REPOST: Walking the Talk: Actions Speak Louder Than Words 

Originally posted on August 17, 2015. 

“Our lives begin to end the day we are silent about the things that matter.”

Martin Luther King

My Dear Readers: 

As I write this week’s blog, I am preparing to lead a workshop at the 32nd Annual National Organization of Forensic Social Workers (NOFSW) conference in Arlington, VA.  The objective of my workshop, The Culturally Competent Clinician/Forensic Evaluator, is to assist service providers in understanding the importance of providing a “Safe Secure Space to Spill Spoiled Stuff,”  particularly when working with members of the African American community.

Despite being a clinical traumatologist and forensic evaluator with 30 years of experience and an excellent understanding of the subject matter, it is still difficult for me to convey the impact of racism, oppression and discriminatory treatment experienced on a daily basis to a group of service providers who, while well-intentioned, can only intellectualize those emotions.  Despite these differences, we all will have one characteristic in common: as members of the organization i.e. NOFSW and representing various institutions, we all hold organizational/institutional (O/I) privilege. I find this privilege to be the one that is the most frustrating.  It is real, but illusionary.  It is perceived as reachable, yet it remains unattainable for those who are not born to it.

In the previous four weeks, I have explored various concepts of privilege, including:

 Male Privilege: Every male, by virtue of being male, benefits from male privilege.  It is the granting of special rights, advantage or immunity that is made available to individuals of a specific gender.

  • White male privilege is unlimited, i.e., has no boundaries.

White Privilege can be defined as a special right, advantage, or immunity granted or available only to individuals of a race due to the perception of institutional power in relation to individuals of a different race or ethnic group.

  • White female privilege is limited, i.e., limited to the boundaries designed by white males.
  • White females and African-American males/females will never attain white male privilege.

Limited Privilege is typically the purview of black males, which only has meaning, productivity and esteem within the confines of the African-American community.

  • 1 in every 16 African-American men is incarcerated in comparison to 1 in every 106 white males.
  • One in every three black men can expect to go too prison in their lifetime.
  • Black males were three times more likely to be searched during a traffic stop than white motorist.
  • African-American males are twice as likely to be arrested and almost four times as likely to experience the use of force during encounters with the police.

Intra-Group Privilege is privilege that is created and reinforced within a social group.  As with other forms of privilege, intra-group privilege not only has its perks and benefits, it can be psychologically harmful as well.

  • African-Americans strive to obtain white privilege, which can be revoked, terminated or taken away at any time.

Organizational/Institutional (O/I) privilege is defined as a specific right, advantage or immunity granted or available only to those individuals as a class in an identified group holding organizational/institutional (O/I) power.  Unlike male privilege, where is limited to those of a specific gender, organizational/institutional (O/I) privilege is open to both genders and all races, but in practice, is often restricted only to members of the dominant culture.

Organizational/institutional (O/I) racism differs from organizational/institutional privilege.  In O/I racism, there is an intentional act of restricting people of color from choices, rights and mobility and includes the use of, as well as the manipulation of legitimate institutions with the intent of maintaining an advantage over others.

The holder of O/I privilege, in contrast, may not intend to impose such restrictions on people of color and more often than not, is unaware or in denial of their privilege.  This may result in unintended acts of aversive racism.

In aversive racism, the aversive racist says, “I am not a racist, but…” and may engage in crazy –making interactions with African-Americans by overtly denying racist intent while acting in ways that feel racist to their target.  An example would be the state clinical social work organization of which I belong to located in the Pacific Northwest. Its leadership, in response to the massacre at the Mother Emanuel AME church in Charleston, S.C., stated:

“We are all sickened, grieving and angry over the massacre in Charleston S.C.  It comes after endless shocks of killing of Black men and youth across the country.  To this we add the repeated killing of the mentally ill by a system that seems completely untrained and unprepared to help them…. …How do we as clinical social workers think about this, and more importantly, what are our contributions and challenges?”

This is the part of organizational/institutional privilege that frustrates many professions of color in the same field.   While members of the privileged group are intellectualizing, debating and discussing their feelings on how the system “seems completely untrained and unprepared,” many more black people and the mentally ill will continue being killed. Instead of talking about the issues and worrying about mission statements and codes of ethics, there are those among us who urge action on behalf of these beleaguered communities.

Clinical social work organizations like this one may be unaware of not only the disservice they are doing to the communities they claim to be concerned about, but also of how they may be viewed by those same communities. In a recent survey of the state social work organization, it like other similar state organizations around the country found itself to be predominantly White/Caucasian, heterosexual in private practice and over the age of 50 possessing 15-30 years of experience in the profession.  Results in the survey concluded the following:

  • 100% of the respondents see racism as a clinical issue
  • A vast majority 86% felt their practice was culturally responsive/competent
  • 95% responded affirmatively when asked if frameworks, treatments and /or interventions addressed or incorporated diverse groups.
  • At the same time almost 49% felt race was a barrier in building alliances with clients. Roughly 98% felt race was a factor in transference and countertransference.
  • Close to 85% of respondents felt comfortable about talking about racism, but that number was reduced to 75% when speaking of race or racism with clients
  • 79% indicated they felt competent in addressing oppression, racism and racial inequality with colleagues.
  • 98% of respondents felt they would benefit from additional clinical training on diversity and /or racial equity
  • The percentage of members identifying themselves as people of color fell to 6% of the membership, which is far below from the designated target range of 30-34%.

Concluding Words

The finding of the survey may suggest the following:

  • The majority of those surveyed holding organizational/institutional privilege view themselves as being culturally responsive and competent
  • A large number (25%) felt uncomfortable about speaking of race or racism with clients
  • A large number felt competent in addressing oppression, racism and racial inequality with colleagues.

Being mindful that only 6% of the organization are identified as people of color, the survey suggests that the white members feel comfortable and competent “intellectualizing” these subjects, but may need more training in actually addressing oppression, racism and racial inequality with members of the same organization and others. This is the privilege afforded to those of us who belong to organizations and institutions designed to help the traumatized and the oppressed.  As long as these organization views themselves as “non-activist organizations,” there will be nothing more to come from them beyond their words.

The I/O privilege have one characteristic in common, the belief that in intellectualizing, debating and discussing the issue, they feel in their hearts they are achieving something.  Are these individuals racist in their intention? No. However, when confronted, they remain in denial of the racist outcome, even though there was no racist intent.

It is to the benefit of people of color that mental health and forensic professionals of color continue to assist our colleagues in understanding the need for activism as an organization and in learning so, balance awareness and knowledge about our communities.  We want allies of all colors to work with us on the frontline, but to do so, it is imperative that they gain awareness and knowledge of the community they seek to serve.

“Occasionally, I wished I could walk through a picture window and have the sharp, broken shards slash me to ribbons so I would finally look like I feel.”

-Elizabeth Wurtzel, Author of Prozac Nation

Until the next crossroads…. the journey continues.

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