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.

Addressing White Supremacy in Social Work Institutions and Curriculum

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

In an effort to help facilitate anti-racist, solution focused, and strength based conversation, SWCAREs will be hosting a twitter to chat to discuss white supremacy in social work curriculum. As our guest, we have invited Dr. Elizabeth Beck share her work on the topic. In order to get to know Dr. Beck before our March 5th twitter chat, we asked her to talk a little bit about her article publication and offer a few thoughts related to white supremacy in social work academia in our recent Q&A.

Dr. Elizabeth Beck is a Professor at Georgia State University in the School of Social Work at the Andrew Young School of Policy Studies. She is a prolific writer, having authored 26 peer-reviewed articles, one law review article, a number of book chapters, and three books. From 2006-2010, she was principal investigator to the Georgia Council to Restorative Justice, and is currently involved in community-based initiatives exploring restorative justice. In addition to her work at Georgia State University, Dr. Beck teaches at Phillips State Prison as a participant in the Common Good Atlanta program.

In her 2019 article in the Journal of Women and Social Work, “Naming White Supremacy in Social Work Curriculum,” Dr. Beck explores postcolonial theory, race, and ethnicity in the context of social work education and practice. She calls on our field to hold ourselves accountable to challenging the destructive qualities of whiteness, and how they show up historically and currently in the field.

Here is our Q&A as follows:

SWCARES: In your article, you call on yourself to challenge the direction of your white gaze and look hard at the hegemonic and destructive qualities of whiteness. Can you say more about that?

Elizabeth Beck: I have remained haunted and deeply motivated by something I read by Philosopher George Yancy in a piece that he wrote that was addressed to white people.

“As you reap comfort from being white, we suffer for being black and people of color. But your comfort is linked to our pain and suffering.” As a human being and a social worker, I have never wanted to cause pain and suffering, and yet Yancy reminds me that I do so daily.

Therefore, it is not enough to own my privilege or to identify as an antiracist who speaks truth to power, I also need to figure out daily how to mitigate my own role in causing pain and suffering. Of course, I don’t come close to having all the answers and indeed I think there needs to be conversations about how we can do this.

But the two things that I try to do are to engage in truthtelling, which means being clear about racial terrorism, the new Jim Crow, the harm of colorblind remedies, and the fact that our nation is based on and in white supremacy.

Secondly, I try to get out of the way. For example, I must work as an antiracist and work hard, but know that the answers and strategies cannot come from me. They must come from those people most affected. I need to support people of color who are doing the work– and that support can take many forms from working alongside individuals and within coalitions or providing a hot meal when a rest is needed. I also work to share or pass on opportunities that are offered to me in part because of the privilege that I have receive as a white person, and I must hold myself accountable.

SWCARES: Can you speak about the need for whiteness and white logic to exist in social work curriculum, and the impact of their absence currently?

Elizabeth Beck: The academy and the professionalized nature of social work are sites of whiteness and privilege. The knowledge that comes out of the academy is largely going to reflect that, while a paucity of literature will critique and confront it. In social work we have to look hard to find those critiques, and there are a number of treasured pieces out there. Social Work is also in an unique position within the white academy, as we want to be seen as a discipline that has scientific rigor, that oversees credentialing, and that is not marginalized within the academy or scientific community. Rather than finding our own unique positionality in which affected people are expert, we emulate positivism and gatekeeping, both of which align us with whiteness and white logics.

But, we also need to look more critically at the foundational aspects of social work and social work education. For example, we tend to acknowledge the whiteness of the Settlement House Movement, and yet we often hold it up as milestone in the profession’s move toward social justice. This of course then holds implications for the impact of whiteness in the way in which social works constructs and understands social justice. I believe that we need to evolve our understanding of social justice and we must highlight Black and Brown women, men, transgender and non-binary people who changed the world, such as Ida B. Wells, A. Phillip Randolph, Bayard Rustin, and many more.

In addition to Kimberle Crenshaw, we need to know the other women who helped to theorize intersectionality, such as Audre Lorde, bell hooks, and members of the Combahee River Collective. With these voices not prominent in the curriculum it is not surprising that scholar Gita Mehrotra notes that in social work, intersectionality is associated with multiculturalism, when indeed intersectionality, which is largely theorized by queer women of color, is also political movement driven from an intersectional analysis of power. An analysis in which those individuals whose lives are “on the margins”/most affected hold the necessary analytical information for transformative solutions.

An additional marker of whiteness for me has been in the language of things like “cultural competency,” (a dreadful idea, that states that I am the norm and you are other thus I need to be competent in you, thereby further enshrining whiteness) or the reliance on acceptable and non-political words like diversity. While we know that diversity is an important goal, journalist Pamela Newkirk, in her book Diversity Inc.: The failed promise of a billion dollar industry, makes clear that without truth telling about systemic racism, ideas that sound accommodating like diversity do not accomplish the goals that they seek.

SWCARE: How do you see this work translating into the classroom? Where does an analysis of theprocesses of domination belong in our instruction and what would it look like?

Elizabeth Beck: As a white social work educator, the first thing I need to do is model antiracism, truth telling, the ability to defer to people of color, and not engage in any sort of fragility. It’s difficult to say where an analysis of processes of domination belongs in instruction, as the ideal would be infusion throughout the curriculum, but then infusion can lead to it being overlooked.

Toward infusing ideas associated with processes of domination and systemic racism, our faculty has tried to do things a bit differently, as we work together to find the space for things like critical theory in our program. With some discussion of critical theory we hope to provide students with the ability to deconstruct knowledge rather than just accept the knowledge derived from white methods and logics. We also hope to offer opportunities for critical consciousness. All of our MSW students read Pedagogy of the Oppressed. I fully agree with Paulo Freire that once you see the truth you are compelled to change things. Certainly, that is what George Yancy did for me.

SWCARES: What does this work look like in the institutions of academia? How does this translate to admissions offices, field placements, and faculty meetings?

Elizabeth Beck: I am not an administrator nor do I coordinate or even oversee field placements, in that way I am not the expert. I am additionally different because our MSW program is a macro based program which means that we tend to attract students who want to be on the cutting edge of social justice work, and that this desire often comes from their understanding of inequality. With that said I do have some thoughts. I think one important aspect of social work admissions is that it places emphasis on people’s histories, stories and experiences. My university is a leading institution in the graduation of minority and first generation college students.

We have a wonderful program that provides emergency grants for students in a financial crisis. This program can be emulated. We must also work hard to ensure supports for first generation college students and those on the academic margins. Mostly we must advocate for policies that make higher education far more accessible to include much more public financing. We must ensure that faculty meetings and committee assignments are equitable and that we have fairness in salaries. I have always been proud that our faculty protects the time of assistant professors. I also believe that faculty meetings can be places where we explore the use of language like white supremacy and challenge ideas of white fragility.

Join @SWHELPERorg and @SWCARES on March 5th at 1:00 PM EST using the hashtag #SWCARESchat to discuss white supremacy in social work curriculum. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stating the Problem – White Supremacy Culture

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Processing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

A Teacher’s Response to Charlottesville for Social Workers in Practice with People with Disabilities

Charlottesville Black Cop
Officer patrols in front of a recent KKK rally in Charlottesville, Va. – Jill Mumie

I am currently teaching a course on social work practice with people with disabilities.  The course uses an intersectional lens, acknowledging the fact that people have many intersecting social identities that can result in varying types of privilege and oppression.  As such, I had to provide some venue for my students to address the Charlottesville violence and hate speech.  The following is a discussion prompt I provided for them to respond to, and I thought other social work educators might be interested in seeing this so that they could use it and/or modify it for their own courses.  Feedback welcome!

Discussion prompt: As we are part of a course on social work practice with people with disabilities in the United States of America, I would be remiss not to address the events of this past weekend in Charlottesville, Virginia. As you have already likely gathered, there are important links between the White nationalist/Nazi actions in Virginia, and the work we do as social workers with people with disabilities – who often have intersecting marginalized social identities.

Many of the perspectives held by members of White nationalist/Nazi groups are clearly identifiable as racist, sexist, homophobic, anti-Semitic and even Eugenic in nature.  Therefore, as social workers practicing under our particular Code of Ethics, we need to respond. If you need some quick resources to learn more about the dynamics that led to the Charlottesville rally and violence, you can check out the “Charlottesville Syllabus” at this link.

As disability-aware social workers training to view the world through an intersectional lens, we need to acknowledge and act on what has happened in Charlottesville. That means that we need to engage in discussions – often difficult in nature – with our families, our co-workers and with our clients. Let’s start with our work with clients.

One prominent disability civil rights activist, Rebecca Cokley, has noted that when terrorist incidents like this occur, people with disability count the minutes until ableist claims about the ‘crazy’ person who engaged in terrorist acts roll in. That may be an important place for you to start a conversation with a client with a disability in a week like this one. In this essay, Ms. Cokley points out another important link between disability and trauma.  She calls for the disability community (and disability service providers) to reach out to those whose disabilities came about as a result of trauma, such as the people who were injured and impaired by the car driven by the White nationalist/Nazi from Ohio. Her essay is short, easy to read and compelling and you can find it here.

It is also important to remember, however, that our work is not just direct care work. Remember, the NASW Code of Ethics states that we must fight for social justice, as it is a core value in our profession. We need to do more than discuss these difficult topics amongst ourselves, we also need to take a stand on them. I am fond of the idea that if we are not part of the solution, we are part of the problem.

It is important to move beyond ideas of ourselves as “good” people and work towards actively addressing the webs of oppression that exist in our world, little bit by little bit. Here is an example about how ADAPT, the national disability civil rights organization, has taken a stance on the events in Charlottesville. Where might you be able to stake your claim to your own stance?  Check out these ideas for 10 ways to fight hate from the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Finally, I want to leave you with a challenging set of questions. Although there are many facets to the NASW Code of Ethics, let us remember that the mission of the social work profession is rooted in a set of core values, including the idea that there is dignity and worth in every person.  How would you respond to a client with a disability who actively identified as a White nationalist/Nazi if you were to be assigned such a client today? What if she didn’t want to work with you because you were a woman of color?  What if she had been arrested for street fighting during the “Unite the Right” rally and was open about her wish to “hurt Leftists?”  Based on your training thus far in this social work program, how would you approach your work with this client?

How would you respond to a client with a disability who actively identified as a White nationalist/Nazi if you were to be assigned such a client today? What if she didn’t want to work with you because you were a woman of color? What if she had been arrested for street fighting during the “Unite the Right” rally and was open about her wish to “hurt Leftists?”  Based on your training thus far in this social work program, how would you approach your work with this client?

Please leave your comments about this discussion prompt and how it might be improved or expanded upon.  All feedback is welcome.

White Nationalism and The Co-Opting of Fear

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It used to be easy. The label of racist, sexist, or homophobic was a silencer on the weapon of the tongue. When a person stated views that were out of the politically correct spectrum, they paid a price professionally and publicly. However, with the rise of Donald Trump as the Republican nominee, there no longer appears to be a price for publicly embracing racist language and ideals.

Many have suggested the real problem, White Supremacy–that overt hatred for any non-white people–was institutionalized and invisible. White supremacy was lumped into the institutional mix with discrimination, prejudice, and inequality. Our policies, beginning with the civil rights act of 1964, set a precedent for addressing the institutional barriers to minorities. By 1988, the United States was addressing the individual white supremacist with censorship. But, silencing a sentiment has only resulted in the search for a new voice.

It has long been the recruitment tactic of white supremacist groups to focus on fears spawned by whatever “other” was present in a certain region. On the frontier west, the other was the Native American. In the cities, the other was the Blacks. In the southern-western border, the other was the Mexicans. But, something happened on a Tuesday night in November 2008, the worst fear came into the homes of many who had previously been silenced. It was no longer just a generalized fear of the other. It was the removal of an iconic White institution handed to a non-white. The fear moved from being offensive (in both ways) to being defensive, even despairing. Recruitment was no longer to mobilize. It was to defend against the further collapse of the Real America. Fear of the other became fear for the loss of a (White) way of life.

Empathy & Choice Architecture
The co-opting of fear changes the White Supremacist into the White Nationalist. The White Nationalist is not an institutionally-supported purveyor of hatred toward another race or creed. The white nationalist is a genuinely concerned individual who desires the best for his children and his people. Even if you are shouting for rights against the establishment, you are now the only one shouting. The rhetorical technique of the white nationalist is to claim victimization. And guess what, empathy demands that we listen.

This could be one reason for the inadequacy of our categorizations these days. The simple determination of whether a person is racist, sexist, or homophobic was never adequate as a basis for tolerance and appreciation of diversity. But, it worked in an institutional context to describe policies that systematically discriminated against specific groups based on some ethnocentric ideal.

As the unit of analysis moves to the level of the individual, categorizations will not be useful. Each individual is unique which comes with a unique set of concerns. Having children or not, levels of education, life goals, family connectedness, and a host of other characteristics form the profile of each person. Their choice architecture is built from this individualized profile, in the context of their immediate and social environment, impacted by the interactive effects that form their perception of self and the reality in which they live.

The good news is that we can mathematically map this complexity in operational research. Those may be two words that you are not comfortable applying to social science issues or social activism, but math and research are critical to interventions that promote dignity and worth of each person. It is more evident now that labeling the oppressor and demonizing the group runs counter to progress. What we have missed is that the need has shifted from the institutional level to individual level in the co-opting of fear.

The Empathy Standard
Let us first begin with a clear understanding of empathy. Empathy is defined as an ability to feel as the other feels. It is often distinguished from sympathy, which is to feel for a person. Empathy is more holistically to be distinguished from prejudices. Prejudices are characteristic means of self-protection or self-defense. More holistically, empathy is the ability to see the choices of the other as reasonable.

This definition allows social workers to work with clients whose behaviors have proven reprehensible while valuing the dignity and worth of each person. Even more importantly, this definition of empathy enables social workers to track the mechanism employed in the choice behavior. Once the mechanism is understood, the decision points can be disrupted with new information, intervention, influence, or insight. The disruption offers an expanded choice set and may result in new behaviors.

Without empathy-inspired dialogue on a topic, prejudices turn to anger and an insistence on being heard. Without empathy expect violence, disrespect, and self-promotion over others as less-than.

The Co-Opting of Fear
Which is more powerful, hatred or fear? Hatred can motivate many intentional destruction of things that are disliked. But, fear creates more things to rail against from imagined visions of even unreasonable things that may be. Supremacy groups have long used fear as a way to recruit new members. This was more of an institutional approach that reached out to individuals. It provided a target for the generalized sense of despair and hopelessness felt by the impoverished. It galvanized and educated that generalized sense into a frenzy of hate. That was the utilization of fear.

Utilization of fear was defined by Lyndon B. Johnson in 1960:
“If you can convince the lowest white man he’s better than the best colored man, he won’t notice you’re picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he’ll empty his pockets for you.” LYNDON B. JOHNSON, 1960, remark to Bill Moyers, “What a Real President Was Like,” Washington Post, 13 November 1988

We see the results in a speech by Hillary Clinton. It typically takes some version of the following form:

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).

The problem is that we, as social activists or individual citizens, have not fully understood the fallacy of that “twinge of fear.” This lack of understanding is what Jeb Bush is saying he wants to work against, “I don’t think Barack Obama has bad motives,” He said on the debut of the Late Show with Stephen Colbert, “We have to restore a degree of civility.” Bush should have stopped there.

The co-opting of fear means that you are no longer dealing with institutional “other sides” of any argument or system failings. The interactions are now personal. Many in the Colbert audience noted the shift. Immediately after Jeb Bush uttered “I don’t think Barack Obama has bad motives,” a few in the audience began applause. Bush continued before the applause took hold finishing with, “I just think he’s wrong on a lot of issues.” The applause stifled. Bush turned what sounded like a conciliatory, constructive tone into a personal attack almost immediately. He could have talked about “his policies,” or better “I disagree with the Affordable Care Act,” or even better, “The Affordable Care Act has 12 provisions that limit patient choice.” In a policy discussion, the policy should reasonably be central, not the individual discussants.

Over years of political correctness, hidden resentment, and what Elisabeth Young-Bruehl calls psychologizing-sociology rhetoric has moved to individual characterization. Fear generalized at the institutional level has moved and morphed into fear personified at the individual level. The co-opting of fear has reduced policy failures to personal failures. Governance has been reduced from a sociological construct to the “liking” of one personality over another. Speaking your mind and refusing the politically-correct response is heralded as honesty and courage however ignorant and erroneous. A quick example can be shown in polls. According to a CNN poll back in 2013, 46% of people asked were against Obamacare. Only 37% were opposed to the Affordable Care Act. Same law. But, reducing policy to a “do you like this person” question creates different choice behavior.

This causes a fundamental shift in the way we work to support tolerance and move toward the celebration of difference. No longer are people simply misinformed and their generalized sense manipulated by the institution. Many are now genuinely, and individually fearful for their livelihoods, their children’s opportunity, and their freedom. Imagined or not, this new reality does not respond to institutional changes. In fact, the institutional actions to level the playing field and erase the majority advantage are seen as further disenfranchising the individual.

The Empathetic Solution

Now, that reality is individual rather than institutional, the only solution is empathy. It is to see the complaints of each individual as valid and worthy of our attention. The empathy solution ensures that each individual is heard. It maps their process of reason, and compares their experience to what our policies intended. Without this empathetic analysis, by denying the voice of those who perceive themselves to be eventual minorities, we others become oppressors. People who feel silenced and who fear extinction will revolt in discontent.

They will rally behind someone successful who speaks the fear, gloom, and despair that they feel. And, others will support this movement. Their support is not because they know the origins of supremacy and ethnocentrism that birth the movement. They support because they are empathetic to–they see as reasonable–the cries of people who have been silenced and hushed because their views were not politically correct. They support because they are tired of having to clean up their language to express overreaches and erroneous implementations of laws meant to create equality. Empathy, my fellow social workers, is not based on our agreement with the other. It is our ability to see their reason and continue the often uncomfortable conversation toward a comfortable resolution.

Co-opting Fear to Influence Policy Making and Political Discourse

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The challenge in American race relations is both historically complex and steeped in a flawed rhetoric. However, there is also another element–a segment of the population called White Nationalists asserting they are the victims of reverse discrimination and racism. Many Americans may share or empathize with their concerns for the “real America” and the intentions of the founding fathers being dismantled and threatened.

This co-opting of fear changes white supremacy to white nationalism, and it negates the typical responses to prejudice and discrimination. It no longer works to identify the “racist” and silence them rather than solicit empathy on their behalf. Denying a voice to anyone is proving the point that they are being censored no matter the danger of their rhetoric. Intervening requires that we educate ourselves on basic definitions of prejudices, racism, religious persecution and fear-based reactions in order combat the white nationalist assertion of the mythical reverse discrimination.

I first heard about Evan Osnos’ article in the New Yorker from his appearance on Fresh Air with Terry Gross. The article reminded me of my years teaching a course entitled Christian Perspectives on Ethics and Diversity. In the course, I decided to challenge and inform the student’s understanding of the deeper motivations behind prejudice. Along the way, I learned that prejudices are not one, but they are plural. What struck me as I went back to read Young-Bruehl again in the context of #BlackLivesMatter, Donald Trump’s rhetoric and the Osnos article is that we must fundamentally change in our approach to addressing prejudices. I knew it back when I was teaching the course, but I didn’t have the social events with which to explain the change.

Beyond Discrimination, Defining Ethnocentricism & Orecticism
Elisabeth Young-Bruehl, in her 1996 work Anatomy of Prejudices, presents a number of findings that inform our discussion of discrimination. First, prejudices is not “prejudice” but “prejudices” in the plural. They are characteristic mechanisms of defense–attempts by individuals to protect themselves from “the other” and the unknown.  Second, four main prejudices exist: sexism, racism, anti-semitism, and homophobia. Third, these prejudices are motivated by a constructed character trait either hysterical, narcissistic, or obsessional.

Ethnocentrism is a term used to describe how people may view others only through their own lens and experiences. Every event is viewed in relation to its impact on the ethnocentrist or his/her group. Every achievement is judged in relation to the achievements of the ethnocentrist. Every statistic is evaluated with the ethnocentrist group as the reference point, the baseline, and/or the norm. What better way to maintain self-concept and personal safety than to consider yourself the standard by which others are judged?

Orecticism is another term you may or may not have heard before. According to Young-Bruehl, orecticism is the projection of set of characteristics a person believes he/she “sees” exhibited by a person or group. It doesn’t matter whether people are observed exhibiting characteristics that contradict the orecticist view, the orecticist still “sees” what he/she desires to see. To view people in this way maintains the self-concept and personal safety of the orecticist. They maintain safety by compartmentalizing individuals and groups into behaviors the orecticist believe individuals or groups will display.

Analysis
An orecticist-homophobe maybe different from an ethnocentric-homophobe which may require a different approach when dealing with each. You care about the difference because, as a social worker, you don’t have the luxury of summarily dismissing uninformed views. You have the professional skill, informed by your ethics, to intentionally address the lack of knowledge and identify the roots of the issues to assist with behavior modification. Consider also for the orecticist, you are assessing for the reason behind the fearfulness. Identifying the fear is your key to promoting new choice behavior.

The orecticist-homophobe would view homosexuals as sexual deviants that are an abomination. He/she would want to separate society from these deviants. He/she would probably express physical sickness or emphatic disgust when the topic of homosexuality is introduced. This reaction is based on an unreasonable fear, but it is founded on a reasoned approach to self-protection. It is an attempt to be safe.

The ethnocentric-homophobe would view homosexuals as having some difference in their makeup than normal heterosexuals. He/she would probably agree that more research needs to be done to determine if there are any brain abnormalities in homosexuals or is it the way they were raised. He/she would probably say that he/she can be unbiased when evaluating a homosexual for a job. However, they are unaware their own bias rests in their view of themselves as the standard as opposed to creating an objective standard.

If you were to ask both whether they agree with adoption by homosexual couples, they both would say NO. If your intention was to work to convince them that adoption by homosexual couples is a community good, you would have to persuade them each in a different way. You would need to address the mechanism that is operant within their logic. You would need to see their behavior choice as reasonable.

The Requirements of an Intervention 

In order to counteract prejudices as characteristic mechanisms of defense, you would need to map the mechanisms similar to the analysis above. However, once the mechanism is mapped, we have another challenge. The ethnocentric person may be able to see that he or she is not the center of the universe. Social interaction, family relations, or critical events may shake the individual out of their isolated experience. With enough evidence the ethnocentrist, even though using him or herself as the standard, may allow for the failings of others because “we are all human” and “nobody’s perfect.”

The orecticist does not have as simple a path to inclusiveness. The orecticist is fearful, and unreasonable so, that the “other” is attempting to subvert, supersede, or otherwise diminish him or her by any means necessary. The other, in the mind of the orecticist, will resort to trickery, lies, and all manner of deceit in order to reach his sinister goals. Evidence provided to the orecticist only confirms his/her views. Those attempting to convince them are part of the problem, confused, brainwashed, or complicit in the deception. The orecticist will never see groups of others or institutions as safe. They can only connect with close individuals, even those who represent the group, because they have proven safe, “different from others,” or “for a [other], you are okay.”

Now, add these dynamics to the co-opting of fear. The co-opting of fear is the by-product of fear-based rhetoric that motivates people to do things because they fear some negatively reinforcing outcome. For example, we lock our doors fearing that someone may come into our houses uninvited. Though no one came in the time we left our keys in the door, we are convinced of “better safe than sorry,” and lock our doors as a precaution. Now, it seems perfectly reasonable to lock your doors. Some have applied this same logic to a number of social issues such as immigration. Orecticism co-opting of fear explains why Donald Trump can call Mexican immigrants rapists and criminals, yet lead in most national polls. Calling him “racist” or other names will not change his support base thereby nurturing an environment where it is reasonable to fear immigrants.

The solution will have to be local and include person-to-person engagement in order to challenge personal ideology and beliefs. However, for some, any institutionally-based intervention will only be seen as a subversive attempt at deception.

To combat this, Social activist must organize more individual-based interactions such as story sharing and project-based civic work to help with personalizing vulnerable individuals and groups to change behaviors and increase compassion. Even then, understand that orecticist co-opted fear will only say, “Okay, Ahmed is okay. But, I’m still worried about those Muslims.” The orecticist will always fear groups, government, institutions, religious organizations, etc. We must be careful in not isolating and dismissing these types instead of identifying way to engage their point-of-view.  However, this should be one strategy in a multi-faceted approach to combat oppression and discrimination of vulnerable individuals and groups.

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