When I first began thinking about writing this article, my plan was to write something that eased into the topic of modern racism and its vehicle of mass incarceration. But I am not going to do that because to do that means I am afraid. And I am afraid. But more than that, I am a sad Black woman. I am a tired Black woman. I am an angry Black woman.
My whole life I was raised, like many in my generation, to think that slavery was over. I learned about the Civil Rights Movement and amazing people like Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks and I sat in my chair in rural Wisconsin classrooms full of White students being told that racism was over and that I shouldn’t be scared, that I shouldn’t feel different. But I am and I do; now more so than ever, this is how I feel. Having these conversations isn’t just something we should be doing anymore. It is something that we need to do. We cannot be complacent; we need to feel uncomfortable and we need to educate ourselves.
When I was in elementary school, one of my fellow peers came up to me and asked, “What does a chainsaw say?” to which I replied “What?” His response? “Nigganigganigganigga.” Why is it that at that moment in time I didn’t know that what I had just heard was racist? Why was it that at that moment in time I laughed? Why was it at that time that I felt so confused? Because I didn’t understand. I had never heard the word “nigger” before. I didn’t know the weight that it had and I felt so uncomfortable with not knowing that I laughed. I had never been given a reason to think that I would be discriminated against and I had never been educated on racism’s pervasive nature.
In my high school, Civics class was required for graduation, and in that class we were taught that all people have the right to a fair and equal trial. It’s something we have all heard and all believed. It’s such a good idea, right? But then I watched the documentary 13th on Netflix. As I watched it, I couldn’t help but cry while sitting next to my Black boyfriend because 1 in 3 Black males have a lifetime chance of being incarcerated (compared to a 1 in 17 chance of White males) even though Black men represent only 6.5% of the population. They make up 40.2% of the U.S. prison population, which makes up 25% of the world prison population. More startling than that is the fact that 97% of people locked up never see trial and instead take a plea bargain, pledging themselves guilty of a crime that they never committed. We ask ourselves, why? But it becomes clear once we realize that the U.S. prison population is more than 2.3 million people.
We are a country that prides itself on personal freedoms, yet the United States is arguably the producer of the most dangerous terrorist this world has ever seen—imprisoning minorities left and right under new mandates in order to put them to work making our clothes, growing our potatoes, and crafting our furniture. Since the civil war, it has been right under our noses, but we have refused to see it.
So, I will not be nice and I will not sugarcoat it because I absolutely refuse to dull this voice any longer. My very first post for Culture Shock was about how exhausted I was of having to speak out on this topic, but 13th has reenergized me. This is not a film just for Black people. This is a film for all races because this is our country. Colin Kaepernick sat down during the national anthem during the 49ers third preseason game to protest the injustices and oppression occurring in our very own country. And when you know the truth, how could you not join him?