Every week I hold an orientation session for the newly incarcerated inmates at Auburn Correctional Facility, the nation’s oldest continually operating maximum security prison. My task is to inform the men of what mental health does and can do in their lives should they need it. But I look at the 25 or 30 black and brown faces each Monday morning (and the 3 or 4 white ones) and instead I tell them the truth about the reality they are facing. In five years after they leave prison 77% of them will return to an incarcerated setting. And before they settle in with that I tell them the recidivism rate for property crimes (including drug offenses) stands at nearly 80% within five years of their release from a maximum security prison. They don’t argue about this, they don’t ignore it either. They look at me intently waiting for the next thing I will say to them. But I don’t have answers for them. They know their own reality with or without me naming it for them.

In my work we have an area of study we call cultural competency. Whole courses are dedicated to social workers understanding their own ‘isms’ so they can go out in the world and be sensitive and not unwittingly reenact harms done to vulnerable populations. But I find the academic exercise of understanding privilege a half measure in comparison to the systems of carceral control we contend with in the US.
So I end up telling the guys they need to feel grateful they are not housed in Clinton, Attica, Comstock or Elmira, all upstate NY prisons with a worse disciplinary record against people of color than Auburn. But I don’t think this is what my professors at graduate school had in mind for a culturally competent practice. So I fail them.
We all fail them. Because we don’t have a counter narrative to the hideous incarceration rate for brown and black bodies.

But Stephanie Fetta has identified a process to name the experience of racialization for all. In her text is an entry point to grapple with racialization that invites great minds and scholars who have been absent from the conversation. As a white person who has grown up in a suburban setting far removed from the horrors of racial violence, Stephanie’s work has reacquainted me with my own racism, elitism and cultural incompetency. As her “scenes of racialization” unfold for me and others each moment, as our somas respond reflexively and as brown and black individuals are mistreated in every imagineable microaggression, I take no solace Franz Fanon or Oscar ‘Zeta’ Acosta is not here teaching generation Z. But I do have hope for students in Dr. Fetta’s classroom and for all the lovers of Latin@/x literature who will read and know her book Racializing Shame, a profoundly moving experience in truth and compassion. Let the clarion call be heard for a Transdisciplinary approach to our most insidious, intractable constructions. Let the arts, the sciences and spiritual forces work cooperatively. Stephanie’s book begins this work.

Marshall B. Johnson 2017

Views: 92

Comment by marshall bjohnson on August 22, 2017 at 1:58pm
her book Racializing Shame will come out fall 2018 from Ohio State Univ Press...
Comment by cheshyre on August 22, 2017 at 2:34pm

Just keep being honest and the work is already begun.

Comment by Jonathan Wolfman on August 22, 2017 at 3:17pm

I'd like to air this on my radio show, Passionate Justice.

Comment by Ron Powell on August 22, 2017 at 7:09pm

Sounds like a "must read".

Comment by MV Neland on August 23, 2017 at 3:22am

Marshall bjohnson - thank you for the Good Work you do - of course you already know that your authenticity reaches these men at some vital level. It just does. It communicates honestly and frankly as does your eloquent summary. My own long ago past outreach and advocacy work or volunteering took me into the prison system now and again in women's prisons. Not much better I'm afraid, as you are aware. It was one of the harder parts of my job whenever i had to do it - "had" being the operative word. Had there been any other way to have met with these women, i would have chosen it. Your words describe that hell so well. I could never understand WHY prisons were as they were.  It sounds like reading Stephanie's book will go a long way to helping me understand.


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