Confession: I have been blind to my white privilege

“The engaged voice must never be fixed and absolute but always changing, always evolving in dialogue with a world beyond itself.” (p. 11) -bell hooks, Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom

Today in class we participated in an exercise on race, social class and structural determinants of privilege & discrimination. In the discussion afterward, I made a comment about how race was not as relevant as the intersectional paradigm in understanding social class.   My argument was the reality in America today is that people experience multiple and overlapping marginalizations on individual, social and institutional levels.  An intersectional perspective for analyzing complex social issues demands a broad, community-based approach.  I continued to stress the point that it is simpler to view populations as homogenous—the poor, the homeless, the mentally ill—but this is a simplistic approach that thwarts creativity to solving the problem.

As I spoke, I looked over at Sarah, my friend.  She was shaking her head. She said, “It’s all about race. It’s still about race.” I tilted up my chin, gave her an uncertain smile, “So it’s black versus white? I just can’t believe it’s that simple.” She looked at me square in the eye, “You mean to tell me that slavery wasn’t real?”
“Maybe it is about color,” I responded.  In Peru where I was born, it’s not black versus white. The dichotomy is European descent (white skin) versus Indio (yellow skin). However, the color dynamic is the same. In my family, I was the favorite because I had the lightest skin.  I remember being 4 and experiencing my blonde hair darkening as a fall from grace.
“I have to admit, Sarah, I did have a privileged status growing up because I was pale skinned.” Sarah fixed her gaze on me again, “You don’t have to tell me about skin color and privilege! I’ve been living in this skin my whole life…” She points at her arm and mouths, “Midnight.”

Race & Poverty in the U.S. 
At the time, standing there in an emptying classroom, I don’t know what to say to Sarah.  I’m not blind to the fact that race matters. But my point is poverty is a living hell no matter what color your skin. Sarah’s point is you are much more likely to be poor if you’re black than if you’re white. That being black sets you back, miles from the starting line in life. And as I she and I continue to speak, I know she’s right. I still can’t articulate it, I still don’t fully understand.
And I know now the causes of my ignorance. The cause I am willing to acknowledge is I’m searching for a unifying paradigm, something that will unite us instead of divide us into categories. Like bell hooks, I work off the love ethic. And I love Sarah.   Unconsciously, I ask myself as we continue to dialogue, “Aren’t Sarah and I friends?”  As if I believe that to acknowledge the oppressive force of racism is to submit to it: how can Sarah and I be friends in a society so divided?  Does admitting that the line between black and white determines our life course more than any other factor make me a racist?

I went home that night followed by those questions.  And then I did some research. Sarah is right: In America today, you are more than two times more likely to be poor if you’re black or Native American than if you’re white (U.S. Census Bureau, 2013,  http://www.census.gov/prod/2013pubs/acsbr11-17.pdf). The disparity is similar for Hispanics, although slightly less so. And even within the Hispanic population, color maters: the darker the skin, the poorer the demographic (e.g. Dominicans predominantly mestizo, are poorer than Cubans, who are predominantly white). The effects of colonialism & slavery continue to carve a divide in our society today.

Privilege & Meritocracy
And here’s the deeper truth causing my inability to see Sarah’s point: privilege. My white privilege makes racism an invisible concept. I cannot see what I’ve never experienced. I have no frame of reference.

“Privilege is the invisible advantage and resultant unearned benefits afforded to dominant groups of people because of a variety of sociodemographic traits. Privilege provides economic and social boosts to dominant groups while supporting the structural barriers to other groups imposed by prejudice. Social work education and practice seldom challenges us to evaluate the effects of privilege on our professional relationships and the concomitant systems of oppression that marginalize many of the groups we work with. Privilege nurtures dependence, distances us from others, and creates a barrier to reflective social work practice. Acknowledging the effects of privilege increases our capacity to affirm our humanity and that of the communities we serve.”-The Encyclopedia of Social Work (2008)

I came to the U.S. in 1980, I was 10 years old.  I saw my mother work as a housekeeper until she could transfer her bachelor’s degree in education and begin working as a professional in the U.S.  I am a professional as well because I have worked so hard to achieve my position.  But would either my mom or I been able to get ahead in the same way if our skin was dark?  My mom fought hard to become a professional, but she was brought up in that paradigm of privilege–she considered it her birthright.  Our family in South America was of European descent, professional and upper-class. As immigrants, ould we have acculturated as easily if we’d been born into a working class Ameri-Indian family?

My fundamental belief in the meritocracy of the American Dream–if I am talented enough and work hard enough I can achieve any place in society–is so powerful that I was unaware of my tendency to discount the benefits afforded to me by my white skin and lack of Spanish accent.  My ability to “play white” has opened doors that would have remained closed had I been black or mestizo.

“It is this pervasive and unquestioned acceptance of an ideology that suggests equal opportunity and equal access are realities for all, while discounting the perceptions of those whose experiences challenge the validity of the ideology, that at once creates and supports the invisibility of privilege.” -Rich Vodde, De-Centering Privilege in Social Work Education: Whose Job Is It Anyway? (2000)

Up until the dialogue with Sarah, I had not questioned how my ability to fully acculturate to white American society had given me an intrinsic belief that I am an insider, with power and a sense of belonging.  This invisible advantage has given me “economic and social boosts” while imposing barriers to others’ mobility in society (Franks & Reidel, 2008).  The uncomfortable truth I unearthed was that I unwittingly benefit from a system that marginalizes and oppresses others, like my friend Sarah.
Now that I am conscious of my privilege, I must act to be a force of change.  Vodde (2000) presents a framework for change.  His framework includes systematic training from organizations versed in challenging privilege and racism, such as The People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond (http://www.pisab.org/).  Working with an organization is preferable to seeking guidance from individuals, since change needs to occur in a systematic, not interpersonal context.  Vodde also suggests the use of self-disclosure and challenging social structures that maintain privilege, while acknowledging that de-centralizing privilege is a process that demands struggle and constant self-reflection.  Giving up & challenging my privilege is not comfortable, but its the starting point to transform toward a more just society.

Critical Consciousness & Praxis
Transformation requires what Freire (2014) calls the formulation of critical consciousness–“concientization”– whereby we engage in the process of dialogue, action and reflection to address social injustice.  As we identify and then work past the root causes of injustice and oppressive systems, we are able to synthesize action steps for dealing with these problems.  Ultimately, the praxis of empowerment work leads to what Zimmerman (1990) calls learned hopefulness.   Learned hopefulness grows out of a sense of personal efficacy and a belief that we have the capacity to effect change in ourselves and in our environment.

In practice, empowerment is creating narrative that operates to discover meaning, context, history, power and possibility through active participation, collaboration and accompaniment with others (Finn & Jacobson, 2008).  Critical consciousness development, learned hopefulness and collective action guided through empowerment practice approaches are necessary to grow communities that are equal and responsive to group and individual needs and strengths.  It is this intersection of humanity, creativity and hope that provides the foundation for empowerment-based practice.

“For apart from inquiry, apart from the praxis, individuals cannot be truly human. Knowledge emerges only through invention and re-invention, through the restless, impatient, continuing, hopeful inquiry human beings pursue in the world, with the world, and with each other” (Freire, 2014, p. 72).

It is this praxis approach that creates the essence of empowerment in education and practice.  I bear the responsibility to ensure my students view their clients’ personal problems through sociopolitical lenses.  I am responsible for addressing power dynamics in the classroom and in the helping relationship.  It is up to me to build community and a sense of collective effort to promote social justice .

“The classroom remains the most radical space of possibility in the academy.” -bell hooks, 1994 (p. 12)

After years of social work practice, self-reflection and study I am only beginning to understand racism, oppression and discrimination. As a proponent of empowerment, it’s hard to examine the role privilege has played in creating my worldview. I now have to continue to develop my critical consciousness, and to use my reflection to act in ways that transform oppression. It is an insurmountable task and yet because of my privileged status, I am commanded to act with open eyes and a courageous heart. Sarah, my friend and colleague, took a risk in challenging me. I owe it to her to continually challenge myself to do better than I have done so far.
References

Finn, J. L. & Jacobson, M. (2008). Just practice: A social justice approach to social work (2nd ed.).  Peosta, Iowa: Eddie Bowers Publishing Company.

Franks, C. & Riedel, M. (2008). Privilege. In T. Mizrahi & L. E. Davis (Eds.-in-Chief), Encyclopedia of social work (20th ed.) [Electronic]. Washington, DC, and New York, NY: NASW Press and Oxford University Press. Retrieved from http://www.oxford- naswsocialwork.com/entry?entry=t203.e393

Freire, P. (2014). Pedagogy of the oppressed: 30th anniversary edition. New York, NY: Bloomsbury Publishing USA.

hooks, b. (1994). Teaching to transgress: Education as the practice of freedom. New York, NY: Routledge.

Parsons, R. J., Gutierrez, L. & Cox, E. O. (1998). A model for empowerment practice. In L. M. Gutierrez, R. J. Parsons & E. O. Cox, (Eds.), Empowerment in social work practice: A sourcebook. Pacific Grove, CA: Brooks/Cole.
U.S. Census Bureau. U.S. Department of Commerce, Economics and Statistics Administration. (2013). Poverty rates for selected detailed race and Hispanic groups by state and place: 2007–201, American Community Survey Briefs by S. Macartney, A. Bishaw, A. & K. Fontenot. Retrieved from: http://www.census.gov/prod/2013pubs/acsbr11-17.pdf

Vodde, R. (2000). De-centering privilege in social work education: Whose job is it anyway? Race, Gender and Class, 7(4), 139.

Witkin, S.L. (2014) Change and deeper change: Transforming social work education, Journal of Social Work Education, 50:4, 587-598.

Zimmerman, M. A. (1990). Toward a theory of learned hopefulness: A structural model analysis of participation and empowerment. Journal of Research in Personality, 24, 71-86.

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