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    Discussing White Supremacy: Having Difficult Conversations Are Required and Not Optional

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    By Authors: Hoge, Hayes, Hostetter, Fisher, Watson, Yearwood, Plummer, Barbera, & Washington

    “The key to moving forward is what we do with our discomfort. We can use it as a door out—blame the messenger and disregard the message. Or we can use it as a door in by asking, Why does this unsettle me? What would it mean for me if this were true?”Robin DiAngelo, White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism

    In the Winter 2020 edition of The New Social Worker, three founders of #MacroSW published an article entitled “Calling In Call-Out Culture: Social Workers Having Difficult Conversations Ethically on Social Media.” Being an organization that primarily exists on Twitter, they expressed a “keen awareness” for the importance of interacting respectfully in digital spaces, describing themselves as an online “safe space” where social work students, professionals, and academics can lean into difficult conversations about macro practice. They offered as a sign of their success the victory of having avoided most negative confrontations online. This, they believe, had allowed the social work community to engage in productive conversations, even those that have involved provocative topics.

    What ensued after the publication of the article was backlash from activists who had been advocating that #MacroSW be more intentional in its conversations about white supremacy. Prior to the publication of the article, two activists had reached out to the organization to ask that a chat take place focusing specifically on white supremacy in social work education, and that the topic of white supremacy be folded into already scheduled chats. These activists are members of an organization called SWCAREs, a newly founded coalition of social workers whose primary mission is dismantling white supremacy in social work education.

    Many readers here bore witness to the fallout that ensued after this article was published, which included both activists speaking out about what they believed were mischaracterizations of their work, one of the authors then removing her name from the article to avoid pointed confrontation, another issuing a thoughtful self-reflective public apology, the #MacroSW organization itself issuing its own public apology, and finally, The New Social Worker retracting the article altogether.

    In an effort to learn from this experience, SWCAREs thought it would be productive to explicitly detail the manner in which white supremacy manifested in the events leading up to the publication of #MacroSW’s article, and how it is reflective of the wider social work community as a whole. We believe that it is time for our field to take a long and difficult self-inventory and identify some of the ways we have partnered with white supremacy in our education, practice, and implementation of social justice.

    Stating the Problem – White Supremacy Culture

    Those of us engaged in social work are well-versed in the discomfort of emotionally charged conversations, whether they be online or in person. What begins as a minor disagreement can often devolve into a personal attack in what seems like an instant. At the same time, we know that emotionally charged conversations can also be a catalyst for change.

    We want to be clear that we believe that #MacroSW is doing the very hard work of reflecting on their organizational culture and taking steps to challenge racism both inside and outside of their organization. This article is not meant to throw any shade in their direction. In fact, it is to commend them for their reflection and to use what happened as a tool for learning. The best opportunities for learning arise from not getting it right in the first place.  

    In her article “White Supremacy Culture,” Tema Okun identifies the “norms and standards” that uphold white supremacy culture within organizations. These characteristics are rarely spoken about explicitly, but instead are upheld through the attitudes in favor of and/or against the behavior of comprised members. “These attitudes and behaviors can show up in any group or organization,” says Okun, “whether it is white-led or predominantly white or people of color-led or predominantly people of color.”

    Below we will outline some of the characteristics that Okun identifies, and how they manifested in recent events, as well as how they emerge within social work organizations specifically. We hope to use the retraction of the “Calling In Calling Out Culture” article as an example of how white supremacy was effectively challenged in the culture at #MacroSW and how it was so easily missed prior to the article being published.

    1. 1. Perfectionism: For social work academics and students, perfectionism can feel like a self-driven curse, an internally generated standard of proficiency that defines our worth in the field. For those of us who teach, we have seen the toll that grade insecurity can take on our students. In social work academia, perfectionism can look like a professor creating rigid attendance policies and/or unreachable grading standards. It can also look like a student’s internalization of the inability to meet these requirements, assuming themselves to be incapable or a failure. The effect of perfectionism is that a person becomes a sum of their mistakes, as opposed to an imperfect human worthy of value and expected to fall short sometimes.

    In the since retracted article, #MacroSW defended against having a specific conversation about white supremacy because they were concerned about their inability to find an appropriate facilitator: “We want someone who is experienced with addressing White supremacy, with facilitating Twitter chats, and who can continually re-focus the chat on the topic, with respect, tact, and perhaps even humor.”

    We want to be clear that while we do believe that there are facilitators who would embody all of these characteristics (whether we believe they are all necessary or even productive is another conversation), their inability to find a perfect match for this conversation led to zero conversation happening at all. Ironically, it is in the failure to have any discussion at all that white supremacy reared its head, perpetuating the silence that is often complicit in maintaining a culture where racism thrives.

    Insight: Perfectionism – Oftentimes, social work organizations will avoid the difficult work of self-reflection as it relates to its complicity with white supremacy. We do so out of fear of making mistakes. After all, if a person is indeed a sum of their mistakes, perfectionism can quickly transform an act of racial ignorance into a person internalizing themselves as racist. Instead of demanding perfection of ourselves, we must work toward a culture of appreciation for challenging conversations, specifically the discomfort that comes with embracing accountability. Essentially, doing what is right does not always mean saying everything perfectly. It means being willing to make mistakes, humbly apologize, and then commit to the hard work of moving forward.

    We’d like to point out that the issued apologies from #MacroSW and Patricia Shelly speak to this final point, as they pointed out a commitment to self-reflection and organizational change. As uncomfortable as these apologies might have been to write, we believe that they led to successful growth for all parties involved, even though they would likely have been perceived as a failure if viewed through the lens of perfectionism.

    1. 2. Defensiveness and Power Hoarding: As social workers, many of us know the defensive posture that an institution will take when confronted with its complicity in perpetuating white supremacy. Institutions who have a vested interest in the values of equity and open mindedness can be even more defensive. Social work organizations are expected to effectively serve oppressed communities, and so many of us are reluctant to reflect on how our own efforts have continued to oppress those we believe we are helping.

    Prior to the article being written, there were efforts to create conversation around the topic of how white supremacy manifests in social work academia, (i.e., tone policing, gatekeeping, whitewashing of history, etc.). While this is often a critique of academia in general, we feel it is especially urgent for social work education programs to prioritize requests such as these. Unfortunately, it is infinitely more difficult for social workers to reflect on the manner in which they might be allied with oppression. Who are we if our “help” is hurting? What does it say about us if our “service” is causing harm?

    In an effort to avoid the sinking reality that our actions may be out of line with our values, many social work organizations will attempt to avoid self-reflection altogether, instead mounting a defense against those who are aggrieved. This was the misstep that the authors took in publishing “Calling In Call-Out Culture.” By centering on the comfort of individuals in power over the valid reactions of the ignored and aggrieved, #MacroSW positioned themselves as a group worthy of support and those harmed deserving of silence and scrutiny. The result of this defensive posture is that power is hoarded and maintained, and the original request for a conversation about white supremacy becomes irrelevant.

    Insight: Defensiveness and Power Hoarding. It is especially threatening for social workers to think of themselves as oppressive. Many of us tether our inherent value as people to qualities of compassion, kindness, and a shared commitment to serve vulnerable communities. However, without committing to improving our racial literacy, we conversely run the risk of becoming an ally to the oppressor as opposed to those who are oppressed.

    Without challenging white supremacy culture in social work education, we will end up prioritizing universities over students. Without challenging disparities that exist in health care facilities, we will ultimately protect a system that disenfranchises instead of empowering the patients in need of care. Without dismantling the power that exists in nonprofit social work organizations, we run the risk of exploiting the needs of a community for personal gain as opposed to dismantling the power that created that need in the first place.

    1. 3. Fear of Open Conflict / Right to Comfort: To many of us who live and work in activist spaces, the idea that we need a “safe space” to speak on issues of race can be frustrating. As social workers, we certainly want to ensure that our interventions embrace autonomy and agency for all participants. However, this demand for “safety” is more often an unjustifiable demand for comfort.

    In her book, “White Fragility,” Robin DiAngelo explicitly speaks to this when she points out that this insistence by white people that they experience racial comfort will ultimately shut down the necessary conversations to dismantle racism. She goes on to say that “this insistence also functions to punish those who break white codes of comfort.” We see this taking place in our work through the weaponization of terms like “civility,” “politeness,” and in the case of the retracted article, a call for “professionalism” and “ethics.” 

    When reflecting on the publication and then retraction of “Calling In, Call-Out Culture,” we can see how this fear of open conflict not only shut down an important conversation about race, but then sublimated this discomfort into punitive actions towards those who spoke out, embodying the punishment DiAngelo illuminates. We cannot think of a more disturbing accusation than to challenge the ethics of social workers who speak out against racism, simply because it made White social workers (in positions of power) uncomfortable.

    Insight: White people often conflate feeling uncomfortable with feeling unsafe. Not only does this shut down necessary conversations about racism, but as DiAngelo spells out, it also “trivializes our history of brutality towards people of color and perverts the reality that is history.” 

    We must expect for white supremacy culture to redefine and weaponize terms like “comfort,” “professionalism”, “civility,” “kindness,” “politeness,” “empathy,” and even “love” in an effort to maintain power. Anti-racism demands that we instead radicalize these terms and lean into the discomfort that is a professional conversation about race, a radical empathy and love that centers on the demand for equity and justice over the complacency of comfort. We must embrace the unfortunate reality that racism exists in all of us. The fact that our field is comprised of approximately 68% white people makes this infinitely more urgent.  

    Processing

    In her plenary interview at the 2020 Society for Social Work and Research, Feminista Jones called on our field to reflect on its complicity in oppressing marginalized populations. “Social work has destroyed generations of communities’ self-determination in the name of white benevolence” she said. This call to action is one that could not be more timely, as we see social workers engaging in a child welfare system that disproportionately separates Black and Brown families; social workers partnering with the judicial system in their “treatment” of individuals (disproportionately Black and Brown) arrested for drug and alcohol offenses; and ultimately, social workers profiting from community needs without involving themselves in efforts to dismantle the power that created those needs in the first place. 

    We must summon the courage to have productive conversations about racism in our field. White workers especially need to reflect on the defensiveness we feel when we are confronted with white supremacy culture, and how we benefit from the existence of it in our institutions and our interpersonal conversations. We must create a discipline around self-reflection, increase our stamina for holding discomfort, and continually ask ourselves where we are centering our engagement – is it on the needs of the oppressed or the comfort of those who fear change?

    We sincerely hope that the fallout from the article “Calling in Call-Out Culture” will serve as an education for our entire field. We trust that all parties will continue to focus on our shared code of ethics, one that prioritizes social justice and equity. We also ask that readers reflect on what it means to be ethical and professional in social justice movements. This work is not easy and it is rarely comfortable. It is almost never perfect. That said, we believe that our profession is up to the challenge, and we look forward to continuing to organize with one another, roll up our sleeves, and get the job done.

    Child Welfare Information Gateway. (2016). Racial disproportionality and disparity in child welfare. Washington, DC: US Department of Health and Human Services, Children’s Bureau.

    DiAngelo, R. (2019). White Fragility: Why it’s so hard for white people to talk about racism. London: Allen Lane.

    Okun, T. (2001). White Supremacy Culture. In Dismantling Racism: A Workbook for Social Change. Retrieved from http://www.dismantlingracism.org/white-supremacy-culture.html.

    Zgoda, K, Shelly, P., and West, R. (2020, January 8). Calling In Call-Out Culture. The New Social Worker Magazine. Volume 27, Number 1., 26-28. (Retraction published January 13, 2020. Retrieved from: https://www.socialworker.com/feature-articles/practice/calling-in-call-out-culture-social-workers-having-difficult-conversations-social-media/).

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    Social Work Coalition For Anti-Racist Educators | Our mission is to dismantle white supremacy in social work education.

    Health

    Study Shows Immune Cells Against Covid-19 Stay High in Number Six Months After Vaccination

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    A recent study by Johns Hopkins Medicine researchers provides evidence that CD4+ T lymphocytes — immune system cells also known as helper T cells — produced by people who received either of the two available messenger RNA (mRNA) vaccines for COVID-19 persist six months after vaccination at only slightly reduced levels from two weeks after vaccination and are at significantly higher levels than for those who are unvaccinated.

    The researchers also found that the T cells they studied recognize and help protect against the delta variant of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the delta variant — currently the predominant strain of SARS-CoV-2 in the United States — causes more infections and spreads faster than earlier forms of the virus.

    The study findings were first reported online Oct. 25, 2021, in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases.

    “Previous research has suggested that humoral immune response — where the immune system circulates virus-neutralizing antibodies — can drop off at six months after vaccination, whereas our study indicates that cellular immunity — where the immune system directly attacks infected cells — remains strong,” says study senior author Joel Blankson, M.D., Ph.D., professor of medicine at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. “The persistence of these vaccine-elicited T cells, along with the fact that they’re active against the delta variant, has important implications for guiding COVID vaccine development and determining the need for COVID boosters in the future.”

    To reach these findings, Blankson and his colleagues obtained blood from 15 study participants (10 men and five women) at three times: prior to vaccination, between seven and14 days after their second Pfizer/BioNTech or Moderna vaccine dose, and six months after vaccination. The median age of the participants was 41 and none had evidence of prior SARS-CoV-2 infection.

    CD4+ T lymphocytes get their nickname of helper T cells because they assist another type of immune system cell, the B lymphocyte (B cell), to respond to surface proteins — antigens — on viruses such as SARS-CoV-2. Activated by the CD4+ T cells, immature B cells become either plasma cells that produce antibodies to mark infected cells for disposal from the body or memory cells that “remember” the antigen’s biochemical structure for a faster response to future infections. Therefore, a CD4+ T cell response can serve as a measure of how well the immune system responds to a vaccine and yields humoral immunity.

    In their study, Blankson and colleagues found that the number of helper T cells recognizing SARS-CoV-2 spike proteins was extremely low prior to vaccination — with a median of 2.7 spot-forming units (SFUs, the level of which is a measure of T cell frequency) per million peripheral blood mononuclear cells (PBMCs, identified as any blood cell with a round nucleus, including lymphocytes). Between 7 and 14 days after vaccination, the T cell frequency rose to a median of 237 SFUs per million PBMCs. At six months after vaccination, the level dropped slightly to a median of 122 SFUs per million PBMCs — a T cell frequency still significantly higher than before vaccination.

    The researchers also looked six months after vaccination at the ability of CD4+ T cells to recognize spike proteins atop the SARS-CoV-2 delta variant. They discovered the number of T cells recognizing the delta variant spike protein was not significantly different from that of T cells attuned to the original virus strain’s protein.

    Although the study was limited because of the small number of participants, Blankson feels it pinpoints areas that merit further research.

    “The robust expansion of T cells in response to stimulation with spike proteins is certainly indicated, supporting the need for more study to show booster shots do successfully increase the frequency of SARS-CoV-2-specific T cells circulating in the blood,” says Blankson. “The added bonus is finding that this response also is likely strong for the delta variant.”

    Along with Blankson, the members of the study team from Johns Hopkins Medicine are study lead author Bezawit Woldemeskel and Caroline Garliss.

    This study was supported by the Johns Hopkins COVID-19 Vaccine-related Research Fund.

    The authors do not have financial or conflict of interest disclosures. 

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    Health

    Poverty, Racism and the Public Health Crisis in America

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    Although extreme poverty in the United States is low by global standards, the U.S. has the worst index of health and social problems as a function of income inequality. In a newly published article, Bettina Beech, clinical professor of population health in the Department of Health Systems and Population Health Sciences at the University of Houston College of Medicine and chief population health officer at UH, examines poverty and racism as factors influencing health.

    “A common narrative for the relatively high prevalence of poverty among marginalized minority communities is predicated on racist notions of racial inferiority and frequent denial of the structural forms of racism and classism that have contributed to public health crises in the United States and across the globe,” Beech reports in Frontiers in Public Health. “Racism contributes to and perpetuates the economic and financial inequality that diminishes prospects for population health improvement among marginalized racial and ethnic groups. The U.S. has one of the highest rates of poverty in the developed world, but despite its collective wealth, the burden falls disproportionately on communities of color.” The goal of population health is to achieve health equity, so that every person can reach their full potential.

    Though overall wealth has risen in recent years, growth in economic and financial resources has not been equally distributed. Black families in the U.S. have about one-twentieth the wealth of their white peers on average. For every dollar of wealth in white families, the corresponding wealth in Black households is five cents.

    “Wealth inequality is not a function of work ethic or work hour difference between groups. Rather, the widening gap between the affluent and the poor can be linked to unjust policies and practices that favor the wealthy,” said Beech. “The impact of this form of inequality on health has come into sharp focus during the COVID-19 pandemic as the economically disadvantaged were more likely to get infected with SARS CoV-2 and die.”

    A Very Old Problem 

    In the mid-1800’s, Dr. James McCune Smith wrote one of the earliest descriptions of racism as the cause of health inequities and ultimately health disparities in America. He explained the health of a person “was not primarily a consequence of their innate constitution, but instead reflected their intrinsic membership in groups created by a race structured society.”

    Over 100 years later, the Heckler Report, the first government-sanctioned assessment of racial health disparities, was published. It noted mortality inequity was linked to six leading causes of preventable excess deaths for the Black compared to the white population (cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, infant mortality, chemical dependency and homicide/unintentional injury).

    It and other reports led to a more robust focus on population health over the last few decades that has included a renewed interest in the impact of racism and social factors, such as poverty, on clinical outcomes.

    The Myth of Meritocracy

    Beech contends that structural racism harms marginalized populations at the expense of affording greater resources, opportunities and other privileges to the dominant white society.

    “Public discourse has been largely shaped by a narrative of meritocracy which is laced with ideals of opportunity without any consideration of the realities of racism and race-based inequities in structures and systems that have locked individuals, families and communities into poverty-stricken lives for generations,” she said. “Coupled with a lack of a national health program this condemns oppressed populations such as Black and Hispanic Americans, American Indians, and disproportionately non-English speaking immigrants and refugees to remain in poverty and suffer from suboptimal health.”

    Keys to Improvement

    The World Health Organization identified three keys to improving health at a global level that each reinforces the impact of socioeconomic factors: (1) improve the conditions of daily life; (2) tackle the inequitable distribution of power, money and resources; and (3) develop a workforce trained in and public awareness of the social determinants of health.

    The report’s findings highlight the need to implement health policies to increase access to care for lower-income individuals and highlight the need to ensure such policies and associated programs are reaching those in need.

    “Health care providers can directly address many of the factors crucial for closing the health disparities gap by recognizing and trying to mitigate the race-based implicit biases many physicians carry, as well as leveraging their privilege to address the elements of institutionalized racism entrenched within the fabric of our society, starting with social injustice and human indifference,” said Beech.

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    Mental Health

    When Giving Thanks, Don’t Forget Yourself

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    As we give thanks at the holidays, it’s easy to overlook someone important: your past self.

    While it’s well documented that gratitude toward others can improve wellbeing, two University of Florida scientists find that gratitude toward your past self also has benefits.

    Does thanking yourself seem a bit…selfish? The researchers, UF psychology professor Matt Baldwin, Ph.D., and undergraduate student Samantha Zaw, think not.

    “Despite the fact that past gratitude is self-focused, it reminds people that they’re part of a bigger story and that they have the power to grow,” Baldwin said. “It’s possible this promotes a pay-it-forward type of mentality.”

    Gratitude is what psychologists call a self-transcendent emotion, one that lifts us out of the everyday and expands our perspective, which can help us get along with each other better. In a recent experiment, Baldwin and Zaw asked participants to write brief gratitude letters. The first group thanked someone else, the second thanked themselves, while a third, the control condition, wrote about a positive experience they’d had. Zaw and Baldwin then surveyed the participants about their self-perception after writing the letter. Although the results are not yet published, early analysis shows that the exercise gave the other- and self-focused gratitude groups a sense of redemption and helped them feel they were morally good people. However, the group that wrote to themselves scored higher on both measures.

    The past-self group also saw a benefit the others didn’t: an increase in the self-awareness measures of clarity, authenticity and connectedness.

    “Unlike gratitude toward others, being appreciative of ourselves carries an added benefit of truly understanding who we are and feeling connected to ourselves,” said Zaw, a McNair Scholar who has been working with Baldwin since her freshman year as part of UF’s Emerging Scholars Program.

    Zaw and Baldwin’s research — the first known data gathered on past-self gratitude — was inspired by a Reese’s cup. When Baldwin’s co-worker, boredom researcher Erin Westgate, returned to the office after pandemic lockdown, she was delighted to discover a peanut butter cup she had squirreled away in her desk.

    “She texted me like, ‘Oh my gosh, my past self left my future self a Reese’s,’” Baldwin recalled. “I was like, ‘Wait a second. You’re expressing gratitude towards something your past self had done. We have to study this.’”

    As Zaw and Baldwin dug into previous studies, they found plenty on gratitude toward others and a few on self-compassion, but nothing on past-self gratitude. They designed the letter-writing experiment to test its effects, presenting their findings at the Society of Southeastern Social Psychologists in October and at the upcoming meeting of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology in February.

    If you’re curious about the benefits of self-gratitude, Zaw offered a way to try the experiment at home, maybe as a new Thanksgiving tradition. Take a few minutes to write a thank you message to someone else, and another to yourself for something you did in the past. Sharing what you wrote could foster connections between loved ones, she said, but the exercise can also pay dividends if you try it on your own.

    “At Thanksgiving and Christmas, we focus on other people, but self-care is really needed too, especially if we want to feel more clear about ourselves,” she said. “Maybe it can even lead to a better vision for ourselves for the next year.”

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