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

You are here

Identity Memo

Shirah Kraus's picture

On a Saturday afternoon, my dad drives our Honda Odyssey down the quiet, safe street. My mom, brothers, and sister sit in the car with us. Orthodox Jewish men talk together and their wives push strollers as they walk home from Sabbath services. Here in Amberley Village, there are big lawns and lots of white Jews. On the other side of the train tracks, in Roselawn, there are a lot of black people, some “prostitutes”, and sometimes gunshots at night. When it snows, there is line between Amberley, where the streets have been cleared, and Roselawn, where the streets are still covered in snow.

I used to drive south through Roselawn to get to my urban Cincinnati public high school. Once, my school had a real lockdown, because there were gunshots in the area. Zora Neale Hurston said that she felt most colored thrown against a sharp white background. I sometimes feel the most white against a white background. I remember going to see my cousin perform in a play at her suburban elementary school. It appeared that everyone was white, except for a few Asians (I know now not to assume race, but this is how I thought about it then). It made me uncomfortable. My high school was unique in that it had a pretty even mix of black and white students, free & reduced lunch and those who can afford the full price. But often in honors classes, there was a racial divide: most of the students in the honors and accelerated classes were white. Most friend groups were not very racially diverse either. Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria: And Other Conversations About Race: this book title jumped out at me online. I always wondered why cafeteria groups were so racially divided. I don’t claim to be color blind. I notice race and I want to learn more about culture, race, ethnicity, and bias. I want to own up to my own biases and challenge them.

Before my dad pulls into our garage, he rolls down the window to say hello to Rich, our neighbor. Rich is the fire and police chief of Amberley Village. Sometimes he or his brother will stand guard at our synagogue, especially during large events. His police uniform, badge, and gun make me feel safe and protected.

I was picking up a friend once in Gulf Manor, a neighborhood next to Amberley with a mix of Jews and people of color. Sirens are not uncommon. A police car pulled me over, because I made a left turn at a stop sign, when a car was coming on my right. He checked my license and let me go without a ticket. I always wondered how much my free pass was based on my age, gender, and race. I didn’t tell my parents about it for a year. I was scared then, but now I laugh. I have the privilege to laugh. My fear is nothing compared to what it must be like for someone who doesn’t look like me. I notice a sour taste in my mouth when I think about the asymmetry of the justice system: the people that are protecting me aren’t always protecting all people equally.

When I first came to Bryn Mawr, I faced my privilege in a way I never had before. I was uncomfortable. I questioned my beliefs. I was unsure, confused, guilty. I am white, financially stable, a citizen, able-bodied. And I can’t even begin to understand what life is like for those who encounter racism and other prejudices every day. I try to listen and take what I learn back home with me.

I’m trying not to make any assumptions about the people in the prison. Still, I know that I have unconscious assumptions and biases floating around in my brain. And I’m sure there will be a gap between what I think and what I say out loud. I anticipate being embarrassed about some of the things I might think. I don’t know a lot about incarceration. I don’t have any family or friends who have been incarcerated. What I know or think I know is largely from the media—both the fictional and nonfictional. I am eager to learn more, to engage with people who are different from anyone in my life.

William Butler Yeats said, “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.” I am excited to learn from the women in the prison, to light my fire in pursuit of peace, justice, and human dignity. Experiences are powerful. Stories are moving. I hope to have experiences that I can share with others, experiences that will help me to make better decisions, to understand people and the world better, experiences that will inspire me to create positive change.

It is important for me to be very conscious of my privilege and my desire for change. I desperately want to avoid paternalism. I want to be humble and respectful. I want to learn how to engage appropriately with people who are different from me.  


jccohen's picture

Shira Kraus,

This line really stood out to me - “I sometimes feel the most white against a white background” - along with your noticing and wanting to learn more about “culture, race, ethnicity and bias.”  I’m struck by your willingness, even eagerness to acknowledge and experience gaps in your understanding, and to address these with as much openness as you can.  For example, you note that in prison you’ll likely be aware of a “gap between what I think and what I say out loud” and also that you “anticipate being embarrassed about some of the things I might think.”  Seeking those gaps and then being attentive to what’s going on inside you as you process these new experiences and encounters is important and challenging work!  And of course dealing with feelings like embarrassment has to be a part of a process of self-examination that is in turn education as “the lighting of a fire.”  I look forward to how you might use the space of our class and 360 to ignite and sustain this work.