07/26/2010 11:26 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

How I Confronted My Inner Racist

It's too bad all the brouhaha about Shirley Sherrod obscured the speech itself, in which one woman recounted how she wrestled with her emotional considerations about race while doing her job. She displayed a rare and constructive honesty about an issue so painful still in America that it verges on taboo. How many of us have really confronted and examined the degree to which we've internalized racism? I can definitely say I have -- though I can't pretend I chose to do it.

After a detour into drug addiction and dealing in the early part of this decade, I spent 9 months in the California prison system in 2004. In the grand scheme of things, I was there to learn that consequences are spiritual principles, but it also afforded me a singular opportunity to challenge all my perceptions about race in a way few ever get to do.

I think I came to prison with less baggage around race than most. I've always had a lot of people of color in my life, from childhood on, including roommates and boyfriends. But prison doesn't resemble any kind of life you've previously lived. In California prisons, whites are only assigned other white bunkies or cellmates, and attending meetings of the "Woods" -- as whites are called -- is mandatory. You are told to constantly be ready for a race riot in which you will be expected to fight either the Latinos or the Blacks. You are admonished to be polite but not friendly, as no one who is not white can be trusted. They instill fear in you and then medicate it by offering the illusion of safety within the group.

I might have drunk that Kool-aid, but my refusal to lie about being gay and HIV+ immediately redefined me within the group. I was still under the protection of the Whites if threatened by another race, but within the Woods, I was shunned. I ate alone for the first three months (though fairly happily as I could read instead of engage in stupid banter with the "dawgs.") I had a very tense week when a rumor reached me that a group of Whites were going to "tax" me when a care package arrived for me. I scared them with the threat of my HIV+ blood spilling, not the first time I'd use their ignorance to my advantage. But I couldn't see what I had to fear from the Blacks when the other Whites were the ones I had to worry about.

Perversely, my pariah status allowed me a little more leeway in dealing with other races, as I found I could bend some of the unspoken rules. I gave coffee to whoever asked, regardless of color, creating quiet allies who watched my back from afar. Word spread that I was a writer, and a "gangsta" named Loco asked me to play Cyrano de Bergerac in letters to his girlfriend back home. He couldn't quite figure how I found it so easy to come up with things to say to her--he and his buddies had never even been exposed to a gay man who wasn't either effeminate or on the down-low. They were curious, but unthreatened, as if my gayness was a white thing they didn't have to worry about catching. (It didn't stop them from alerting me that my orientation was "against the Bible," of course. Ironic, considering I was in the Land of Broken Commandments.)

Eventually, a thaw occurred among the Whites as they discovered my sense of humor -- a very handy weapon in a place where laughter is in short supply. But I'd set a sort of precedent in my insistence that I had a right to interact with other races. Up and down the dorm, I started to get to know Black and Latino inmates. There was Rico, who shared his National Geographics with me, and Leon, a father who confessed a terrible fear that he'd never be able to stay out of prison because it was all he knew. Sharif, with whom Leon incessantly played Scrabble, was going to start an all-Black commune when he got out. D-roll, on the other side of me, could sell snow to an Eskimo, and his bunkie, Adam, was a strange bird, fascinated with the Kennedy dynasty and collecting ketchup packets. C-Crazy was gentle and soft-spoken and did 1000 push-ups a day, and Tefunk engaged in endless rapping competitions with a kid whose name I don't remember but should have been a model. Sugarbear--who must have been 290 pounds--shocked me one day with what could only be described as a love note. Carolina asked for help finding a penpal, as he figured I could spare one with all the mail I received. (My sister wisely started sending extra writing utensils and stationery so I could neutralize the envy by gifting the dorm with all manner of interesting pen and paper.)

Some of these guys were whip-smart, and if they'd been born with my advantages, would have probably conquered Wall Street. I came to understand that they chose crime because a) like I did, they were drug addicts; b) it was the economic choice that made the most sense given the options they perceived as available to them. Of course, this pretty much applied to the white inmates as well, but the difference was that I automatically saw each white guy as an individual, whereby I had to work at it with the men of color. This is the essence of racism: not hostility, but seeing race first and everything else second.

This is what Shirley Sherrod spoke about so eloquently; her shift from perceiving a white farmer to just seeing a farmer who needed help. Race is an adjective, an important one given all of its sociological baggage, but it should describe rather than define. We tend to view it as a noun, the central factor that trumps all the others. As if someone who is kind or funny or interesting or obnoxious is black or white before he is any of those things. My sexuality provided a wonderful opportunity to change their perceptions as well, as I challenged them to see me first as Mark, then as the gay inmate in D-wing.

I've been sober for over 5 years, having left far behind a life whose very memory now makes me shudder. I live a block away from a federal halfway house, which I pass every day walking my dog. I see residents in the courtyard, swaggering and shooting the shit. I feel the urge to judge and categorize them, but it passes. I just smile to myself now, and give myself permission not to form any opinion at all.

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