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Privilege and Power: The Role of Shame and Self-Awareness

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If you are a helping professional, chances are you were trained in self-awareness and learned about its importance. In fact, self-awareness is foundational to all areas of helping. In micro intervention, we must be aware of our biases and feelings about a host of presenting problems. If we are not self-aware, we risk placing judgement on our clients and decreasing our credibility and effectiveness as a result.  

Similarly, self-awareness plays an important role at the macro level. Specifically, we must know our place in the hierarchy of the structures and systems that we are charged with ameliorating, and self-awareness must be part of what drives our analyses of structural and systemic inequality.  

The latter, self-awareness and macro structural analyses, is not a popular topic among many elements of North American society. However, without challenging the status quo with analyses such as the one contained herein, the progressive and change-oriented elements of society cannot make progress. We must challenge and be truly progressive in order to help the people we are charged with serving. Vulnerable populations and marginalized groups remain marginalized time and time again if we cannot change damaging conservative elements within our political structures.   

Evidence, a case study

I am a white male, 45 years old.  I am a 5th generation Canadian with European roots dating back to the United Empire Loyalists.  

For the majority of my adult life, I have felt a great deal of shame regarding the history of my country and that of the United States of America in so far as I can claim to know the history of the latter. The shame I have felt and carried and to some extent still carry, stems from our collective white, European history.  

Although I do not easily acknowledge my expertise, I am an ‘expert’ in many areas of social work knowledge, and  I have become ‘expert’ through study and practice experience of 20 years.  These areas include domestic family violence, trauma and posttraumatic stress.  I acknowledge my areas of expertise because they factor into the shame I feel as a person, as a man, and as a social worker who has worked with children and families for 20 years.  

Maybe I am an anomaly, but I feel and identify with shame a great majority of the time. Perhaps, it is because of my privilege as a white male.  I studied male violence toward women and children for many years and worked in the treatment of women and children victims and male perpetrators for many years.  Often, I have identified as feminist and anti oppressive almost exclusively.  

Have you read about or studied intergenerational trauma?  I wonder if this is perhaps some of what causes me historical shame?  Did my ancestors personally participate in wars and acts of oppression?  These are questions I don’t have answers to.  If I did have answers or insight into my ancestors actions in the past, I suspect they would be tainted with some sort of justification for their acts.  

Things I feel shameful for

I feel shame for being a man.  Men, I think it can be argued, are responsible for the majority of gross atrocities carried out against human populations at the individual / family, community, and societal levels.  Although we as a planet have histories of non -white men and groups acting out atrocities against others, it seems to me that the great majority of atrocities are carried out by white men or at least groups that have strong power relationship ties with white men.  In this way, white men are inextricably tied to global suffering. Other men are too but it seems to me that once you start to explore or investigate conflict it leads to the power structures that are predominantly white and male.  

Men abuse women and children. Women do too, but it occurs on a much lesser scale. Men are the face of domestic family violence as well as the atrocities and secrets which exist in patriarchal family systems.

Men stole North America from first nations peoples.  Plain and simple.  I actually can’t believe that I have never read the history of North America in such simple and truthful terms.  That is the truth, we, our ancestors, stole this continent from first nations and we used force to take it. We killed and violated countless first nations people.  How is this not a shameful history?  

Is my shame different?  

Is my shame different than that of other men?  I have no way of knowing this because to the best of my knowledge people do not generally talk about or write about this. How do I feel connected to a history that has nothing to do with me personally?  Is my shame quotient that much bigger than normal because of my own abuse and post-traumatic history?  

Is shame helpful?  I can only answer this for myself.  I know people avoid pain and shame which is a big part of psychological and emotional pain.  It seems to me that shame can destroy people through the likes of addiction and other self-destructive paths.  

But isn’t shame also helpful?  If we connect to shame doesn’t it act as a compass for moving forward?  I know that my connection and relationship with shame is something that makes me who I am. I am incapable of hurting other people unless there is a real threat to my personal safety or that of my family and loved ones.  My shame is part of my life in terms of my goals, beliefs and values.  It is no accident that I am a social worker.  

What is the cost of privilege?  

Privilege gives people power over others.  It allows people in positions of power to dictate the terms of other people’s lives.  A clear example of privilege is government setting the terms of welfare recipients for those living in poverty. Making a person do a drug test in exchange for still living below the poverty line is an abusive use of power and privilege.  Plain and simple. If this was not true, those with power and privilege are exempt from drug testing to receive government subsidies and/or other governmental funding.   

Is privilege and power the same or inextricably linked?  Does privilege corrupt like power often does?  It seems to me it does.  

I’m not naive enough to think that there is an answer to this query.  Sometimes, I’m not even exactly sure what the exact query should be. I often find myself thinking analytically and as a result negatively about the state of our world. Our current lack of global peace is a stain on all of humanity in my mind.  It is easy to remove oneself from responsibility for the current state of affairs, but this is not honest living in my mind.  Living honestly means accepting one’s connection to the past and committing to move forward in new, nonviolent and non-privileged ways. 

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Clint is a Canadian Social Worker who earned an Honors Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) from Laurentian University and a Masters of Social Work (MSW) from McGill University. Clint is in his 20th year of Social Work practice with interest and expertise in macro and systems level analysis and intervention, domestic family violence, trauma, stress, and post traumatic stress, child maltreatment, and solutions to reduce the impact of trauma in the helping professions.

          
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