Crossing the Barbed-Wire Fence One Should Never Willingly Cross:
On Being a White Anti-Racist Prison Abolitionist
When I have traveled to the federal prison in Sheridan, OR, for workshops on conflict resolution, I have the same feeling every time I show the man at the front desk my ID and walk through the metal detector: that I am entering a place I am not supposed to go, where I do not belong, and that was not intended to be seen by me. The towering barbed-wire fence that wraps around the prison’s exterior incites fear, and I feel that I am silently being warned, “no one should willingly choose to venture past this point.” This physical boundary is one of the ways I am cut off from people in prison. My position within a socioeconomic class is a second boundary between me and people in prison. As an upper-class person, I am not among those most likely to be criminalized or incarcerated. A third boundary is race. I am white, and people of color are disproportionately targeted for arrest, harassment, and incarceration by the prison-industrial complex. African-Americans constitute 12.7% of the US population but make up 48.2% of adults in prison and jail in our country (Legal Services). Black men are incarcerated at a rate more than six times that of white men (Human Rights Watch). The final boundary that prevents me from seeing people in prison as my fellow human beings is the way society labels people like me as opposed to the ways incarcerated people are labeled. Simply put, people on the outside of prison walls are “good people,” while people on the inside are “bad people,” “criminals,” “animals,” etc. As a result of the boundaries I’ve listed, the prison-industrial complex has had no personal impact on my life. I’ve never been sent to prison, I’ve never had family members or friends in prison, I haven’t felt the impact of imprisonment on my community or neighborhood, and I don’t expect any of these fundamental facts about my relation to prison to change. However, as a person who has willingly and freely chosen to repeatedly cross the physical boundary that keeps me on the outside of prison walls, I feel that I have transgressed beyond what is conventionally acceptable for me and thereby brought myself to a new point of political awareness and action. As a white person who has never experienced being targeted because of my race, going inside prisons and undertaking correspondence with people inside prisons has further committed me to the work of prison abolition. I see the prison-industrial complex as a racist tool of social control against groups to which I do not belong: people of color, undocumented immigrants, and others. In aligning myself with these marginalized groups, I feel that I become something like a “race traitor” because I want to challenge whiteness. I have become aware of the benefits I receive from possessing certain privileged identities, and I have opted to attempt to dismantle the systems that have provided me with those undeserved benefits.
Two of my political identities are as a white person who undeniably benefits from white privilege and as an anti-racist person. I feel that the combination of these two identities is important for thinking about how I ought to approach questions of social justice. While I am committed and passionate in my work against prison, I want to keep humility and a sense of deference in all that I do. I must remember, at all times, that my life as a white, upper-class person, college-educated person is not a life immediately being ravaged by the prison-industrial complex, and that my activism must always respect that I am not a person who is intimately affected by the reality of prisons in the United States. This recognition of my privileged experiences around the issue of prison is a key component of how I hope to undertake anti-prison work. A second aspect of being a white anti-racist person is making sure that whiteness is not assumed to be a default identity and that white privilege is not taken for granted in conversations I have about political issues, including conversations about the prison-industrial complex.
This is a statement by a collective member.