A Western movie was showing in the prison theater that morning. I arrived early, was already seated as the prison population filed inside, talking noisily and choosing their seats. As always, the group divided itself into three distinct sections: one composed of black inmates, one entirely white, the third Latin American. Makeshift aisles, composed of unfilled seats, ran between each sector, with a few American Indians lingering at one side. The Indians seemed confused.
And so was I. After three years in prison, this self-imposed division still bothered me. It occurred at each collective inmate gathering; it was symptomatic of underlying racial tensions which periodically flared up into violence. During my residency at the institution, the majority of all violent incidents had been attributable to racial animosities; to one group's attempts to dominate or persecute another group.
Each incident results in a retaliation by the administration of the prison, a loss of programs and entertainment, a general decrease in every prisoner's standard of living.Yet the incidents continue. To what end? I wondered. Did anyone benefit? Obviously not. In and out of prison, though, racism is an acute and continuing issue, one which effects all members of the society, just as all inmates of a prison facility are affected by the actions of a few persons.
I didn't think about racism very much before coming to prison. I grew up in a suburban, middle class, predominantly white neighborhood. I readm about incidents of racial violence in the newspapers but it was, I thought, something that went on in the Deep South, something that would continue until a judge in Washington saw fit to end it. I let it go at that until taking up life in the penitentiary. . .
In the theater, the lights were dimmed, the doors sealed shut, enveloping us in total darkness. All of us, for a few moments, shared the same blindness. During those moments, we were onem group; there were no distinctions between us. We were together; we were all the same.
And we are all the same, aren't we? We all belong to the same species; we're all members of the human family. Our systems of feeling function according to the same premise: I have the same need for love and affection that you have. Conversely, if you would cause me bodily injury, I'd feel the same pain which you would feel if the reverse were true. The fact that we might not have the same color skin really doesn't matter very much.
Yet too often we are reluctant to acknowledge our common humanity. We focus instead on the superficial differences and allow them to set us apart. We go out of our way to identify the things we don'tm have in common, allowing these to isolate us from others, depriving us of their knowledge and experience, their beauty.
I have a friend who lives in Surabaya, Indonesia, approximately on the other side of the world. I've seen her only in pictures: photographs and the words which pass between us by mail. Her skin is not the same color as mine, nor are the customs of her society the same as my own. At times we have trouble communicating. Yet the feelingsm we have in common continually amaze us. Our friendship has evolved as a process of discovery, both of us benefiting from the emotional and cultural exchange the relationship has facilitated. In the beginning, it was awkward and rather tedious; both of us were somewhat reluctant to continue. Two years later, we've come to value each other's friendship, even more than our more casual, easier friendships.
Racism exists in her country as well, though she doesn't understand it any better than I do. We've discussed it, and we've discussed the way the world would be if there was no racism, if all men treated each other as brothers, sharing their wisdom and wealth, working together. It would be a very different world. We both agree on this, and that change must come at a personal level, in our own hearts, if things are going to be different.
In the theater, the lights came on abruptly; the movie had ended. The separating aisles, though, were gone now. Latecomers had filled them up, possibly by accident. No one stood up immediately, no one was in any real hurry to leaveL We were still together: it felt very good!