There were no discussions about racial profiling, illegal immigrants or how crack cocaine seemed to target the black youth of American cities. We did not talk about what it meant as a black citizen to be pulled over by the police, nor was there ever mention of cops killing unarmed black citizens on a regular basis for no better reasons than “He might have had a gun,” or “I told her not to run.”
My siblings and I lived on a dead end street in a middle class neighborhood between the high school and junior high the five of us attended. We had enough food and clothes and our parents did their level best to provide for the family. Most of the time we were thankful and aware there are many people much less fortunate than us. Things may have been different growing up in a small town in the 80s and 90s, but not to the point any of us were blind or deaf to such things as racism, inequality and bigotry. They continue to exist in 2017.
We were educated by the Catholic Church, our morality coming from Christ’s teachings of forgiveness, love and inclusivity. Lessons that are as obvious as any list of rules in a kindergarten classroom. Granted, people fail and sin; it is the nature of humanity. And I am the last person on earth who would consider judging another person’s behavior, but racism is beyond my understanding at times.
It was with great difficulty I learned to navigate racism in prison, both that which has been directed at me and in reading and hearing about it in increasing amounts over the last five years. Part of it is naiveté. I did not experience much before getting locked up for murder at the age of 19. Even before that, the time I spent in the Maine Youth Center and two rehabs between the ages of 16 and 19 was not around minorities, discrimination and the problems they face. I only knew my life was one bad choice after another with some bad luck and mental illness thrown in for good measure. White entitlement never crossed my mind as a confused sixteen year old boy in solitary confinement.
I was recently asked to write about the word “nigger” and what it means to me, a writing prompt meant to stimulate conversation when race is all that seems to be on the news now that Donald Trump is president and “white nationalism” is the buzz word for 21st century racism in America. Since the United States was founded on the backs of black slaves, in the wake of a native American genocide, with the help of displaced peoples from all over Europe—white nationalism or racial superiority of any kind is ridiculous. Laughable.
For me the N word deserves an inward eye roll. It’s not a word I use because my parents and public school taught me there are some words and the ideas they convey, that don’t belong in the English language. Just because they exist is not an excuse to use them. This was reinforced when my sister used the N word in hearing of our mother, whose best friend in high school was black. It took a long time before my sister got the taste of Ivory soap out of her mouth or forgot the stinging slap that went with it. There are some things you just don’t say.
I understood then and now what the N word means and all of its history, but it wasn’t until coming to death row. I felt the full oppressive weight of what it means to be called nigger by a white person.
Over the last twenty years I’ve spent in prison I have been stripped of my identity as a free citizen of the United States, denigrated and called an animal. As soon as I was confined no longer did people consider me like them. I became “inmate”. My name got minimized by a prison number and 0580028 is now more important to my identification than the name my mother gave me. I am counted four times a day and stored in a warehouse full of similar things who have fewer rights than anyone in the free world.
Racism is a difficult subject rooted in slavery, but so too is the dehumanization of incarceration. Where outright slavery was abolished and a little progress has been made in the last 150 years, the Thirteenth Amendment’s exception to slavery “Neither slavery of involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for a crime whereof the party has been duly convicted . . “ does not protect everyone or abolish the mindset inherent in racial superiority.
Get convicted of a crime and regardless of your race, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation or political affiliation you will lose the chance to be treated equitably in America. Instead, you will become a number. Property of the state. If you want to see me suffer under the oppressive weight of a word – call me inmate.