Audre Lorde famously wrote that “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house,” and in 2020, few passages ring truer. According to the National Association of Social Workers, the profession is meant to “enhance human well-being and help meet the basic human needs of all people.” We want to help clients and organizations identify tools for survival, healing, and growth, but what we say we’re about and what we’re actually doing don’t always line up. The SWHelper-run Anti-Racism Virtual Summit on September 16 and 17 in 2020 offered a space for social workers and other helping professions to reflect on and rebuild our toolboxes. Speakers Crystal Hayes and Dr. Jennifer Jewell used their workshop, Dismantling White Supremacy in Social Work, to explore the field’s racist history and to offer steps that providers can take to transform our work. (You can learn more about this year’s Anti-Racism Virtual Summit here, taking place October 26th and the 27th.)
In last year’s event, Hayes, MSW, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Connecticut, and Jewell, Ph.D., the Director of Social Work at Salisbury University, depicted a steep uphill battle from complicity to transformation, initiated by progressive leaders but in need of more support. Hayes, a Black feminist reproductive justice advocate, opened the workshop with a powerful reflection on colonialism and the cultural genocide of Indigenous and First Nations people, whose sacred land we occupy. In truth, many of our struggles (colonialism, police brutality, and the climate crisis, to name a few) share the same root problem: white supremacy. Critical race theorist Frances Lee Ansley characterized white supremacy as the systematic hoarding of power and resources by White people paired with widespread views of Whites as dominant and non-Whites as subordinate. This is the foundation on which the social work profession was built and the fire from which many “helping” tools were forged.
Hayes’ call for an intersectional, decolonized approach to social work requires us to take off our rose-colored glasses and take a hard look at our origin story. Jane Addams, often lauded as the mother of social work and a leader for suffrage (a movement imbued with racism), was no saint. Addams, the 1931 recipient of the prestigious Nobel Peace Prize and a celebrated figure even today, was also an example of segregation, paternalism, and gatekeeping in action. It is not enough to quickly admit these flaws and move on; we need to sit with the full weight of the damage inflicted, to understand how deep our racist roots reach. There is no quick fix for the discomfort we feel, but we can learn and grow from it. Less than 100 years later, the field is still dominated by White women, beneficiaries of white supremacy just as Addams was.
From segregated settlement houses to the sanctioned kidnapping of Indigenous children and disparate rates of removal of Black children from their families, to eugenics and the forced sterilization of Black, Latinx, and Indigenous people, our field has been using tools of oppression, not liberation. All signs point back to white supremacy: these disparities happen in settings where social workers hold power and control decision-making. We see ourselves as progressive saviors, but we have also done deep harm, not just healing. These legacies are not a relic of our past, either. They have lived on through redlining, internment camps, prisons, and the ICE detention centers where women today still endure needless hysterectomies under the supervision of doctors who were spoon-fed covert racism in their training. Health and economic outcomes from COVID-19 show plainly that racism still touches all the spaces where social workers practice.
Evolving the Social Work Profession
The “ah-ha” moment of Hayes’ and Jewell’s presentation emerged when Jewell gets at the difference between non-racist and anti-racist. Ibram Kendi teaches that anti-racism is a verb, and non-racism does not exist at all. As Jewell put it, “kind does not equal anti-racist.” Kindness and decency are not liberation tools, but anti-racism – actively working to take down oppressive systems – is. Social work did not begin as an anti-oppression movement, but it can become one. Research consistently shows that the whole profession needs an overhaul. Not sure where to start? Here are a few places to focus your attention:
- Education access and integrity. We can look upstream to the racialized K-12 opportunity gaps and school to prison pipeline that create barriers for future change-makers. Academic institutions must make schooling affordable; pursuing an MSW requires wealth or strong credit, but wealth is directly connected to race because of white supremacy, perpetuating the cycle. Student unions can demand anti-oppression commitments from field placement sites and protest the exploitative norm of unpaid internships.
- Policy reform. Social workers need to be explicitly anti-racist and reflect on how our identities and biases help or hinder our effectiveness in clinical and macro roles alike. There is a time and place for us to surrender our privilege as much as there is a time to leverage it for change and reform in law enforcement, child welfare, and the many other settings where we operate.
- Decentering whiteness. In schools, we can decolonize curricula to showcase the contributions of BIPOC providers in social work theory, research, and practice. In our agencies, we should prioritize the recruitment, retention, and promotion of people from the communities directly impacted by racial oppression. We can look to community-led revolutions like Black settlement houses, the Black Panther Party, and BLM for best practices on equity and healing.
- Accompliceship and accountability. Being accomplices against white supremacy means reconsidering how we share the air – are we whitesplaining oppression to BIPOC clients and colleagues but staying silent when oppression occurs, expecting them to call it out? Racism going under our radar is not an excuse – it is a symptom of the problem. Most of all, when we get it wrong (as we all do), we must be accountable and commit to doing better.
Like most revolutions, the charge is being led by young people: doctoral and graduate students in the field, community organizers, and clients who experienced harm at the hands of oppressive systems. Not only White social workers but all White “helping” professionals have an ethical responsibility to unpack our toolboxes and to get rid of what’s broken. After all, liberation work is about impact, not intent. Some people would call a hammer a tool, and others would call it a weapon; who holds it and how they swing it is what makes the difference.
Unpacking the Historical Relationship of Racism and Ableism
A key part of anti-racist social work practice is engaging in the art of reflection as we consider the person in the environment. This also involves being aware of the larger social context in which we live and practice. The social context can, for some people, include experiences of racism and ableism. Recently, I wrote about the symbiotic relationship between racism and ableism and why social workers should care about it. Now, I want to take a step back and look at the historical context that leads us to where we are today with the relationship for disabled people of color. Through the consideration of history, we can understand how to better move forward with integrity as anti-racist social work practitioners.
As the poet Maya Angelou said “History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again.” So what are the historical roots of this relationship between racism and ableism? Let’s explore.
Historical Roots of Ableism and Racism
We began to see the interaction between ableism and racism way back in our nation’s history. Let’s look at four examples to make this relationship clear. During slavery times, slaveowners conjured up the idea of drapetomania, the alleged psychosis that was experienced by runaway slaves which in retrospect was emblematic of the interaction of ableism and racism. This is an example of how race is pathologized to create racism. In other words, people of color were treated in specific oppressive ways in order to create barriers and conditions that resulted in the origination of disability categories. In reflecting on drapetomania, Isabella Kres-Nash points out that “the concept of disability has been used to justify discrimination against other groups by attributing disability to them.” Of drapetomania specifically, Kres-Nash says this is an example of a “disability being created by people in power in order to preserve social order” all of which occurred in a racialized context during slavery.
Moving into the 19th century, we can point to the popularity of phrenology, a pseudoscientific technique originally developed in the late 1700s which purports to determine an individual’s character and abilities (and therefore, alleged superiority). This could be deduced from the size and shape of various bumps on a person’s head. Phrenology, among other things, was used to justify the practice of slavery, as was depicted in the film Django, Unchained. Although this pseudoscience has long been discredited, this technique is considered a precursor to modern neuropsychology and rears its ugly head once in a while in current-day conversations about the use of technology and facial recognition (which is known to be much less accurate for people of color).
If we look to more recent times, such as the turn of the 20th century, we can see connections between racism and the ableist Eugenics movement which sought to breed a perfect human race through a form of “scientific racism.” This movement often targeted what were known as “feebleminded” people (now known as intellectually and developmentally disabled people), among others, for sterilization, many of whom were people of color. In his discussion on the treatment of African American and Black “feebleminded” people, historian Gregory Dorr says “African Americans had become the targets of extra-institutional and extra-legal sterilizations, reflective of a more general southern racist view that it was necessary to further protect the white race itself from black folks.” Thus, scientific racism is a prime example of the relationship between racism and ableism.
An Unusual Island in Maine
In the early 1900s, what transpired with the inhabitants of Malaga Island in Maine is also emblematic of the relationship between racism and ableism. This small coastal island was a multiracial fishing community originally founded by an ex-slave. While inter-racial marriage was illegal, the community apparently allowed people to live and let live in this regard. It is said that many of the inhabitants of the island were “feebleminded” or intellectually and developmentally disabled, as we would now say. Whether this is accurate is unknown. As the Eugenics movement gained popularity and as the value of Maine’s coastal islands became more clear as potential tourist destinations, state government officials issued an eviction order to all of the Malaga residents – of all races and ethnicities. All residents who had no place to go were to be placed in the Maine School for the Feebleminded, where some were eventually sterilized and lived out the rest of their lives. The price of miscegenation was banishment from a happy community due in large part to ableism and racism.
An Inextricable Link
These four historical lessons give us some important context for what we may see in social work practice today. So, to put it all together, when we look at how structural racism works, we see the ways in which it has pathologized Black and Brown bodies for the purpose of keeping the White status quo in place. We can see how a society that benefits from structural racism is simultaneously responsible for facilitating environments that promote the development or highlighting of disability. These historical situations set the foundations for present day scenarios in which racism and ableism interact regularly – in our criminal justice system, in our education system, in our health care system, in our child welfare system and beyond.
How can you learn from this history and move on in a positive direction? Your job is to reflect on the ways in which the past plays out in the present day, and to identify the ways in which you can disrupt the powerful relationship between ableism and racism in your social work practice. Here are five steps you can consider taking today as an equity-minded social work practitioner:
- Become aware of all of your client’s social identities, think about disability as an identity, not just race.
- Use data to identify inequitable processes and outcomes based on both race and disability.
- Reflect on the differential consequences of social work practices on people and communities based on race and disability.
- Exercise agency to produce equity across racial and disability groups.
- View the practice context as a potentially oppressive and marginalizing space and self-monitor interactions with clients/patients/constituents of different racial and disability social identities.
Understanding DACA & the Role Social Workers Play in Advancing Immigration Justice
There are approximately 10.5 million undocumented individuals in the United States according to Pew Research. Immigrants often leave their home countries seeking better opportunities and a brighter future. Refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants are escaping poverty, political conflict, natural disasters, and violence. To provide limited relief to some undocumented immigrants, on June 15, 2012, former President Barack Obama used his executive power to create the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. DACA provides approved individuals with work authorization and a social security
number, allowing recipients to apply for driver licenses and identification cards. DACA is a deferred action, meaning that it is discretionary and available only for certain undocumented people who came to the U.S. as children. To qualify for DACA, individuals must meet strict eligibility criteria, which include: arriving in the U.S. before the age of 16, meeting certain educational requirements, being under the age of 31 as of June 15, 2012, never being convicted of a felony, and never posing a threat to national
security or public safety. In the following, we’ll explore this program further and the role social workers can play in regards to immigration justice.
DACA in Action
When DACA was first introduced, it brought a sense of relief to the hundreds of thousands of individuals who could benefit from this executive action. One DACA recipient, who was interviewed for this article, discussed in-depth what DACA meant to her and her family. Nataly*, a 32-year-old Mexican woman, was brought to the United States by a coyote at the young age of six. Before DACA, Nataly expressed living in constant fear of deportation and arrest. She stated, “As a kid without documentation, I was embarrassed to talk about my status. When other students talked about going to college, I felt like there was no future for me and I couldn’t move forward.” DACA provided hope to hundreds of thousands of young people like Nataly. After gaining DACA, Nataly described feeling relieved and excited. “I felt hope, happiness, and security about my future. I felt like I could become whoever I wanted; although I faced racism as a DACA recipient trying to enroll in college, I didn’t give up.” DACA recipients must pay out-of-state tuition at most universities, regardless of how long they have been in that State, and in most States they do not qualify for financial student aid.
A Deeper Look at DACA
To fully understand DACA, it is critical to know that DACA does not lead to a path to citizenship or permanent residency and it can be revoked at any time. Although approximately 643,560 people have benefitted from this action, DACA has received wide criticism and opposition from citizens and political figures according to the Center for American Progress. Despite being upheld by the Supreme Court, DACA’s critics cast it as an unlawful solution to deal with undocumented immigrants residing in the United States. As we continue to witness the legal battles unfold in the courts in attempts to rescind the program, Nataly cries and expresses being scared because the U.S. government has access to all of her information and can easily locate her now. Just like Nataly, many DACA recipients, often referred to as Dreamers, are experiencing fears, anxiety, and sometimes depression. They constantly worry about what the court will decide and whether the decision will affect their ability to continue attending school, working, staying in the country, and pursuing their dreams. In addition, they face the persistent fear of deportation and the inability to support their families emotionally and financially. The lives of hundreds of thousands of Dreamers continue to be in turmoil due to the lack of comprehensive immigration reform.
Today, the DACA program is 9 years old and as we look into the future, we need to recognize that Dreamers have demonstrated that they belong in the United States. They are our colleagues, neighbors, friends, and essential workers. They pay $613.8 million in mortgage payments and $2.3 billion in rental payments annually. They also pay $5.7 billion in federal taxes and $3.1 billion in state and local taxes every year. They are part of the fabric of this country. They make tremendous economic contributions to our society, and many of them are on the frontlines treating patients suffering from physical illness and mental health issues caused by the global Coronavirus pandemic.
The Responsibility of Social Workers
As social workers, we are tasked with fighting for social justice for all people. Whether we are allies or are directly affected by this issue, it is imminent that we support and raise our voice on behalf of all the Dreamers. Undocumented immigrants are a vulnerable population and social workers should challenge how Congress, organizations, universities, and all other institutions see and treat Dreamers. Nataly is now a dental hygienist, a small business owner, and a mother of two. This is the only home she knows and remembers. You can help Nataly and hundreds of thousands of Dreamers like her by calling your representatives in Congress, signing petitions, attending calls to action, and educating the public. For more information about how you can get involved, check out immigrant rights organizations such as United We Dream, the UndocuBlack Network, and join the Social Workers United for Immigration network (SWUFI).
*A pseudonym was used to protect the identity of the interviewee.
SWUFI is a network committed to the well-being and advancement of immigrants,
asylum seekers, refugees, and fighting for their rights. Together, we envision access to
resources for immigrants, an immigration movement where social workers stand strong
alongside immigrants and allies at the local, state, and federal levels, and collaboration
among social workers that includes peer support, and educational opportunities. To join,
send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Cultivating an Equitable and Anti-Racist Workplace
2020 was filled with unprecedented events in all facets of life, and, as many have noted across the globe, the year became a landmark for the call to action against racism.
From the incident in Central Park, where a white woman called the police on a black bird watcher, to the murder of George Floyd by police officers, and when the police officers who murdered Breonna Taylor in her home were not indicted for their involvement in her murder, it is clear that racism is still very prevalent and pervasive. It reaches far and wide, including at home and in the workplace, where power dynamics and structural racism can be multiplied.
Through his talk, “Social Work’s Role in Black Lives Matter,” Wayne Reid discussed racism’s reach into social workers’ professional lives. In the workplace, there are certain barriers that people of color face that white people do not. To address these barriers and inequities, equality, diversity, and inclusion advisory groups are often created. Too often, the burden of creating these groups and addressing racism in the workplace falls solely on people of color, when it is a fight that requires everyone’s involvement, especially those in positions of power. This is part of the push for people to go beyond being non-racist and to become anti-racist– actively fighting against racism and advocating for changes against racist policies and practices. It is an active, ongoing process, not only in one’s personal life but in professional environments as well.
Creating an Anti-Racist Workplace
Wayne works for the British Association of Social Workers (BASW), which currently has a goal to create a universal anti-racist framework that is applicable to all aspects of the social work field. This includes creating an anti-racist workplace, and Wayne and the BASW have an idea for how that would look. As Wayne described, an anti-racist workplace would have a very specific anti-racist mission statement, making sure to interview people of color, to integrate an anti-racism mentality into policies and procedures, to provide adequate anti-racism training to all staff, and to conduct annual pay reviews for employees of color to ensure they are being paid fairly relative to their white colleagues. With these steps, workplaces would have to take active steps to ensure they were discussing race within the workplace and enforcing anti-racist policies.
On top of these ideas for an anti-racist workplace, including mandatory professional development courses aimed at educating people on how to be anti-racist, anti-discriminatory, and anti-oppressive would be beneficial. There are already experts in the world of anti-racism who have done the groundwork, and their expertise can be utilized to help implement anti-racist practices within workplaces. For example, Stanford University has created an “Anti-Racism Toolkit” for managers to better equip themselves to address racism in the workplace and move towards a more inclusive environment, and the W.K Kellogg Foundation has created a Racial Equity Resource Guide full of training methods and workshops to provide structure for anti-racist professional development.
Wayne also discussed the importance of leadership programs for people of color within their workplaces. In the US, black people only make up 3.2% of senior leadership roles, and only 0.8% of Fortune 500 CEO positions. Employers need to sufficiently invest in leadership training programs and provide the resources to ensure the success of people of color within them. Leadership programs for people of color would help address the lack of people of color in leadership positions within the social work field and beyond. For social work specifically, in conjunction with these leadership programs, employers should create programs allowing social workers of color to mentor senior staff members as well, providing insight for them regarding the challenges people of color face in the workplace. That said, while the benefits of this type of program are important, boundary setting and confidentiality are just as vital and would need to be well thought out prior to implementation.
In order to assist in diversifying leadership, higher education must also be addressed. Despite the increase in people of color attending college, there is still a large imbalance in representation compared to the general US population.
For the social work field, it is important to address the accessibility of social work education programs. Because they are often expensive and have numerous requirements for entry, entry into the field is inaccessible for many. They also need to include a more deliberately anti-racist curriculum, which can be guided by people of color through their lived experiences, as well as experts in the field. The field of social work has long been dominated by white women, and that imbalance has impacted the curriculum that we use today.
As long as people continue to ignore racism and the effects it continues to have, nothing will change. Wayne and the BASW’s work to integrate anti-racist education and policies into the workplace and social work schools is crucial to the future of social work and the progress of anti-racist work. Social work needs to play a large role in the changing of policies and practices to ensure that the future is more equitable for all.
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