“It is not our differences that divide us. It is our inability to recognize, accept, and celebrate those differences.”— Audre Lorde
“So,” I began, taking a seat in front of my new clients, “Why don’t you tell me why you’re here?” As the two women told me their story, I started to realize that there was something of an elephant in the cramped room, squeezed in between the three of us, demanding attention. It was clear that my clients were actively and consciously avoiding a specific word, one which starts with the letter R. So, I took a risk and I named it. “I believe you,” I said. “That sounds like racism to me.” The effect was almost instantaneous; with a thick voice and streaming eyes, my client, a black woman, gasped, “No white person has ever said that to me before.”
This is not an essay about how great I am, nor do I want to present myself as an authority on race in the United States. I merely wish to share some of the hard lessons I have learned after many years of anti-racist activism and community work, both here in Milwaukee and in Oakland, Calif. I have been blessed to have learned at the feet of leaders and thinkers as diverse and brilliant as ex-Black Panthers, professors of black studies, pastors, political prisoners both currently and formerly incarcerated, and close friends. It is with their voices forever echoing in my ears that I write these words, hopeful that they will be recognized as coming from a place of love, passion and solidarity.
I haven’t always understood my own role in the system of white privilege that rules everything around us. For many years I have felt that it was enough that I had a good heart. I thought “not being racist” was an end goal that I could achieve simply by wishing it, without doing any work to unpack all of the messages I’ve been raised with and have internalized for my entire life. I thought that I could end racial inequality just by insisting that I saw everyone as equal, that I was colorblind, that a human is a human is a human.
Of course, that’s easy for me to say. My humanity isn’t the one in question. More recently we’ve seen this dynamic play out in the #blacklivesmatter movement. Many well-meaning people have been quick to jump into this national narrative, insisting rather loudly that all lives matter. And they do. Of course they do. But that’s not the point.
How does this relate to us in child welfare? Well, a fair amount of us are white and a large portion of our clients are people of color. It is absolutely understandable that this would create some tension in our relationships with our clients. It is equally understandable that oftentimes our first instinct is to pretend that there is no tension, that everything is fine, that we are not different in the slightest. This is the, “I don’t see color”/colorblind approach, and I get it. I’ve been there. But this, I feel, is a mistake.
It is not racist to acknowledge that people of color experience life in the United States differently than white people do. It is honest, and honesty, as we all know in this field, goes a long way in creating meaningful and mutually respectful relationships with our clients. Authenticity is the most powerful tool I’ve personally found in my journey towards becoming the best social worker I can be. How can we, as white child welfare workers, create strong, authentic relationships with our clients of color if we’re simultaneously trying our best to ignore cultural differences and systematic oppression? Who could trust someone who denies their lived experiences? No one could, and it’s unfair for us to ask this of our clients.
Perhaps a better course of action is to listen to our clients whose experiences do not reflect our own, and to validate them. As I learned with my aforementioned clients, validation can be incredibly meaningful in this work. We don’t have to have experienced everything our clients have experienced in order to offer compassion and understanding. This is true for every group and individual on the planet, but it’s especially true with our clients.
I cannot stress enough how effective this tactic has been for me personally in earning my clients’ trust. We know from countless trainings that cultural competency is necessary in this field. Well, part of competency, I would argue, is understanding our own role in this dynamic.
This is not an easy process, and I want to be clear about that. It can be uncomfortable to the point of awkwardness to openly acknowledge cultural differences and systematic oppression. In the moment, sitting there in front of a wary client, it may feel difficult to present yourself as a genuine advocate. And the work is never done; self-awareness, especially concerning difficult topics such as race and class, is a daily struggle on a lifelong journey. But it is worth it. It is so worth it.
We must, as white social workers and child welfare workers, push past our feelings of discomfort that have been ingrained in us since birth. Our clients deserve authentic advocates who “recognize, accept, and celebrate” their lived experiences, and we deserve to be those advocates.
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