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Identity memo

jccohen's picture

I have long worked with issues of privilege, especially having to do with race, and continue to work on how these are part of my own and all of our lives (in my view) in a profound and really inextricable way, both because of how deeply they’re embedded in our individual and collective psyches and also because of how they likewise shape/invade/annex so much of our institutional and otherwise socially structured lives.  I’m thinking of James Baldwin’s “Talk to Teachers” here, and especially the idea that if the lives of people of color are premised on injustice and on lies, so is my life as a white person premised on all this as well.  This becomes most glaringly evident to me when I think about (and sometimes act in relation to/support of) my (white) children’s life opportunities, which cannot be extricated from the life opportunities of people who are not their race and who don’t have their class privilege (middle class, with a focus on educational privilege). 

In relation specifically to “victimization” and “offending”: I think of a time when I was in college in the Washington, DC area, and came downtown on a bus to participate in a mass protest of the Vietnam War that involved “stopping the government” by having sit-ins in the streets of the nation’s capital.  By the time I and my companions got off the bus we’d taken into the center of town, the cops had begun rounding up thousands of protestors and throwing us in jail; we were immediately swept up and taken to the stadium which was being used to house all these prisoners.   Funny the details you remember: we were fed bologna sandwiches on white bread and sang protest songs into the night; and the next day when my dad, a lawyer, was able to pull whatever strings to get through and bail me out, I refused.  Not sure what combination of factors that was about but probably some mix of a sense of justice and equity and not wanting to miss the rest of this event. (All of us were released later that day, and there ensued years of litigation about the legality of this event, and eventually ‘we’ won a class action suit.) 

Even though I remember being quite aware that those of us were in no way “typical” – either in our identities or the treatment we received – of others in jail in that time and place, I think this experience still shaped my sense that jail was a condition of lives in particular circumstances rather than a dividing line between us and them, good and evil.  And maybe it was then that I formed a rather incoherent but long-standing desire to teach reading and writing with women in prison.

Nevertheless, when I first began doing this work about eight years ago as part of the Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program, I resisted it strongly.  I was overwhelmed by a sense of claustrophobia – both immediately for myself, as I had to leave all my belongings to enter through the checkpoints inside and then further inside, and too for the women inside who seemed to me so profoundly separated from their outside, everyday lives.  After that first semester of teaching in the jail it took me about six years to go back to this, and now I believe what connects me with the work is staying in the present in that place and attending as fully as I can to others – students, colleagues, incarcerated women, and the social worker and correctional officers.