Birds of a Feather: That One Time I Was a Racist in Prison

by Daniel A. Rosen |

One day last summer, I was walking down the deserted school hallway late on a Friday afternoon. Near the gate at the end sat two fifty-something-year-old Black inmates who worked maintenance in the building; both lived in my cellblock, and we were friendly. They were just shooting the breeze, taking a break sitting at some child-sized student desks in the corridor.

“Like two old crows on a telephone wire,” I joked with them unthinkingly as I approached.

They half-chuckled politely in response, but the remark clearly hadn’t landed right. There was no friendly banter offered in return. I walked past, and as I approached the gate, one of them called out to me.

“Hey, Danno,” he hollered. “Come back over here a second. I wanna talk to you.”

I turned around, ambled back over to where they sat. “What’s up, Mr. Green?” I asked.

The two of them looked at each other. Now, I knew them both to be thoughtful, seasoned prison veterans, and when Mr. Green spoke, slowly and genteelly, people listened. I sure did.

“Danno, do you know the history of that word? Crows?” he asked.

I didn’t. “Well, Mr. Green, I really don’t,” I told him. “I grew up in California, not around here – what does it mean to you?”

“Danno,” he said, “I know you don’t think like some people do, but that’s a real ugly thing to say around here.”

My heart sank. I had those same thoughts that probably all white people do – whether of good conscience or not – when they do or say something ignorant and racist: “But I’m not a racist! I have plenty of Black friends! I don’t have a racist bone in my body!” I stifled my desire to say these silly things.

Mr. Green went on: “It’s just something a white man of a certain age would say instead of the ‘N-word’ in this area. It’s pretty much the same thing.” I was stunned.

“Mr. Green,” I started to protest, “I was just kidding around. I hope you don’t think I would—“

He held up his hand to stop me. “Danno, me and Mr. Sherman here know who you are. We see the ones around here who would mean it when they used that term, don’t worry. It just struck an off-note when you said it, and we wanted you to know. Next time just call us ‘men’ – that’s what we are.”

I fought the urge to defend myself. “Mr. Green, I need to thank you,” I said. “You could have just let me walk out that gate, thought a little less of me. But I needed to hear what you said.” Even if it left me feeling terrible, I thought to myself.

“I hope we’re still good,” I said.

“Don’t worry, we’re good,” he told me.

But I was mortified. I thought about that conversation for a long time. I like to think of myself as a socially conscious person, one who cares about racial inequity. I was raised in the live-and-let-live post-hippie Southern California 1970’s, not rural southern Virginia. And living now in racially-mixed Washington, D.C. for the last 25 years or so, I’m personally comfortable anywhere. I usually have more to say to Black guys from the city than the skinheads who share my melanin level.

But prison is a pretty racially charged and segregated place. Mostly, Whites hang out with Whites, Blacks with Blacks, and Latinos likewise. Chow hall, rec yard, dayroom – not a lot of racial mixing going on. In this rural part of Virginia, White guys walk around openly with Nazi or white supremacist tattoos; Black kids from Norfolk or Richmond throw gang signs at each other. It can get a little tense. White guys say racist stuff to me all the time when we’re alone, assuming I’ll share their biases. Usually, I just find ways to excuse myself from the conversation.

I’ve experienced bigotry myself too, as someone with an obviously Jewish last name. Once when people from my cellblock were waiting to get our commissary, an older White guy in line called me a “dirty f***ing Jew” – literally without provocation of any sort. I almost decked him right there, but if I had, no one would have gotten their canteen items that day. A dozen people heard him say it, and I let other inmates know too what kind of ignorant, hateful person he was. I figured that was enough, so I regularly stifled the urge to shove him down a flight of stairs.

On another occasion, I was talking to the building lieutenant in the hallway about the paycheck from my prison job. Another inmate, a Black guy, wandered by and saw us looking at the paystub in my hands.

“He doesn’t need money, he’s Jewish,” said this wiseacre. I guess he thought his joke at my expense would score him points with the Black lieutenant.

“Nice stereotype,” I told him. “That’s really racist, actually,” I added. He was unhappy to be embarrassed in front of the officer and never said a word to me after that, as if I’d wronged him somehow.

Many months after my own stupid racist comment, I found myself standing next to Mr. Green waiting for a shower to open up. It was just before he was scheduled to be released.

“I want you to know that I think about our conversation in the school hallway all the time,” I told him. “You could have really let me have it, but you chose to teach me something.”

“I think about it all the time too,” he said. “Part of me wanted to get mad at you, but I’m glad I didn’t. You just didn’t know. It taught me something too.”

The point of this story isn’t some kind of kumbaya racial harmony moment though. People behind bars will still be bigots and racists, like elsewhere. They’ll stick to what they know out of fear of the other, and a desire for any sort of familiarity in a very insecure environment. That’s understandable.

What was remarkable about this instance was just that someone had cared enough to teach me something. It would have been so much easier for Mr. Green to get angry at me – to my face or after I’d walked off. And when I start to get angry at someone for their ignorance I recall Mr. Green, and what his response meant to me. He taught me a lot more than a racial slur by his actions.

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