Checking Our Biases and Moving Social Work Forward

Maxine ThomeI am writing to you during one of most difficult times I remember in this country of ours. We are the observers of a President who acts at times like a fascist dictator, not like a caring leader. He has fueled the flames of racism.

As Americans, we can respect the office of the Presidency while being critical the man who currently holds that position. We have seen the growth of detention camps; we have seen deportation of immigrants; we have seen the ruin of Tribal sacred land; we have seen the reversal of policy developed to protect the LGBTQ community.

We continue to witness the brutal murder of Black men and women through police brutality. Although it is not the actions of all police, it is systemic through the criminal justice system. We must stop the systemic racism that plagues our country. We cannot sit idly by.

We must never forget the lives of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor,  Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Laquan McDonald, Tamir Rice, Walter Scott, Freddie Gray, Jamar Clark, Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, Stephon Clark, Atatiana Jefferson, Jonathan Ferrell, Renisha McBride, Jordan Edwards, Trayvon Martin…  the list goes on and on and highlights a frightening pattern. The list will continue to grow unless we do something and do it now.

We must commit to stop the murder of Black men and women. Each of us as social workers must make a commitment to do all we can to bring about change that will end systemic racism and innocent death.

Our profession of social work was founded on the principles of social justice. As social workers, we cannot sit idly by. Many of us have lived through the beginnings of the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s (and I fear we are seeing the undoing of progress that was made). We were alive during the Stonewall uprising. We demonstrated during the Women’s Movement. We know how to bring about change. We must support the peaceful protests and join hands with the protesters, and join in spirit with the protests that are occurring.

The social work profession is comprised mostly of white women. White women know both the fight to gain equality and the meaning of sexism/inequality. We must bring this unique knowledge to the table in every community and work with our hearts and our knowledge to end systemic racism. We must also understand the impact of our white privilege on the continued racism and continued to understand and work on our own biases.

One clear recent example of this privilege was the white woman in the New York City park who contacted the police about a Black man who was “attacking” her, when in reality he was just out bird-watching. This is a prime example of internal racism and bias that she has not addressed… and her response is a prime example of white privilege.

We as mental health providers must examine our own racist actions, beliefs and attitudes. Unlike those who may turn their face away from what is happening in our society, social workers must look at the eye of the storm and work tirelessly to end the racism that lies within us and within the places where we work, live, play, and worship.

So how do we do this work that is so critical and goes far beyond the education we received in schools of social work? We start by doing our own work.

I believe that we are all racist, and the minute we say “I am not a racist” is the time we stop doing the work that we must do. It begins by awareness of stereotypes we hold and our beliefs that must be questioned. It includes intense introspection each time we stumble across our own racist behaviors and thoughts. I am aware that each time I cross the street to avoid passing closely by a group of adolescent Black teenagers I am operating on my own racist beliefs and I must stop and question it and commit to understanding the origin… and undoing that component of my own racism. We each must recognize the seeds of racism that exist within us. It is time to understand white privilege and how it prevents us from truly seeing what is happening.

This is also an important time for us to become involved. We must be an active part of our communities and consider running for local offices. We must work with like-minded groups to identify systemic racism and develop policies to change it. We need to advocate in universities and colleges for education in police programs that teach about racism and provide tools for police to undo racism and implicit bias. We must work to pass legislation that supports the changes we know are so critical.  We must stop voter suppression and assure that everyone has a fair and equal right to vote. We must work with schools of social work to assure that social work students are learning in classrooms and field placements to undo racism that they encounter and that students learn to lead in areas of social justice. We must have crucial conversations.

We as social workers are part of a profession grounded in the values of social justice and civil rights. This is a time to bring our professional and personal selves to the table and say, “NO MORE”.

Thank you for the work you do and the work you will continue to do to end systemic and personal racism.

Maxine Thome, PhD, LMSW, ACSW, MPH
Executive Director, NASW-Michigan

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