Examining White Privilege: What’s the Fear?

Dickinson student Leda Fisher asks the question “Should White Boys Still be Allowed to Talk?” in her opinion piece in the college’s daily news publication, The Dickinsonian.  Reportedly, Ms. Fisher indicates that she has received overwhelming support in response to her piece.  However, the backlash and negative comments have been swift and brutal, including calls for her expulsion.  The opinion piece has gone viral, which presents the opportunity to explore why her comments have pushed so many buttons.  Specifically, examining the role of higher education, exploring constructs related to power, and the impact of cumulative rage are issues for further consideration.

The Role of Higher Education

We expect colleges and universities to value freedom of speech, to support the development and expression of thought, and to expose students to new ideas.  However, these priorities come with challenges, including the challenge to listen while feeling uncomfortable. The evidence about white male dominance in the classroom and other life settings is clear.  Being silenced, mansplained, and not having room for diverse views are routine characteristics of school and work environments for women and people of color. It is unclear why Dickinson students would not be glad for the insight that Fisher provides about her experience, and appreciative for her courage in putting such a perspective out there. Further, as a woman of color at a majority white school, why would her vulnerability not be supported? Supporting vulnerability is also the role of students in higher education.

Power

Feminism, since its inception, has been acknowledging and understanding power.  Contemporary feminist theory speaks about the definition of power as “the capacity to produce change “ (Jean Baker Miller, 1991), and notes that power itself is not bad/wrong/evil.  In fact, there is an understanding that power is what helps us make decisions about our lives and move us forward. The distinction is made of the difference between “power over” which speaks to how one uses their power to impact themselves and others;  and the “power with” approach, where we can share in the capacity to produce individual, organizational, and collective change. “Power with” does not necessarily mean that you lose anything; it means that you gain the perspective and respect of others. As this understanding deepens, it promotes mutual benefit.

The question to those of us who are white is, can you sit quietly and really listen to the experience of someone else?  Can you share power? Just as being heard and having a voice is critical to healthy psychological development, the experience of not having a voice is also a critical experience in one’s life.  Suppressing your voice for a moment so that you can listen to another does not make you weak. It makes you vulnerable in the best possible way. It helps you to grow in your understanding of another person’s experience, and it gives you knowledge which will undoubtedly help you in future interactions with those similar and different from you.

Some of the response to the op-ed seem to focus on a perspective that Fisher is “being racist” for making generalizations about white boys, and that such generalizations are “just as bad” as the racism experienced by people of color. She has subsequently responded to this accusation with the prevailing definition of racism which speaks to systematic efforts to marginalize others based on race.

Yes, Ms. Fisher makes generalizations and it is understood that the generalizations do not apply to 100% of the white male population.  But she is naming a prevalent and universal experience a Why is it so difficult to see the position of power and privilege that white boys occupy?  I speak for myself, and not for Ms. Fisher, but it is understood that it is not your fault that you have such privilege.

It is understood that you did not ask for it, and you may not even be fully aware of it.  But you experience your privilege in most life situations. You may not even realize that there is another way to behave in the classroom that does not involve your constant contributions. Rather than defending yourself, why not take a moment for reflection and observation?  If you have privilege, you have a responsibility to understand that you have it and use it to ensure all voices are heard. This is your real power.

Rage

I suspect that part of the negative reaction may be related to the clearly articulated rage Ms. Fisher expresses in the opinion piece.  Women, and especially women of color, are not supposed to express anger, let alone rage. Again, what is the issue with listening? Awareness means knowing that the issue of women experiencing rage is occurring throughout the United States right now. There is a growing body of literature about it (ie “Good and Mad” by Rebecca Traister). The style and flavor of anger will unfold as it chooses. We may not like the way it sounds and the way it makes us feel. But we must listen.

Welcoming the contributions of students like Leda Fisher make all of us more aware, more attentive, and more self-reflective.  The journey of self-reflection is life-long, and being open to the sometimes painful but inevitable growth that comes with engaging in another person’s experience is one of the ultimate goals of higher education and beyond.

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.

Hillary Clinton Can Do Better on Race

Clinton-USConferenceOfMayors

Hillary Clinton is currently using a rhetorical device otherwise known as an attempt to be “honest”, and it’s a call for us to be reflective about our own indifference to the racial divide. The problem is, former Secretary of State Clinton reinforces an irrational fear, masked in a logical fallacy, to justify an unsustainable ego defense. She meant well in the context of a larger discussion on race.

But, she could have engaged the same discussion by demonstrating the fear as irrational rather than leveraging the fear to elicit an emotional connection. Let’s apply the Social Work Next perspective to evaluate the rhetorical device. Our central question is one of Politics. How can policy and politics support empathy?

Exploring the Rhetoric
This speech was delivered July 23, 3015 in South Carolina. Some are attempting to use the clip without context to manufacture a Clinton gaffe. Presenting this as a gaffe, it would set up a narrative pitting open-minded Whites against other Whites using Black lives as the key factor in the decision point. Many may fall into that pit, but Social workers cannot.

If you took this position, it argues for Whites to advocate for and acknowledge that Blacks deserve to be treated as equals. Then, the other Whites should join the open-minded Whites and their action in creating a more tolerant United States. What this does is maintain the privilege of Whites as the center of the debate—the decision makers and the one group whose advocacy and opinion matters.

It also limits the debate to an individual level debate, one where each person needs to step up. The danger is to ignore mezzo and macro levels that also need attention. The danger is to miss the opportunity to ask a presidential candidate how he/she will legislate with the empathy necessary to create change. Policy should be the center of this debate leveraged by Justice for all, informed by Appreciation for all.

Clinton states in multiple events over the past month, some version of the following:

“Let’s be honest, for a lot of well-meaning, open-minded white people, the sight of a young black man in a hoodie still evokes a twinge of fear. And news reports that poverty, crime, and discrimination evoke sympathy, even empathy, but too rarely do they spur us to action or prompt us to question our own assumptions and privilege” (June 20, 2015 speech to US Conference of Mayors).

It’s still an inappropriate line. It could have been better. It serves to justify fear of Black males even while highlighting privilege.

Breaking down the Conceptual Semantics

The Social Work Next approach to this begins with the awareness of multiple systems levels: micro, mezzo, and macro. The individual or micro level is where much of this rhetoric resides. Rather than justifying the fear as a reminder to reflect with empathy and action, let us explore the fear as irrational.

The individual assessment would ask what biopsychosocial-spiritual-meaning experiences support the fear of Blacks. Only by addressing those fears at their origin, can the individual address the fallacy (most often) or the trauma (less likely) that supports the fear. The point at the individual level is that YOU have a choice regardless of the past or fear of the future. The risk in this moment is equal to the risk is all other moments.

At the mezzo level, we deal with institutions. What institutions support the idea that being Black is somehow threatening or precursor to harm? The solution is to move away from prejudice and determine the content of a person’s character no matter their race or clothing. The number of Blacks has no impact on your level of fear during a board meeting even if they all wore hoodies.

Let’s be clear, alley ways are scary no matter who is standing around in them. Anyone walking into a convenience store with a hoodie pulled over their head is going to raise your fear level. Remove the “being Black” offense from the evaluation of safety in context. Let us promote institutions that utilize the best in social engineering to support collaborative outcomes. You do that by moving away from social control and toward social capital. You know what I mean. “Protect and Serve” community policing versus “Stop and Frisk” raids and harassment.

At the macro level, we discuss environmental practice—the home for our discussion of politics. This is where we get into the depth of empathy. Empathy can begin with guilt. The problem here is that the guilt-to-empathy construct works at the individual level. The task is to expand the construct to the macro level, to collectively reflect, then politically act. What Clinton got wrong is that we don’t make this choice because of our guilt about our privilege or our fear of Blacks. We make the choice to create a politic of justice and appreciation because it serves our ends. The first level of empathy is to see ourselves or our children as the potential victim of unjust policy. The second level is to care that any other person would be subjected to such unjust policy without our ability to successfully navigate the system.

Policy-JusticeANDAppreciationPolitics of Change
As citizens, we are counting on our politicians to advance policy solutions. As social workers, we must educate a populous addressing a politic that lacks empathy. Clinton discusses empathy that leads to action, but only after justifying irrational thoughts. Reflection on assumptions and privilege is not enough. Many well-meaning people don’t have the energy and commitment for true empathy–understanding how my history makes my choices reasonable. And, how your insistence on my conformity criminalizes my existence. That is the point of #BlackLivesMatter. Not a redress to your privilege, but the assertion of my right to exist, under my own terms.

Use policy to grant me that right. Structure institutions that promote and bolster that right. Make equitably available the tools to defend myself and navigate the system.

In your speeches, structure your rhetoric to ensure a movement of justice and appreciation leading to empathy. Go beyond the guilt of having more, living outside stop-and-frisk zones, and living within successful school districts. Create, support, and enforce policies that provide equity of opportunity without asking me to become like you or more safe for you. I can’t change my color, but WE can change policy.

Afterward to the Social Worker
If you want to explore rhetoric and semantics further, may I suggest the following article as a starting point.

Complex speeches aren’t better speeches. In fact, they’re worse.

The most memorable lines in modern rhetoric—”Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country”; “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself”; —are remembered precisely because they’re simple enough to understand, memorize, and talk about. Practically every modern sage of language—George Orwell, Steven Pinker, William Safire, Strunk & White—advises non-fiction writers to express themselves with simple language. Even if you like purple prose in your long-form narrative non-fiction, you’ll agree that it’s pleasing to hear complex policy points in clear sentences and parallelisms. (It’s hard to rule out that the dense language of the 19th century was pleasing and cogent in its own time.)

Read More

If you would like to explore the implications and the next steps for social work thought, keep reading this site, or you can do both.

What is Identity Anyway?

If you’ve read about Caitlyn Jenner, Rachel Dolezal, or just about any story of social importance lately, you have heard a lot about identity. Caitlyn Jenner identifies and is a transgender woman. Rachel Dolezal identifies as black but as Kimberly McKee, et al, aptly state, one can not simply choose to identify as a different race or ethnicity.

Everyone has an identity and as discussions of what facets of one identity really means, it is extremely important for social workers to know what identity means as whole for themselves as well as for their clients whose identities are certain to differ from their own, simply because no two people can possibly have the same identity, even if they both fall under one or more of the same cultural sub-groups.

Identity in the dictionary is “the fact of being who or what a person or thing is.”

art17035wideaIt includes how you define yourself and to a much more limited extent how others define you. It includes both ascribed traits, which we have no control over, achieved traits which we do, and some that appear might initially at least appear a combination of the two. Identity is a pretty broad concept, with layers of nuance, as one might expect from such an obtuse definition as provided above. For the purposes of defining identity here, we will borrow the ascribed vs. achieved trait/status model developed by sociologist Ralph Linton as a shortcut through flushing out nature vs. nurture, ecological systems, and free will.

Ascribed traits are outside your control and can include who your biological parents are, where you were born, your age/date of birth, what you look like without modification, your biological sex, parts of your health history, and slightly more fluid but nevertheless ascribed characteristics like sexuality, gender, and automatic thoughts and feelings when exposed to certain situations and triggers. It can include the socioeconomic status of your family as you grow up, because bootstraps are not provided until a certain age, what with our child labor laws and all. It can also include statuses related to those traits, such as the institutional racism afforded people of color, or the relative likelihood that a white individual will not be arrested for a similar legal transgression.

Achieved traits are up to you, at least in part, and can include your perception of who you are and others’ perceptions, as they related to things you do. It includes your beliefs and paradigms of how things work and how you interact with them. Sometimes it includes your choice of education, fashion, activities, literally everything you do and your behavior in general, how you vote, where you volunteer, and where you work, if you have the resources and awareness of options to be so picky. It include skills you practice, books you read, and subjects you study in school or elsewhere. An importantly overlooked achieved trait or status is how we specifically express our gender or sexual identity. More on that later.

Your identity includes your environment too. You can not separate your environment from your identity, whether it is chosen, like where you go to work, or not. Even if you are a child, are in prison, or economic factors prevent you from leaving a place you don’t want to be, where you are is part of who you are and may be an ascribed or achieved trait. A quick look at literally any survey based on geographic region (read: all of them, unless one is doing the biggest, single characteristic meta-analysis ever) and differences from locale to locale prove the role that location has an influence on, or is at least correlated with, who we are.

Some identity traits can be a combination of ascribed and achieved, or at least appear to be. In a non-scientific review of potential identity traits, many that initially appear combined may be more accurately separated into separate ascribed traits and achieved traits developed in response or as the result of an ascribed trait. For example, the all too common talking point used when denigrating individuals who are not heterosexual: They choose to act on it [with the assumption that it’s wrong]. To unpack this further, sexuality is an ascribed trait. Who you decide to have sex with, how you decide to sexually express yourself may be an achieved trait, but it’s no more reasonable to herald that as proof that sexuality is not ascribed than it is to expect any heterosexual individual to not find a way to express their sexuality.

To separate sexuality into an ascribed trait with achieved statuses may be technically accurate, but hollow in that the argument is not extended to individuals with heterosexual identities. The idea of sexuality as a choice or achieved status has already been appropriately eviscerated in other forums, with good reason. The fact that how one expresses it is a choice while technically accurate, is similarly hollow. It’s ridiculous to expect anyone to not make choices to express their relationship to such a deeply ascribed trait as sexuality.

Many other characteristics are clearly not chosen even when conventional and later fringe wisdom said they were, such as  gender status, including transgender status, but may have connected, achieved traits or statuses. The argument is frequently made that the ways available to express a transgender identity (surgery or literally any other way anyone else expresses their gender identity such as through pronouns, how one fills out forms that ask your gender, grooming habits, fashion choices, etc.) falsely asserts that the decision to express one’s gender identity is separate from the ascribed trait of gender.

The same as a cisgender people can choose a variety of ways to represent themselves, can decide on a variety of ways to identify or not identify as their gender, transgender people can too. And the same way it’s not okay for you to judge the way a cisgender person interprets their identity as it relates to their gender without directly harming others, it’s not okay to assign expectations and judgements to how a transgender person expresses their transgender identity, whether that be through surgery or any of the other number of ways everyone or no else expresses their gender identity.

Race, is now curiously up for debate as being not wholly ascribed, under the guise of being “just a social construct.” This recently popularized argument tends to ignore that it was and is a social construct connected directly to skin color and other physical characteristics, which are traits ascribed by biology. We made race, but we based it on ascribed traits and even if we had not, the society at large ascribed our races to us. While it is accurate to say we play in a role in the continuing cycle of oppression and our race identities, it is not accurate to suggest they are not ascribed anyway.

The fact that we made it up doesn’t mean it’s not connected to other identity characteristics we can not change at will. To suggest that one can simply decide is to completely negate the experience of individuals of color who did not get to choose, and have dealt with the consequences of racism. And even this is a dramatic oversimplification of race, as it does not take into account individuals of mixed race who do not clearly fit into one phenotype or the other. As noted previously, Kimberly McKee, et al, eloquently state why we can not choose our race in their recent article, “Why Co-opting Transracial in the Case of Rachel Dolezal is Problematic.”

Identity in the social context: One of the most challenging thing about identity is that our most true sense of our identity is our own, but the way others perceive our identity still impacts our lives and functioning. We can not arbitrarily decide that the intractable, ascribed pieces do not exist, but we can choose to not focus on them when we think of who we are, or minimize their importance compared to other parts of ourselves.

We can choose to focus on whatever we want to focus on when we describe ourselves or in how we act around others, and that is likely to impact their perception of our identity. It’s not a solid guarantee that this will impact how others’ identify us though, or necessarily should. To say “my identity should be only decided by me”, while appearing to be the most moral and reasonable determination, is not practically achievable because we can not divorce ourselves from all social interactions. All social interactions are reflections of the views of the people interacting in them.

In the cases in the news, it includes what we choose to highlight about all of the above when we represent ourselves to others. Caitlyn Jenner could have had transgender individual as part of her ascribed identity, and to her credit chose to be a transgender individual discussing her experience with her identity publicly. Her transgender status may have been ascribed, but how she expresses it is the part of her identity over which she can and has exercised volition.

The intersection of how identity includes your perceptions as well as those of others can be further illustrated with this example. Perhaps your identity includes being very confident in some situations (crisis intervention situations at work), but very insecure in others (large social gatherings). You prefer to emphasize your confidence, and think of yourself as a confident person. However, some friends of yours primarily interact with you at parties where you communicate that you are insecure through nonverbal communication. Which is your true identity? Can any really be excluded?

So identity is as broad as “the fact of being who or what a person or thing is” but with lots of facets:

  • What you have control over and what you do not (ascribed vs. achieved traits and statuses)
  • How you think of yourself and perhaps to a lesser extent, and in very specific ways, how others think of you
  • Where you are, whether you chose to be there or not
  • Your beliefs, thoughts, feelings, and actions
  • Parts are concrete (like your birthdate) but others are more fluid by design (your age) or through your decisions (new job, new hobby, new friends)

Identity is as complex as all of the possible things that can make up what you are.

So who are you? When analyzing the identities of those in the news and those around you, which parts are up to your interpretation, which parts are up to theirs, and which parts just are whether the two of you agree or not?

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