Getting It Wrong, Making It Right: A Call to White Helping Professionals

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. 

Deep-Roots

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:

  1. 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
  2. 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. 
  3. 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. 
  4. 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.

What Are We Voting For?

Groups like Rock the Vote and VotER have worked hard to rekindle America’s passion for democracy, but there’s a clear and persistent gap between those who believe their vote will matter and those who do not. On September 17, Alberto Cifuentes Jr, LMSW facilitated a Virtual Anti-Racism Summit panel where he invited two University of Connecticut social work students to share their journeys from apathy to activism.

These panelists’ stories mirrored those of many Americans – young, POC, disabled, poor, or those with other marginalized identities – who doubt the impact of casting a ballot. The session was an opportunity to explore both sides of the issue, to unpack the complicated subject of American democracy and the stigma that is applied to those who lack faith in it. Yes, democracy only works if enough of us show up, but each individual faces a very different journey to get here.

Those in favor of voting usually frame it as a matter of exercising one’s civil rights. To vote means to place your trust in an elected official who you believe will best represent the causes and protect the rights you hold most dear. Participating in elections, especially local and state ones, has an impact on education, healthcare, housing, mental health services, immigration, emergency services, policing, and human rights as a whole. This is not idealism; when democracy is working at its very best, power can be used to protect and empower our people.

Aside from the obvious benefits of voting, there is the flip side – not voting can have huge consequences. Voter burn-out and indifference give strength to the opposing party or contested policy and create division among people who have similar ideals and politics but varying levels of trust or mistrust in the system. This is why die-hard politicos criticize write-in voters, who cast their ballot for an official not formally in the running (such as someone who dropped out earlier in the race). The rationale is often something like, “not voting for Candidate A equals a vote for Candidate B.” Though the efficacy of write-in voting has been debated, it is a valid option in many states and it presents a way for disenchanted voters to make their voices heard even if they don’t want to support the nominees on the ballot.

That active voters are overwhelmingly White, moderate- to upper-income, highly educated, and stably employed tells us a lot about who benefits from our current political system. Despite having multiple options for voters, including mail-in and absentee ballots, early voting, and election day voting, none of these choices are without pitfalls. Mail-in ballots create access for voters with mobility issues or who are medically at-risk and can’t show up to crowded spaces in person, but officials have been struggling for decades to deal with widespread ballot rejection and misplacement. This is a huge concern for swing states in particular.

Early voting helps those who can vote in person but aren’t sure they’ll be able to get to the polls on election day. However, if one casts their ballot early in a primary election for a candidate who then withdraws (the Democratic primaries this summer had 15) after they vote, they don’t get a second chance. Absentee ballots are also a useful tool for younger voters who are away at college – a population that tends to swing liberal – but postmark rules are strict and many voters won’t receive a ballot by election day. Unless a voter is affluent, healthy, has childcare, transportation, and/or a consistent work schedule, a lot could come between them and the ballot box. And, at the end of the day, the electoral college still serves to steamroll the popular vote, a policy we have yet to get rid of.

Flaws aside, the importance of voting in our current political situation is undeniable, but the U.S. voting system also disregards the hundreds of years of subjugation and disenfranchisement that have become embedded in many Americans’ lives, heightened by judgment and stigma. Pro-voting advocates argue that democracy is what sets us apart from less civilized societies. This is the type of paternalistic, “us versus them” thinking that leads to victim-blaming.

Experiencing voting as an act of empowerment is a privilege not all of us will enjoy. After hitting one barrier after another, from the terrorism of the Jim Crow south to today’s covert racist and classist policies, we should be able to understand when those who’ve faced suppression begin to shut down and turn away from the democratic process. This is so common that it has actually earned its own name: psychological voter suppression. Practices like roll purging, felony voting laws, ID requirements, misinformation, reducing poll locations, manipulated district lines, and harassment are all responsible for the downtick in voter morale and participation. Before we attack eligible voters for not turning out to the polls, let’s reflect on the reasons for their ambivalence and attend to those root causes. If a person votes for their chosen party their entire adult life and never sees the kinds of meaningful change that will assure their and their community’s safety and future, what are they really voting for?

So what can be done to increase voter turnout and reduce barriers? A few things:

Vote. If you’re able to vote without sacrificing your physical, financial, or emotional safety, do it! Register before your state’s deadline (usually 10 days prior to the election) – vote.org offers a state by state list of deadlines. You can check your voter registration status, look up early voting dates, and register for a mail-in or absentee ballot here through your state’s election office.

Assist. If you’re registered to vote in your state and want to go in person, coordinate your election day travel plans with other voters in your household and neighborhood. Round up others like you with privilege and access and encourage them to do the same. Companies like Lyft and Uber are offering discounted rides to the polls; community-based groups like RideShare2Vote are booming; and your local AARP office, doctor’s office, place of worship, or City Hall can help too. 

Empathize. Practice humility, and accept that your lived experience is not the same as others. Don’t make assumptions about who is able to vote. Don’t shame or blame people from marginalized communities who can vote and choose not to. Trust that they’re doing what they need to survive in an oppressive world, and that healing has to come first. Cast your ballot for officials (especially in local and state elections) whose policies will advance the good of the whole, not the few. 

Organize. Canvassing and joining phone banks are a couple of ways to spread the word about candidates you believe in. Hone in on efforts like prison abolition, refugee rights, or labor protections for non-traditional workers. Felony disenfranchisement laws, for example, mean that in 2016, over six million Americans (the vast majority Black) could not vote because of their legal status. Understand that anti-oppression work improves democracy. Be willing to relinquish a little of your privilege so that others can possess more agency in their own lives. 

Finally, if you have ever felt reluctant to turn out for an election because you lack faith in the outcome or don’t see your identities represented in the candidates, run for office and bring the changes you know are needed. The system is working exactly as designed – it’s up to the people to change it. 

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