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Racism and Anti-Racism in America

A Look at Positionalities, Identity, Intersectionality and Privilege of Self

This video will introduce you to discrimination’s continued prevalence in today’s society from a social work perspective, with a focus on power, privilege, and intersectionality. “Discrimination has really evolved from the more overt blatant forms of discrimination of the past, to more implicit forms of discrimination that we actually have been finding to be equally as harmful…. Discrimination also continues to exist within our healthcare systems, within our mental health systems, as well as in terms of access to resources.” - Dr. Mike Spencer

Excerpt From


Good day everyone. I'd like to welcome you to this lecture on power, privilege, and intersectionality. My name is Mike Spencer, and I'm the [inaudible] professor of social work at the University of Michigan. In this talk today I'm going to be defining those terms power and privilege. But before we get into that I want to first of all talk about discrimination, because discrimination is really at the heart of the problem in terms of inequality within society. When we talk about discrimination today, oftentimes people say, "Well, jeez, why is understanding discrimination still important? In fact don't we have greater equity and opportunity? Don't we have more representation in leadership? Aren't there laws and policies in place to protect people from discrimination?" Well in fact, we do, and in fact we have made great strides in terms of equalities among people. But it's still important to understand discrimination, because first of all we still see inequalities both at the interpersonal level as well as the structural level within society. Two, discrimination has really evolved from the more overt blatant forms of discrimination of the past, to more implicit forms of discrimination that we actually have been finding to be equally as harmful. Three, discrimination also continues to exist within our healthcare systems, within our mental health systems, as well as in terms of access to resources. Finally we still see under-representation in all aspects of society, including in the academy here at the University. These are just some examples of why it's still important to understand discrimination. The Institute of Medicine published a book on unequal treatment that looks at racial and ethnic disparities in health care. One of the things that they found was that the disparity or the difference between racial ethnic minorities and non-minorities had a lot to do with, not just discrimination, bias, prejudice, and stereotyping, but also biases within the health care system, and the legal and regulatory climate that exists within health care systems. One of the major breakthroughs in terms of discrimination research is the idea that discrimination is actually a stressor. By using stress and coping theory, we're able to gain a greater understanding in terms of how exposure to discrimination as a major life stressor has tremendous implications for health and mental health outcomes. In fact studies have shown that this evidence exists for African-Americans, Latinos, and as well as Asian-Americans. However studies have also been showing that it is not just those overt forms of discrimination that tend to lead to the greatest amounts of stress, and in fact more implicit, every day forms of discrimination actually have been shown to have a more negative outcome on people's health and mental health outcomes. I'll give you a few examples of some of the implicit in everyday forms of discrimination that exist. First of all, Sue defines microaggressions as brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, and environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional that communicate hostile, derogatory or negative racial slights and insults towards people of color. I think the key point here is that these do not have to be intentional, oftentimes they're unintentional, and oftentimes they're done by very well meaning, very nice people. I'll give you a few examples. Often when I have dinner at people's houses, they asked me if I prefer chopsticks, regardless of the meal. Are you sure you're in the right room? This is the honors section. Can't wait to show my friends my ghetto-fabulous ride, she needs a name, something like Laquisha. Another form of implicit discrimination is color blindness. In color blindness, people understand that racism still exists, but that they posit that the best way to end discrimination is by just treating everybody the same. If we just treat everyone the same racism will go away. Aren't we all human beings? It's not about race, it's about economics. America is a land of opportunity where everyone can succeed if they work hard enough. Well, unfortunately it's nice to think that by just saying that if we all work hard enough we can all achieve. But if inequality still exists, and if racism still exists, we can pull and pull in those bootstraps until they break. Similarly to color blindness, we understand that racism exists, we just choose to ignore it. In post-racial America, this is a theory where we assume that racism no longer exists, and that discrimination is truly a thing of the past. Well, the election of President Obama is probably the best example. We have a black president now, so we can't be that racist in the US anymore. The rise in interracial marriages have also been shown as evidence that we're moving beyond racism. Two concepts I want to define for you: social power and privilege. Social power; access to resource that enhances one's chances of getting what one needs, and influencing other people in order to lead a safe, and productive, and fulfilling life. To some degree, we all have some social power, but clearly some people have more access to resources that can enhance their chances of getting what they need, who they know, what neighborhood they live in, what resources are available within those neighborhoods. This in turn leads to inequalities in terms of social power, and those inequalities are defined as privilege, unearned access to those resources, only readily available to some people as a result of their social group membership. So how does power and privilege work? Within social work we often talk about social change. We assume change is for the better, that it's rational, it's efficient, in fact we may point to research and say it's scientific. The goal is, we oftentimes, we want to make people more like us. We use our reality, our world view, as the assumption for this. We use what we would call common sense, our own common sense. Unfortunately what may be common sense to one person may not necessarily be common sense to another person, we unconsciously assume that other people share the same world view, the same common sense, and that the cost and the benefits are the same for all people. What can we do within social work? I think that we can develop our anti-oppressive practices; this is a form of practice that really focuses on values, attitudes, knowledge, skills, in terms of building awareness and effective communication for ourselves as social work professionals. What are some examples of anti-oppressive values? Passion: commitment, vision, belief, and social justice. Awareness: knowing that critical consciousness is a lifelong learning process, that we must be humble, that we must understand that we do have social identities that have differential access to privilege and power. Knowledge: staying current on the issues and the different manifestations of oppression. As we've seen in this lecture, those manifestations can change over time. As well as understanding models for social justice that incorporate new concepts and include people that reduce the cost and enhances the benefits of this new vision of a socially just society that we look for. Honesty: setting the tone for honesty, being honest with yourself in terms of your own privileges and your own prejudices. As well as skills, developing skills, there are a ton of skills that we can develop, not just in terms of leadership, being comfortable with conflict, listening through the discomfort when we feel conflict, as well as modeling new behaviors, and moving towards allyship in terms of our behaviors. We also need to promote a greater sense of awareness of our potential biases and bring them into our consciousness. Most of us here are very well-meaning people and do not consciously hope to discriminate against other people, and therefore what we need to do is we need to bring those unconscious biases that we have, and bring them into the consciousness, put them in front of us, dangle them in front of us, so that we can see the lens through which we view our world. Paulo Freire, talks about looking at the contradiction between our spouse social principles and our lived experiences as a place to start. As an example, I do not support child labor and I do not support sweatshops, yet when I bought my clothing, the clothing that I'm wearing today, I did not inquire about where that clothing was made, or how it was made, at the moment it was a matter of convenience, and so that was a contradiction between my spouse principals and my lived experiences, I exerted privilege. I'd like to end with a quote that talks about what our roles are within creating a socially just society, "Activism is not just for heroic individuals, but are embodied in the often overlooked everyday individuals who make a difference in the context of his or her everyday life." What can you do in terms of looking at your own life and the contradictions in your life? What can you do in your spheres of influence with your family, with your friends, with your partner? What can you do in your community? These are just some of the ways in which we can self reflect upon who we are. Part of your reading assignments, you will get to read one of the reflections that I wrote. It's a reflection that I'm very proud of. It is something that I wrote, actually I was in editorial. It probably took me the least amount of time to write, but it's one of the most well-cited and well-read pieces that I've written. It looks at my own examination of my power and privilege, and as part of that I hope that as you read it that you will also reflect on your power and privilege, and ways in which you can look at the contradictions between your spouse principals and your lived experiences. I'm going to end here, and I would like to thank you all for the time that you took to listen to this, and I hope that you found it useful. Thank you.