Racism: In and Out of Prison | Noah Bergland

racism in and out of prison

Racism Encountered Here and Now

George Floyd was murdered by a police officer in Minneapolis, Minnesota. It was an act of racism, pure and simple.

black lives matter, George Floyd, racism in america, peace not silence, cup foods, the killing, riots and protest across minneapolis, a city unites | Resilience2reform

As a white man who served nearly seven years in prison, I got a harsh education in segregation, racism, and privilege. Racial attitudes and culture in prison are deeply stuck in the past but, in many ways, are an amplified reflection of what is happening throughout our country and throughout our history. 

My Background and Racism

Growing up in a little Minnesota hockey town on the Canadian border, I was sheltered from outside cultures. There was racism there nonetheless: young white kids who listened to too much 2Pac and got comfortable saying the N-word or a middle-aged Dukes of Hazards fan who flew “The South Will Rise Again” flag in the back window of his jacked-up pick-up truck. Once anyone of color was around, though, these very people would straighten up and get extremely polite. But polite does not mean not racist.

In 2004, after graduating from high school, I moved to Minneapolis — a new culture, one I loved and embraced. I met different people from all different walks of life, and it was eye-opening. Black, White, Chinese, and Laotian people were the only ethnicities I had met previous to moving to the big city. English is the only language I had ever heard spoken. So moving meant access to new people, new food, new music, new languages, a whole new world.

When I started selling drugs, I was robbed at gunpoint twice — both times by black people. Once they came into my house, another they came into my hotel room, put a gun to my head, took everything of value, and left me with only hatred. I began to fear black people and associate them with something bad happening to me. I didn’t avoid them completely — two of my drug plugs (connections) were black. But when they told me to stop selling to their people, I listened. I was scared of getting killed. 

Racism: An Introduction in Prison

When I went to a federal prison just outside of Detroit, Michigan, in 2013, I experienced racial harassment for the first time. Once, when I was the only white person in the TV room, without provocation, a black guy asked me to step into the hallway. He told me, “You keep sitting in peoples’ seats; something bad is going to happen to you.” In the unit I lived in, F1, not one white person, had a TV spot, and from what I observed, over the 18 months I lived there, they stayed out.

black lives matter, George Floyd, racism in america, peace not silence, cup foods, the killing, riots and protest across minneapolis, a city unites | Resilience2reform

I didn’t go back into the TV room for a while. I was humiliated. I felt weak and powerless. Most of all, I felt angry. I wanted to hurt him, and I wanted to hurt him badly. Rage went through my head, teach him a lesson, possibly his last. Instead, I buried my fury, and that hate manifested. For the time, it was only for this individual, but it began to grow.

The experience was awful, and it had a huge impact on me. And that was after one incident. I cannot imagine experiencing a lifetime, generations, centuries of mistreatment, unfairness, and cruelty just for the color of your skin.

Prison culture is deeply segregated at every level — from the maximum-security penitentiaries down to the minimum-security camps. You live with your kind, eat with your kind, workout with your kind, watch TV with your kind, and talk to your kind. Step out of line, and you will be dealt with by your kind. 

Very few are trying to do anything about it, neither the staff or inmates. In fact, the majority are encouraging and reinforcing it. The view is that different cultures have different expectations and norms: from table manners, TV preference, and room etiquette to working out and socializing, so it’s easier if everybody is separate.

The staff is all for segregation since it keeps the inmates happy and their jobs simpler. You could tell your counselor to move you because you refuse to live with someone from another race, and they would comply without a single question.

Prison is full of hate. Many of the inmates are there because they weren’t able to control their emotions, and they released it in destructive ways. After years in the prison system, most inmates buy into the view that segregation is a normal way of life.

I wish I could say that I tried to do something about this, but the truth is I was scared of being cast aside and rejected. My whole life, I have said I don’t care what people think, but I can finally admit that’s bullshit. I want to be accepted, I want to be liked, and if you go against a system that 90% of people support, you will become hated. But change only happens when someone takes a chance and says, “Screw the system.” I wish I had started sooner.

Once I was transferred to a federal prison camp, where the racial norms loosened up a bit, I met people — Mike, Tai, STL Bill, Big C, Gooch, $ Mike, C Loc, Deshone, and Nick (African-American), Alonzo, Javier, and Esteban  (Hispanic), and Red (Asian) — who all taught me to look past color.

They taught me that every race and culture has people that are full of hate, and there is nothing you can do about it. I saw that I was blinded by a few isolated incidents and was allowing myself to use these to fuel racist thinking and attitudes.

In a system that perpetuates racism and white supremacy, these thoughts, attitudes, and beliefs can become something dangerous. They keep the status quo and continue to tear our country apart. This leads to people like Derek Chauvin, with his knee in George Floyd’s neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds.

That’s not who I want to be. Within the segregated prison culture, I worked out with Nick, I sat on the edge of the black section and had breakfast with Mike, and I took goofy pictures with Alonzo. I didn’t change the world but did my best to push the edges of the racist prison system.

Inmates having fun with pictures, prison doesn't always have to be so serious, a lighter side of incarceration | Noah Bergland | Resilience2Reform

Civil Disobedience and Racism

Now I’m out at home in a suburb of Minneapolis, and I feel like I’m still incarcerated. I’m locked down, I have on an ankle monitor, and because of the actions of a racist cop, I am restricted to my house, and I can’t even go outside for fresh air.

It’s no different from the inside; there it was inmates against the staff. Now I am out, and it’s the same shit: the people against the police. But while peaceful protests are essential for creating change, the looting and violence is not the answer. Make noise, be heard, but don’t take it too far. I understand the desire for retaliation for hitting back. I felt that pull when I was bullied out of that TV room. But violence and destruction only cause more suffering for everyone. 

We used the same tactics in prison to get the guard’s attention. Our peaceful protests just looked a little different. When the staff took our TVs because of the actions of one person, we would come together, pull fire alarms, go outside and yell at the top of our lungs, to wake up the surrounding neighborhoods. The warden would come to the compound, sort out the issue, and give us our TVs back. Civil disobedience works! 

black lives matter, George Floyd, racism in america, peace not silence, cup foods, the killing, riots and protest across minneapolis, a city unites | Resilience2reform

The protests are getting peoples’ attention. The social media messages are starting to educate. The news is being influenced. The other officers are being charged. The way people think, perceive, and act is starting to change.

black lives matter, George Floyd, racism in america, peace not silence, cup foods, the killing, riots and protest across minneapolis, a city unites | Resilience2reform

I, a white male in America, am spending countless hours every day trying to learn and listen to the issues. I watched George Floyd’s funeral service and was inspired, and left at the end with a deeper connection with my higher power and my late father. I believe George connected with his mother when he called out to her because I have felt that connection to my father since he passed in 2007. I’m following multiple news sources trying to get every perspective. For me, the process of trying to understand has begun.

Final Thoughts: Racism, America, A Hope

George Floyd is not the first black man to be killed at the hands of police, and I hope to God he’s the last. What has transpired over the last week feels different than all the previous killings. I feel the momentum, and it’s crucial to keep that moving forward.

black lives matter, George Floyd, racism in america, peace not silence, cup foods, the killing, riots and protest across minneapolis, a city unites | Resilience2reform

Both inside and outside the prison system, we are deeply divided based on race. We need to come together, stand together against injustice, and to do that; we need to understand that we are part of a system of racism that runs old, long, and deep. George Floyd was murdered by a cop. He deserves justice. For that to happen, we need to change: each of us and all of us.

I will never know what’s like to be a black man in America. The American system is built for me to succeed and for black men to fail. I know that. But I want to understand, listen, and learn.

Our goal at resilience2reform is to unite, create a forum for connection, break down these barriers, and be a resource for change. Bring the peace, but not at the sacrifice of silence.

We are asking for help, asking for people of color — to come forward with their experiences around racism. We want to hear your message, hold up your voice, and present it to the world on resilience2reform.

black lives matter, George Floyd, racism in america, peace not silence, cup foods, the killing, riots and protest across minneapolis, a city unites | Resilience2reform

At George Floyd’s service, Reverand Al Sharpton shared this verse, “To everything, there is a time and a purpose and season under the heavens.” Ecclesiastes 3:1

Let’s seize this moment together.

Contact us at resilience2reform@gmail.com

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