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White voices on white privilege

As part of Black History Month, two white social workers discuss their privilege

Professional Social Work magazine - 15 October, 2020

Elody Mene-Garue and Mike Starr are two white social workers ready to be challenged and most importantly to learn. As part of Black History Month they discuss anti-racism through a lens of whiteness

White female social worker: I always had a desire to write about this but never felt it was a space that was mine. Do we really need another voice in this already busy public space and why would I think that my views are worth sharing?

As a social worker and political activist, I always felt that voice should be given to minorities, to those who are oppressed, to the unheard and unseen, to the unaccompanied minors fleeing war.  I have always seen my role as to support these subjugated voices being heard.

However, things have changed: I need to speak up as a white middle class, privileged, female. Now is the time to think about what it means and most importantly how it bumps up my opportunity to succeed. This is even more essential when one occupies a position of power - another concept as mind-blowing as the one of being white.

White male social worker: So what does being white mean? Isn’t it that we have to see our colour rather than being ‘colour-blind’? Maybe we need to transition from the teachings of being colour-blind to being colourful, where we are full of awareness, understanding, intrigue and acceptance. Exploring whiteness does not mean creating black-less.

WFSW: It does not mean advocating for divisive identity politics but rather calling for a more realist and authentic and human approach. Why can’t we talk about white privileges, unconscious biases, white power, white racism, and white fragility and about whiteness in general? It’s uncomfortable for some people, isn’t it?

As a child protection social worker for 15 years I completed lots of anti-racist and anti-discrimination training. I remember being taught to recognise black inequalities and how my Eurocentric knowledge-base informs my decisions, which in turn are likely to perpetrate further discrimination. However, I don't recall talking about white identity.

WMSW: Why isn’t whiteness routinely unpacked? I wonder if there are feelings of guilt and shame. Are you racist? If you answer no, then you are wrong. We should not feel satisfied and get complacent. You may have a monologue (a personal conversation, in your own mind), a dialogue (with two people) – this exploration needs to be opened up as a poly-logue (several, or many people).

I remember when anti-oppressive practice was taught on my social work training, whiteness never came up. It was more about disadvantage than advantage. Maybe that was the universities being institutionally racist.

WFSW: I was in the park yesterday with my children. I saw a black man walking up and down several times and I thought ‘selling drugs at this time, in full day light?’. I can’t believe I thought this, what happened at that point to the professional who advocates anti-racist practice? What happened to me as an individual who denounces racism?

WMSW: Racism is happening without self-identifying racists because of the structure of the systems we live in. The system is white, created by white, for white, and this is not alright. We may not see it. Like the air around us. It just is. We are not used to our whiteness being commented on.

WFSW: And this is the trick; it is our white identity and the privileges that come with it that we need to see, to understand and to talk about. Let’s stop, for a moment, talking about how disadvantaged black people are and let’s start talking about how privileged life is when one is white.

WMSW: And there is intersectionality - multiple disadvantages experienced in society. Can you observe and notice the difference gender, abilities, faith and class can bring forth? How do you feel about the gender pay gap? What is your first thought when you see visible disability? Can you find time to learn perspectives of culture and faith? What does poverty mean to you?

Adopting a stance that holds intersectionality in mind is crucial: full inclusivity should walk with our thinking, as social workers. We know inequality brings oppression, so what if there is more than one experience of inequality for an individual?

WFSW: Once again, I would like to turn this around and focus on the aspect of having several layers of privilege. What does this look like? Think socially mobility.

Being white means I will access better health care, better housing, better education and better opportunities. It also means that a black woman faces greater challenges than mine because they are black and because I am white. In reality that will mean that if I interview for a job alongside another female applicant, who is black, I’ll have a greater chance to get it then her. It feels uncomfortable.

Intersectionality is a spectrum; and on that spectrum, an older white able-bodied man will access more of life than a back disabled young woman.

WMSW: Maybe there is an anti-racist continuum that white people sit on then, depending on personal consciousness, acceptance and engagement in communities. Everybody’s position is different, without looking inward we won’t see the outward possibilities: progressing towards being anti-racism.

It hurts to realise and see racism in ourselves – it’s against everything we thought we were. We don’t want to be implicated with white resentment.

White people might say they are not racist - but not anti-racist. We may alley with style or culture of others, but that isn’t enough.

We aren’t spokespeople for white people on the topic of whiteness. But we offer a perspective of how we have and haven’t seen how whiteness positions us in the world and orientates our thinking. It’s harmful to be indifferent about difference: Voices need to be heard.

Systemic social work helps us think about difference. Social work is all about making a difference. We have to think about how we can connect with difference. How can we feel it? We can seek sameness and avoid acknowledgement of difference.

Sameness and difference do not need to be opposites. We can bring our hands together, it can be seen as both-and. Sameness is a way of finding connection with another. Noticing this closes the gap of difference. Difference welcomes strengths of others and allows for mutual learning and can be the place where intrigue grows, inviting connection. We must spot our own difference.

As social workers, how well we think we know struggle and disadvantage should never be a fait accompli. We cannot just seek safety in our perceptions. I thought I’d become blasé with my whiteness: unimpressed with something because of overfamiliarity. Whiteness isn’t invisible and needs to be named and seen, alongside all its connotations.