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