(My Experience In Advocacy & Why Most White People Today Don’t Believe They Are Racist)
by Amanda Anderson, Justice League Fellow
The police shootings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and countless others have recently put race at the forefront of the news. It is common knowledge that the police have been systematically killing unarmed Black people since the days of slavery. But in a place and time in history where whites and Blacks work and live alongside one another, where children of many colors play in the same sandbox, and sing together in the church choir, we have all done well at keeping that horrific secret hidden just below the surface.
Because of this, Black Lives Matter activists who have always been working towards racial justice and equality were suddenly given a national platform and the eyes of white people everywhere were opened in a way they had not been previously. At the same time, the election of Donald Trump had somehow emboldened and brushed the dirt off of the overt and unapologetic racism of his followers, giving them an equally large platform from which to spew their hatred and divisive rhetoric. A line was drawn in the rocky clay dirt that makes up what we call America and citizens of once-quiet communities were required to make their beliefs known through political bumper stickers and protests in the streets. Like many empathetic white women, tired of patriarchy and mansplaining, worn down from watching the unchecked denigration and vilification of people of color by one of the biggest power-hungry gang of tyrants that currently exists in our precious America, I sought out a way to impact change in my own community.
For me it was personal. I had spent 15 years of my life playing cat and mouse with the police while I struggled with mental illness, addiction, and a life of crime. I watched over and over as I racked up charges and received special treatment for the color of my skin while my dark-skinned counterparts had their doors knocked down and their sons hauled off to prison and shot in the streets. It wasn’t long before I had learned how to use that privilege to my advantage in life and in the streets. And use it I did, often and without remorse.
But at some point, long after my encounters with law enforcement had ceased, it occurred to me that my privilege could be used as a force for good, instead of for my own gain. Being in the position that I was now, having overcome my addiction, and entered the professional workforce, I knew it might be possible to use my intimate knowledge of the criminal justice system to help others. I made contact with several criminal justice reform and Black Lives Matter groups in my community working to overcome systemic racism and quell the school to prison pipeline we have all but accepted as fact in our society today. Their response was unexpected to say the least.
In the beginning, I was surprised and humbled they’d even accepted me, considering the way my people had treated them. Many times, I was the only white person in the meetings and it often occurred to me that I had somehow become the spokesperson for both professional white people and poor white trash, all at one time. It was quite a responsibility. I spent months brushing up on Black history that should have been taught to me in grade school. I made it a point to concentrate on the similarities and emotions we all share as human beings instead of our minute differences. I listened. I mean, I really listened, to their stories, and then retold those stories to others who by virtue of social stratification and economic self-segregation, live in a world much less diverse than my own. I championed for them and stood beside them in protests and rallies. I learned to advocate not appropriate. To speak less and do more. And to center my help around service instead of leadership.
At one of my weekly Zoom meetings, we were encouraged to take the Harvard University implicit bias test on race. Implicit bias tests can pinpoint stereotypes and beliefs that a person may harbor without knowing. These tests are often used as a part of diversity training for police, corrections, teachers, and leadership roles in the workplace. We were shown a series of photos of people from different ethnic backgrounds and asked to sort them as quickly as possible into piles of either good or bad.
First, we sorted pictures of white people in a category with things that we associated with good, (like puppies, flowers, etc.) then we sorted Black people into a pile that we associated with bad, then the roles were reversed and we were asked to put the white people in a pile with things we associated with bad and black people in a pile with things we associated with good. The difference in speed and error is how the implicit bias was determined. After completion, I received my score. It stated that I had a VERY strong preference for white people. Being white, I expected my scores to state some sort of preference but after going through months of Black-led, Black-focused education, and fellowship, I really thought I would do better. So I took another test, this one by PBS meant for high school students to emphasize the vast similarities we as human beings share, that required that I sort photos of everyday people from different backgrounds into their respective ethnic groups. This was much harder than the first and quickly proved that it’s not so easy to determine a person’s ethnicity just by looking at them. Again, I did horribly and failed, at least by my own standards. 79% of the time I was unable to correctly tell if a person was Black, White, Asian, Native American, or Hispanic, quickly proving that race is at best a harmful social construct and at worst an illusion used by the elite to dive and conquer the masses.
It quickly confirmed my fears that no matter how aware I am, or how “woke” I consider myself to be, no matter how much I try to help marginalized communities and appreciate other’s cultures, “buy Black,” peacefully protest, and support immigrants, LGBTQ people, and historically Black universities, it still doesn’t change science. Science has proven that generally, people hold a predisposition to favor their own kind. And being raised in the South, in a low-key hushed racist environment, one with at least a push to take care of one’s own kind first and foremost, it is ingrained in me at a level I can’t control, no matter my wish that it wasn’t so.
As a child, I didn’t have access to diversity training. I was raised in a predominantly white environment. For generations, my ancestors and I had been brainwashed and that type of gaslighting takes years of undoing. Tests like these prove, even with great effort, I, and white people by extension, still have a long way to go. I’ve always seen race as determined solely by physical characteristics. As a white person, I wasn’t raised to see “race” or skin color. I was raised to see white people and everybody else. We did not discriminate based on color of skin. You were either white or you were not. I now know that to be the definition of white supremacy. We weren’t taught to hate anyone. We were just taught to love ourselves more. To look out for our own kind.
It doesn’t sound so bad when you say it that way, and we didn’t consider that type of thinking racist. But it was. I have come to learn that it very much is. And I think that’s why so many white people don’t consider themselves racist. I was always taught that there was a distinction in disliking someone based on their physical characteristics versus their culture, beliefs, or actions. We were taught it was not okay to so just dislike someone because of how they looked or the color of their skin. After all, that was biology, that was how God made them. But that it was absolutely okay to dislike someone or a whole group of people because of how they acted and what they believed. That’s a choice, I was told.
In my studies, I had learned that to be the difference between the sociological definition of race and the biological definition of race. But either way, if you look down upon someone for being different than yourself, it’s still biased, and if it’s because of the color of their skin, it’s still racist. Just like genes are passed down, so is culture. We should not hate something because it is different from what we know and are used to. In a perfect world, we would see race as no different than we see eye color. But we live in a culture inundated with deep-seated customs where somehow overt white supremacy is okay, but public racism is shamed and denounced. It’s okay to say “All Lives Matter”, but not to call a black person the “n” word, when essentially those two are the same. They both result in harm, hurt, and the marginalization of Black and brown communities.
I have often heard it said that for white people the cost of overcoming white supremacy is white privilege. For people of color, on the other hand, the cost is bondage and chains. White people must be willing to give up some of their privilege to see that their brothers and sisters of color are treated with human dignity, respect, and equality. We live in a world where it’s okay to blame culture for hate. We are told it’s okay to dislike Black and brown people because we are different from them. They don’t look like us. They don’t smell like us. They don’t act like us. But by many accounts, we have helped to make them this way. We have been so offended by their afros, that we require them to get braids. We celebrate the blues and jazz but look down upon rap and hip hop. We call Black folks uneducated, but we spent decades not allowing them equal access to literacy and education, and even today we continue to put less money in inner-city schools. We lock up Black men for selling drugs but have spent generations discriminating against them and pushing them out of the workplace. All this under the guise of “looking out for our own first,” we continue to seat them in the back of the bus.
Let me be clear, white supremacy is racism. If you believe that your skin color somehow makes you any better than anyone else, you are indeed a racist. If you believe your family has “good genes” or your children are more entitled than someone else’s or that it’s okay to look out for the needs of your people before the needs of another, while it may not look like white supremacy, it’s still harmful and it’s still wrong. If you make any decision based on skin color or culture and not merit, that is racism. And it only serves to perpetuate the very thing we white people claim to dislike about them in the first place.
How dare we hold them back and then complain they are unworthy because they are somehow “less than”? Black people are held back because we have held them back. And in all our holding them back, they have still managed to thrive and drive our culture. They have survived despite our all-out assault on their people and way of life. They as a people are pretty amazing now, but just imagine how amazing they’d be if we didn’t continue to restrict them? We have a duty to right the wrongs our ancestors committed and help people of color and marginalized communities break from the chains we have held them in for generations. As human beings, they are entitled to the same rights I have, whether it be in the classroom or the street. We have a duty to overcome the hate-filled self-centered belief system of dictators and slaveholders. Why are we still holding on to values and beliefs passed down to us from a time when we burned women at the stake and gassed innocent children to death?
As a child of the South, I get it. I was raised that way too. But some point, I overcame that pattern of toxic behavior and thought just as many other southerners have done before me. Yes, I realize I am giving up some of my privilege but being invited into the lives of these wonderful people has been by far worth it. Knowing they love and respect me for me, just like I love and respect them for them, is a feeling that many white people have not experienced and possibly never will. Diversity only strengthens and improves. The benefits of being involved with the Black community has brought to my life far outweigh the benefits my own monotonous community could bestow on me alone. At the end of the day, we are working towards the same cause; a better life for all human beings that walk this earth. And while I still may have a preference for my own kind, I am doing everything I can to avoid passing down this harmful way of thinking on to the next generation.
Amanda Anderson is an entrepreneur, photographer, and freelance journalist currently studying Social and Behavioral Sciences at NC Central University. She runs several small businesses and seeks to actively engage with her community to make it a better place through her hard-learned knowledge and artwork. Amanda is a fierce believer in the human capacity to change and recently started a podcast under the same name. She spent fifteen years of her own life struggling to overcome deeply embedded polysubstance abuse, mental illness, and domestic violence and now seeks to help others navigate these obstacles and learn to love themselves despite their past. As a formerly incarcerated individual and opioid addict, she works one on one with those who still struggle with addiction, and is an avid social justice warrior who routinely participates in community protests, criminal justice reform movements, and political campaigns to serve the common public good. Amanda lives in Cary NC with her fiancé Drew and enjoys backpacking and playing drums in her spare time. Connect with her here at Amanda in Wonderland Photography, You are Capable of Change, and the Adventures of Drew and Amanda.