On being White & doing anti-racist child welfare practice

[This is the text of a speech I gave to the Massachusetts Department of Children & Families this morning] I’m so pleased to be with you all today – it’s always good to be back with a group of child welfare workers as someone who did this work in the past myself. You all have been on my mind as of late with COVID-19 and the racial justice concerns our country is starting to be responsive to, and I am pleased to be able to share this time with you today.

Before I begin my presentation, I’d like to address my topic, which is on being White & doing anti-racist child welfare work. My usual audience for this presentation is White social workers who are meeting in a racial affinity group concurrently with separate affinity groups for people of color whose work centers on healing from racial trauma, and fostering resiliency. Affinity groups are used to call people into community based on a shared aspect of identity. When talking about race and ethnicity and implicit bias, it can be helpful for people of color to talk about this on their own to facilitate openness and depth within the conversation, and the same is true for White people, as experiences differ. However, today I have been asked by DCF to speak to a multi-racial audience. So, I would like to acknowledge the child welfare workers of color amongst us today and invite you to use this time to take care of yourself while also knowing that your White colleagues are taking a step forward in learning about anti-racist practice.

As we prepare to think together about being White and doing anti-racist child welfare work I would like to invite you to embrace a set of shared agreements for our time together:

  • Approach this presentation from a stance of curiosity & openness
  • Participate as you are able
  • Engage with one another respectfully acknowledging that this is a really difficult & challenging time
  • Maintain confidentiality – Leave details in this zoom room, but take learning with you
  • If you are confused, ask for clarification and if someone confronts you or seeks clarification from you, offer explanation with an open heart and don’t be defensive
  • Prepare to be vulnerable and uncomfortable…that’s the way learning often happens!
  • Take care of yourself!

Are there any other agreements people would like to suggest?

OK, so let’s begin. Over the past few months, our country has been gripped with the emergence of a new civil rights movement that has been a long-time coming. As a result of my time doing this work in Brooklyn and the Bronx, New York, child welfare has been on my mind a lot this summer, as I’ve watched the civil rights movement unfold. I’ve also watched with interest as a prominent School of Social Work in Texas has come out with a plan to abolish that state’s child welfare system, stating that the child welfare establishment has a long history of systemic racism which has led to terrible consequences for BIPOC families. And we know this, we know that Black, Brown, and Native children have disproportionately high rates of family separation and child welfare system involvement, and that they have poorer reunification and adoption outcomes, for example. Unfortunately, despite all of our efforts aimed at reform to address these ills, these inequities remain intact. But this is not news to us, right?

What is new is that lots of people are talking about anti-racism. That’s new! So let’s define our terms.

“Anti-Racism is defined as the work of actively opposing racism by advocating for changes in political, economic, and social life. Anti-racism tends to be an individualized approach, and set up in opposition to individual racist behaviors and impacts.”

 “An anti-racist is someone who is supporting an antiracist policy through their actions or expressing antiracist ideas. This includes the expression or ideas that racial groups are equals and do not need developing, and supporting policies that reduce racial inequity.”

Now, based on the dialogue in some child welfare circles this summer, some would argue that to be truly anti-racist as a child welfare worker you have to abolish the Department as we know it, this is called an “abolitionist stance,” but I take a more incrementalistic or bit by bit approach, I believe that we have to start where we are with the system we have, and take a good, hard, deep look inside ourselves first, and consider the ways in which our racist society is impacting our work with clients and colleagues. And that then we have to act on it. And that is the core of what I want to talk with you about today.

I want you to sit with that for a minute.

Did you get that I am asking you to look at your own racism? I am asking you to consider how you benefit from—and even uphold—conscious and unconscious biases as well as institutional or structural racism. That’s something I have had to do myself – and something I admit to freely. I am a White social worker and I have racist ideas and have engaged in racist actions – mostly without being conscious of it until I began the process of doing anti-racism work.

As scholar Dr. Ibram Kendi writes about, racism touches all people, White people, Black people, Indigenous people, Latnix people, Asian people, we are all steeped in this racist culture and we all soak in racist ideas and practices, and we all have to unlearn them. Racism is raining down all around us whether we like it or not, whether we reject or not. It is like the water around a fish in a fishbowl. SLIDE And that’s the analogy that’s often used to describe how Americans live in a culture of White supremacy – and by that I am not talking about the KKK and racist macroaggressions, I am talking about…

“the dominant, unquestioned standards of behavior and ways of functioning embodied by the vast majority of institutions in the United States. These standards may be seen as mainstream, dominant cultural practices; they have evolved from the United States’ history of white supremacy. Because it is so normalized it can be hard to see, which only adds to its powerful hold. In many ways, it is indistinguishable from what we might call U.S. culture or norms – a focus on individuals over groups, for example, or an emphasis on the written word as a form of professional communication. But it operates in even more subtle ways, by actually defining what “normal” is – and likewise, what “professional,” “effective,” or even “good” is. In turn, white culture also defines what is not good, “at risk,” or “unsustainable.” White culture values some ways – ways that are more familiar and come more naturally to those from a white, western tradition – of thinking, behaving, deciding, and knowing, while devaluing or rendering invisible other ways. And it does this without ever having to explicitly say so…”

Many feel strongly that White supremacy will continue to shape child welfare structures and experiences unless a critical mass of White social workers step up and confront their racist biases, beliefs and behaviors in order to shift the system.

So, back to my proposition to you, the idea of asking you to consider that you may have racist bits inside you because you live in a society characterized by the traits of White supremacy may not sit well with many of you who doubt you are racist and think you are good people. Because I am sure you ARE good people. I have no doubt of that. But it is true that you can be a good person and simultaneously be deeply affected by the racism that is rampant in our culture in some very deep but subtle ways.

So, before you walk out of the room or click out of this meeting, I am going to ask you to suspend judgement and hear me out. Just listen to what I have to say before throwing it out.

Today, I’m going to be talking to you about two main topics:

  1. What it means to practice anti-racism as a White social worker, and
  2. Recognizing how Whiteness informs our work with clients and colleagues

Let’s start by talking about anti-racist practice.

The famous Black scholar Angela Davis once famously wrote that “it is not enough to be non-racist, we must be anti-racist.” That means you need to take an active vs. a passive stance on racial justice. I want us to think about how her position on non-racist vs. anti-racist applies to child welfare work as I talk to you about my journey to become an anti-racist practitioner.

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, but I’m willing to share the thoughts that I do have on the topic. 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, including an intensive anti-racism retreat with other child welfare workers 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, like when I realized that I held biased beliefs about Black people and the ways that they parent that I wasn’t even conscious of – and that held true of other racial and ethnic groups as well. I went into that group assuming that I was not racist. Assuming that I had a good heart. And I did have a good heart. But what I found out is that if we are raised in a society that is characterized by White supremacy, racism is in us whether we like it or not and whether we are conscious of it or not. We have to get used to that. It’s ok. We can work on recognizing our stuff and on doing better. If we recognize these subtle bits of bias, we can course correct them. Looking back, I would not impose my White way of doing things on people, where possible.

And I think that something that you will have to get used to is realizing this work is often uncomfortable. We are not going to be comfortable in this work! And that’s ok too. 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, experts at recognizing uncomfortable stuff in our practice. We need to get good at stepping outside of ourselves in supervision, looking at our caseloads, and thinking about how our race impacts our work with our clients and our colleagues on those cases. In other words we have to name it, we have to go there, we have to talk about it. We have to break that taboo.

I, like many White social workers, have struggled a lot to learn how to talk about racism and White supremacy as it relates to practice. 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. My parents were horrified and explained that it was a bad word but that’s about all the guidance I got. It was still there. 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.

When I think about my child welfare work, racism and White supremacy shaped how I saw my day to day experience as a social worker back then. It was normal to see scads of kids of color removed from families on a daily basis, parents rights terminated on a weekly basis, kids waiting for adoption for years and years and years. It became normal, what I expected. I forgot to fight against it. Racism and White supremacy shaped the system I worked in. They shaped what I expected, they shaped what I thought I could do and what I projected as the possibilities for a case might be. I know now that I need to be on constant guard for how racism and White supremacy act 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 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 the famous historian Dr. Ibram 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 anti-racism 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 – acts which are usually rather subtle and not overt. I know that’s a tough ask. They are not necessarily horrible macroaggressions, but small everyday things, ideas or beliefs that we may not even be conscious of. I have had to call myself out on various racist thoughts. Those have been really painful moments for me. Those have been shameful moments for me. But I have learned that you need to lean into 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.

And in this work 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…this is really important…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.” Face it, it is going to happen. We are going to live through it and keep going, and we will work to do better.

And that brings me to the second theme of my talk today, recognizing how Whiteness informs our work with clients and colleagues.

Central to anti-racist child welfare practice for White social workers is coming to terms with our own Whiteness, our own White racial identity, and the ways in which we are inextricably linked to White supremacy – and again by that I am not referring to the KKK or the Aryan Nation. 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 still struggling to come to terms with and understand better. It is a life-long journey that we have to commit to. 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.”

And this is where understanding White privilege comes in.

Let’s first talk about what White privilege is not. White privilege is not suggesting that White people have never struggled. Many White people don’t enjoy the privileges that come with affluence, such as food security. Many White people don’t experience the privilege that come with health care access, for example. But those struggles have to do with socioeconomic status, not race.

Also, White privilege is not the assumption that everything a White person has accomplished is unearned; most White people who have reached success worked very hard to achieve it. Instead, think of White privilege as a built-in advantage, separate from one’s level of income or effort.

Let’s think about some of the things that White privilege IS.

  • It is a subconscious prejudice perpetuated by White people’s lack of awareness that they hold this power.
  • White privilege can be found in day-to-day transactions and in White people’s ability to move through professional and personal worlds with relative ease.
  • White privilege is unconsciously considered both normative and normal — meaning, it is assumed that the social system should privilege them and the daily privileges they receive never register as special.
  • For many, White privilege is an invisible force that White people needed to recognize. It is being able to walk into a store and find that the main displays of shampoo and panty hose were catered toward their hair type and skin tone.
  • It was being able to turn on the television and see people of their race widely represented.
  • It was being able to move through life without being racially profiled or unfairly stereotyped.
  • White people are less likely to be followed, interrogated or searched by law enforcement because they look “suspicious.” My husband is a darker-skinned man from a Muslim country originally and he gets stopped all the time, and once they hear his accent? It’s another hour of interrogation.
  • White privilege IS…White people’s skin tone will not be a reason people hesitate to trust their credit or financial responsibility.
  • If White people are accused of a crime, they are less likely to be presumed guilty, less likely to be sentenced to death and more likely to be portrayed in a fair, nuanced manner by media outlets
  • Just as people of color did nothing to deserve this unequal treatment, White people did not “earn” disproportionate access to compassion and fairness. They receive it as the byproduct of systemic racism and bias.
  • These privileges are symbolic of what we might call “the power of normal” for White people. If public spaces and goods seem catered to one race and segregate the needs of people of other races into special sections, that indicates a problem with something beneath the surface.
  • Let me emphasize that in this framework, White people become more likely to move through the world with an expectation that their needs be readily met. People of color move through the world knowing their needs are on the margins. Recognizing White privilege means recognizing where gaps exist.
  • This is not said to make white people feel guilty about their privilege. It’s not your fault you were born with White skin and experience these privileges. BUT, whether you realize it or not, you DO benefit from it, and it IS your important for you to learn about it and maintain awareness of that fact.

So as you wrestle with this, my advice for beginning to recognize the power of your whiteness in your child welfare practice? Get yourself into a group of White peers and start the work of unpacking your whiteness as it relates to your child welfare practice and your wish to do anti-racist practice. Be aware, be reflective, be courageous and be brave and hold yourself accountable. Some of the questions you can ask in your group are:

  • Why are you really starting an anti-racism group? What is motivating you?
  • What does my White racial identity mean to me?
  • Where do you see White privilege in your life?
  • What do you know about White supremacy culture?
  • How do you handle being called out for microaggressions?
  • How do we work with clients of color as White social workers who have embraced anti-racism?
  • What is the role of a White person in the anti-racism movement and what are our action steps for moving forward?
  • What do you know about White supremacy culture as it relates to child welfare practice?
  • How do I address my race in interracial work with child welfare clients?

Many White people are doing this work all around the country. I think our country is moving beyond what we call “color-blind racism,” or the mistaken belief that many of us grew up with that we should “see beyond color.” I think most of us now realize that it is realty important to notice everyone’s race and ethnicity, and to honor it, to honor their experience and to honor their difference. Yes, we must treat one another equally, but to not see race is a form of racism.

In doing anti-racism work on yourself as a White person, you are “making whiteness visible.” I have learned that in order to do racial justice work effectively, we have to be in touch with our own White racial identities. Specifically, we need to be in touch with how we want to reframe our White identities into positive ways of being White that supersede the impacts of White supremacy.

I’d like to start by modeling my own cluelessness for you around this issue when first confronted with this question of what my white racial identity was. In the movie “Making Whiteness Visible,” there is a scene where a white woman recounts a Black woman waking up every morning to the realization that she was Black, and all that came with that. The White woman says something along the lines of “I don’t wake up every morning and realize that I am White.” I could very much relate to this.

The first time someone asked me to talk about my White identity I drew a complete blank. A complete blank! I immediately thought about friends who spoke about their Black or Latinx identity with great meaning, pride and detail – but me? I just came up empty. With a little reflection time I could talk haltingly about the Spanish food my grandmother taught me how to cook or my Scottish grandfather’s love of the poetry of Robert Burns but this seemed pretty bland to me. I knew I needed to dig deeper. I was pretty sure I was avoiding the ugly stuff about being white. Ya think? So, after some digging around about what I needed to do, I started to read more about White racial identity development.

As Black scholar Janet Helms reflects along with the folks at Racial Equity Tools

“As white people, many of us want justice and an end to racial oppression. We want to live our full humanity. We want to live in right relationship with all people. But it is difficult for us to live our full humanity when the unearned privileges of White skin color come at the expense of others. So it is in myself interest as a White person to find a different way of being White in the world.”

Further, Helms says that:

“historically whiteness and White supremacy pervade our culture, our institutions, and our personal relationships with people of color. We are socialized by White institutions and we internalize White superiority. One of the difficult challenges we face as White people is to identify a positive way of being White while recognizing we live in a culture based on White supremacy.”

So here is our task as White people interested in anti-racism work. For us to affirm our whiteness while living within this culture of White superiority we may end up affirming or supporting White supremacy even if we reject all it stands for. We can’t reject our White skin because we can’t remove that very White skin. And all the while the White dominant society will bestow upon on us our unearned privileges as a result of having that White skin. So our challenge is to work on feeling OK about being a White person without being oppressive to others consciously or unconsciously. It’s a tall order, but this is the work that we must do.

So, I invite you to think along with me about what your White racial identity means to you. I suggest two guiding questions:

  1. What does your White racial identity mean to you?
  2. How do you internalize your White superiority? (That may be an uncomfortable question for many of you)

So, because I am modeling for you today, let me take a crack at answering these questions a little bit.

 What does your White racial identity mean to you?

I really struggled to answer this question when I heard it the first time. Beyond some basic ethnic pride answers, what I keep coming back to is a sense of shame. Shame for what whiteness has wrought in our culture, the history of slavery for example, and its lingering effects, or more correctly, for the culture of oppression whiteness has wrought. My family directly benefited from slave labor in generations past – yes it’s a long time ago, but that money passed its way down through generations and touches me to this day. The history of redlined mortgages that privileged White people and disadvantaged people of color, especially Black people, something well-documented, allowed White people to build wealth in their homes and that did not happen for people of color. My identity is all caught up in that. My whiteness has allowed me to fit in and sail through life’s institutions with ease, landing wherever I wish (even though I have put in effort and worked hard all my life). What I want is usually at my fingertips, easily accomplished, I can walk into institutions and be easily embraced just based on what I look like.

 How do you internalize your White superiority?

Here’s the only way I know how to start answering this question. I grew up in a middle class White suburb with parents who became professors at ivy league universities that catapulted them into a different world from their immigrant and working class family households of origin. Class privilege and White privilege were slathered over me growing up – I can see that in retrospect. It was always super important to my parents that we follow the rules of etiquette from “Miss Manners” for example, someone I imagined as a nice proper blonde white lady in a 1950s dress. There was just a right way to do things, the way “people like us” do things my mother always said. “People like us” was suburban White people, I have since learned, upon reflection, the people my parents wanted to be – not working class immigrants like their own families. “How we do things” is a White default, and this is internalized White superiority – any other way of being is considered less than, other, wrong, in my family.

I have seen this “how we do things” hegemony play out in how people speak or present themselves, for example, such as when some of my Black students used Ebonics or African American Vernacular English, something I have since come to accept. I used to worry that they would not be accepted or that they would be looked down on, and now I see that language use as a symbol of resistance and/or just plain old cultural expression instead. Who is to say that my White way of talking is the right way to talk? I see my instinct to correct or guide someone to use White English as my internalized White superiority complex. This is just one example.


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 into 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. But there are some actions we can take:

  • 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.

And that brings me to my final point, about working towards being an accountable ally to people of color. A wise former child welfare worker of color, Dr. Lisa Johnson, recently said to me that we should focus on using the word ally as a verb, versus as a noun. Never think of yourself as an ally, where your work is done, think of yourself as engaging in continuing allyship, work that is never done. Step up, put some skin in the game.

According to the website RacialEquityTools.org some of the other ways we can do this include:

  • Working to change racist institutions, including child welfare institutions.
  • Learning to live as multi-racial people.
  • Taking responsibility for our own racial identity journey.
  • Learning the truth about the racist history of our country and our profession.
  • Nurturing a positive anti-racist White identity in your own children.
  • Building a White anti-racist collective of child welfare workers.
  • Honoring our heritage of White anti-racist resistors.

And finally, remember, the opposite of racist is not non-racist, it’s anti-racist! That implies the need for engaged action! As child welfare social workers, we are not able to be neutral, so let’s get to work, the hard work, the uncomfortable work!