I’ve been participating in series of white subgroup meetings within a non-profit I work for, which has been leaving me sorting through ideas about the potential of working around anti-racism and organizational change in the social work field and non-profits more generally. It wouldn’t fare well for me or the trust of the group to process it publicly here, so I’ll keep my reflections general. I feel like no matter what criticisms I may have, I am responsible to show up to take a critical look at racism within any organization I am a part of and this means being ready to engage other white people with openness and sincerity, even if I’m having a rough time with how those conversations get choreographed...
Trainings in “multi-culturalism” and “diversity” within the corporate world have been widely critiqued as a means of diluting an anti-racist ideology into something that is expressly non-redistributionist; i.e., not about actually redistributing power or wealth or critiquing the ways that white supremacy structures the distribution of power within our world or within our organizations.
In the non-profit world I see another version of this, which is usually framed as “multi-cultural competency.” I have many concerns about it, but see it as important work. Whether clients of color are going to end up too alienated by experiences of white supremacy within an agency to access services there is obviously a big deal. The skills of individual clinicians do matter in this context, but I’m also concerned about the direction that training around “multi-cultural competence” can take in the very white-dominated mental health field.
White anti-racism is rightfully and frequently critiqued for over-focusing on the beliefs and attitudes of individual white people. While “multi-cultural competency” training for service providers often strays dangerously close to this, I do believe that the cultivation and engagement of anti-racist commitment among individual white clinicians is important as it affects their ability to recognize the harm and violence white supremacy produces in the lives of their clients, provide more relevant support, and think carefully about ways that racist domination is reproduced within the clinical relationship. Recognizing the value of this training has helped me to have patience and respect for the work of the white sub-group, but I’m still left with as many questions about how exactly white clinicians should be engaging issues of anti-racism, white identity, and cultural competency within their practice, and what level of institutional support should be lent to this work over, say, more organizational/redistributionist and less individualist-oriented anti-racism work.
It is easy to imagine that providing institutional support for the individual anti-racist “development” of white clinicians is scarcely more than free career development for white folks in an industry that is already stocked with a shocking number of white professionals (The California Board of Behavioral Sciences says about 74% of licensed clinicians are white. A friend who is in MFT school told me 94% of Marriage and Family Therapists are white!) And while I’ve made an argument for why I see such work as important, I think without a focus on anti-racist organizational transformation, it pretty much becomes free professional development for white clinicians.
In my time as a white non-management level worker in the social work field, I’ve seen how having smart things to say about racism combined with actually having white skin privilege secures my upward mobility within the field. Having white people who say all the right things—who can develop, implement, and export a model for anti-racist organizational development without actually having to give up any organizational power is a great way of maintaining the secret handshake between whiteness and middle class professionalism. Without a structural critique of who is running non-profits, it’s not clear whether “multi-cultural competency” trainings make non-profits more likely to be run by people coming from communities being served, or whether they make middle-class white people feel better about hiring each other to make decisions about running direct-service organizations.
Generally, the field of professional social work exists because poor communities are denied the means to meet their basic needs. A lot of the work in the field is done by working class people of color and young white people who are then supervised by white professionals. Ultimately, our agencies answer to the foundations and government contracts that fund us.
So what does it look like to approach issues of “multi-cultural competency” among clinicians who are often doing good work and make their dollars within the middle of these contradictions? I don’t mean to sit on the sidelines and suggest that the problems within the field and are too big to approach or that attempts at addressing white supremacy within social service agencies are meaningless where they fall short. As a white person, separating myself from other white people engaged with anti-racist work within my organization would be a particularly nasty and destructive way of engaging these complications and reinforce the idea that the orientations and analyses of individual white workers are the locus of anti-racist work. Rather, I’m suggesting that paying attention to our context and staying engaged with the questions are important in order to not allow anti-racist work to be reduced to confessionals or a veiled form of career development that ensures the upward mobility of white clinicians and further cements white people’s positions of power within the industry.
So, the big question in spaces devoted to multi-cultural competency seems to be: “What are the assumptions and forms of cultural arrogance that I carry into the room with me in my work as a clinician?” Here’s a quick list of questions that are floating around in my head that I want to hear in these spaces as well:
• If we assume we aren’t going to think, talk, or train our way out of racism, what do we see as our goals?
• How can our work in this group be accountable to the people of color working group?
• Who is in this room? What positions do they occupy within the agency? If most of the management team are white, who is guiding a process of creating “multi-cultural competency” within the organization?
• How will we know that that work is being done? Who do we answer to about how that work is happening?
• What if white people need to give up power within the organization? Is there safety for non-management level workers to propose this kind of idea within the room?
• What’s up with the board?
• Are there ways white supremacy plays out in who is tracked for promotions and management?
• For white non-management level workers, what are the reasons you would feel justified in taking a management position if one was offered to you?
• What communities are being served across our programs? Are there ways that racism is reflected in the way we prioritize our material, staff, and supervisory resources across our programs? Do we prioritize resources for the same programs we are most likely to present to funders as examples of our work?
• Why is the larger field of mental health clinicians so white-dominated? How might this affect the perceptions and experiences of our services in the communities we serve?
• How can we support communities we are serving in getting needs met that might also be addressed by our services? (In my position, I think a lot about prioritizing supporting social programming where queer youth can develop ongoing relationships)
• What are justice issues we take on right now and how do we determine those as the priority for our organization? What are the major issues we see affecting the lives of our clients? What would it look like for our organization to take on supporting racial and economic justice campaigns affecting the lives of our clients? What supportive role could our organization play, particularly in local campaigns? (To hear about a longtime LGBTQ org that is undergoing major restructuring, check out CUAV’s strategic plan to shift to centering issues of de-carceration and transformative justice in working to end violence in queer communities?