestiges of that system remain today. On paper, black people and white people are equal. It’s the mindset that persists in society that’s the problem. We see this played out often. In representation of race in media, in communication, and in history.
In movies and TV shows and even in books, people are predominantly white. This imbalance shows white as the default. This undermines and invalidates black people by bypassing their existence or portraying them as lesser. The news portrays black people more often as criminals than for doing good. In much communication, white is the default. When people talk about someone else or describe their appearance, usually skin color is only mentioned if they aren’t white.
In history, many people are “whitewashed”, or commonly portrayed in media and art as being white when they weren’t or aren’t. Just for reference, here are a few important historical characters that weren’t white: Jesus, Beethoven, Cleopatra, King Tut, Saint Nick, Saint Augustine, Alexander Hamilton, Tony Mendez, and so many more. This undermines people of color by leaving them out of history.
White being the default is harmful for many reasons. It displays white people as superior since we’re the only ones who are represented. Secondly, it sets unrealistic expectations.
Though there are fewer people of color in the U.S. than there are white people, there are proportionally many more than what we see represented on TV. So, people like me who grew up in an area where they’re usually around more white people than people of color start to believe that’s how it is everywhere is. And it’s not. It can also instill a sense of being different as being a bad thing. After all, if we say black people and white people are equal, why aren’t they represented that way? The answer lies in the systematic racism in our country. We still haven’t changed our ways as much as we should have, and this is the result.
I, as a white person, and every other white person out there needs to not only be “not racist” but actively anti-racist. We need to challenge that gut reaction that different is dangerous. And we need to consciously change our thought processes concerning people of color. That’s not easy. And it’s not going to be easy. But that’s all the more reason it needs to be done.