Episode #4: White Supremacy at Work
Does your organization only value what’s in writing? Do you or your coworkers have a habit of venting about each other or clients in the office? Do you have a coworker who doesn’t know how to delegate?
If you answered yes to any of those, then… hate to break it to you, but those acts/behaviors may be white supremacy culture happening right where you work.
These characteristics, or norms, show up in every workplace; hospitals, medical clinics, nonprofit organizations, social service agencies, etc, and they merit evaluation as to where they came from. Our society, unfortunately, is so steeped in a culture of white supremacy, that sometimes we aren’t even aware that the things we do at work, really everyday things, are reinforcing that culture.
In this episode, Ondine and Drew will discuss how these common occurrences that we all take for granted actually stem from tenets of white supremacy culture and the responsibility that social workers have to recognize and resist them.
Ondine: You’re listening to Decolonize Social Work, a conversation about social work, oppression, and liberation. I’m your cohost Ondine.
Drew: And I’m your cohost Drew. Hello everyone. It’s been a minute, hasn’t it?
Ondine: It has been a minute.
Drew: Yeah. It’s amazing what having a cold for two months will do to your budding podcasting endeavor.
Ondine: Yeah, that kind of got in the way.
Drew: It did.
Ondine: That and the holidays and a lot of other personal stuff.
Drew: We care about our listeners so much, we didn’t want them to have to listen to us sniffle for half an hour while we talked about really cool stuff.
Ondine: That’s right.
Drew: Because this cool stuff shouldn’t have distractions, right? So speaking of some stuff that we’re going to talk about, today, we’re actually going to do a deep dive into what white supremacy culture is and what it looks like maybe when it manifests in our social work profession.
Ondine: Exactly. I’m glad we’re talking about this too because I know that we use these terms a lot and getting to spend a little time sort of defining them practically I think is really important.
Drew: Because we’ve talked about a little bit too about we want everybody to be on the same page, have operating terms, but really this is going to be a focus specifically on just white supremacy culture.
Ondine: Yes, exactly. With a focus on then how that shows up in social work.
Drew: Okay. Well what are we got that we’re using here.
Ondine: Alright, we are building this conversation off of an article, a paper written by Tema Okun called “white supremacy culture,” and you can find it for free at dismantlingracism.org. We’re also going to post links to the stuff we talk about today on our social media.
Drew: Yeah and our website.
Ondine: You will be able to find it there, but this piece that she’s put together also builds on the work of a lot of other people and organizations and …
Drew: Over 10 years of work too. Right?
Ondine: Yeah. It’s impressive. This article has been organized into like 10 or 12 different characteristics of white supremacy culture.
Ondine: I’m going to read those characteristics, and then we’re going to come back around and talk about, well, what makes those characteristics of white supremacy culture ahead of the game.
Drew: Yeah I think that’s a great question too to kind of resolve for people because I’m sure those are questions people are going to have because these are kind of common concepts that we’re all familiar with already.
Ondine: Yes. All right, I’m just going to read these through and forgive me the paper shuffling here. We’ve got a lot of paper in front of us guys.
Drew: We come prepared.
Ondine: We come prepared. Perfectionism as one characteristic, sense of urgency, defensiveness, quantity over quality, worship of the written word, only one right way, paternalism either or thinking, power hoarding, fear of open conflict, individualism, I’m the only one, progress is bigger, more objectivity and the right to comfort.
Drew: Some of those we’ve already talked about a bit. Things like objectivity and paternalism. I’m glad that we’re going to spend some time just focus specifically on these things because we’ve talked about it in the context of other things, but this is just laser focused on those things specifically.
Ondine: This is a long list of characteristics of white supremacy culture, but they aren’t just those characteristics because you and I think so or because Tema Okun said so. What are they?
Drew: Well, I think that a lot of these, whether we work in private business or nonprofits or independently, a lot of these have become just the norms of our culture. Whether that is by design or by accident. The end result is the fact that a lot of us do these things and I don’t know if we always are coming at this work critical why we do these things and so I think unpacking what the origin of these things are and what they’re continuing to do is important as we go forward in social work and kind of in the mission of this podcast too, which is to decolonize social work and if we’re unintentionally unwittingly replicating or using the structures of colonizing frameworks. We have to be able to recognize that.
Ondine: These are the norms, who set them?
Drew: That’s a great question and obviously anybody who has had the capacity to write rules or develop norms were usually people in charge and people with power, whether it was a plurality of representation or just had almost like an apartheid. They were the minority, but still had the most power. There was other people who always established the norms that most of us ended up following and so …
Ondine: And who are those people?
Drew: In this country? In the United States, it was white people. White male says had people who typically had a financial leverage over some people as well.
Ondine: And lets not act like that’s not still the case.
Drew: Yeah and it is, and it also is a good point here, very much recognizing that this isn’t limited to the borders of the United States. This is a global problem.
Drew: I think a lot of it starts here and has pervaded other communities and cultures around the world, but I think the development of this stuff you really see that happen in the United States and western Europe.
Ondine: You and I when we were chatting about putting this together, you said that this piece also kind of made you think about something that Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz said.
Drew: Yeah I’ve referred to her book in a previous episode, the Indigenous People’s history of the United States and she talks about white supremacy culture and how it isn’t intrinsically linked to skin color, but it most often does connect to people’s skin color, you can be more often than not, white people are going to be the ones that participate in white supremacy culture, but you also don’t have to be white to participate in it and to reinforce this or do these behaviors, at the same time it is possible for white people to reject white supremacy culture. Again, it’s not just inherently linked to what your skin color is or what your race is, but more often than not, it does kind of overlap with those two characteristics.
Ondine: Even the best organizations, nonprofits, social service agencies, the best people can be complicit in perpetuating this culture. These characteristics, these norms, right?
Drew: Right. Because part of it all is we’re not coming up with these norms individually and it just all spontaneously happened. Then we had the same frameworks, right? These are all things that trickled into our organizations because of the culture we live in, which is a culture based on white supremacy norms.
Drew: This especially important for us as social workers because if we are tasked with trying to alleviate suffering and struggle and oppression from people, we’ve got to do critical work and making sure that we’re not just playing along with the rules that the culture …
Ondine: The dominant culture which is responsible for a lot of the suppression.
Drew: Yeah, exactly.
Ondine: Right. Exactly. We have to be able to recognize these dynamics at work and then we have a responsibility to work to dismantle them. And I would also go in to say that these characteristics which we will dig in deeper about also are just bad for us. There are unhealthy. It’s this kind of stuff that perpetuates burnout in the social work profession.
Drew: Yeah. Absolutely it does.
Ondine: And you mentioned this already, but I just want to like lift this up again, these characteristics, we’re focusing this conversation today, a lot of the workplace. I think the last couple times we’ve chatted, we’ve talked about social work education, but I want you guys to …
Drew: They’ve taken a beating enough from us from a couple of episodes.
Ondine: We’ll be back for you.
Drew: We’ll be back for you.
Ondine: Y’all haven’t fixed your stuff, but we’re going to think about the workplace today and social workers work everywhere. Some of us work directly with clients. Some of us are administrators, some of us run organization and some of us write policies. You know we do case management. There were therapists, there’s a ton of stuff so whether you work in a NGO, nonprofit or for profit hospital, wherever you work, this stuff shows up. All right, well.
Drew: Well let’s get started into unpacking the first term that you read off actually, which was perfectionism.
Ondine: Lets get in yeah.
Drew: Do you want to share a little bit about what Tema Okun defines as perfectionism?
Ondine: I do, yeah. Perfectionism. There’s little appreciation expressed among people for the work that others are doing and appreciation that is expressed usually directed to those who get the most credit anyway.
Ondine: Another point. Perfectionism, more common is to point out either how the person or work is inadequate or even more common than that to talk to others about inadequacies of a person or their work without ever talking to them directly. Okay. I feel called out a little bit.
Drew: Yeah. I think anybody listening to this probably is feeling that with you, with me as well.
Ondine: Mm-hmm (affirmative)
Drew: As you were sharing some of that. I just started thinking about every situation I’ve been in at work where basically we just kind of. It wasn’t even just benign gossip, right? We were kind of talking shit about people behind their back and not addressing it directly with them, whether it was interpersonal issues or like we thought they were not doing a good job at the tasks that they were doing.
Ondine: Yeah. Let me get in a little further here. Also, an example of perfectionism is that mistakes are seen as personal, they reflect badly on the person making them as opposed to being seen for what they are, which is just mistakes, making mistakes is confused with being a mistake, doing wrong with being wrong. Another thing is that there’s a little time, energy or money put into reflection or identifying lessons learned that can improve practice. In other words, little or no learning from mistakes. Because we’re all avoiding the mistakes and just kind of painting people as bad.
Drew: Gosh that behavior of attributing actions as mistakes into people being mistakes, I feel like has been a tool to continue to disenfranchise women, women of color or people of color from the workplace because we take their actions as representative of them as a people, not just individually, but even as their communities.
Ondine: Yeah, absolutely. This also spoke to me too under perfectionism. It’s often internally felt like inside us personally. In other words, the perfectionist fails to appreciate her own good work more often pointing out his faults or failures, focusing on inadequacies and mistakes rather than learning from them. The person works with a harsh and constant inner critic, also that makes me feel called out.
Drew: We sometimes almost jokingly say like, “Oh, I’m my own worst critic.” But like, why should we be so hard on ourselves with this stuff?
Ondine: Something that, I have a question, right?
Drew: Mm-hmm (affirmative)
Ondine: Which is some folks listening to this might be like, “Well, I’m a perfectionist. There’s nothing wrong with that. That just means I end up putting forth the best work all the time.” So how is perfectionism connected to white supremacy culture?
Drew: That makes me want to clarify something. We’re not calling for people to slack off and do a less than acceptable job. This social work, it’s serious. We want to do get the best work we can.
Ondine: That’s right.
Drew: That’s not the same as perfectionism. And so I think the concept of perfectionism and how it relates to white supremacy culture does kind of on one hand mirror things like efficiency and …
Ondine: Time is money.
Drew: Time is money, time keeping is a big thing with perfectionism. Anybody that’s ever had to clock in at a certain time and you get dinged if you were supposed to be there at 9:00 and you showed up at 9:02-
Ondine: -What about having your button and seat at 9:00 makes you a better employee.
Drew: Right? And I realized that there are people to who’s shift ending is dependent on somebody else relieving their shift, like a 24 hour organization-
Ondine: But we are not hurrying our butts up to get there at 9:00 am because we’re trying to take care of one another.
Drew: We are doing it-
Ondine: Is because we’re going to get dinged.
Drew: Mm-hmm (affirmative) Exactly. You’re absolutely right about that. These characteristics about perfectionism kind of sounds like something else I’m pretty familiar with too, which is capitalism. Capitalism is inseparable from white supremacy culture. We do have to point that out.
Drew: That like these are one dirty hand dirtying up the other hand at the same time.
Ondine: It’s all a hot mess.
Drew: Yeah. Two heads on the same monster sort of hydra grossness. Yeah. perfectionism again isn’t equivalent to like doing your best. Doing your best is awesome. We want to lift people up to do their best, but at the same time can’t be so critical of those slight differences that becomes trying to fit because what is perfect too.
Ondine: Oh and best is subjective.
Drew: Yeah. But we’d act like it’s not right? We just act like, “Oh, you’re going to be measured on your performance, on certain characteristics and we’re not going to consider alternative ways to measure your quality of your work.”
Ondine: This makes me think about also how then that plays out for social workers in their way that they feel about their clients or the way they see their clients and having clients who face a lot of barriers who are doing their best and are actually maybe pretty savvy when it comes to getting their needs met. But I have definitely heard social workers expect things of their clients that are completely unreasonable and are unable to like lift up or see the amazing things that they do because they’re not perfect.
Drew: I’m also feeling called out right now. Not personally. As a personal affront. I just, recognizing behavior I have done sometimes at various jobs, we have unfairly critiqued people for not being perfect clients. Sometimes they will need our services more than once and pejorative names get attached to them.
Ondine: That’s awful.
Drew: Frequent fliers, return clients, these sorts of things that really, let’s lay this out, what we’re doing, we’re criticizing people for using a service we offer and again the perfectionism part is that you should only need this service once and then your life should be great. We’ve talked about before in this podcast how oftentimes, what does it mean to help somebody in a situation and then they go back out into the world and the systems that exist that caused those problems are still in effect. It’s really unreasonable to expect one person to just need our services once, if the problems are still out there.
Ondine: And it’s really ugly. The way that I think about how this builds on itself. I’m a social worker and boss is riding my ass to be at work on time at a certain time. I’m like five minutes late and they make my life really bad. And so in turn, I’m really frustrated with my clients then who aren’t showing up on time for their appointments and I’m thinking badly about them all because we’re stuck in this time clock mentality where we have to be perfect and efficient.
Drew: And efficient. Yeah. All of this kind of begins to create this toxic culture. And I think it highlights what you said too, which it kind of emphasizes or exacerbates burnout, if we’re expected to be performing perfectly all the time and perfectly as something not even clearly defined. It’s just somebody who had the ability to write the rules and the norms decided that this was what it was going to be perfect. Again, it’s only going to work against us.
Ondine: Yeah. I also, I mean it fosters a lot of animosity too between colleagues, I’ve definitely been in work environments too where this culture of perfectionism, which we know is a tenant of white supremacy culture, really impacts the way that you feel about the people down the hall. If you feel like you’re doing your best based upon whatever and your fellow social worker does things a little bit differently, it really kind of divides us instead of appreciating one another for like having our own style and our own way of approaching the work. It’s just like you said, it’s pretty toxic.
Drew: Perfectionism also kind of dovetails or overlaps with another of those concepts you mentioned, which is also objectivity because as you mentioned, perfectionism and you’re not really worried about other people’s style or the how they do things. All the time critiquing people to basically remove themselves from the work that they’re doing in order to fit into this mold and we’ve somehow identified this mold as the perfect mold because we don’t want people bringing their personal experiences and we don’t want people having emotional reactions to the clients they’re working with and again, to say that the perfect social worker is somebody who doesn’t do that. It’s really gross.
Ondine: Yeah, I know and I wasn’t … When we were preparing for this conversation where we also talked about the venting in particular, right?
Ondine: And how that fits into this.
Drew: Right. And venting kind of does have, I think a negative connotation to it almost like there is just some complaining about it, but I don’t think that in this concept we’re saying that you shouldn’t ever decompress or just unload the stuff you’re carrying, but are you talking about things from almost like using the I-statements that we always talk about people using or projecting that onto other people?
Ondine: Right. Venting. Sometimes people call it water cooler talk. Just the fact where it isn’t something you’re familiar with, but it’s basically like you said, the practice of getting together with your colleagues and blowing off steam. And I think people would be hesitant to say that there’s something wrong with that. In fact, I have a lot of social work friends who have said we need a way to, like you said decompress.
Drew: And we do.
Ondine: And we do. But it is a symptom of all of this that we’re talking about, this perfectionism piece of being hypercritical and that when people do something wrong, it’s an indictment on them as human beings rather than maybe they made a mistake and then we just go off to the break room and talk about how awful of a person they are.
Drew: And so that Kinda leads me into something because I don’t want to just point this problem out right, Tema Okun has some antidotes to these concepts.
Ondine: Mm-hmm (affirmative)
Drew: Do you want to share a little bit about what some of her suggestions are?
Ondine: Yeah. Some of the things that she says can combat perfectionism are to develop a culture of appreciation, which I think will look different everywhere, where the organization takes time to make sure that people’s work and efforts are appreciated. I don’t know about you, have definitely been in places, I’ve worked at places where you didn’t really know when you’re doing well, but you knew when you had done wrong. Right?
Drew: Mm-hmm (affirmative)
Ondine: What would that look like to flip that around and offer more praise.
Drew: Yeah, I really loved that suggestion of when offering feedback, always speak to the things that went well before offering criticism. I think that’s a great thing to just all the time.
Ondine: All the time.
Drew: Even when you’re talking to your friends.
Ondine: Yes. I think here too, an antidote that spoke to me, it was to develop a learning organization. The problem with perfectionism is there’s also no room to mess up and sometimes you need to be safe to fail.
Drew: Social work is messy too.
Ondine: I think you two realizing that being your own worst critic does not actually improve the work. It actually contributes to low morale among the group and does not help you or your colleagues to realize the benefit of learning from mistakes. That really hits home for me.
Drew: Kathryn Schulz is an author who wrote this book all about accepting being wrong. I read a few years ago. And it was really transformative because it did kind of talk about like our petrified fear of ever being wrong. We focus so hard on getting things right and if that’s how we respond when we’re called out and we do make mistakes, we’re not really learning how to learn from those mistakes.
Drew: Okay. Well, perfectionism.
Ondine: Perfectionism, and there’s more than we can say about this. I might also mention that we won’t probably pick apart every aspect of this article because we don’t have time.
Ondine: But I would love to move on and talk a little bit about the characteristic of, I’m the only one.
Drew: Yeah what does Tema Okun say about this, like what are characteristics of someone who thinks that they’re the only one?
Ondine: Let me get to that part of the document here. Okay. That’s the only one right way. Sorry, I’m not where I need to be.
Drew: Which is similar.
Ondine: It is similar. That’s correct. Okay. It’s connected to individualism, but it’s the belief that if something is going to get done right then I have to do it. I feel like that is something that we’ve all experienced. There’s little or no ability to delegate work to others. Why is that connected to white supremacy culture?
Drew: Well, I think the first thing you said, which is it’s connected to individualism, this idea of individualism, disability to pull yourself up by your bootstraps. This all kind of comes. A lot of people believe it comes from the Protestant work ethic. That white colonizers, white settlers brought to this country.
Drew: Whereas basically you and you alone are the one who is going to be able to do things to help yourself out.
Ondine: And if it doesn’t work out that’s on you.
Drew: It’s your fault. Yeah, and so sometimes that manifests in ways we see in social work, which is like, “Well, I’m the only one that can actually do this the right way, I’m going to do it.” It’s almost like those martyr complex that develops too.
Ondine: Oh my gosh. Haven’t we all worked with these people?
Drew: Yes we have.
Ondine: I’m just like, “Ask for help.” I know it’s so frustrating.
Drew: It is so frustrating and it’s hard to watch people struggle with that and kind of continue to over and over just die on that hill and it’s just like, gosh, it can be so much easier.
Ondine: It could be so much easier. And you know, what I really appreciate again about this conversation is that I have seen these people do that over and over again and I’ve wondered like why can’t they ask for help? I’ve never stepped back to consider that what is happening in that dynamic is connected to white supremacy, is internalization of if it doesn’t work out. And there was somehow, I was somehow connected to it. It will be reflective of my character
Drew: And I think that’s another characteristic as well that’s mentioned in this article, that part of it is also this desire for individual recognition or individual credit. I want to be the one recognized for saving this organization. I want to be the one that, recognized to keeping these people in their home. And I think one that’s a lot to put on yourself, but also what does that say about your trust and your colleagues? The people who were supposedly supposed to be collaborating with, social work is an interpersonal relationship or profession. To have somebody and this happens everywhere, and we’re talking about social work. To have people who are social workers so driven on being the only individual who can do that really kind of belies the common I guess basis of what social work is, which is social.
Ondine: Yeah. And I don’t want to set myself up like I’m the only one who has all the expertise. To get this done and you mentioned people almost want to be recognized for being the person who saved the thing. That makes me think of the problem of power hoarding, which is another one of the characteristics that Tema Okun lifts up as part of white supremacy culture and the way I think about that playing out in an actual workplace as an example is cross training. If I’m the only one who knows how to do x, y, z thing at this agency, then they can’t let me go.
Drew: I’m in Dispensable.
Ondine: I’m indispensable and I’m not going to share my knowledge. I don’t see the value in doing that whatsoever and how awful that is.
Drew: All of us are always scared of talking ourselves out of a job. But yeah.
Ondine: But I mean that, we’ll just take a moment here, but some of you guys may or may not have heard the term, the nonprofit industrial complex. Our goal is not to keep ourselves in a job. Our goal is to work ourselves out of jobs, when we are in a mission driven organization. We want to see that through.
Drew: If you achieve that mission. It is scary to think that you wouldn’t have a job, but. Okay. Are you here for the paycheck or are you here for the mission?
Ondine: That’s right. I think this is a moment that I just want to plug somebody that I really respect a lot. Someone that I know here in Kentucky and she took a job as an executive director for a nonprofit agency and what she decided to do shortly after she started was to sit down and write her five year, I guess acce-
Drew: Resignation letter.
Ondine: Resignation? Yeah. So that she could hold herself accountable to this is what I’m doing to bring good work to this agency to take it to where it needs to go to really serve clients. And I’m not going to get so comfortable that my interests then becomes in just doing what I gotta do to keep this job.
Drew: I love that idea too, of writing your resignation letter that early. Almost like the anti individualism, right? They’re here for just a moment and I don’t know. That note is falling away from.
Ondine: Oh, that’s okay.
Drew: I was gonna say something really profound and then I’m just sitting here talking with my hands and you can’t see that.
Ondine: It’ll come back. And they can’t see it. Well, I will jump in though to say that another thing that shows up for me when we’re talking about this concept of I’m the only one and how that fits with white supremacy culture, way that, that I’ve see show up in social services is this idea that agencies, social service agencies here in the United States, they beef with each other. They have these turf wars-
Ondine: Around who’s serving what clients, who’s getting what funding. Well, you guys can’t star coming into that part of the city and offering these services because that’s our area.
Drew: That’s our beat.
Ondine: And it’s, if we really care about the work the way we say we do, then we wouldn’t be operating from this position of scarcity.
Drew: Yeah, and I think that’s so unfortunate because, well on the one hand, if somebody thinks that they have a better approach to doing this, you shouldn’t just dismiss them from trying to do the same work that you’re doing, if they are going to approach it differently or-
Ondine: -It’s an opportunity for collaboration.
Drew: And community.
Ondine: And then again … And community. And I’m not going to act like these terrible dynamics don’t exist where people who don’t know what they’re doing will sweep in and step all over the toes of people who’ve been doing good work for a long time. That’s also problematic. I’m not advocating for that, but I think that we need to take a long look at ourselves, a long, hard look at ourselves, especially those of us who work in nonprofit organizations and social service agencies. But whether we get real fussy when somebody else starts doing the work that we do and where that’s coming from.
Drew: This actually is a good segue because I think a lot of times those of us who are at these organizations that get kind of turf protective. The other thing it kind of brings up for us is like, well this is our beat. We got comfortable in this and now there’s someone else coming here and, you’re now you’re pulling me out of my place of comfort.
Ondine: And suddenly none of this is about people in the communities that we’re supposed to be in service to.
Drew: That’s my segue into the next concept, which is right to comfort.
Ondine: Mm-hmm (affirmative)
Drew: And the fact that those of us who think that comfort should be prioritized over tackling some of these problems is a problem. And for me, I think that comfort specifically is related to privilege and in this context and for me it’s white privilege, but I also got like male privilege and straight privilege and all this stuff and I think that sometimes we don’t want to go out of our comfort zones because of what it might reveal about us and when we deny that we have this privilege and that we have this comfort, usually it is to the service of perpetuating systems that deny other people this comfort.
Ondine: Yeah. In the article here, Tema Okun talks about that the right to comfort is the belief that those with power have a right to emotional and psychological comfort and that they scapegoat those who caused discomfort. And this also is equating individual acts of unfairness against white people with systemic racism, which daily targets people of color. How does this actually show up practically where social workers work?
Drew: Well, I think one big example for me is pay discrepancy when we …
Ondine: Let’s talk about that.
Drew: Let’s talk about it because I love money, but at the same time-
Ondine: -Anti capitalists who loves money.
Drew: Well, if I didn’t have to live in capitalism, then I could reconsider it, but at the same time we do have this culture of not talking about how much we make and asking people how much they make. That’s really taboo to ask people how much they make, but it also does provide this level of comfort to those of us who maybe think that I’m making more than say Lisa over here and I know historically that I’m a white man and white people typically get paid and compensated and rewarded more than say Lisa who is a black woman or a Latina. And so that comfort of me not having to address that is quite a privilege.
Drew: But at the … Yeah. And I think that I shouldn’t be uncomfortable because I also didn’t make the decision to pay my expenses much right?
Ondine: I didn’t make the rules.
Drew: I didn’t make the rules.
Ondine: This isn’t my fault.
Drew: And I think that’s a problem that those of us with privilege have got to be a little better about sliding in there and disrupting that comfort. Not just our own comfort, but those of us who, those people who are like us and share that same comfort.
Ondine: Yeah, and you mentioned like so and so Lisa down the hall or whatever who may or may not make more money than you and other part of this right to comfort. Then as it mentions in the article is that then people who pushed back against that are deemed as complainer’s.
Ondine: Uncivil. They’re seen as grumpy. They’re easily.
Drew: [inaudible 00:28:17] for that.
Ondine: Yeah. Their sort of marginalized instead of being taken seriously because they’re pointing out inequity. I had read something somewhere where this person is pointing out that if you get angry at folks who are pointing out these inequities, your privilege is showing essentially. Right?
Drew: Well, yeah.
Ondine: And that if you think that when folks are criticizing these dynamics at work, you see that as uncivil and not supporting of like a collegial environment. Your privilege is showing.
Drew: And again, it is a privilege to be comfortable and not have to deal with those things when that is the lived experience for so many people every single day.
Ondine: That’s right. I also wanted to add to that in terms of right to comfort. This is an example. Follow me down this rabbit hole for a moment.
Drew: All right.
Ondine: Here where I work, where you work. If an agency that provides social services receives money from the federal government, they are legally obligated to provide language interpretation services for clients who do not speak English. I see that all the time make people uncomfortable when clients or folks or consumers or however you say it show up needing services and they don’t speak English. And I have encountered some nonprofit agencies who just don’t manage that well or pretend like they’re not supposed to offer these services. Or what they’ll do is that they will offer services like one night a week.
Drew: Because those are the only nights you’re allowed to have a problem.
Ondine: Right. Where we live, Spanish is one of the bigger languages that people speak outside of English. And so you might find an agency then where Thursday nights is our Spanish language clinic. If you speak Spanish only that’s when you need to come. And when clients show up outside of those hours, people are like, well, you need to come back on Thursday rather than me helping you now. It makes me uncomfortable if you point this out that this is not equitable.
Drew: Well there’s also this thing happening in that. Okay, at this point who’s to blame for this inability to provide service? And in a lot of those cases I think, oh well you didn’t follow the rules of coming on the right night for you people, this is your fault. And I think again, we don’t want to be discomforted with the idea that like we’re providing inadequate services or insufficient services because we’re only allowing us for a small window of a week.
Ondine: Yeah. But by providing interpretation at all, we think that we are doing a good job
Drew: Instead of maybe reconsidering that we could do better or we should do better. But again, putting that onus on a client to rearrange their life to come meet us when we are comfortable and able to provide the service to you.
Ondine: And again, I’ve just seen this play out or what that has been critiqued as not equitable, it’s not right. And then folks get in their feelings about it because they’re like, it’s expensive to offer interpreters and we’re doing a great job by having an entire day devoted to. And it’s like no, your privilege is showing again. I wanted to back up if it’s okay in terms of just like we talked about, I’m the only one but we didn’t really offer any notes.
Drew: Yeah right we didn’t.
Ondine: I just want to lift up what is lifted up here in the article.
Drew: I actually really liked this antidote to. I’m glad you re-steered us back into this.
Ondine: Yeah no problem. Again remembering that I’m the only one connected sort of individualism, one of the antidotes that’s offered is that we need to evaluate people based on their ability to delegate to others, evaluate people based on their ability to work as part of a team to accomplish shared goals.
Drew: God, I love the idea of getting evaluated based on how well you lifted up other people and not just how well you did something on your own.
Ondine: Yeah, I know that’s like unheard. Oh my gosh.
Drew: That’s a very different work structure, it’s a really different culture that you’re talking about there.
Ondine: We really value narratives where people have like scraped by and suffered and the more that people can show us their pain and show us that they still made it, the more we love that.
Drew: And it’s also used as an excuse for why don’t other people do it then, that’s a scape goat to other people for not doing better because you can find one outlier that proved narrative wrong.
Drew: But yeah, I think also just going back to reevaluating social work, it does really emphasize community and collectivization. When your success is measured on how well you enable other people to do well.
Ondine: Mm-hmm (affirmative)
Drew: I think that’s awesome. I love that.
Ondine: I like it too. And since we’re on the subject of antidotes. Let me offer something to this right to comfort that we’ve been talking about. Understand that discomfort is at the root of all growth and learning, that’s part of it and that it’s okay to be uncomfortable and if you’re not uncomfortable, you’re probably not growing.
Drew: I think sometime people confuse being uncomfortable with being unsafe.
Ondine: Oh my God.
Drew: And I think that gets. I think people really feel that when they’re uncomfortable, they’re being unsafe and there’s a big difference between that like I don’t think you should be on, ever in an unsafe environment, but you should be in an uncomfortable environment to learn stuff.
Ondine: I know.
Drew: And I think a lot of people treat those as synonyms or feel those as synonyms when they are very, very different.
Ondine: Now you need to welcome that discomfort actually as much as you can. It’s also critical an antidote to deepen your political analysis of racism and oppression so that you have a strong understanding of how your personal experience and feelings fit into this larger picture.
Drew: I think that goes back to also accepting your privilege and then trying to move beyond that privilege or even being disloyal to that privilege because you’re not going to even begin to understand what it is like to be denied that comfort or to be targeted by oppression if you can’t even acknowledge that you have the privilege to be immune to those things.
Ondine: That’s right. Yeah, coming back again to like sort of the practical, tangible examples, if you have coworkers especially coworkers who have been systemically oppressed and marginalized who are saying this is not right and it’s making you uncomfortable instead of getting your feelings about it. It’s really important to sit down and be like, “What’s going on here? What privileges do I hold? How do I show up in the world? I need to trust these folks.”
Drew: Ask people what they make.
Ondine: Yeah. Oh my gosh, I’m really all about that.
Drew: Right, and especially if you’re in a big organization, like I know a lot of healthcare organizations have a lot of employees, if you’re somebody that carry privilege in this world and there is somebody who does not have that same privilege as you look out for each other and make sure that, okay, I started at whatever $55,000 a year, but they started at 50 and we have similar credentials. Why is that?
Drew: And challenge these things because again, this is how you become disloyal to privilege. This is how you subvert this comfort that you get to have that is denied to other people.
Ondine: Well, let’s slide into the next characteristic of white supremacy culture. Which is worship of the written word.
Drew: This is kind of a funny one. I think a lot of people are probably going to struggle with this because we are an information rich culture. Everything has to be written down. If policies have to be in writing, you got to sign these things. Why is this so bad? Why is this a part of white supremacy culture?
Ondine: Well, here in the article the examples are, if it’s not in a memo, it doesn’t exist. The organization does not take into account or value the other ways in which information gets shared. And those with strong documentation and writing skills are more highly valued. Even in organizations where ability to relate to others is the key to the mission. Hello social work,
Drew: Right? And it does kind of put the carriage before the Horse. I would much rather have somebody who does have that emotional intelligence and the capacity for empathy well before I want somebody to use the right prepositions or to be able to explain themselves thoroughly in writing because we also have multiple ways to record information that isn’t just writing or isn’t just printed word.
Ondine: That’s right. Just to connect it back to what you had said earlier in our conversation around capitalism because this really I think in a lot of ways speaks to this obsession with efficiency and time is money. Things are streamlined and I’m making air quotes that nobody can see.
Drew: I can vouch for em.
Ondine: Then we can make more money, we can get more clients, we can be bigger, we can be more. Which is actually another one of the characteristics.
Drew: More is, the quantity over quality.
Ondine: But some practical examples then of how this shows up in places where social workers work. Hiring committees for instance, choosing people are candidates who writes stronger cover letters and I don’t know what hiring practices look like in other parts of the world, but it’s pretty standard that here you apply for a job, you have to write a cover letter which states your intent and then you submit a resume or a CV along with that-
Drew: Sometimes you even have to have a written letter of recommendation [inaudible 00:37:18]
Ondine: That’s right. And sometimes you even submit writing samples depending on the position. What does it mean if somebody is a gifted writer and then a terrible interpersonal communicator?
Drew: And we were prioritizing one form of communication here, which is really at odds with our social work. Again, the social part of this profession.
Ondine: I think also avoiding academic language is really important. We see a lot of that in paperwork and the agencies where we work.
Drew: Legalies too.
Ondine: Legalies is what we call it here. Yeah you have a client who comes in and you need them to sign a form and by signing this form you say that they’ve received an informed consent for services except nobody understands the fucking form right? I don’t understand the form.
Drew: Yeah. You could have just signed away like, “Okay, I’m going to actually pay a copay of a fingernail extraction all the time you come in here.”
Ondine: But if you don’t sign this then we don’t move forward with care.
Drew: And it’s also weird because it’s almost like the apple terms of agreements, terms of service right?
Ondine: I would never read that.
Drew: I don’t either but the thing is, I always think is weird, it’s that’s not a negotiable contract either. I’ve written it and you just have to agree to it.
Ondine: That’s a work of point.
Drew: Or you just don’t get the services. This informed consent stuff, it’s not also collaborative. It’s like I’ve written this up and this is the way I’m going to do it. You can sign it and I will help you or well good luck out there.
Ondine: And then policies and procedures and protocols and things that sort of dictate how we do our work in these environments are also written in ways that aren’t easy to interpret or really written to the benefit of the people in power, I mean how does that serve us?
Drew: I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been given a policy to read and I can understand the words that are in it, but the concepts are almost always still have to go and talk to somebody about it to get clarification. And it’s like, well, obviously this is not the most efficient way to communicate so why are we prioritizing it.
Ondine: Does this mean that I get to take two days off of work when this happens. Or is it seven days off? I don’t really understand this. Does this mean I’ll get fired if I asked to get off work.
Drew: Yeah. And I think the other thing about the written word that really stands out to me, the worship of the written word is how ableist this is.
Ondine: Yeah, I’m glad you’re bringing that up.
Drew: Not only to, well for people of all kinds of different abilities, but I think prioritizing the advancement or the benefits of somebody because they have the ability to even write, not even talk about the quality of the writing.
Drew: But it was really ableist.
Ondine: Yeah, write, the ability to read when we had been preparing for this, we also talked a little bit if you remember about what this does is it devalues other ways of communicating. And another tangible example I can think of is preferring for instance to alert people to new policy by sending it out via email to everybody at work rather than having a meeting coming together and talking to people about what’s going on. Maybe even before crafting a policy and getting people’s input on it, but at the very least, creating a space for folks to really wrap their minds around something new. Something that’s shifting or changing.
Drew: I love that example you used too because I think it is guilty of a lot of the other characteristics we’ve talked about. Like, “Oh, well I don’t want to have to get into a discussion with people, it’s just easier for me to write this policy and email it out. That’s my right to comfort.
Ondine: That’s my right to comfort.
Drew: I’m also going to just set this right and we’re not going to have any team collaboration on it. It’s really individual driven. I’m the only one who can write this policy and you will just have to follow it. A lot of these concepts I think do overlap with a lot of things. They are kind of almost like a web of characteristics. One’s happening, other things are happening too.
Ondine: I’m really glad that you brought that up because that’s a beautiful example of how this is all really interconnected because it might sound like we’re just moving from characteristic to characteristic. But really all of this relies on each other. Something else that came up for me and talking about worship of the written word too, is that when everything has to be in writing, and then that means the folks who are the great writers get to control the narrative. And how, what that means is that oftentimes like communities that are involved in the work, they’re voices are left out and I think about that specifically too, in our country, this really rich history of gay and lesbian and Queer and Trans folks fighting so that we could have the incredible HIV related care that we have today and how there is a such, I mean there’s just such a history there, but if it’s not written down, people don’t know about it.
Ondine: Right? I know that probably is the same in other communities and in other areas but …
Drew: Yeah, that’s a great example of that. So what some antidotes to this.
Ondine: That’s right. Yeah. I was going to move on now.
Drew: No we got To tell people how to fix this stuff.
Ondine: I know, right? Some of the antidotes that Tema Okun lifts up in her article here to combat worship of the written word is to take the time to analyze how people inside and outside the organization get and share information. That’s good. Figure out which things need to be written down and come up with alternative ways to document what is happening, work to recognize the contributions and skills that every person brings to the organization. So for example, the ability to build relationships with those who are important to the organization’s mission is a skill that we should be lifting up and appreciating. Make sure anything written can be clearly understood. Avoid academic language. Buzzwords legalies as we say. And then yeah.
Drew: Yeah, there’s an example that came up for you recently that was kind of weird and timely that we were talking about this episode and it was specific to social work and it did encapsulate so many things that we’re talking about when it was weird almost was like a practical example of all this.
Ondine: And it was most recently that the universe was like, “Hey, you were gonna do that podcast episode. I know it’s been some time so here’s a reminder.”
Drew: Here you go yeah. Wink, wink.
Ondine: Wink, wink. I am, I follow a Facebook group on, Oh my God. I almost said on Facebook, I follow a Facebook group on Facebook. Yeah, I know, right? And it’s called the QTPOC, so the queer trans, people of color mental health. And so in that particular Facebook group someone shared an article that was written on the website medium and the article is titled, Captain Save A Hoe. Social work is no ally to marginalized people. I was like, “Oh shit, I gotta read this.”
Drew: Some people are about to get in their feelings [inaudible 00:43:47] too.
Ondine: Some people are going to get red. Yeah. It’s written by Laura LeMoon and we’ll also share this on our social media.
Drew: It’s a good read.
Ondine: It’s a good read and it’s an important read. It’s not very long, but she talks about her experiences with sort of the toxicity of the social work environment and social work culture, and specifically she talks about getting terminated from social work jobs from one in particular because someone that she trusted shared, I guess at work that she was in recovery for addiction. And so they let her go. And then she talked about how she was also fired from another social work job because she’s a sex worker and had a lot of really strong things to say about the profession specifically that the client will never be able exert agency in an inherently exploitative savior slash victim dichotomy, which I was like, “Ooh, say that.”
Drew: Right that’s a cut.
Ondine: And that social work as like a system, as an institution can’t tolerate social workers who’ve mirror client struggles and then she advocates a bit for more peer based models and just makes some really good points.
Drew: And she also talked about how it doesn’t tolerate difference really well either in the profession.
Ondine: Yeah, she allude, not allude. She mentions also, I think what we’ve talked about in this particular episode, Oh, she’s heard other social workers using racial epithets or laughing about clients. Again what people code as venting, which is actually really toxic behavior. It was really timely. I of course was monitoring the comments in the-
Drew: In the Facebook group.
Ondine: In the Facebook group and then it ranged from, Yes, thank you. I’ve been trying to figure out a way how to articulate this problem to Well not all social workers.
Drew: It sounds like they didn’t like being made uncomfortable.
Drew: About the fact that maybe social work isn’t perfect.
Ondine: You just [crosstalk 00:45:42] and that’s again, this is why her article, her experience, I’m really grateful that she is vocal about her experience because I think social workers we need to hear that people are getting fired from their jobs. Because of their being sex workers or having drug addictions or …
Drew: Because there was an example in that medium post to where I guess she went to HR.
Ondine: That’s right yeah.
Drew: And then they were like, well you’re not, it’s not talking about like the written word. And the adherence to that went to HR and like, well I forget what it was like you’re not-
Ondine: -Sex workers are a protected class-
Drew: -Protected class in employment discrimination. And so again because it wasn’t in writing, this is like high level policy because it’s not law. You don’t have any protection and we’re not actually going to do more than what is on the written word. And we see that, I see that a lot. A lot of people want to do the bare minimum of like, “Well, I’m just going to do what this says.” And never actually go beyond maybe doing a little more proactive than what you’re legally or mandated to follow.
Drew: But yeah, we’ll share this article because it is a good read and I’m-
Ondine: -It’s an important read. I think. And I think she did. I mean she just expertly shared a real life example of how perfectionism, this worship of the written word how you can’t be made to be uncomfortable if you’re a person of privilege, how that just shows up in social work and that we need to do something about that.
Drew: That was really telling that so many people had a problem with her speaking her own experience and the struggles of social work and people trying to criticize her for saying that social work has these problems.
Drew: And I just was, it’s just a point.
Ondine: I mean this actually happened to somebody. What’s wrong with you people?
Drew: This their personal first hand experience that they published last year. This isn’t even the ancient. This isn’t even out of the context. You have to hear this.
Ondine: What is it in you if you’re first reaction is to be like, “Well, I don’t do these things so what?”
Drew: I think as we have said that is really doing everything you can to hang onto that privilege so that you don’t have to think about things that don’t affect you.
Ondine: Yeah. Well we could go on and have this conversation for days and days and there’s a whole lot more to unpack from this article that I don’t know that we have time to get into.
Drew: The thing is about that though, is kind of sensing some community coming around this podcast and I think it’d be really cool to hear from some other people who listen to this episode about maybe ways that they have seen this come up in their organization and what they’re doing differently.
Ondine: Yeah. I’m very interested in solutions. So if you haven’t read the article we encourage you to do so. We’ll post it on social media and I would really implore you, if you haven’t really given this stuff thought before, when you go to work, start to notice this stuff. Notice how this is showing up where you’re doing your practice.
Drew: I think the real takeaway from all of this too, is to really question why the norms and policies your organization follows are the norms and policies your organization follows, question that stuff.
Drew: All right. Well again, it’s good to be back.
Ondine: It’s great to be back.
Drew: I’m glad that we got to talk about this today.
Ondine: Me too.
Drew: It was hard, but this is good. This is good work and we look forward to hearing what you all have to say and yeah, we’ll see you next time. All right.
Ondine: See you next time.
Drew: Right bye bye.
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