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I can’t be a racist.
Some of my best friends are African American. I work with African Americans every day. As a social worker, I fight for social justice, and that includes racial justice, so I’m not a racist.
I certainly don’t want you to think I’m a racist. My family never owned slaves—they were coal miners, which was practically slavery. I believe in diversity, inclusivity, cultural humility, and cultural proficiency and whatever PC term-of-the-week we use for this stuff.
I want to prove to you I’m not a racist. I attend rallies and carry signs. I was there when they voted to remove the Confederate flag from the statehouse grounds. I don’t vote for racist candidates and express my horror at racist comments, especially from our leaders.
I thought I wasn’t a racist. The truth is, I view the world through blue eyes. The world interacts with me as a person with very pale skin. I may not want to be privileged (maybe I do) but damned if I’m not. I’m often treated differently than people of color. If police pull me over, I don’t fear for my life, I fear for points on my license. If I walk down the street in a sweatshirt with the hood pulled up, people say good morning and comment on the cold weather. They don’t look at me like I’m about to rob them.
When I see rage on the faces of African Americans, I sometimes think—quietly, of course—they may be overreacting. After all, we need to love each other and put the past behind us. We are a rich tapestry of different people and that’s what makes our nation great. This is 2017—time to move forward!
And then Charlottesville happened.
And then I heard the President defend the Nazis and racist, alt-right rally participants.
And then I saw this video and watched white supremacists spew hatred against blacks and Jews while someone was doing CPR on a victim hit by the car.
And I saw this man:
And I saw how his pain, his rage, his desperation reached depths that I have never experienced. He is emotionally bleeding for us all to see, because he has tried EVERYTHING and he is standing in the middle of a frickin’ race war. (I don’t want to say frickin’).
And I heard that right after Charlottesville, a FAMILY MEMBER who teaches about the Holocaust, had received a death threat from someone because they thought he was Jewish.
And then my writing sister who is black, said of her white colleagues, “don’t come to me with your fake tears and your prayers and your hugs. I can’t do it this week. This sh*t is not new. Charlottesville … is all of us. It’s killing us.”
She’s right. She’s right, and we don’t want to see it.
I remember feeling so proud when the Confederate flag came down, and one of my social work mentors (African-American) said, “I don’t care where they flag that ole rag. Taking it down don’t change nothing.”
Yeah, maybe I’m starting to get that now.
After the slaughter of the Emmanuel nine in Charleston, I participated in a workshop about combatting hate. I hoped it would help some of us heal. But when a HBCU professor projected a photograph of a Klan rally, it offended me. “We’re not all like that,” I wanted to scream, but that wasn’t her message. We’re not all like that, but the specter of those white pointed hats is there, is always there, and, like my wise friend said, it’s killing us.
According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, America has 276 armed militia groups, extremists like the gun-wielding pretend-soldiers in Charlottesville. 276. Let that number sink in.
I don’t want to be a racist, but I can never truly understand the black experience, no matter how hard I try to be an ally. And if I don’t want to be a part of the problem—via action or inaction—then I must confront and accept the ways I have been complicit in this mess. I don’t get to close my eyes to the ugliness that is around me. I can vote for different leaders, march in rallies, carry signs, write blogs, and be a great social worker but none of that puts a dent in the crap storm we keep denying.
I’d love to end this with some hopeful message, something that makes you feel good about our potential (and about me).
But I got naddah.
So I’ll end with this. My eyes are open. I will fight to keep them open, even if what I see disturbs the hell out of me. And if you see me closing them, get in my face a remind me.
This is ALL OF US.
And we have to fix it.
Alabama’s Legislature Continues to Wage War on the Poor
Alabama made headlines last week over a dispute between the Democratic City of Birmingham and the Republican state legislature on whether the city can pass a law to increase its minimum wage higher than the federal mandate. Last summer, the Magic City passed a law raising it’s minimum wage to $10.10 an hour by 2017. The law would have been enacted incrementally beginning in July 2016 by raising the current minimum wage of $7.25 to $8.50.
However, lawmakers have since fast-tracked a bill that would prevent any municipality from requiring employers to provide benefits such as paid leave, vacation time, or even a marginally livable wage not already mandated by federal law. On Thursday, the state legislature sent their obstructionist bill to the governor who signed it into law an hour later.
Anyone familiar with Alabama politics shouldn’t be surprised. It appears Alabama’s state government does not care about poor people–nearly 20% of its population which is over 900,000 people including 300,000 children are living in poverty. With only 30 meeting days left in the state’s legislative session, you would think there would be more pressing concerns than thwarting the will of the people.
Alabama has cut funding for education, social services, and continues its refusal to expand Medicaid. And while this is all evidence of the state’s complete disregard for impoverished residents, its efforts to block Birmingham’s minimum wage increase is a direct assault on the very notion that citizens might govern themselves. Alabama has nothing to lose by allowing Birmingham to implement a $10.10 minimum wage.
You can make all the political arguments you want about how a similar statewide increases might deter businesses from coming to Alabama or result in layoffs–results not seen after wage increases in other states—but Birmingham should be a win-win. There’s no political liability to allowing Birmingham to set a higher minimum wage, the extra income means more tax revenue for the state’s anemic budget, and any perceived negative consequences–let me reiterate that empirically there are none–would only affect the city.
The leadership in Birmingham is hardly radical. The fact they stood up to the state legislature by attempting to put their minimum wage law into effect before the state could take action to delay only furthers evidence of how needed the increase really is. The proposed wage increase still isn’t enough to afford a 2-bedroom apartment, child care, or eliminate the need for other forms of assistance, but it could mean a little more food on the table for working families.
Alabamians have endured the ridiculous priorities and imaginary fears of the Republican-dominated statehouse for far too long. Alabama residents must begin to organize themselves to bring change to the state. Academics understand the scope of the problem, churches and service-based nonprofits see the real-world impact, and everyday people experience the constant struggles of living on poverty wages.
It won’t be easy, and it won’t happen in a single election. However, if people concerned about a living wage start talking to one another to come up with solutions–including running for office–then we can start to see change in Alabama.
What is Identity Anyway?
If you’ve read about Caitlyn Jenner, Rachel Dolezal, or just about any story of social importance lately, you have heard a lot about identity. Caitlyn Jenner identifies and is a transgender woman. Rachel Dolezal identifies as black but as Kimberly McKee, et al, aptly state, one can not simply choose to identify as a different race or ethnicity.
Everyone has an identity and as discussions of what facets of one identity really means, it is extremely important for social workers to know what identity means as whole for themselves as well as for their clients whose identities are certain to differ from their own, simply because no two people can possibly have the same identity, even if they both fall under one or more of the same cultural sub-groups.
Identity in the dictionary is “the fact of being who or what a person or thing is.”
It includes how you define yourself and to a much more limited extent how others define you. It includes both ascribed traits, which we have no control over, achieved traits which we do, and some that appear might initially at least appear a combination of the two. Identity is a pretty broad concept, with layers of nuance, as one might expect from such an obtuse definition as provided above. For the purposes of defining identity here, we will borrow the ascribed vs. achieved trait/status model developed by sociologist Ralph Linton as a shortcut through flushing out nature vs. nurture, ecological systems, and free will.
Ascribed traits are outside your control and can include who your biological parents are, where you were born, your age/date of birth, what you look like without modification, your biological sex, parts of your health history, and slightly more fluid but nevertheless ascribed characteristics like sexuality, gender, and automatic thoughts and feelings when exposed to certain situations and triggers. It can include the socioeconomic status of your family as you grow up, because bootstraps are not provided until a certain age, what with our child labor laws and all. It can also include statuses related to those traits, such as the institutional racism afforded people of color, or the relative likelihood that a white individual will not be arrested for a similar legal transgression.
Achieved traits are up to you, at least in part, and can include your perception of who you are and others’ perceptions, as they related to things you do. It includes your beliefs and paradigms of how things work and how you interact with them. Sometimes it includes your choice of education, fashion, activities, literally everything you do and your behavior in general, how you vote, where you volunteer, and where you work, if you have the resources and awareness of options to be so picky. It include skills you practice, books you read, and subjects you study in school or elsewhere. An importantly overlooked achieved trait or status is how we specifically express our gender or sexual identity. More on that later.
Your identity includes your environment too. You can not separate your environment from your identity, whether it is chosen, like where you go to work, or not. Even if you are a child, are in prison, or economic factors prevent you from leaving a place you don’t want to be, where you are is part of who you are and may be an ascribed or achieved trait. A quick look at literally any survey based on geographic region (read: all of them, unless one is doing the biggest, single characteristic meta-analysis ever) and differences from locale to locale prove the role that location has an influence on, or is at least correlated with, who we are.
Some identity traits can be a combination of ascribed and achieved, or at least appear to be. In a non-scientific review of potential identity traits, many that initially appear combined may be more accurately separated into separate ascribed traits and achieved traits developed in response or as the result of an ascribed trait. For example, the all too common talking point used when denigrating individuals who are not heterosexual: They choose to act on it [with the assumption that it’s wrong]. To unpack this further, sexuality is an ascribed trait. Who you decide to have sex with, how you decide to sexually express yourself may be an achieved trait, but it’s no more reasonable to herald that as proof that sexuality is not ascribed than it is to expect any heterosexual individual to not find a way to express their sexuality.
To separate sexuality into an ascribed trait with achieved statuses may be technically accurate, but hollow in that the argument is not extended to individuals with heterosexual identities. The idea of sexuality as a choice or achieved status has already been appropriately eviscerated in other forums, with good reason. The fact that how one expresses it is a choice while technically accurate, is similarly hollow. It’s ridiculous to expect anyone to not make choices to express their relationship to such a deeply ascribed trait as sexuality.
Many other characteristics are clearly not chosen even when conventional and later fringe wisdom said they were, such as gender status, including transgender status, but may have connected, achieved traits or statuses. The argument is frequently made that the ways available to express a transgender identity (surgery or literally any other way anyone else expresses their gender identity such as through pronouns, how one fills out forms that ask your gender, grooming habits, fashion choices, etc.) falsely asserts that the decision to express one’s gender identity is separate from the ascribed trait of gender.
The same as a cisgender people can choose a variety of ways to represent themselves, can decide on a variety of ways to identify or not identify as their gender, transgender people can too. And the same way it’s not okay for you to judge the way a cisgender person interprets their identity as it relates to their gender without directly harming others, it’s not okay to assign expectations and judgements to how a transgender person expresses their transgender identity, whether that be through surgery or any of the other number of ways everyone or no else expresses their gender identity.
Race, is now curiously up for debate as being not wholly ascribed, under the guise of being “just a social construct.” This recently popularized argument tends to ignore that it was and is a social construct connected directly to skin color and other physical characteristics, which are traits ascribed by biology. We made race, but we based it on ascribed traits and even if we had not, the society at large ascribed our races to us. While it is accurate to say we play in a role in the continuing cycle of oppression and our race identities, it is not accurate to suggest they are not ascribed anyway.
The fact that we made it up doesn’t mean it’s not connected to other identity characteristics we can not change at will. To suggest that one can simply decide is to completely negate the experience of individuals of color who did not get to choose, and have dealt with the consequences of racism. And even this is a dramatic oversimplification of race, as it does not take into account individuals of mixed race who do not clearly fit into one phenotype or the other. As noted previously, Kimberly McKee, et al, eloquently state why we can not choose our race in their recent article, “Why Co-opting Transracial in the Case of Rachel Dolezal is Problematic.”
Identity in the social context: One of the most challenging thing about identity is that our most true sense of our identity is our own, but the way others perceive our identity still impacts our lives and functioning. We can not arbitrarily decide that the intractable, ascribed pieces do not exist, but we can choose to not focus on them when we think of who we are, or minimize their importance compared to other parts of ourselves.
We can choose to focus on whatever we want to focus on when we describe ourselves or in how we act around others, and that is likely to impact their perception of our identity. It’s not a solid guarantee that this will impact how others’ identify us though, or necessarily should. To say “my identity should be only decided by me”, while appearing to be the most moral and reasonable determination, is not practically achievable because we can not divorce ourselves from all social interactions. All social interactions are reflections of the views of the people interacting in them.
In the cases in the news, it includes what we choose to highlight about all of the above when we represent ourselves to others. Caitlyn Jenner could have had transgender individual as part of her ascribed identity, and to her credit chose to be a transgender individual discussing her experience with her identity publicly. Her transgender status may have been ascribed, but how she expresses it is the part of her identity over which she can and has exercised volition.
The intersection of how identity includes your perceptions as well as those of others can be further illustrated with this example. Perhaps your identity includes being very confident in some situations (crisis intervention situations at work), but very insecure in others (large social gatherings). You prefer to emphasize your confidence, and think of yourself as a confident person. However, some friends of yours primarily interact with you at parties where you communicate that you are insecure through nonverbal communication. Which is your true identity? Can any really be excluded?
So identity is as broad as “the fact of being who or what a person or thing is” but with lots of facets:
- What you have control over and what you do not (ascribed vs. achieved traits and statuses)
- How you think of yourself and perhaps to a lesser extent, and in very specific ways, how others think of you
- Where you are, whether you chose to be there or not
- Your beliefs, thoughts, feelings, and actions
- Parts are concrete (like your birthdate) but others are more fluid by design (your age) or through your decisions (new job, new hobby, new friends)
Identity is as complex as all of the possible things that can make up what you are.
So who are you? When analyzing the identities of those in the news and those around you, which parts are up to your interpretation, which parts are up to theirs, and which parts just are whether the two of you agree or not?
Our Social Responsibility in Combating Oppression
As a Social Worker, I am committed to social justice. However, as I have always been on the frontline doing day-to-day work with individuals and families, I left political intervention and macro social work to others. I have spent too much time thinking and feeling that someone would come along and help improve the state of Black America, but I can not stay silent any longer.
We have spent too much time having the same conversations ending with the same list of demands that will never be achieved; and they won’t be achieved because they are unrealistic. As a 33-year-old woman of color, I have heard these demands, but I am more concerned with creating our system of justice than I am with getting others to amend theirs to suit the needs of my community. The Black community in America should consider the following:
Stop believing anyone owes us anything
If this is true for individuals trying to succeed in a chosen career, why isn’t it true of a community? How many oppressed people sit back waiting for their oppressors to correct the system of oppression they created for their own benefit? I am aware that the government promised 40 acres and a mule.
What I am not clear on is why we continue to expect people who don’t even see us as human beings to honor a promise that was quickly repealed? It gave with one hand and took it back with the other. Have these demands for a repealed “promise” prove productive or prosperous for us? No. What it has done is keep us locked into poverty and a slave mentality. It is no longer a valid argument and we do ourselves no justice trying to change a system built to deny. We need to move on and forward.
Stop addressing each other as n***ers or any variation of the word
The argument is that by using it we take the power away from the word. The truth is that argument is a blatant lie. What we’ve done is give others not only permission but license to use that diminutive word without any context to its damaging nature. The truth is, I doubt anyone who uses this word (besides those who aren’t people of color) would feel so confident as to walk away from a Caucasian person using this word. The truth is, if they heard this shouted when they were out on their own in the middle of Mississippi, they wouldn’t bother sticking around for an explanation. As long as the word precedes an attack on my person, either physically or verbally, it is unacceptable. We need to stop using the word and stop accepting it from others. We are better than that.
Establish a national Black Caucus
I know there is a congressional caucus that is looking at the representing the interests of the African-American community. However, I am proposing an expansion or a separate entity. The remit would be calling our prominent figures that are doing things that are counterproductive to change, prosperity and/or progression within the community. We would manage public relations of national community issues – sending representatives to rally locals and improve media portrayal of the community. We would prepare local political candidates to represent the community and create local caucuses to help them address the issues prevalent in their own communities. It would be a coming together of local and national leaders.
Local lobby for fair and appropriate representation in communities where we are the majority
We need to work with our young people to help them understand and get into politics. We need to support our own who want to get into politics. We need to support those with track records of supporting or being involved in initiatives that address local concerns. We need to understand politics and the dynamics of representation on a larger scale.
Get our young people involved
We need to get our economists, political science majors, policy makers involved in local government early. Create local internships and fellowships etc so they are talking, strategizing and creating actions plans to move forward locally.
Take notes from other communities on building and circulating wealth within the community
We continue to need educating on finance. Not only on the use of money, credit and the like, but also on investments, financial planning, equity and other issues. We need to build up the work ethic and sense of community/communal assistance. We need to own more and to be educated on how to do this so that we hold on to it. We need to know more about possible tax breaks, write-offs and rebates for volunteer work, pro-bono work etc.
Take responsibility for our own wealth and prosperity
We need to stop relying on “others” to move our community forward on a local level. There are many national programs looking at the bigger picture but we need to empower the “impoverished” so they learn to help themselves. Stop being so comfortable with “others” buying in our neighborhoods when we own nothing. Stop blaming anyone except ourselves for our lack of progress because in truth we haven’t done all we can do. Start accepting the responsibility to ourselves, to each other and to our communities.
Teach and accept social responsibility
We need to help our children and young people gain work experience within their own neighborhoods first and foremost, encourage volunteerism from a young age as a means of community building, developing social skills and local pride while also developing employable skills. We need to make local investments in restorative justice and reparations to discourage crime and rebuild what has been broken. We need to, as adults, model this behaviour for our children and volunteer to help each other and each other’s children.
Understand that if we want change we have to create it. We can’t depend on our oppressors to help us progress. No one will give us anything we haven’t taken. Discussions are important but only as predecessors to action which will facilitate change.
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