The elephant in the room: Addressing racial anxiety of white social workers in child welfare

Jana Vinsky, Implementation Specialist, One Vision One Voice

Talking about and confronting race is often difficult. Why is this the case for so many of us who are white, and what can we do about it, to address racism?  For over 20 years, I have worked to understand racism within social work practice, and helped other white social workers to do the same.

Much of my learning has required self-examination. It first began with racialized people challenging me on my “colonial”, “western” and “white supremacist” thinking. For a long time, I had no idea what they were talking about and felt anxiety when the topic of race came up.

I saw myself as a good and progressive person. I was against racism. Hearing that I was oppressive seemed ludicrous. Did these people really understand what they were saying? Did they not know who I really was – a good person?

I realize now that I was experiencing what has been termed “racial anxiety”. I was reactive every time the topic of race was raised. I did not yet have tools to move into a place of humility in order to facilitate learning, which would allow openness for responsibility, and have my social work practice be more helpful than harmful.

Racial anxiety

Racial anxiety is a term used to describe the heightened level of stress people feel when interacting across racialized divisions. White people may fear being seen as racist, while racialized people may fear experiencing racism (https://perception.org/research/racial-anxiety). It is my experience that racial anxiety is prevalent for white people when discussing racism and social work practice. It often leads to our defensiveness, with reactions that range from shutting down conversations to outright attacking people who want to address race. Another common response is to argue we have already done enough on race, or agreeing to do something of minimal significance, or arguing we need to be addressing other issues. My work (on myself and with other white social workers) has improved over time as I have come to focus on naming racial anxiety, and some steps to take when it arises within us. I call this “working with our reactivity”.

Reactivity

If you are white, how do you feel when you hear words like, “what you did was racist” or “what you said is offensive”?

You might feel a range of emotions and sensations in your body. Do you feel embarrassment, guilt, shame, a sense of exposure, wrongfully accused, attacked, fear, rage, incensed…? What’s happening in your body? You might have comments, stories, or assumptions about the person who makes the remark. Are you able to stay with what has surfaced for you without holding onto the comments/stories or pushing away the difficult emotions or unpleasant sensations? What is this experience? What do you assume it means about you? How do you work with yourself to acknowledge and address the racism and your impact?

In my conversations with white people, I have seen some of the elements of this reactivity. This might include wanting to be seen as someone who is good and on the right side of things. We might want to be in the good white person camp and fear judgment, and loss of connection. We might also want to be seen as someone “who gets it”, or special and different than other white people, somehow redeemed for having done anti-racism work in the past. We might fear that we have been unknowingly hurtful and feel guilt. We might also feel guilt, confusion, concern, and fear of professional incompetency regarding how privilege interfaces with ourselves personally and professionally. We might also resist admitting our relationship to power, which could include a desire to maintain oppression, and thus our privilege (see Robin DiAngelo’s work on “white fragility”  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DwIx3KQer54; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cGGI66uK9x4). We often fear being seen as racist because it can threaten our self-perception.

If we learn to work with this reactivity and understand that what we are feeling is shared by most white people, and is more systemic than personal, we can move into a place of humility and responsibility. From here we can address racism within ourselves and the systems we work within. When we embrace humility, we can accept our ‘not knowing’ and become open.

A Journey towards Humility as ‘not knowing’

The journey for those of us who are white (and see ourselves as well-intentioned social workers) to engage in critical self-reflection and learn about our complicity in racism, and to discover how much we really don’t know, can be unnerving. This can threaten our sense of control. The expectation is not to arrive, but to engage in a form of practice where we question our knowing on an ongoing basis. We recognize our prism of knowing is not neutral but based within whiteness and white privilege (For more on white privilege see  https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/tag/white-privilege).

I have worked with many white social workers who enter a ‘crisis of knowing’ when it comes to learning about race.  What does this look like? Feelings of uncertainty, a threat to one’s self-perception as a competent, knowing and a good social worker (and person), and to one’s world view as just, often gets evoked. Although not always so linear, models of grieving such as from Kubler-Ross (https://grief.com/the-five-stages-of-grief/) for loss of a ‘just world view’, and loss of an idealized self-perception, and models of gaining competency such as the Four Stages of Competence (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Four_stages_of_competence; https://www.mindtools.com/pages/article/newISS_96.htm) can be helpful in naming some of the psychological states we might pass through along this journey.

Fundamentally we want to stay in a place of humility. It is ok to not know, it is ok to recognize that we are not perfect – and not innocent. Living with humility can reduce anxiety and create a greater openness for learning and critical self-reflection. Through humility we can be more effective in our work – deepening a “working with” rather than an “at” or “for” social work approach. In this way we can begin to counter the systemically embedded racism in our everyday social work practice.

Responsibility

Humility would have us take responsibility and confront our historical and current systemic violence against Indigenous, African Canadian and racialized people, so that we could make reparations. It would have us challenge our idea of ourselves as inherently innocent and good (and always the victim), so we could take responsibility to educate ourselves on white supremacy and our personal and professional complicity. We would address how social work has functioned to silence voices and how it contributes to historically prolonged oppression embedded in the work we do today. We would actively address our unintentional and sometimes intentional enactments of oppression in our everyday social work. We would address our systemic continuation of disproportionality and disparity in child welfare, particularly against Indigenous and African Canadian people. We would ask ourselves how our time in child welfare will be viewed in the future, and what side of history we chose to be on.

10 Steps to address racial anxiety for white social workers

  1. Notice your internal reactions when your thinking/ behaviour on race is challenged (e.g. embarrassment, rage, impulse to deny, defend, and/or to punish the person or perspective challenging, and/or to “put the racialized person in their place” – if it’s a racialized person challenging, etc.).
  2. Tell yourself to stop.
  3. Tell yourself to listen. (This is a learning opportunity. You can process things later. Try deep breathing to stay present).
  4. De-personalize and take a step back. (Your reactions are not unique to you but to those who share your identity. Remember the Narrative Therapy idea: “the problem is the problem, not the person”. Racism is systemic. We are often unaware of our oppressive actions which are part of our ongoing conditioning – often a reflex that happens before awareness. Unlearning is a forever process. It’s not about whether you are a good person. Take the focus off of you and learn).
  5. Focus on understanding how racism is playing out and its impact; address it and make reparations.
  6. Embrace “learning through discomfort” (http://www1.uwindsor.ca/criticalsocialwork/knowing-through-discomfort-a-mindfulness-based-critical-social-work-pedagogy;); Learn about white fragility (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DwIx3KQer54; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cGGI66uK9x4 )
  7. Don’t separate yourself from other white people. Look for others on a similar journey for support and peer-challenging. Be careful of feeling superior to white people who “don’t get it”. This feeling could be another trap of the “good white person” defense.
  8. Find strategic ways to address systemic and institutional racism/whiteness in your agency and on a structural level, e.g. from your position in the agency linking with similar sectors/systems doing this work (Education, Health, Justice, etc.); read the Ontario Human Right Commission report (http://www.ohrc.on.ca/en/interrupted-childhoods); promote and employ OVOV Race Equity Practices (http://www.oacas.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/10/OVOV-One-pager.pdf)
  9. Be careful of becoming the “white saviour” or a race champion that takes over peoples’ voices.
  10. Remember addressing racism is central to doing good social work, it is not an “add on”. This is “core business”, and an ethical requirement of the Ontario College of Social Workers and Social Service Workers, the Ontario Human Rights Commission, and it is a Legal Charter principle. Begin with yourself.

Links:

Definition of racial anxiety: https://perception.org/research/racial-anxiety/

Quotes on white privilege: https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/tag/white-privilege

Learning through discomfort: http://www1.uwindsor.ca/criticalsocialwork/knowing-through-discomfort-a-mindfulness-based-critical-social-work-pedagogy

White Fragility: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DwIx3KQer54; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cGGI66uK9x4

Ontario Human Rights Commission: http://www.ohrc.on.ca/en/interrupted-childhoods

One Vision One Voice Race Equity Practices: http://www.oacas.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/10/OVOV-One-pager.pdf

Kubler-Ross https://grief.com/the-five-stages-of-grief/

Four Stages of Competence https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Four_stages_of_competencehttps://www.mindtools.com/pages/article/newISS_96.htm