What Do You Know About Disability Cultural Competence?

Recently, I had the opportunity to give a webinar on disability cultural competence to social service workers, but was met with many blank stares. As a disabled social worker myself, I often notice that the disability community is not recognized as a cultural group. Disability is also not considered as a social identity in diversity considerations, despite the ways the community feels about it. Frankly, our field has a long way to go when it comes to developing disability cultural competence. Let’s see if we can change that.

Why the We Need to Prioritize the Disability Community

You may be asking yourself, why all the focus on disability? Well, the disability community comprises 26 percent of the adult U.S. population – that’s one in four Americans according to the Centers for Disease Control. Among children under the age of 18, estimates suggest that 4.3 percent of the population is disabled according to the U.S. Census from 2019. This means that social services workers are interacting with the disability community all over! It’s also important to note that disability transcends race, ethnicity, gender and other social identities, as seen in the graphic below (courtesy of Courtney-Long, Romano, Carroll, et al., 2017). So we need to remember to be intersectional in our  practice – these are not siloed communities.

Courtesy of Courtney-Long, Romano, Carroll, et al., 2017

Importance of Disability Identity

I’d like to transition now to talking about the importance of having a disability identity. Some people identify as disabled from a cultural perspective. Some people are not even aware that this is an option and you can open their eyes to the world of disability as a resource for them. In other words, for some, this is a missed opportunity to connect to a supportive network. For others, it’s a choice not to identify as disabled either due to stigma, internalized ableism or other beliefs. The idea is that developing a strong disability identity is super helpful with your long-term well-being. And in order to do this, you have to both connect with the disability community and with disability culture. So what is that?

What is Disability Culture?

 

In short, disability culture is the “sum total of behaviors, beliefs, ways of living, & material artifacts that are unique to persons affected by disability.” It’s essential for social service workers to be tuned in to disability culture so they can leverage it to connect with their clients. And let’s be clear, disability culture does NOT consist of disability service programs. Where we really see disability culture come alive is on social media sites, such as Twitter and Instagram. You can follow some of the major disability culture hashtags to see the dialogues and debates that are hot in our community right now, such as: #DisabilityTwitter; #DisabilityVisability; #DisabilityAwareness; #IdentityFirst; #DisabilityLife; #Spoonie,#SpoonieLife, and more.

You may notice that the last two hashtags included the word “spoonie.” This derives from “spoon theory,” which is an actual theory based on a metaphor about how much mental and physical energy a person has to accomplish their activities of daily living (ADLs) and instrumental activities of daily living (IADLs). The disability community talks about how many “spoons” they have as a unit of measurement of energy – and sometimes refers to themselves as spoonies. Please note that in teaching you this, I am helping you to develop your disability cultural competence.

How Build Disability Cultural Competence

Other ways to build up your disability cultural competence are to check out the Disability Visibility Project, which tells the stories of diverse members of the community in wonderful ways. And there are a range of organizations, such as Sins Invalid, which founded the disability justice movement. You can also read the 10 principles of that movement in this short document. This will help you to tune in to the disability pride movement. We have a pride month and a pride flag too, it happens in July.

When it comes to engaging in disability competent practice, we need to develop knowledge about disability culture and disability history. We can also consider taking the following steps to round out this competence:

First, we need to examine our own attitudes about disability and engage in reflective practice around that. You can consider your own implicit bias about the disability community through Harvard University’s Project Implicit test about ableism, or through social worker Vilissa Thompson’s guide to checking your own ableism.

Second, developing disability cultural competence over time also includes a careful look at the terminology we are using and respecting disabled people’s choice of identity-first language in many cases. You can read more about that here and throughout that site. The Harvard Business Review also has a thoughtful essay on why you need to stop using particular words and phrases. It’s a great resource and helpful read for many.

Third, we also need to think respectfully about disability etiquette and how ideas play out in different parts of the disability community. One should presume competence about us – all of us! We ask that you respect our bodily autonomy, speak to the person and not their companion/interpreter, ask before you help, be sensitive about physical contact/equipment contact, don’t make assumptions about capacity, listen to us, don’t assume you know better and if you are in doubt about what to do, ask! Writer Andrew Purlang sums up his disability etiquette request as follows:

  • Don’t be afraid to notice, mention, or ask about a person’s disability when it’s relevant — but don’t go out of your way!
  • Offer to help, but make sure to listen to their response, respect their answer, & follow their directions
  • Don’t tell a disabled person about how they should think about or talk about their own disability
  • Don’t give unsolicited medical, emotional, or practical advice
  • Don’t make a disabled person responsible for managing your feelings about their disability, or for your education on disability issues
  • If you make a mistake, just say you’re sorry and move on. Don’t try to argue that you were right all along.

Now What?

Taken together, these steps, learning disability culture, and examining our own attitudes about disability, go a long way towards the development of disability cultural competence. But none of it will do any good if we are not fighting for disability access and disability inclusion, which are central issues for the disability community. Many people think that issues of access were solved by the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. But the implementation of that law is fraught and embattled, and there is lots of work to be done on the access front. Take a look at these simple guides below. They will go a long way in helping to engage the disability community and making us feel welcome! Above all, remember our movement’s rallying cry, “nothing about us, without us!”

Website Accessibility

Accessible Social Media Guide

Meeting Accessibility

Webinar Accessibility

Public Event Accessibility

What “Bachelor in Paradise” Can Teach us About Empowering the Disability Community

Are you a fan of “Bachelor in Paradise?” Whether you realize it or not, this season of the “Bachelor” franchise spinoff took on the topic of disability empowerment. Which is not exactly an expected topic for mainstream television. For years, the “Bachelor” series has been criticized for featuring primarily White contestants, and has worked to diversify the races and ethnicities of the people they draw on the show. But what about people from the disability community or people who identify as Deaf or hard-of-hearing?

Being disabled or Deaf or hard of hearing are also social identities in American culture – identities that should not be overlooked in the show’s representation. These communities represent what some refer to as the largest minority community in the United States at 26 percent of the U.S. population according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In the following, we’ll discuss more about why this year’s “Bachelor in Paradise” was so significant and what that may mean for social workers.

Introducing Abigail

A few years ago, we did have Sarah Herron on the show, a woman with a physical disability, although her presence was short-lived. But this season, the very first person down the stairs to the Mexican beachfront hacienda was Abigail Heringer, a 26 year-old woman who identifies as Deaf due to congenital hearing loss from birth. She received cochlear implants at the age of two but does consider herself disabled due to her hearing impairment and loss. Abigail was a central figure in this summer’s Bachelor in Paradise due to her romance with Noah Erb.

It was refreshing to see a disabled person in a romantic relationship given the history our culture has of thinking that disabled folks are asexual, incapable of having sex or in need of being protected from any kind of sexual contact. Abigail and Noah’s relationship has played out on television screens across Bachelor Nation – from their devastating breakup at the show’s conclusion to their rekindled romance announced subtly on social media later. This demonstrates that members of the disability community have relationships too, and that this is 100% normative behavior, with breakups, glitches, awkwardness, kissing and all!

The Dignity of Risk

So how does this relate to social work practice? One of the central tenets of good disability social work is how we need to honor the concept of the dignity of risk. This is the idea that everyone can learn from everyday risks. Central to honoring the dignity of risk is respecting an individual’s autonomy and self-determination to make choices. Also important, is the right for our clients to make choices even if social workers or other professionals in the person’s life feel that they could endanger the decision-maker in question. In order to respect a person’s dignity of risk, one should provide intermittent support even if others do not approve of the choice.

As there is inherent dignity in the experience of everyday risk, this concept suggests that limiting a disabled person’s ability to make even a risky choice, or limiting their access to the learning that comes along with a potentially emotionally painful risk, such as dating, does not foster overall wellness in the long run. Abigail, from this year’s “Bachelor in Paradise” is a wonderful example of the kind of empowerment needed, rather than sheltering one from risks in life.

Robert Perske famously wrote:

“Overprotection may appear on the surface to be kind, but it can be really evil. An oversupply can smother people emotionally, squeeze the life out of their hopes and expectations, and strip them of their dignity. Overprotection can keep people from becoming all they could become…”

Arguably, the dignity of risk may be among the most challenging tenets for social workers to embrace in their practice, but it is vital to accept given its intersection with self-determination. The dignity of risk also involves learning about the part of life that involves sexual and romantic relationships. Social workers need to remember to talk to their clients about sexuality in a developmentally appropriate manner. It is important not to cut off conversations about this topic, or to skirt the subject when it comes up. We must also support our clients in exploring how to engage in healthy relationships when they have the opportunities to be in them.

It’s wonderful that Abigail Heringer can be a model in reminding us of this important lesson for empowerment-oriented disability social work. One that embraces the dignity of risk for those who wish to date! With that being said, here’s to Noah and Abigail’s relationship!

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).

Scientific Racism

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.

Action Steps

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:

  1. Become aware of all of your client’s social identities, think about disability as an identity, not just race.
  2. Use data to identify inequitable processes and outcomes based on both race and disability.
  3. Reflect on the differential consequences of social work practices on people and communities based on race and disability.
  4. Exercise agency to produce equity across racial and disability groups.
  5. 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.

Recognizing Ableism’s Link to Racism

These days, many social workers are pretty clear that anti-racism is something they need to consistently work on in their practice, but when it comes to ableism, well, that’s something else altogether. Let’s start with a quick definition of ableism to build our disability competence a bit. Disability activists Talila Lewis and Dustin Gibson frame ableism as “a system that places value on people’s bodies and minds based on societally constructed ideas of normalcy, intelligence, excellence, and productivity.” But seriously, ableism, you may say…what has that got to do with racism? Why are we even talking about this?

It turns out, ableism and racism are related, and quite strongly. In fact, Dr. Ibram X. Kendi himself, host of the podcast Be antiracist and author of the book How to be an antiracist, says “It is pretty apparent to me that one cannot be anti-racist while still being ableist…I think for many people who are indeed striving to be anti-racist they may not realize the ways in which they’re still being prevented from moving along on this journey due to their unacknowledged or unrecognized ableism, or the ways in which they’re in denial.”

Social Work, Race, & Disability

As we begin to break this down, as a disabled woman, I’d like for our profession to own that social work often forgets to realize the disability community in diversity considerations. And with this, is a failure to see ableism, despite the fact that we, the disability community, comprise 26 percent of the U.S. population – that’s 1 in 4 Americans according to the Centers for Disease Control. And if you consider the racial and ethnic diversity within the disability community (and vice versa if we are being intersectional) then we need to be considering how ableism and racism interact and intersect.

Let’s just start with the basic demographics. A recent study on disability, race and ethnicity tells us that 1 in 4 members of the Black and African American communities have a disability, while 1 in 6 members of the Hispanic/Latinx communities do. In the American Indian and Alaskan Native communities, it is 3 in 10, and among Asian and Pacific Islander communities, it is 1 in 10 and 1 in 6, respectively.

When we start to look at social issues connected to these types of data points, we find out bits of information such as the fact that people of color with disabilities have higher rates of unemployment than do their White counterparts, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Then there are the realities that many school social workers have seen in classrooms nationwide for decades, with disproportionate numbers of students of color being sent into special education. And in the post George Floyd era, we are also more aware of the connection between racism and ableism due to the fact that 50 percent of people killed during encounters with police in a two year period were people of color with disabilities, as the Ruderman Family Foundation documented in their landmark report.

The Impact of the Pandemic

Then we have the COVID-19 pandemic, which has disproportionately impacted communities of color. We know that initial research suggests that about one third of people who had the virus will develop what is called “long COVID” which will now be classified as a disability. According to disability justice activist Rebecca Cokely, that means that we will be adding an estimated ten million people to the disability community who will be covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. This law provides workplace and other protections for disabled people – although the implementation and enforcement of this law is far from perfect, and thus the cycle of ableism and racism starts again given the overrepresentation of people of color in this population.

These are just a few current-day snippets that tell us we need to be paying attention to both ableism, racism and the ways in which these two forms of oppression are related to one another. Ableism and racism exist in a symbiotic relationship, with each acting as the tool of the other. Being aware of the intersection between racism and ableism is part of how social workers can begin to disrupt this reality in their practice and in their larger communities. So, what can you do to be more aware of racism and ableism in your social work practice? You can start by paying attention to the disability side of the equation that often gets forgotten! Here are some activities for you to consider as you engage in this vital social justice work:

  1. Start by exploring your able-bodied privilege. Read the following prompts on able-bodied privilege from the Autistic Hoya blog, written by Autistic disability justice activist and lawyer Lydia X. Z. Brown. Which items were most salient to you? You may consider the list items from a personal and/or a professional perspective, focusing on how you may or may not experience these issues yourself or how you may have encountered these issues as a social worker. How do race and ethnicity factor into able-bodied privilege?
  2. Continue by building your personal disability awareness. What values and/or ideas do you hold that may unconsciously perpetuate ableism? Where did you pick up these values? How does this play out with your disabled clients of color? Take time to think these questions out, and be mindful of them as you move forward.
  3. Just as it is super important to acknowledge our potential for racism as people raised in a racist society, so too is it important to acknowledge the ways we may have engaged in the use of ableist language or expression of ableist attitudes. How have you or your agency/organization/company unconsciously or consciously used ableist language, or expressed ableist attitudes? How do race and ethnicity factor in here? How can you change things moving forward?

This article has demonstrated the connections between disability and race, but social work has often failed to see disability. How can you look at the causes you are already involved in through a disability framework that is also attentive to race and ethnicity? How can you lift up the disability perspective and promote disability empowerment while being anti-racist?

Black Disabled Lives Matter and How Social Workers Need to Address Structural Ableism

Conversations about police violence are happening all over the world from the killing of Mr. George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Jacob Black and so many other Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPoC). America is at an inflection point where we are being forced to examine our ugly stain of racism which permeates through every American system and infrastructure.

Difficult conversations on structural racism, police brutality, and inequality are finally be held where its a shared reality. And I want to add a disability thread to that conversation, but first…

Several years prior to 2020, Professor Kimberlé Crenshaw added a different thread to the conversation about BIPoC deaths at the hands of police by talking about gender and all of the women who have died due to police violence, but many of those women names are not known. We got to know the #sayhername movement where people began to think intersectionally about race and gender even if the mainstream news media didn’t report much about the deaths of BIPoC women killed by police.

But only recently have we learned that 30-50% of the BIPoC people who have died at the hands of police in this country over a three year period had something else in common, they had a disability. This fact was unearthed by the Ruderman Family Foundation in a white paper that examined media coverage of such cases (PDF file here). It was necessary to study this phenomenon this way as there is no legal requirement for police to track disability data related to arrests or deaths. Did you know that Sandra Bland had a disability? Freddie Gray? Elijah McClain? And so many more…

In studying media reporting, the Foundation noted that disability was either not mentioned, listed as a non-contextualized attribute, used to evoke sympathy for the victim or to blame the victim. In rare cases, it allowed for discussion of the intersecting forces leading to lethal use of force situations. The report concludes states, “When disabled Americans get killed and their stories are lost or segregated from each other in the media, we miss an opportunity to learn from tragedies, identify patterns, and push for necessary reforms.”

Although disabled people make up 1/3 of all households in the United States, which is approximately 61 million people or about 25% of the U.S. population, it still feels as though we are so often *unseen* and *unremembered* in social work circles or any circles as if our identity is an afterthought.

Social workers need to begin to see with a disability lens, to remember disability as an identity. In working with disabled people, social workers need to think about the ways they can prevent the deaths of disabled people at the hands of police – and especially BIPoC disabled people. Disability justice advocate Haben Girma has been out front on this with respect to individual interactions with the police, but let’s think about this more structurally.

Here are a few questions that can guide your work – notice that they move beyond the usual band-aid “train the police to work with disabled folks” response that we usually get and move towards the goal of structural reform! Just as we need to think about structural racism in confronting police violence, so too do we need to think about structural ableism in police work.

  • How can we raise disability culture awareness *throughout* our local police precincts?
  • Are there ways we can rid those precincts of structural ableism such as through the identification and elimination of ableist thinking, tendencies and practices?
  • Are there strategic partnerships we can facilitate that can bridge disability justice advocates with law enforcement and social service partners toward this effort?
  • Are there alternative conflict and dispute resolution systems that we can fund in order to avoid police involvement in “hot situations?”

Are you willing to step up for disability justice in your social work world? 

What White Nationalist Christopher Cantwell Can Remind Us About Social Work Practice

Christopher Cantwell

Over the past 10 days, Christopher Cantwell’s face has become synonymous with the White nationalist protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia. Interviewed by Vice News reporter Ellen Reeves, Mr. Cantwell made clear his sociopolitical perspective as well as potential to engage in violence “if need be,” while showing off his numerous weapons.

Described by the New York Times as a “high-profile activist for the so-called alt-right,” Mr. Cantwell appears to be but one of a number people across the United States who hold racist, anti-Semitic, homophobic, sexist, ableist, and ethnocentric views, if data from the Southern Poverty Law Center are correct.

At present, Mr. Cantwell appears to be facing at least four arrest warrants related to his participation in the “Unite the Right” rally on August 12, 2017.  On Sunday, Mr. Cantwell addressed his “Radical Agenda” blog followers, suggesting that soon he would likely be in jail, pending a trial.  As a criminal defendant, Mr. Cantwell has the distinct possibility of interacting with a legal social worker either as part of his defense team or as a jail inmate.

If convicted, Mr. Cantwell might come into contact with a prison-based social worker as well.  Given the potential for this scenario to become a reality, I thought it would be helpful to reflect on what Christopher Cantwell’s case has to remind us about approaching social work practice post-Charlottesville.  I think we need to reflect on three specific points.

In times of challenge, reaching out for guidance is a helpful action.  For example, social workers can seek the guidance of their Code of Ethics around respecting the dignity and worth of every person they work with.  There have been many times where I sought guidance while working as a legal social worker for the defense bar.  This mandate requires us to recognize our client’s right to their own perspective, and ‘practice wisdom’ tells us to ‘start where the client is’ as we pursue our practice goals and objectives.

While we know the above in theory, it can be hard to sit with a client we disagree with, perhaps viscerally, in these difficult post-Charlottesville times.  In this situation, making sure that we receive true clinical supervision (as opposed to just administrative supervision) is critical.  In an era where our clinical practice is often dominated by needing to achieve productivity targets, we can’t let clinical supervision slip.

We may wish to encourage our client to take a step back in order to view how others might see her/his actions or words if it fits with our intervention role and goal, but we may not be ready without working through such an approach with our clinical supervisor first!

In order to do the above, we must work towards the maintenance of ‘empathic neutrality.’ Qualitative Researcher Michael Quinn Patton framed empathic neutrality as a “stance that seeks vicarious understanding (i.e. empathy) without judgment”.  In order to foster rapport with our clients while keeping our personal biases in control, empathic neutrality is a vital skill.

Perhaps reflecting on the words of human rights activist Malcolm X will be of use to us in this effort:

“Don’t be in a hurry to condemn because he doesn’t do what you do or think as you think or as fast. There was a time when you didn’t know what you know today.”

As our profession stands up to address racial injustices derived from ongoing white supremacy, we need guideposts for our work. By drawing on these three tools, we can effectively do right by those clients of ours that may hold viewpoints very dissimilar to our own.

5 Ways White Social Workers Can Respond to the Charlottesville Aftermath

Charlottesville Unite White Supremacists Rally

In the past 48 hours, we have witnessed the President of the United States make statements that led many to believe that he equates neo-Nazi and White supremacist groups with left wing protest groups as equals. We have also witnessed the President seemingly defend neo-Nazi and White supremacist groups – and even suggest that “very fine people” participated in the “Unite the Right” rally at which racist and anti-Semitic slogans were widely chanted.

These statements have drawn widespread condemnation from both sides of the political spectrum. Yesterday, on Fox News’ Fox & Friends television show, Republican commentator Gianno Caldwell even notes that the President seemingly refuses to place blame on the White supremacists that initiated the rally. You can read a copy of the transcript of the press conference at which all this occurred here. To say that the President’s demeanor and words at that press conference are a disturbing development in our nation’s history would be an understatement. While expressions of racism and the reign of White supremacy writ large are nothing new in the United States, the events of the past week have indeed rocked our nation and our profession.

As social workers, our voices and actions in these times will speak volumes about how true we are to implementing the National Association of Social Workers’ Code of Ethics that guides our profession. When we become a social worker, we make a commitment to “promote social justice and social change with and on behalf of clients” in all situations. So, how, exactly, do social workers begin to do this work in these times? Here are five ways you can start to do this work.

First, we need to educate ourselves about the history of neo-Nazi and White supremacist actions in the United States. Knowledge is power. Moving beyond the idea that rallies such as last Saturdays’ are one-offs, or that there is nothing to be done with a world spiraling out of control is also vital for social workers. Start by learning about the prevalence of neo-Nazi and White supremacist groups in your very own state, a map of which can be found at the Southern Poverty Law Center.  Social work faculty should check in with their colleagues and their students on how we can further educate ourselves.

Second, have a frank talk with yourself about how you may have benefitted from White supremacy (in the larger sense). “Owning” our own White privilege contributes to the social justice effort. Once we see how privilege works, we can see the other side of the coin that goes along with it, namely, oppression. To learn more about White privilege, consider this checklist and how the content relates to you.

While it may feel uncomfortable to realize just how much White people benefit from a larger system of White supremacy (even without being actively racist), this is a vital step in helping our society to shift. Doing this personal work will assist you in learning to center the voices of people who are oppressed in the journey to foster social justice. As author Roxane Gay points out in her book Bad Feminist, “when people wield the word ‘privilege,’ it tends to fall on deaf ears because we hear that word so damn much it has become white noise.” Don’t let the idea of addressing White privilege become white noise!

Third, take stock of your own thoughts about the events in Charlottesville and the President’s statements. Think about how you can advocate for social justice in response to all that has occurred. Standing up to oppression means stepping up in a time like this to speak out against hate and oppression.

While it can often be a losing battle to debate members of neo-Nazi and White supremacist groups directly, there are other ways to speak out. Let your community know where you stand – be that your family community, your work community, your geographic community or your social media community. Denounce oppression, but remember, you can also take a strengths-based approach and speak to what you think can contribute to peace and unity in our country.

Fourth, check in with your clients, especially, for example, your clients of color and/or those who are Jewish, in order to see how they have been impacted by the Charlottesville aftermath. As part of our professional social work education, we are taught that in order to truly understand our clients’ behavior, we have to think about their human behavior in the social environment. Given this, your acknowledgment of what is going on in your clients’ social environment can function as an engagement tool that can support your ultimate goals for intervention. Then, consider the ways in which you can partner with your clients to address social justice concerns germane to the case.

Fifth, if you’ve followed the first four steps, you are doing great.  However, it’s also important to remember that we don’t want to become a fix-it-all person or a guilt-ridden person with a savior complex.  In owning who we are and what has impacted us, and in standing up for social justice, we must also avoid what Dr. Robin DiAngelo refers to as “White fragility.”

This phenomenon can be defined as a condition when even low levels of racial stress become intolerable, thus setting in motion defensive actions.  The idea is that as White people, we exist in an environment that is insulated from race-based stress as a result of White privilege.  In some situations, when White people are challenged by the realities of White supremacy, we may become sad, guilty, hostile, defensive or even fearful.  We need to be aware of such reactions and must learn to manage them so that they don’t hinder our social justice efforts.

The idea is that as White people, we exist in an environment that is insulated from race-based stress as a result of White privilege.  In some situations, when White people are challenged by the realities of White supremacy, we may become sad, guilty, hostile, defensive, or even fearful.  We need to be aware of such reactions and must learn to manage them so that they don’t hinder our social justice efforts.

Social workers, you are primed to act in times like these! In fact, I argue that you are compelled to act, per the Code of Ethics. Remember, as Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel famously noted, “we must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim.”

The author would like to extend her sincere thanks to one of her accountability partners and colleagues, Dr. Shannon Butler Mokoro of Salem State University’s School of Social Work, for her consultation on this essay.

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