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Discussing White Supremacy: Having Difficult Conversations Are Required and Not Optional

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By Authors: Hoge, Hayes, Hostetter, Fisher, Watson, Yearwood, Plummer, Barbera, & Washington

“The key to moving forward is what we do with our discomfort. We can use it as a door out—blame the messenger and disregard the message. Or we can use it as a door in by asking, Why does this unsettle me? What would it mean for me if this were true?”Robin DiAngelo, White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism

In the Winter 2020 edition of The New Social Worker, three founders of #MacroSW published an article entitled “Calling In Call-Out Culture: Social Workers Having Difficult Conversations Ethically on Social Media.” Being an organization that primarily exists on Twitter, they expressed a “keen awareness” for the importance of interacting respectfully in digital spaces, describing themselves as an online “safe space” where social work students, professionals, and academics can lean into difficult conversations about macro practice. They offered as a sign of their success the victory of having avoided most negative confrontations online. This, they believe, had allowed the social work community to engage in productive conversations, even those that have involved provocative topics.

What ensued after the publication of the article was backlash from activists who had been advocating that #MacroSW be more intentional in its conversations about white supremacy. Prior to the publication of the article, two activists had reached out to the organization to ask that a chat take place focusing specifically on white supremacy in social work education, and that the topic of white supremacy be folded into already scheduled chats. These activists are members of an organization called SWCAREs, a newly founded coalition of social workers whose primary mission is dismantling white supremacy in social work education.

Many readers here bore witness to the fallout that ensued after this article was published, which included both activists speaking out about what they believed were mischaracterizations of their work, one of the authors then removing her name from the article to avoid pointed confrontation, another issuing a thoughtful self-reflective public apology, the #MacroSW organization itself issuing its own public apology, and finally, The New Social Worker retracting the article altogether.

In an effort to learn from this experience, SWCAREs thought it would be productive to explicitly detail the manner in which white supremacy manifested in the events leading up to the publication of #MacroSW’s article, and how it is reflective of the wider social work community as a whole. We believe that it is time for our field to take a long and difficult self-inventory and identify some of the ways we have partnered with white supremacy in our education, practice, and implementation of social justice.

Stating the Problem – White Supremacy Culture

Those of us engaged in social work are well-versed in the discomfort of emotionally charged conversations, whether they be online or in person. What begins as a minor disagreement can often devolve into a personal attack in what seems like an instant. At the same time, we know that emotionally charged conversations can also be a catalyst for change.

We want to be clear that we believe that #MacroSW is doing the very hard work of reflecting on their organizational culture and taking steps to challenge racism both inside and outside of their organization. This article is not meant to throw any shade in their direction. In fact, it is to commend them for their reflection and to use what happened as a tool for learning. The best opportunities for learning arise from not getting it right in the first place.  

In her article “White Supremacy Culture,” Tema Okun identifies the “norms and standards” that uphold white supremacy culture within organizations. These characteristics are rarely spoken about explicitly, but instead are upheld through the attitudes in favor of and/or against the behavior of comprised members. “These attitudes and behaviors can show up in any group or organization,” says Okun, “whether it is white-led or predominantly white or people of color-led or predominantly people of color.”

Below we will outline some of the characteristics that Okun identifies, and how they manifested in recent events, as well as how they emerge within social work organizations specifically. We hope to use the retraction of the “Calling In Calling Out Culture” article as an example of how white supremacy was effectively challenged in the culture at #MacroSW and how it was so easily missed prior to the article being published.

  1. 1. Perfectionism: For social work academics and students, perfectionism can feel like a self-driven curse, an internally generated standard of proficiency that defines our worth in the field. For those of us who teach, we have seen the toll that grade insecurity can take on our students. In social work academia, perfectionism can look like a professor creating rigid attendance policies and/or unreachable grading standards. It can also look like a student’s internalization of the inability to meet these requirements, assuming themselves to be incapable or a failure. The effect of perfectionism is that a person becomes a sum of their mistakes, as opposed to an imperfect human worthy of value and expected to fall short sometimes.

In the since retracted article, #MacroSW defended against having a specific conversation about white supremacy because they were concerned about their inability to find an appropriate facilitator: “We want someone who is experienced with addressing White supremacy, with facilitating Twitter chats, and who can continually re-focus the chat on the topic, with respect, tact, and perhaps even humor.”

We want to be clear that while we do believe that there are facilitators who would embody all of these characteristics (whether we believe they are all necessary or even productive is another conversation), their inability to find a perfect match for this conversation led to zero conversation happening at all. Ironically, it is in the failure to have any discussion at all that white supremacy reared its head, perpetuating the silence that is often complicit in maintaining a culture where racism thrives.

Insight: Perfectionism – Oftentimes, social work organizations will avoid the difficult work of self-reflection as it relates to its complicity with white supremacy. We do so out of fear of making mistakes. After all, if a person is indeed a sum of their mistakes, perfectionism can quickly transform an act of racial ignorance into a person internalizing themselves as racist. Instead of demanding perfection of ourselves, we must work toward a culture of appreciation for challenging conversations, specifically the discomfort that comes with embracing accountability. Essentially, doing what is right does not always mean saying everything perfectly. It means being willing to make mistakes, humbly apologize, and then commit to the hard work of moving forward.

We’d like to point out that the issued apologies from #MacroSW and Patricia Shelly speak to this final point, as they pointed out a commitment to self-reflection and organizational change. As uncomfortable as these apologies might have been to write, we believe that they led to successful growth for all parties involved, even though they would likely have been perceived as a failure if viewed through the lens of perfectionism.

  1. 2. Defensiveness and Power Hoarding: As social workers, many of us know the defensive posture that an institution will take when confronted with its complicity in perpetuating white supremacy. Institutions who have a vested interest in the values of equity and open mindedness can be even more defensive. Social work organizations are expected to effectively serve oppressed communities, and so many of us are reluctant to reflect on how our own efforts have continued to oppress those we believe we are helping.

Prior to the article being written, there were efforts to create conversation around the topic of how white supremacy manifests in social work academia, (i.e., tone policing, gatekeeping, whitewashing of history, etc.). While this is often a critique of academia in general, we feel it is especially urgent for social work education programs to prioritize requests such as these. Unfortunately, it is infinitely more difficult for social workers to reflect on the manner in which they might be allied with oppression. Who are we if our “help” is hurting? What does it say about us if our “service” is causing harm?

In an effort to avoid the sinking reality that our actions may be out of line with our values, many social work organizations will attempt to avoid self-reflection altogether, instead mounting a defense against those who are aggrieved. This was the misstep that the authors took in publishing “Calling In Call-Out Culture.” By centering on the comfort of individuals in power over the valid reactions of the ignored and aggrieved, #MacroSW positioned themselves as a group worthy of support and those harmed deserving of silence and scrutiny. The result of this defensive posture is that power is hoarded and maintained, and the original request for a conversation about white supremacy becomes irrelevant.

Insight: Defensiveness and Power Hoarding. It is especially threatening for social workers to think of themselves as oppressive. Many of us tether our inherent value as people to qualities of compassion, kindness, and a shared commitment to serve vulnerable communities. However, without committing to improving our racial literacy, we conversely run the risk of becoming an ally to the oppressor as opposed to those who are oppressed.

Without challenging white supremacy culture in social work education, we will end up prioritizing universities over students. Without challenging disparities that exist in health care facilities, we will ultimately protect a system that disenfranchises instead of empowering the patients in need of care. Without dismantling the power that exists in nonprofit social work organizations, we run the risk of exploiting the needs of a community for personal gain as opposed to dismantling the power that created that need in the first place.

  1. 3. Fear of Open Conflict / Right to Comfort: To many of us who live and work in activist spaces, the idea that we need a “safe space” to speak on issues of race can be frustrating. As social workers, we certainly want to ensure that our interventions embrace autonomy and agency for all participants. However, this demand for “safety” is more often an unjustifiable demand for comfort.

In her book, “White Fragility,” Robin DiAngelo explicitly speaks to this when she points out that this insistence by white people that they experience racial comfort will ultimately shut down the necessary conversations to dismantle racism. She goes on to say that “this insistence also functions to punish those who break white codes of comfort.” We see this taking place in our work through the weaponization of terms like “civility,” “politeness,” and in the case of the retracted article, a call for “professionalism” and “ethics.” 

When reflecting on the publication and then retraction of “Calling In, Call-Out Culture,” we can see how this fear of open conflict not only shut down an important conversation about race, but then sublimated this discomfort into punitive actions towards those who spoke out, embodying the punishment DiAngelo illuminates. We cannot think of a more disturbing accusation than to challenge the ethics of social workers who speak out against racism, simply because it made White social workers (in positions of power) uncomfortable.

Insight: White people often conflate feeling uncomfortable with feeling unsafe. Not only does this shut down necessary conversations about racism, but as DiAngelo spells out, it also “trivializes our history of brutality towards people of color and perverts the reality that is history.” 

We must expect for white supremacy culture to redefine and weaponize terms like “comfort,” “professionalism”, “civility,” “kindness,” “politeness,” “empathy,” and even “love” in an effort to maintain power. Anti-racism demands that we instead radicalize these terms and lean into the discomfort that is a professional conversation about race, a radical empathy and love that centers on the demand for equity and justice over the complacency of comfort. We must embrace the unfortunate reality that racism exists in all of us. The fact that our field is comprised of approximately 68% white people makes this infinitely more urgent.  

Processing

In her plenary interview at the 2020 Society for Social Work and Research, Feminista Jones called on our field to reflect on its complicity in oppressing marginalized populations. “Social work has destroyed generations of communities’ self-determination in the name of white benevolence” she said. This call to action is one that could not be more timely, as we see social workers engaging in a child welfare system that disproportionately separates Black and Brown families; social workers partnering with the judicial system in their “treatment” of individuals (disproportionately Black and Brown) arrested for drug and alcohol offenses; and ultimately, social workers profiting from community needs without involving themselves in efforts to dismantle the power that created those needs in the first place. 

We must summon the courage to have productive conversations about racism in our field. White workers especially need to reflect on the defensiveness we feel when we are confronted with white supremacy culture, and how we benefit from the existence of it in our institutions and our interpersonal conversations. We must create a discipline around self-reflection, increase our stamina for holding discomfort, and continually ask ourselves where we are centering our engagement – is it on the needs of the oppressed or the comfort of those who fear change?

We sincerely hope that the fallout from the article “Calling in Call-Out Culture” will serve as an education for our entire field. We trust that all parties will continue to focus on our shared code of ethics, one that prioritizes social justice and equity. We also ask that readers reflect on what it means to be ethical and professional in social justice movements. This work is not easy and it is rarely comfortable. It is almost never perfect. That said, we believe that our profession is up to the challenge, and we look forward to continuing to organize with one another, roll up our sleeves, and get the job done.

Child Welfare Information Gateway. (2016). Racial disproportionality and disparity in child welfare. Washington, DC: US Department of Health and Human Services, Children’s Bureau.

DiAngelo, R. (2019). White Fragility: Why it’s so hard for white people to talk about racism. London: Allen Lane.

Okun, T. (2001). White Supremacy Culture. In Dismantling Racism: A Workbook for Social Change. Retrieved from http://www.dismantlingracism.org/white-supremacy-culture.html.

Zgoda, K, Shelly, P., and West, R. (2020, January 8). Calling In Call-Out Culture. The New Social Worker Magazine. Volume 27, Number 1., 26-28. (Retraction published January 13, 2020. Retrieved from: https://www.socialworker.com/feature-articles/practice/calling-in-call-out-culture-social-workers-having-difficult-conversations-social-media/).

Social Work Coalition For Anti-Racist Educators | Our mission is to dismantle white supremacy in social work education.

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