In a previous post, I wrote about racial politics in California state prisons and the hardened racial divisions that characterize incarcerated interactions. In California, members of most races are not allowed to share cells, showers, recreational activities, food, or other things with Blacks. For the most part, these rules are self-created and self-enforced, violently, by the incarcerated population itself. At San Quentin though, the lines are a little more blurry. Here, it isn’t uncommon to see other races walking the track with black men, or playing sports, or even sharing a meal.
Race still defines many relationships and interactions though. Even in the weekly Bible study I attend, white participants have expressed anxiety that they may be attacked for interacting with black participants like myself. I applaud these men for their willingness to risk their safety by studying the Bible with me- me who, by the way, is not actually black. I’m biracial, raised by a white mother, grandparents, and extended family members in a predominantly white community. Many of the white men I see here remind me of family members I’ve known all my life. Unfortunately, that type of nuance is not allowed in these settings.
When people see me, no matter what race they are, they project on to me all of their beliefs about blackness. A few years ago, I was talking to a few guys, expressing frustration that wait lists for many of the self-help groups were not allowing people to join the groups according to the dates they signed, but were instead selected on the basis of their relationships with the incarcerated facilitators. “That’s what’s wrong with our people,” a person who overheard our conversation said, “they want everything to come to them.” The comment bothered me, so a few days later, when I happened across the person who’d made the comment, I pulled him to the side and explained my racial history. Nothing I said changed his opinion.
Also on the spectrum are so-called microaggressions, which can seem anything but micro, when you’re on the receiving end of them. Recently, I told a white person to talk to my co-worker about a matter, and in trying to identify the person he said, “You mean ‘the brother’ who sits behind me to the right?” Then, a few minutes later he said, “The black guard was very helpful,” when recounting some help he’d received. Just to be clear, the race of the guard was totally irrelevant to the story he was telling. What was not irrelevant was his need to always mention race if the person he was referring to was a person of color.
In closing, even writing this feels vaguely…like I’m doing something wrong by raising race as an issue. The burden to call out the dehumanizing ways race affects me and other people of color carries with it something that makes me want to not raise a fuss, not make anyone feel uncomfortable, but instead to somehow say to my white friends, it’s ok. I know you don’t mean anything by it. After all, the racial constructs we live by in this nation are every bit as entrenched as our Constitution, and as American as Sunday morning football.
Written by James King
James recently had his sentence commuted by Governor Brown and will go before the parole board as early as this spring, to be considered for release. He is incarcerated at San Quentin State Prison.
You may write to him at the following address:
James King CDCR # V-69030
San Quentin State Prison
San Quentin, CA 94974
James King is a writer. Some of his influences are James Baldwin, Angela Davis, his hometown of Ferguson, Mo, and that all oppression must be eradicated. He writes to introduce marginalized perspectives, and he writes to feel whole. Read more about James.