On Friday I was talking with a school colleague before class, we were discussing some of our concerns about things we have heard that are going on in the program. Apparently as racial tensions and discrimination in all forms are brought to the forefront in the media our program is feeling the impact of the social issues as well. The problem we run into, in my opinion, is one of cultural competency. Some of what I have heard that is happening sounds like it comes from a place of individuals not being able to overcome their personal biases and have a conversation about race, sexuality, privilege or other sensitive topics in a meaningful, respectful way. Instead these hot button topics come up, people are triggered and any hope for a worthwhile interaction is lost.
I have been fortunate that none of these exchanges have taken a bad turn in any of my classes but outside of classes conversations about race, privilege and discrimination have been coming up more frequently I have noticed. Two weeks ago one of the groups I am in for a project had some field work to do, some of us car pooled while driving over to the community. I was riding with a classmate who is of a different racial background than myself and she started asking me questions about my experience as a white person.
Do you think being on time is a cultural thing for you? I had never thought about it but I answered yes, I think it is. She said that in her cultural being on time is not something that has ever held a lot of importance which is why she is often late for class, appointments etc. She expressed concern to me because she worries her tardiness is seen as unprofessional. My thoughts, which I shared with her, were that her professionalism should not be wholly judged on this one thing, punctuality. She is being held to the dominant culture’s standard of professionalism which means she is at a bit of a disadvantage because she grew up in a different culture where this, being on time, is not necessarily considered a standard of professionalism. We talked about it together for a while and it helped both of us have insight into the thoughts and feelings of another culture on this topic.
Another question she asked is if I thought whit privilege was really a thing. Yes. Absolutely, without a doubt. She seemed surprised about my lack of hesitation in answering this question. She continued, do you think you have ever benefited from white privilege? Yes. I know I have. Again I think my honesty surprised her. I explained that for a long time I was like many people that share my race and I was unaware of this thing called white privilege but once I became aware of it and fully understood it I knew that I had absolutely benefited from it in life. We talked about what that looks like, a perfect example was the conversation we had just finished having a few minutes before. She told me that in her cultural competency class in the program some of the white students deny white privilege which made her question it herself. I explained that I am able to speak easily about it now because I have known about privilege for a while and already worked through any feelings of guilt I had when I first started learning about it and understanding how it has impacted my life. I continued to explain that for people who are hearing about it for the first time it may make them feel uncomfortable, guilty or even resentment and that working through those feelings of denial and guilt take time. It is a process and we all have to be patient and show each other compassion as we get to this place of cultural competency.
Coming back to Friday morning before class..By sheer coincidence the program head, with whom I have developed a close relationship through my involvement in NASW and our shared interest in end-of-life topics and PAS, happened to walk by as my classmate and myself were talking. She stopped to say hello and then asked if she could join us for a few moments, she wanted to ask us about some things. I immediately knew what this was about. She asked for some insight on what we think is happening in the program, what we have seen, heard and experienced in and out of our classes as it all pertains to this growing tension in the program. The three of talked for a while. A suggestion I made, that I have made to other instructors before, is that the BSW program should require 2 semesters exclusively dedicated to all issues relating to cultural competency. Because we, as future social workers, will be working directly with the public and more importantly, with vulnerable populations, cultural competency is crucial. I think that is the main problem right now, lack of cultural sensitivity and self awareness. I also desperately want to believe that with time the problem will works itself out.
It does concern me that we are entering our senior year and these issues have escalated to a point that the program head has had to send out an email reminding all of us that we should be treating each other and our professors with respect during all interactions regardless of differences of opinion. Ultimately I feel good about my own progress in the area of cultural competency, I am active in my quest for knowledge and understanding and am aware of my own growth. I hope my colleagues that are struggling are able to figure things out but either way I am only responsible for myself and my own education. It is just unfortunate that in a social work program, that should be focused on acceptance, inclusion and to borrow from the NASW code of ethics, dignity and worth of a person, we are having these kinds of issues.