Serendip is an independent site partnering with faculty at multiple colleges and universities around the world. Happy exploring!

Imperialism and incarceration

HSBurke's picture

The other day, I went in to do my internal interview for a big scholarship I'm applying to. For some background, this scholarship is for people interested in public service fields, and I want to be a social worker in the Navy. As expected, I was asked right off the bat "why the military?" and more specifically, why I wanted to be IN the military rather than just work WITH the military.

The answer for me was an easy one: how many times does a person get the opportunity to be a real part of the group that they want to "help"? I feel like I do good work when I go and mentor at Belmont every monday, and I know my mentee really responds to me, but the reality is that I can never be a low-income African-American boy from the city. This is not an identity I share. I know that my inability to relate to him on this most fundamental level means that I can never really be the most effective mentor. I'm missing that level of empathy, and I don't know exactly what he needs. The military represents an opportunity, though. Finally I can avoid the trap that is professional imperialism and serve the population of the military because not only do I know the unique stressors and challenges they face, but because I face them, too. 

Of course, this would have been the answer I'd have given in a perfect world, or with interviews whose goal was not to push my thinking. So instead my answer went something more like: "...want to try and avoid stepping into a population and doing my best to help the way I think is ri---"

To which one of my interviewers responded: "--well isn't that what you do everytime you go into the prison?"


Of course that's what we do. And of course there's really no getting past that. But I guess I had been blinded into thinking we were doing so much better work than the people who pass out flimsy canvas shoes to African children, but are we? 

Just a few weeks ago, Sara, Sasha and I had a discussion about how Sasha is the only woman of color in our little group. In the interest of noting how our enviornment sees us, this is something I don't think is lost on the women. Nor is it lost on me. Every visit I have a moment where I'm glad that Sasha is with us, because it mitigates the feeling that I couldn't quite put a name to before this interview. (professional) Imperialism is a dirty word, and I don't like thinking about our work that way, but I felt like such a hypocrite coming out of that interview that I can't help but think it's worth thinking about. a side note, I think I eventually answered the question by prattling on about our attempts to be radical within a institution that doesn't leave much room for radicalism, etc. etc. Thank you, Radical Teacher!