White social workers

Grayscale photo of people holding signage. Photo by  Martin Greene  on  Scopio

“Today worried me yesterday, but here I am.” This was a quote one of my clients read to me. We talked about the idea of anxiety as not trusting your future self to be equipped to handle the challenges that will happen. When you think about it, it doesn’t make sense because your future self would have the same tools plus more than what your present self has. If anything we should be excited for what our future self can accomplish.

I’ve started and deleted this post several times in the past year and never got around to writing and publishing it. It seems like now is the time for me to get past the anxiety and fear I have around saying the wrong thing since saying nothing is actually saying a lot. As a therapist, a business owner, and a social worker it’s my job to talk about race, how it shows up, and what can be done to advance equality. I need to trust that my future self can handle being blunt and open about deep topics like these in order to keep growing.

I live in Minneapolis near the 3rd precinct which was recently burned to the ground. I have attended police-community town halls and am well familiar with sentiments about MPD and how our racial inequity stacks up against other states, especially in education. As a social worker in the Twin Cities holding various human services and education jobs for the past 10 years, these protests were not new and not a surprise to me.

I realized that I am not brave. I donated and signed petitions and sent emails to my legislators, but I did not stand in front of someone who was being tear gassed by police or put myself in harm’s way to help another. I’ve already built my career in a way that I hope supports change, but I know I need to do better.

In the days after George Floyd’s death and citywide protests, I saw my social media feed flooded with support for Black Lives Matter and demanding change. I definitely made a couple of posts that were based on nothing but trying to make myself feel like I was doing something and pointing the finger at other white people, in ways which I realized later were unhelpful. It’s really easy to look at other white people and say who is the problem, but all of us are the problem. I’m the problem. The trouble is, I can’t stay in that place of white guilt self pity and actually get anything done that helps me to not be the problem anymore.

Being a white social worker I have spent years in classes, jobs, and internships learning about how white supremacy shows up in our work. I’m on the board for a social-justice minded organization and have committed myself to work towards providing services for people in ways that dismantle oppressive structures. I don’t say these things to absolve myself of racism (because I am racist, and I need to keep working at it all the time) or make myself sound like I’m better than other people. I say them because I sometimes feel stuck at this point, having done some groundwork but now being very unsure of what does the most good. I don’t feel that I’m ever doing enough but I recognize that I also need to have boundaries with what I’m able to commit myself to so that I have time and energy to continue the work that I do without burning out. In the end, it’s not about how I feel about what I’m doing, it’s about the duty to do something.

Once I was able to leave a state of panic and think more clearly about my life (which is a luxury not everyone has), I thought about ways that I as a white social worker and therapist contribute to oppression. Where are my spheres of influence, and what can I do with them? I thought about the institution of social work and the idea of a white savior, and looked to see where in my practice I can change and go against this by giving clients back their power and creating spaces where they build towards no longer needing services instead of dependence on them. I need to take extra efforts when working with BIPOC clients to make sure my work is non-pathologizing, that I take a humble approach to their lived experiences, and I refer them out if I am not going to be able to provide the level of service they need.

It’s sometimes hard for white people to start making changes because a lot of us have so much discomfort with the idea of our whiteness that we don’t want to acknowledge it at all. That act of acknowledging is not just a one-and-done process, it’s ongoing. I had to acknowledge my whiteness as a consumer, a voter, and an advocate. I looked at the YouTube channels I regularly watch, the products I buy, the organizations I donate to, what positions I research most while voting, and what causes I email my legislators about. I also looked at how I support myself in my job and what ways I may be deterring black clients from contacting or continuing to work with me.

I know this work is never really going to be done. That’s ok. I talk to clients every day about how progress is lifelong, that becoming who you want to be is process and not destination.

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