The quest of social justice is the core of social work, the helping profession a system that holds a significant amount of power and control over people’s lives (Kaul 2016). The National Association of Social Workers (NASW) Code of Ethics requires that social workers “pursue social change, particularly with and on behalf of vulnerable and oppressed individuals and groups of people”, as an individual we hold ourselves accountable to our actions as we deal with societal issues – especially, on the forms of privileges and oppression; on how to describe ourselves despite the entangled biases carved in the core of our society.
The field of social work has a significant impact on our society; we are committed to social justice. Like the words of scholars: to promote our commitment starts with ourselves, understanding how my social identity and status are affected by the privilege and oppression.
As I matured, I was fully aware of the oppression, I became conscious of it from history to college coursework. Social work is a service to people of diverse environment and lifestyle. As my knowledge over the subject became more complex, the more I realized the need to re-establish “Who am I?”
Objectives set in the book of Browne adapted for University of Newcastle (1996) proved to help me reflect on my experiences to name: (1) discern and understand power in the health system, power relationships and imbalances, the political and economic context, and how these affect health outcomes; (2) develop an understanding of the ways ‘health’ and ‘illness’. ‘mental health’ and ‘mental illness’ are socially constructed; (3) explore and validate the experiences of individuals as consumers of health services; (4) become familiar with the roles undertaken by Social Workers; (5) explore your own responses, attitudes and values in relation to illness; (6) gain an understanding of feelings of deviance and stigma and place these understandings within an historical context; (7) become familiar with the relevant current legislation, policies and theoretical perspectives in health care.
Privileges and Oppressions
It was due to “careless” sharing of my sentiment to my colleague that had me into an awkward situation and sudden realization on my unacknowledged privilege: the sentiment was something; the sudden rush of listlessness and emptiness that hindered my productivity; with no solid reason, I just felt sad. The reply was what stunned me, “at least you have the privilege of feeling that”. As a result, I fully understood that you cannot see privileges at least to those who benefitted from it. I realized that there were things I get for granted as I am on the receiving side of the issues.
My knowledge in issues of oppression and privilege began with my own culture and country, as a person of colour I have experienced racism. I identify as Indian woman studying in a foreign country. As a foreigner, I am placed (usually) in a position in which I must contemplate the disrespect I get or the assumptions that others make. For example, I experienced to be laughed at because of my manner of speaking – my thick Indian accent. I also know how it felt like to be told that these incidents were “normal”. More than the incident itself, what hurts more is the invalidation. I am in a foreign land which sometimes pressure me to not start argument, I know that if I want changes, I must steel myself into resolution and I consider myself under construction.
Even among Indians, I have the privilege to study and pursue higher education, as my country is widely known for its caste system society; it is gradually turning for changes; becoming more open and accepting to diversity that, in itself, is a motivation for me. Although I study in foreign lands, the benefits I get from assimilating especially my higher education, and employment.
As a woman I suffer from objectification; of societal beauty standards. I, as a female my growing years has been filled with teachings to protect myself, to be on the defensive whether towards men, media or environment. I grew up learning the ugly faces of truths of what could happen and what had happened. I have been taught the dangers during the darkness of the city, to be mindful of the news and reports of incidents. Intersectionality proposes that gender cannot be used as a single analytic frame without also exploring how issues come to bear on one’s experience as a woman (Samuels 2008). The gender discriminations in school and in work as if because of my gender I have inferior mastery towards my profession, in contrary, my sensitivity towards these subjects make me to understands competency towards work does not equate to your gender.
As a woman, I have the privilege of gender duality, I carry myself as a woman, the pronoun what to use for me is clear. I do not have to be mindful on which restroom to use. I fiercely feel this privilege when I am with my LGBT friends; when I follow and support the news on their struggles and activism. I have the privilege to think of my gender but on how to present myself, as my culture has a set of restrictions over it. I have privilege not to be conscious on bodily contact with another female where for some it is a struggle for sexual orientation became a hot topic for younger generations, their fight and the violence towards the LGBT community, I support their cause as a friend and professional.
As a healthy person, I have the privilege not to worry about designated areas for entrances and take into consideration the time it will take me. I never have to request for special accommodations, but I do understand the feeling of “eyes” of people who are not used to seeing “my kind” even with this, I can still find niches where I and my differences are accepted even welcomed.
Privilege, according to Swigonski (1996), refers to the unearned advantages enjoyed by a particular group simply because of membership in that group. As I am a social worker, I understand the adversaries of challenging social injustices, however, in order for me to further understand these factors, I must reflect, interrogate myself of things that lets me relate and connect with the issue, as I am also part of the community, only by then, I believe that introspecting would be more beneficial.
There is a long-standing argument on privileged social statuses and the internalization of dominance. In observation, there is more privileged group members (than the subordinate group) to argue inequalities are natural – meritocracy. According to Pease, “they argue that people develop an ‘orientation towards social dominance’ by virtue of the power and status of their primary group” and this social dominance is the product of being member to dominant groups. Members of dominant groups appear to defend their privileged membership. The concept of internalized dominance is formulated to understand some ways in which privileged individuals sustain their position.
This is important aspect to look on both sides of the spectrum, as privilege accrue to oppression (Swigonski 1996) the social stigma may have been produced by this notion and it is the very objective of reflecting, to further understand both sides of affected stereotypes, dominant members may also be subjected to racism, sexism, etc. to understand the standpoint at which these members would tackle the issue of dominance and privilege would fortify my professional growth as well as answering to my personal prejudices. Thus, I can surmise that we can escape out conceptual positions and its subjectivity. This offers a possibility for the dominant members to develop critical engagement of their privileges and would then be able to at least understand the sufferings of marginalized individuals. This could mean anti-racial white men could support and challenge the white privilege. This is to say that white, anti-racial individual can develop a positive standpoint; this is one way of accepting their whiteness without confounding with the white racial dominance and white privileges.
As I grew wiser and experience more things, I will have the vantage point of view in addressing privileges and its effects. It closely relates to Swigonski’s Africentric Theory, a framework from which we, as social workers are given the standpoint to identify and build on the strengths of African Americans (Swigonski,1996) effectively.
By further identifying my privileges, I can clearly address the issues regarding its hegemony; I can differentiate the prejudices and harsh reality of these inequalities, I can make the difference and to confront them by starting to change myself, especially as a social worker who vowed to challenge the system. These reflections are imperative for us to help and (Kaul 2016) escort for more equitable community.
As I continue to study, the social justice I am committed to also continues to broaden, and it gets increasingly complex to practice, as McLaughlin (2012) states, “if we continue to conceive of the concept of social justice abstractly or as something that exists outside of our day-to-day practice, we risk opportunities to fully embrace our social justice mission” (p. 249). But it is clear to me that support to dismantle the stereotypes and question discriminatory policies will serve my social worker mission.
There are three categories provided in Kaul’s papers (2016), Instrumental, educational and practical advocacies, according to Kaul (2016): Instrumental advocacies pertain to the steps social workers need to take for the development of their client. Educational Advocacies are issues, situations and events awareness dedicated for the client, family and/or community. Practical Advocacies fall into connection with the client and deliver the services they need. These strategies are categorized in order to effectively link social work practices with social injustice, in this way; social stigmas are better identified, prevented and/or reduced.
In line with these strategies are the developments of programs in both pro-active and preventive approach (Kaul 2016). For example, conducting seminars with neighborhood association regarding racism, bullying, sexual assault, mental illnesses, etc. with this the neighborhood could also address the issues. These chain reactions could lead to long term plans.
Intersectionality to simplify refers to collective experience of classification discrimination like racial, gender and sexuality and their dependent nature make them intersect. It is the culmination of both privilege and oppression one faced due to our unique position in society — that is according to classifiers. Kimberlé Crenshaw states that “Intersectionality simply came from the idea that if you’re standing in the path of multiple forms of exclusion, you are likely to get hit by both.”
Due to its complexities, oppression had been a long war to fight, to find solution, to account for all aspects of oppressions; experiences and the system in which it resulted. It is imperative to find the where these forces intersect in order to effectively develop a framework to exercise social justice.
As there are many factors that people are categorized, there are also numerous ways in which these discriminations would occur, sorting through layers of privileges and oppressions by considering them both without labeling them as an additive and separate components (Samuels, 2008) is imperative if we are to acknowledge the diversity and identities of individuals and their stories.
As stated, privilege almost comes unknowingly for those who benefits, and that is one characteristic of privilege that breeds the social stigmas and stereotypes. “One of the functions of privilege is to structure the world so that mechanisms of privileges are invisible” (Pease n.d, p17). Oppression on the other hand is more “awake”, we are more conscious of oppression stories than the aspects of our privilege (Pease n.d, p17). Since privileges go unnoticed, it does not need any special mention or attention, it became the societal norm, the events which we, often take for granted thus would make the privileged partake in oppressions without knowing it. It became a medium for the privileged people to be defined as the “normal model”: white, thin, male, young, heterosexual, Christian and financially secure.’
Critical reflection is important so that we, social workers adhere to mission for social injustice, when we clearly understand the differences that is socially built, then we can effectively develop and implement strategies for addressing inequality. As stressed in paper of Walls (2010) a difficulty in writing about one’s journey of awakening to issues of privilege is how to deliver turning points in such a manner which shows complete understanding in the complexities of privilege.
Because oppression take on different forms and aspects, handling it singularly would not make it efficient, and thus intersectionality comes into play, because this approach takes into consideration historical, social and political context and recognizes the unique experience (OHRC). For example, gender discrimination due to sexual orientation may be experienced differently by the LGBT community as a result of sexual and relation stereotypes. The complexities due to multiple grounds are covered better in this approach: places the focus on society’s response to the individual as a result of the confluence of grounds and does not require the person to slot themselves into rigid compartments or categories (OHRC).
Theory of Intersectionality challenges us to see (Samuel 2008) the multidimensional faces of privileges and oppressions, not only in consideration for the subordinate group but also to construct a place that affirms as well as familiar for us dedicated for the entirety of different identities.
Upon constructing this paper, I understood principles of social workers. The mission for addressing social injustices must start with understanding your own versions of privileges and oppressions; it is a vantage point in order to help effectively. Moreover, the pursuit of social justice in a definite manner as I practice social work has invigorated me to explore my being.
I have several ‘disadvantages’ to my person, I am a coloured woman and a foreigner, as I have my shares of oppression experiences; I find it important to address my privileges too. As I have understood that unchecked privileges accrue oppressions (Swigonski 1996), I must know mine and addressed it from there. In this way I can better represent my moral values in different perspectives.
My personal and moral values will definitely affect how I fight and the path I paved against social injustices. I will be an advocate my learning’s to firmly question discriminating policies, to develop programs uplifting community awareness and stereotypes, as oppressions intersect with privileges. I will start by fortifying my beliefs as my profession is a ‘helping profession’.
In a global demanding world, which the need to answer privileges and oppressions grow exponentially, we begin by reflecting how our personal understanding may affect our ability to help, lead and relate. It is to find profound ways to better relate as we march onto our mission to end social injustices. It is important for me to place myself as a coloured, straight, young adult, able-bodied, middle class, Indian background filtered when I deliver and formulate my values and theoretical perspectives. This paper has helped me be more aware of how oppressions and privileges had and will intersect in my experiences. It will be a journey to find ways to tackle and dismantle my very own privileges.
- Browne, Elspeth. (1996). Tradition and change hospital social work in NSW. Australian Association of Social Workers NSW Branch. Retrieved from. https://www.tandfonline.com/toc/rasw20/current?nav=tocList
- Kaul, Nicole. (2016). How Do Clinical Social Workers Stay Attentive to their Privilege Once in Practice?. Retrieved from Sophia, the St. Catherine University repository website: https://sophia.stkate.edu/msw_papers/614
- Lenski, Gerhard E. (2013). Power and Privilege: A Theory of Social Stratification. UNC Press Books. Social Science. Book.
- McLaughlin, H. (2012). Understanding social work research. London: SAGE Publications Ltd doi: 10.4135/9781473913844
- Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC). An Introduction to Intersectionality. Queens Printer for Ontario. http://www.ohrc.on.ca/en/intersectional-approach-discrimination-addressing-multiple-grounds-human-rights-claims/introduction-intersectional-approach
- Pease, Bob. (n.d). Encouraging critical reflections on privilege in Social Work and the Human Services. Retrieved from. https://core.ac.uk/download/pdf/36963494.pdf. Vol.1. 15-26
- Samuels, Ross-Sheriff. (2008) Identity, Oppression and Power: Feminisms and Intersectionality Theory. Sage Publications. Vol 23, No.1. Retrieved from. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/0886109907310475. Editorial.
- Spencer, Michael. (2008). A Social Worker’s Reflections on Power, Privilege, and Oppression. Social Work. 53. 99-101. 10.1093/sw/53.2.99.
- Swigonski, Mary E. (1996). Challenging Privilege through Africentric Social Work Practice. Social Work. Vol41. Issue2. pp 153-161. https://doi.org/10.1093/sw/41.2.153. Accessed June 2019.
- Walls, N. E. (2010). Issues of in practice and Education. Reflections: Narratives of Professional Helping, 16(1).