On being white and doing anti-racism social work

As white people in our country begin to grapple with matters of racial justice in numbers never before seen, I am fielding questions from current and former social work students on a regular basis about how to do anti-racism work as a white person. The very first thing I want to say is that I for sure don’t have all the answers on how to be white and how to do anti-racism work.

Today, I’m opening myself up as an imperfect person willing to share the experiences that I do have, and the many mistakes that I have made and learned from. And I’m modeling that imperfection by telling you my story on purpose.

I have done a lot of work in this area over the last 30 years, starting with my participation in an intensive anti-racism retreat I did years ago – something that I’d encourage you all to do. That experience was followed with a variety of continued work in interracial groups, partnerships and collaborations over the years. Much of this work led to moments that were personally challenging and uncomfortable.

And I think that is something that you will have to get used to – realizing that both interracial work and racial justice work are often uncomfortable.We are not going to be comfortable in this work! And that’s ok. Racism and white supremacy are not easy topics to discuss, but as social workers, we need to become experts at having conversations about difficult stuff.

I, like many white social workers, have struggled a lot to learn how to talk about racism and white supremacy. I think it is really important for the leaders among us to model the behavior that we want and need to see in our communities, and so it is without hesitation that I say that I am not afraid to admit that I was raised in a racist society, with a grandfather that used the “N” word openly. That’s what I grew up hearing as normative, the ugliest and most hateful “N” word. But here’s something even more powerful than that word – I know that racism and white supremacy are a lot more subtle than the “N” word.

And they are more insidious than that word too. Racism and white supremacy shape how I see my day to day world as a social worker. They shape the system I work in. I need to be on constant guard for how they acts as a lens for what I see and how I understand it. They shape not only how I see, but how I act, what I do and what resources have access to. We have to learn to not be ashamed of the word “white supremacy” and the R word – “racist” or of the ways each of us are racist.

As Dr. Ibram X. Kendi says, we have to move beyond seeing the word “racist” as a pejorative term. In fact, there is a really thoughtful quote from the writer Ijeoma Oluo, that gets at this, that I want to share with you. She says:

“The beauty of antiracism is that you don’t have to pretend to be free of racism to be an anti-racist. Anti-racism is the commitment to fight racism wherever you find it, including in yourself. And that’s the only way forward.”

So, what this gets at is the idea that we have to be able to admit to acts of racism. I have had to call myself out on various racist thoughts – regularly. Those have been really painful moments for me. Those have been shameful moments for me. But I have learned that you need to lean in to them. Sometimes it’s been someone else who has called my attention to the situation. That’s been even more painful. I’ve learned to lean into those too, to confront them, learn from them and keep moving. And the thing is, you are never done, you are never fully woke, you can’t ever rest on your laurels, this is life-long work.

The important thing is, don’t get lost in those painful and shameful moments. Own up to it, face it, move on with intention, with openness. We need to avoid what is known as “white fragility.” While we think of white fragility as “discomfort and defensiveness on the part of a white person when confronted by information about racial inequality and injustice,”it is also what happens when we are confronted with situations in which we have been racist, when we cry about our own racism, or are ashamed about our own racism.

We need to get over the need to be the “good white person” who never makes any mistakes. None of us will ever be that person no matter how hard we try. We need to accept our imperfections, accept our ugly flaws, and work to do better. We need to resist the urge to want to be supported in feeling sorry about what we have done or said by the people we have hurt or offended. Learn to listen, really listen. In the hard or ashamed moments, we need to learn to do what we need to do to take care of ourselves as quickly as we can. We need to learn to not ask for the emotional labor of people of color who we have hurt…and we need to learn to get on with the work of holding ourselves accountable, and moving on, so we can do things better in the world to the best of our ability. As Time Magazine put it, “We cannot linger in the fallacy that we could never be involved in a racist incident.”

Central to this work is coming to terms with our own whiteness, our own racial identity, and the ways in which we are inextricably linked to white supremacy – and by that I am not referring to the KKK. Part of living in a society and a culture that is characterized by white supremacy is that white people often do not have a sense of racial identity. We need to realize that we have, as Savala Trapczynski says “inherited the house of white supremacy built by our forebears, willed to us, and we are responsible for paying the taxes on that inheritance or the status quo continues.” This is something I myself am struggling to come to terms with and understand better.

This is central to my work now, understanding what my whiteness is, and what it means for me as a social worker and as a human. The following quote, also from Trapczynski sums up why it is so important for us to do this work of understanding our whiteness right now:

“A white person rushing to do racial justice work without first understanding the impacts, uses and deceptions of their own whiteness is like an untrained person rushing into the ER to help nurses and doctors – therein probably lines more harm than good.”

My advice for this? Get yourself into a group of white peers, and start the work of unpacking your whiteness. Be aware and hold yourself accountable.

So, we have been talking a lot about the important and vital challenge of reflection in anti-racism work for white people. And yes, we have absolutely got to do the internal work on our own racism – we have got to be reflective in looking at ourselves, looking at where racism creeps in to how we see the world and how we see our clients, our colleagues and our community partners. How the racism, how white supremacy informs how we act in our daily lives, how we speak, even. We cannot forget or ignore or overlook this personal work! And this includes considering whether we live in majority white worlds. Can we expand our horizons to include more friends of color in a non-tokenistic way? Can we begin to seek out businesses owned by people of color, for example? Can we at least notice the whiteness of our worlds? Yes, we can, and we must.

But as my colleagues and friends of color have said to me, it is not enough to do the personal work of anti-racism, we have to engage in action. We must take a multi-pronged approach to this work, and that involves a macro focus too.

Many of us have been protesting in the streets in support of the Black Lives Matter movement over the last three weeks, which is an important way to raise awareness among our white peers, family members and communities, but perhaps not the strongest action one can engage in for social change. Raising awareness only goes so far.

Generally, it is not enough to just do the more “performative” work of taking a stand in asking for justice for Breonna Taylor through your Instagram post or taking a knee in honor of Colin Kaepernick’s protest at your football game, as much as both of those activities are good things.

What I am saying is that we must engage in substantive, tangible actions. You must do the work to educate yourself about the racism in this country, and share your knowledge. You must do the work to educate yourself about the history and culture of people of color in this country that you may not have previously been aware of – expand your mind – and then share your knowledge. And then this is where your social work macro education will really come in handy – or you must activate your community organizing skills to bring people together to address racial justice in your neighborhoods, draw on your administrative leadership skills to foster racial justice in your organization and implement your legislative advocacy skills to advocate for bills that support racial justice. Get involved!

Use the skills you are developing in your classes to be the change you wish to see in your world! These are skills that can be used to bring about real change that can address racial injustice in our society. And of course in this work we must be guided by our professional code of ethics, which states that social workers have a professional and moral obligation to address and end racism.

Remember, the opposite of racist is not non-racist, it’s anti-racist! As social workers, we are not able to be neutral, so let’s get to work, the hard work, the uncomfortable work!

Note: Big thanks are due to Dr. Lisa Johnson and Mr. Murat Recevik for they challenged and supported me in my process of writing this essay.