What’s Your Social Location?
In 2001, I was a former racist skinhead newly released from prison. I found myself in a world that seemed as if I’d never seen it before, and I was simultaneously caught up in a tornado of fear because I didn’t have a clue about how to navigate this world as a ‘normal’ person. (How do I make friends? If I make friends, how do I tell them about my past? Will everyone hate me?) Keep in mind, I was sure at this point in my life that ‘normal’ did, indeed, exist.
Upon my release from prison, I enrolled in a community college because receiving an education was the only thing that made sense to me. Not long into my first semester, I found myself in the predicament of having to create some distance between myself and other (still racist) family members. To help remedy my situation, living and other, I started picking up jobs left and right.
One of the jobs I took on was as a student aid in the advisement office of the college I was attending. There were a lot of people, mostly other students, whom I met while working in this office, but I started to become particularly close with a few of my co-workers. We always seemed to be getting reprimanded for talking too much or having too much fun when we were supposed to be working. It was the kind of wholesome fun I should have had when I was younger, but was instead having it as the age of thirty crept closer and closer (better late than never!).
One of these new friends was a woman in her early twenties, the likes of which I’d never met and, even now more than a decade later, can say I still have never met anyone quite as unique as she is. Married and with a young daughter, she struggled; her husband was in the Navy and stationed overseas so she rarely saw him. She was a full-time student and for the most part, a single mother—and when I say full-time student, I’m not talking the run-of-the-mill, taking-four-classes-full-time student, I mean the sort of driven person who got special permission every term to take six and seven classes at a time.
We’ve been through alot together throughout the years and have supported one another through some of the most difficult times in our lives—times when each of us felt like we had nothing left that could be taken, or to give to the world. We feel one another’s happiness, pain, and oftentimes joke about how she and I are closer to one another than we are to our own siblings. We have those soul-baring, difficult talks about what it means to be a woman in today’s world, and the ways we experience the exact same situations differently because of the color of our skin.
(Just as a bit of background; this friend of mine is the type of individual who rarely breaks rules. And when I say rarely, I’m talking never been in trouble a day in her life, and was a corrections officer at one time. She is now a special ed teacher at a public school located in the same county where Trayvon Martin was killed, and where there have been several claims of police harassment of racial minorities, racial profiling, corruption…)
One evening not too long ago, as a telephone conversation progressed, she told me she’d been pulled over a few days before. Knowing how she is about breaking rules and how fearful she becomes at the mere thought of being in trouble, I made a joke and told her I was surprised she didn’t tinkle or have an accident when she saw the lights and heard the siren. Then she told me the details of the incident and the space that just a moment before was filled with laughter and jokes, was suddenly filled with tears and sadness.
So frightened was she when pulled over, she made sure she did so in an area that was lit and where she hoped there might be video surveillance; she turned on every light in her minivan, keys out of the ignition, and had both of her hands up and out the window when the officer reached her vehicle. As I heard this, my heart broke into pieces because I knew that hers was a fear I never had to worry about. Despite being a convicted felon, despite my tattoos and piercings, despite every bad thing I’ve ever done in my life, I never have to worry that I might be harassed, arrested, or physically harmed because of the color of my skin.
I can’t pinpoint what disturbed me most; the fact that she was in such fear, or the fact that the white, male officer laughed at her. And as the days have turned into weeks following this conversation, I’m still struggling to verbalize the sadness I feel for her and others who live with this…canker in the heart of reason. I’m reminded of a lesson learned years ago while I was doing undergraduate work in college—that every human being has a social location, determined by several factors which position one in particular relationships with others, the dominant culture, and the world. The factors, such as race, age, gender, sexual identity, socioeconomic status, appearance, and religious affiliation, determine how life and the world around each of us is navigated, how one is treated given this location, and informs one’s identity as a whole.
I reflect on this lesson when I hear or read comments such as, “We have a black President, so racism is no longer an issue.” Or when an individual who has only experienced life through the eyes of privilege decries sexual/gender discrimination, or insists that the glass ceiling no longer exists. It is to this truth that I retreat when I am feeling mistreated, misunderstood, and even when I feel that I in some way can relate to others, and then realize I don’t have a clue about their struggles and experiences. The fact of the matter is, no matter how much I (or anyone else) empathize with the pain and/or (mis)treatment of another—such as the young women recently attacked for seeking an education for themselves and standing up for the rights of other young women—I will always navigate and experience life differently as a result of my own social location.
Understanding that not all [insert one or more of the following: black, white, young, old, men, women, gay, straight, educated, uneducated, healthy, ill, poor, wealthy, etc.] people have the same experiences, and that all human beings are not treated equally, brings us that much closer to identifying and rectifying the disparities that exist between us—keeping in mind that whether one chooses to acknowledge these disparities or not, does not negate their existence.
With that, I offer up a challenge for each of you; look beyond your own experiences and social location. Instead of jumping on the [insert one of the following: race, sex, gender, age, religion, appearance, etc.] bandwagon, think critically with an open mind and compassion in your heart for what your fellow human beings experience and live through daily. And for my part, I’ll do my best not to allow my words and actions to be dictated by the discomfort I feel when I encounter those who fail to see that there are, indeed, disparities that exist and that even now, in this day and age, there is tremendous suffering in the world. I’ll continue to try to change hearts, minds, and lives in the best way I know how—personal narrative, education, reason, and by wielding my pen and intellect. And I invite you to take this journey with me. Within the next few issues of Life After Hate, we’ll be publishing divergent narratives to engage critical thinking around the topic of social location.
Growing up in South Florida, Angela King struggled with her identity. She became confused about the messages she received from her church and family on issues like sexual identity and racial stereotypes. Disenfranchised, Angela began acting out and felt welcomed for the first time by a group of racist Skinheads: "They were angry and hated everyone. They made me feel like part of a family." Entrenched in the racist underground, crime became an increasingly important part of Angela's life. Though the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing made Angela reconsider her beliefs, she knew that abandoning her Skinhead affiliates would result in retaliation. Angela was arrested in 1998 and sentenced to six years in prison for her part in an armed robbery of a Jewish-owned store. Angela was released from prison three years early, in 2001, for good behavior and cooperation with the authorities. She has since graduated from the University of Central Florida with an M.A. in Interdisciplinary Studies. Angela routinely works as a keynote speaker, consultant, correspondent, and character educator in schools, communities, religious centers and elsewhere. She has been interviewed by the Southern Poverty Law Center, National Public Radio, and the National Resource Center for Racial Healing, among others, and has received several recognitions and awards for her dedication and support of Prejudice Reduction, Building Communities of Justice, as well as Holocaust education. Some of Angela's recent activities and work include: delegate and panelist at the Google Summit Against Violent Extremism, held in Dublin, Ireland, in June 2011; panelist at a 9/11 related commemoration event sponsored by the Department of Homeland Securities' Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism program, held in Washington D.C. in September 2011; Editor In Chief and Character Educator at LifeAfterHate.org; and is currently writing a memoir vis-á-vis her time inside and out of the racist underground.