Wednesday, December 28, 2011

White Privilege as an Addiction

Gail K Golden, MSW, EdD

Rockland County, NY

As we come to understand something about institutional racism, we begin to have some clarity about how people of color can be made ill by endless and unrelenting assaults against their very being. We learn about internalized racial inferiority and the toll it takes on people of color. We begin to understand the impact of racism on the physical, emotional and financial health of people of color. What we are much less attuned to is internalized racial superiority and the ways in which being part of a dominating culture creates its own pathology, that of white privilege. The following are some preliminary observations about distorted thoughts and feelings precipitated by Internalized Racial Superiority.

1. Our ideas about what is ‘normal’ are very culture bound in ways we often do not see.

2. We have an exaggerated sense of the rightness of our own ideas and opinions, often diminishing contributions of people of color. ('White is Right'.)

3. We have a sense of entitlement which can create an exaggerated sense of outrage when our expectations are disappointed.

4. Even those of us committed to social justice feel we can pick and choose when and where to speak out when we perceive racist behaviors.

5. We feel guilty for our participation in a racist society and often want our guilt to be assuaged by people of color.

6. We tend to argue with people of color about THEIR experience. The idea that we know better is one of the ultimate expressions of the exaggerated sense of rightness mentioned above.

7. Those of us who are white and who count ourselves successful tend to believe that we have earned our success through hard work and focus. We rarely see that unearned benefits associated with whiteness have contributed to our prosperity.

In thinking about these manifestations of internalized racial superiority and the ways in which we as white people fail to give up these behaviors, I have begun to think about White Privilege as an addiction.

American Society of Addiction Medicine observes:
“… addiction is characterized by impairment in behavioral control, craving, inability to consistently abstain, and diminished recognition of significant problems with one’s behaviors and interpersonal relationships. Like other chronic diseases, addiction can involve cycles of relapse and remission. Without treatment or engagement in recovery activities, addiction is progressive...”

In a racist society, those of us who are called white passively enjoy the benefits of whiteness. We do not have to DO anything in particular for the system to continue to work to our benefit. But we certainly enjoy the benefits, whether the enjoyment is conscious or unconscious. And I believe that we are psychologically dependent on the rewards of privilege. We tend to perpetuate behaviors that support inequity, despite the negative consequences of which we are aware. In AA, people talk about ‘stinkin thinkin’. This refers to the disordered thought process that accompanies addictive use of a substance. As I have suggested above, I maintain that along with the psychological dependence on the feelings and rewards of power and dominance, white people think in a disordered way about race, power and privilege. Yet as white individuals, we have choices. We can opt for the sanity of anti-racist acts and thoughts. But because of the addictive nature of power, I believe we need to commit to a life time of active, intentional recovery work, in the same ways that alcoholics always have to work at sobriety. Addicts who are seriously committed to recovery work continuously to support their progress. They can never assume they are ‘finished’ with their work. It is ongoing. AA has steps to recovery. I am suggesting that those of us who are called white need to think seriously about overcoming our addictive relationship to power, dominance and privilege and am suggesting our own twelve steps in a lifetime of recovery work:

1 We admitted we were powerless over our socialization into a racist society.

2. We came to understand that working to undo racism could restore us to sanity.

3. We came to understand that we could not do this work alone and made a decision to accept leadership from people of color.

4. We make an honest inventory of how we participate in racist policies and practices.

5. We begin to address these wrongs by learning and teaching accurate history.

6. We pledge to educate ourselves and organize to undo racism, always remaining accountable to people of color.

7. We recognize that this is a lifelong process. It is a way of life that must be guided by Undoing Racism Principles.
8. We commit to learn how internalized racial superiority has distorted our thoughts and assumptions, and work to clarify our thinking.
9. As white people, we have been oblivious to the racism in our families, schools, offices, faith communities and we seek to address such wrongs wherever possible. If we are gatekeepers, (i.e. control access to resources), we will work to allocate these resources more equitably.

10. We agree to learn to celebrate our own culture so we do not exploit the culture of other peoples.

11 We will seek to learn how racism was created so we can improve our conscious awareness of the sometimes invisible arrangement that perpetuates racism.

12 We commit to carrying our antiracist message to other white people. Ron Chisom, co-founder of the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond, teaches us that racism dehumanizes, and anti-racism humanizes. For those of us called white, there are many challenges as we confront our addiction to power and privilege. The work to undo racism is hard, but Ron also teaches us that it gives us life. There are real rewards for
working to recover from our addiction to white privilege.

All of the ideas in this piece have been learned from or inspired by The People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond (PISAB). PISAB is a national and international collective of anti-racist, multicultural community organizers and educators dedicated to building an effective movement for social transformation. Their two and a half day workshop, Undoing Racism is a life changing introduction to anti-racist thinking and organizing.

Special thanks to Sandra Bernabei, LCSW , founder of the Anti-Racist Alliance for her
invaluable help crafting the twelve steps, and to Diana Dunn, core trainer at PISAB, who told me to keep writing. And always to Ron Chisom and David Billings , PISAB, whose teaching keeps teaching.

Be Realistic: Demand the Impossible

Chelsea Gleason
Manhattan, NY

            Critical, confused, and eager to involve myself in activism in New York City. This is how I would describe myself four months ago. I had just graduated from college and started my first full-time job as a case manager, working at a non-profit dedicated to advocating for the homeless.
            When I began working, I was highly concerned with filling the role of a radical or anti-oppressive case manager. I decided I would intentionally discuss macro social structures with clients, encourage them to attend protests, inform them of community-based organizations in their neighborhoods to join, discuss capitalism, racism, classism, and sexism with them, and openly address my own privilege as not only as a white heterosexual woman from a upper middle-class background, but also as their case manager. I came to the position with experience as a tenant organizer. For my undergraduate thesis on community organizing, I read literature on the non-profit industrial complex and its limitations for enacting radical social change. I believed that in a more ideal world case management would cease to exist because social services would be readily available, easily accessible, and effective in dismantling oppressive structures.
            However, as I learned more about my role as a case manager and as I watched the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement emerge, my notions of what a radical case manager is or should be shifted. Just over a month after beginning my job, the OWS movement began. Feeling insecure about my role as case manager, overwhelmed by a heavy case load of clients, and skeptical of the limits of social-service based agencies, I found myself at OWS daily after work. Remarkably, people were taking to the streets, utilizing new tactics, such as occupation and consensus-based decision making, on a large scale, and vocalizing their anger about the American political climate in direct ways. I was inspired by the movement, having been present on day one and witnessed it evolve into an organized, increasingly diverse movement that did not conform to or have to deal with the limits (such as restrictions imposed by funders and the state, bureaucracy, hierarchy of job positions, etc.) of non-profit social-service organizations.
            Despite my excitement over OWS, I thought to myself over and over: could I see my clients at Zuccotti Park? Would they feel comfortable? How is this movement serving them? How do they fit into the 99%? As the movement began to receive more criticism for being predominately represented by white, male, privileged college students, my concerns about the exclusivity, language, and image of the movement increased. While I participated in several marches with my organization in solidarity with OWS, very few clients attended. Clients were too busy to involve themselves or, I speculated, turned-off by the whitewashed and oftentimes spectacle-like image of OWS.
            For obvious reasons, it is troubling that a movement that claims to be fighting against economic greed lacked so many marginalized voices and oftentimes failed to adequately include racism, sexism, homophobia and transphobia into its message and analysis. However, movements like OWS can, potentially, practice new forms of direct action, act without having to conform to the non-profit industrial complex, and spark the radical imagination necessary for envisioning a world without capitalism, racism, sexism, etc. One of my favorite signs at OWS read: “Be Realistic: Demand the Impossible”- a statement which underscores the necessity of acting towards and imagining a radically different world. As Angela Davis so poignantly put it during a speech to OWS, the movement must encourage the public to “imagine a world outside of capitalism” and to build a “complex unity” that recognizes the differences within the 99%.
            Simultaneously, OWS runs into challenges that community organizations might better address. Community organizations and non-profits, for all their flaws, have the potential to act as long-standing vehicles for social change, can put the time and effort into reaching out to and gaining the trust and leadership of marginalized communities (many such organizations are led by traditionally marginalized groups), and can provide tangible resources to oppressed communities. While OWS made efforts to work with community-based organizations and non-profits (although sometimes in paternalistic ways), it is important that the movement and community-based organizations build upon their strengths so that social change occurs in a variety of forms- from providing a service to a client to occupying a foreclosed home.
            Over the course of OWS unfolding, my ideas on radical case management shifted. I found I was too busy meeting the needs of clients to constantly incorporate political projects directly into case management. I also found that overt political conversations could make clients think I was pushing my own agenda onto them. When relevant, I share my political perspective with clients, but more often I find that acting as a good case manager-advocating for clients, practicing supportive listening, empowering clients to act as their own advocates, and working with clients to not just survive a fundamentally flawed social and political system but work towards happiness and stability-is in fact an essential and transformative way of enacting social change. Oftentimes, I feel that my clients do not need to be lectured on oppression-they are well aware.
            As an activist whose ideal visions of the world are anti-capitalist, anti-racist, and feminist, I believe in the necessity of revolution.  Revolution can take unexpected forms: small acts of change need not be underestimated. Thus, the importance of working on personal levels with individuals struggling under and resisting oppressive social structures. OWS, while oftentimes frustrating, has forced me to reflect on and strengthen my belief in the radical potential of case management. Case management must include radical visions and demands at personal and interpersonal levels, and at larger, macro-levels. When working against an oppressive social service system, it is essential to make demands that might be construed as “impossible” by hegemonic forces, but are in fact necessary for the oppressed and for society at large to truly resemble the world we imagine, the world we want, and the world we so desperately need.

Emerging Consciousness in Troubled Times: An Occupier’s Social Work Practice

Michèle Burger

New York City, NY

“The public is getting scared.  They don’t know what to do, and they’re going to strike out.  They just know the system isn’t working and they don’t want to wait around.”  Mayor Michael Bloomberg, November 17, 2011.
My vision of justice is participatory dialogue, similar to what is occurring in the OWS General Assembly and the thematic spokes, where people knowledgeable and/or passionate about a given topic work together on creating workable plans of action.
As a disciple of Paolo Freire, my justice centered practice is rooted in sharing information with clients that raises their consciousness about the systems they rely on, and self-awareness as consumers of services provided by enormous dysfunctional bureaucracies. I describe to my clients the caseload of underfunded, short staffed and over extended caseworkers who have to troubleshoot hundreds of thousands of food stamp, SSI, Medicaid, and other entitlement cases that are mishandled, seemingly by design.  I suggest that the system can’t handle all the requests; the dollars just aren’t there to support everyone in need of financial assistance. I also encourage my clients to get involved in protecting their rights by joining and working with organizations that advocate for them,  like Picture the Homeless,  an organization founded by homeless and formerly homeless people that organizes this population in promoting affordable housing. I encourage my clients who live in public housing to get involved in their tenant associations and I have encouraged the councilwoman I work with to resume her work in organizing public housing tenants.  We are currently working with tenant leaders to strengthen their organizing skills.  Thus, I make my clients and cohorts aware of the “here and now” which they understand or as Freire states, “which constitutes the situation within which they are submerged, from which they emerge and in which they intervene.  Only by starting form this situation – which determines their perception of it – can they begin to move,” to take responsibility and act.
Similarly, I relay to decision makers, in the City Council and City agencies that inadequately serve my clients, the problems I encounter and offer suggestions on how to provide more compassionate and user friendly services. The most common proposals involve reducing the red tape, having a dialogue with the client and agencies, like the New York City Public Housing Authority and the Department of Homeless Services, communicating with each other. In meetings with decision-makers, I point out how a living wage and affordable rents are more economically sound and much more humane than the current system.  With my cohorts, progressive social workers, we talk about radical changes required for the system to survive;  for instance, regarding the mass unsustainable unemployment demands recognizing that  our infrastructure is deteriorating and is due for significant maintenance.  We have a shortage of engineers, doctors and scientists. We can put people to work but to do so we have to bring our education system into the 21st century. It also has to be more caring and relevant.  This requires globalizing the curriculum.  Such pedagogy validates other cultures and ways of knowing. It does not rely on standardized tests where success is not measured by filling in the most number of bubbles that are correct with a number two pencil.  Instead, the next generation must be skilled in communicating succinctly with multiple audiences simultaneously and be able to operate high tech machinery to be eligible for basic jobs. To educate our young people, we also must reform the military complex, the police state in which we currently live.  Students cannot be expected to learn when they are greeted at the front door as criminals and searched daily by the police.
I am increasingly aware of how the system that is in place to protect the interest of the one percent, uses people among the 99% to keep the system in place.  The most obvious is the NYPD. During recent peaceful demonstrations, it is clear that the police have been trained to demonize anyone who challenges the status quo.  Yes, indeed they are paid to protect the 1% and are given the latest gizmos and toys to do so. Yet, their wages are meager compared to those of the masters they serve (the wage of Police Commissioner Kelly, $209,000, doesn’t come close to the 19 million that Jamie Dimon, the CEO JP Morgan Chase earns).  Furthermore, the pensions of police officers are susceptible to the economy crashing, just like the rest of us. At the PATH office, it is striking that those young single mothers of color are policed by young single mothers of color.  The one thing that seems to be working is the use of oppressors to oppress their own kind.  This is also true of the Walmart model.  Who are the people who get hurt in the crush to be the first to shop on black Friday? It is the working class who is desperate for these sales because they earn unsustainable Walmart salaries.
Lastly, since I work in the office of an elected official, I stride both worlds, the establishment and anti establishment, since I often represent the councilwoman in  meetings and regularly attend demonstrations to end budget cuts and increase the tax burden on the rich.  Thus, I make sure to inform the councilwoman and her staff when I attend demonstrations and also share information about organized activities as a way of encouraging other staff
to participate.  This information sharing serves   to open up the conversation about social injustices, provides the opportunity to illustrate how the system doesn’t work and allows me to check in on how far I can go in challenging the system in meetings where I represent the councilwoman.  Luckily, I work for a progressive gay activist who believes in affordable housing and got into office by being an organizer.  Yet, the constituents in her district are rapidly getting whiter and wealthier, so if she wants to get re-elected she has to appeal to very diverse populations:  privileged white entrepreneurs and public housing tenants of color. In occupying social work, it is my job to raise the consciousness of the privileged white voters about the social injustices in our city, while raising the awareness of marginalized people of color that they can play a role in changing the status quo.

Freire Paolo (2007).  Pedagogy of the Oppressed. The Continuum International Publishing Group; New York.

The New York Times (October 28, 2011). “Where the 1 Percent Fit in the Hierarchy of Income”

In The Jungle

Poem by Chuck Fraser
Prince George, British Columbia, Canada
: Able Joseph
an Elder told me:
“we go to the jungle to talk around
our pain & suffering,
nobody knows our oppression.”
another middle aged man told me:
“residential schooling just about did me in
that’s why I’m an alcoholic
most of my school mates are dead
others dying slowly on the streets
you can see them at soup lines.”
suicide on the installment plan
others do it much quicker.

in the jungle we drink 35 Sherry
cheapest and most potent
that’s how we do counseling
its more effective then
baring our soul wounds to Nado (white people)
they’re still oppressors:
why don’t you get a job?
why don’t you quit drinking?
go back to school, its free!

get over it, we’re all equal!
don’t you love your children?
35 Sherry group counseling
can, for a time anyways…
dull pains & nightmares of genocide
we’re survivors of a holocaust
a man told me he can only take
the suffering of his people
for so long, rather then committing
murder or suicide he goes to the jungle
we’re loving & caring people
it’s Carrier nature
he asked his father one day
what he thought of “white people”
and their oppressive ways
he contemplated a long time
they waited patiently for his answer:
“they breathe too, my son.”

Keystones of Anti-Oppressive Social Work Practice

Heather Greene

Portland, OR
Justice Centered Social Work

Sheila Walker
Lawrence, KS

As practitioners of anti-oppressive practice, we know that the lens through which we view our work and the knowledge that informs our practice is always growing, shifting and evolving. In recognition of that, we don’t necessarily want to set in stone firm rules about what that work will continue to look like. We can, however, share with you some foundational commitments that have informed our own justice-centered practice.

1) An evolving understanding of justice, oppression and privilege, and our relationship with them

2)   An awareness of how justice, oppression and privilege affect the dynamics of social work systems, policies and practice

3)  A working historical context to inform our present day understanding of privilege and oppression

4) A commitment to self-reflection, persistence, and the understanding that it’s OK to be uncomfortable at times in this work

5)     A commitment to being justice-centered in our practice, balanced with kindness to ourselves (and our learning process) and a willingness to continue the work

6) A community of practitioner-allies (mentors, colleagues to bounce ideas off, folks who kindly challenge us in learning to reveal our blind spots, and those who are allies in this work and offer the validation, support and friendship so necessary for our sustained commitment to justice-centered work)

7)  A willingness to bring our "blind-spots" into the forefront of our practice

8) A working skill-set in empowerment work, intentional nonviolent communication, and consensus-based decision making

9)  A foundational understanding of feminist, multicultural, progressive, anti-racist, anti-oppressive, justice-centered, earth-centered, and deconstructive social work models of practice

10)   A dedication to our social work practice and a willingness to make unique contribution to this work

Empowering Change Through the Arts

Sunya Folayan, MSW, ACSW, P-LCSW
Charlotte, NC

Social Justice at the Center
Nearly 20 years ago, a colleague and I co-founded a grassroots non-profit organization to address disparities affecting women and families of color.   We were capable thirty-something clinicians, committed to authenticity, eschewing traditional hierarchal structure and finding allies in our work.   An effective social action strategy to prevent abuse of power is to actualize a professional code of ethics that reflects the values of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Wronka, 2008).  The NASW Code of Ethics is itself a miniature Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  We placed the values of social justice and the principles of human rights strategically at the heart of our organization.
We were intentional about making a difference in the world as domestic violence activists. Then, in 1989, one of our friends was brutally murdered by her estranged spouse while their four beautiful children played outside. We were compelled to step up our efforts to eradicate the domestic terrorism against women through battering, emotional, physical, economic and sexual abuse. We armed ourselves with training, immersed ourselves in the work of Paulo Freire (1970) and became national and international trainers with a cutting edge training and research organization. Armed with powerful justice-based  information and training , we began to empower the clients in our practice. Challenging the inequalities we found in our own community was a natural progression, particularly within our county’s criminal justice system.   Eventually we were ostracized and blacklisted because as Black women we broke an unwritten Southern rule:  we decided our work was important and that we would be visible, verbal and unafraid.  
10 years have now transpired. My colleague passed away from breast cancer 4 years ago, and I find myself once again returning to clinical practice after leaving the field due to personal and professional burnout, hurt, and the reality that allies were sometimes few and far between. I am thinking about how I have updated our mission, values and goals…and how much more complicated the work has become. As I return to direct clinical practice, developing and training social work activists is more important than ever. Inherent in empowering work is the assumption that we actively work to root out and resist oppression in all its forms.  According to Pharr (1988), oppression is maintained by the normative group and exerts institutional and economic power through institutions and through individual acts of violence. Pharr goes on to state that the normative group need not exist as a numerical majority. In the United States, the normative group is also called the Center (hooks, 1984; Russell, 1993). Those not in the center are considered to be on the Margin. 
As a professional who is also marginalized on occasion, I find working and teaching from a culturally relevant framework to be personally and professionally  significant. The perspective of culturally relevant practice allows me to meaningfully connect with students and clinicians around ways to reach clients from our society’s margins in meaningful ways. This work allows me to: understand how oppression has shaped clients’ lives; enables the validation of their experiences; and allows engagement in a process that allows me to work in relationship with clients in order to challenge oppressive structures of power (Van Voorhis, 1998).  The very act of listening to marginalized people can be revolutionary because their/our lives are often not considered significant by those at the center (Pharr, 1998).  Part of my clinical assessment is ascertaining the psychosocial effects of oppression in the lives of those who trust me to work in relationship with them.
An important aspect of assessing the effects of oppression is discussing with clients the violations of their space, time, energy, bonding, or identity due to their membership in a marginalized population group…as well as the client’s strengths, resources, and sources of personal power in responding to oppression (Van Voorhis, 1998) p. 124.
We must be cognizant of the great effort that our clients often must expend in order to receive services.  Mental illness, poverty, and feelings of futility often accompany our clients as they make the journey to our offices.  In 2012, many are experiencing poverty for the first time.  We must understand the power of language, and the authority that comes as we name within the boundaries of our profession.   I have heard colleagues label clients as “resistant’ , merely because they exerted self-determination in identifying what was- and was not- important to them in the context of therapy.   We must be ever mindful of the power that comes with our positions.
I encourage social work activists to more fully actualize the Universal Declaration of Human Rights principles in the therapeutic process.  Every volunteer and staff member in our organization now gets a copy of the Declaration, and we actively engage artists in creative endeavors that bring the principles into daily conversation in our community. The United States has defined social problems as being individual and emotional in nature as opposed to addressing issues of inequality, structural deficits and material causes. The U.S. referenced as the wealthiest nation in world history but surgically cold, cruel and indifferent in its policies toward the citizens who are most in need ( Epstein, 2003).  I suggest that a human rights culture is what we need:
·         The creation of a human rights culture is in itself therapeutic, as it affirms our need to reach beyond ourselves to connect and create a just community.
·         Human dignity is fundamental  therapeutic process
·         Develop cultural sensitivity, inclusiveness and non-hierarchical structures in anticipation of   today’s immigration and the effects of globalization
·         Cultivate  systems orientation and work across disciplines

In 2012, my goal is to strategically engage with others from a social justice framework to expand my social change work.  This is a time of tremendous change as well as tremendous opportunity. Now is the time for activists to reexamine our perspectives, ourselves and to fine tune our practice skills. Changes made from the inside out will enhance the lives of our clients and that of the social work profession.       

Epstein, W., (2003). McSocial work: Professional decadence in the United States. (37)2. Pp.   139-156. The Hong kong journal of social work.  Hong Kong: World Scientific Publishing Company.

Freire, P. (1970). The Pedagogy of the oppressed.  New York: Seabury.

Hooks, b., (1984). Feminist theory: From margin to center. Boston: South End Press.

Pharr, S. (1988).  Homophobia:  A weapon of sexism. Inverness, CA: Chardon.

Russell, L., M. ( 1993).  Church in the round: Feminist interpretation of the black church. Louisville, KY:  Westminister/John Knox Press.

Van Voorhis, R. ( 1998). Framework for Culturally Relevant Practice.  Journal of social work education. Vol. (34)1. Alexandria, VA:  Council on Social Work Education.

Wronka, J. (2008). Human rights and social justice.  Los Angeles, CA: Sage.