Monday, December 17, 2012

Class and privilege - a primer

When I was working on my master's degree in social work, I had to take a "diversity" class as one of the basic requirements.  I was pretty pissed that I had to take it; I'd had all kinds of diversity stuff in my undergrad, I'd been in the field for some years, and I feared that it would be rubbish, as so many of these things are.  The instructor was fantastic, though, and I loved that class.  I was taking it with about 25 other students, most from other countries, and our conversations were fascinating. I learned about native peoples in Taiwan and Kenyan insults ("A hyena in sheep's clothing.")

There was also a lot of talk about privilege, which is not something I had ever thought about before, and the insights of the class have stayed with me.  I started to become aware of many ways in which I am privileged (and know there may be some ways of which i am not aware) and know that I have been afforded opportunities and blessings that would have have been available to someone less privileged.

If I try to talk to other people (of a similar background) about privilege, the usual response is a defensive one  - they become confused and frequently get defensive. They start to justify to me their success, or tell me about their struggles or how hard they've worked - they're not really willing to hear beyond that. I don't bring up privilege because I want to negate the work someone did to be who they are. Yet there is also an insidious and invisible barrier for some people that doesn't exist for others.

I found this checklist about social class privilege and it has some excellent examples of class privilege. It's an interesting list, and some of these things are eye-opening. It is not at all exhaustive, and some things may be more true than others, but I thought it was really good.

"Social Class Privilege Checklist; This list is based on Peggy McIntosh's article on which privilege.  These dynamics are but a few examples of the privilege which people form upper social classes have.  On a daily basis as an upper social class person...
1. I don't need to worry about learning the social customs of others.
2. The "better people" are in my social group.
3. It is likely that my career and financial success will be attributed to my hard work.
4. People appear to pay attention to my social class.
5. When I am shopping, people usually call me "Sir" or "Ma'am."
6. When making a purchase with check or credit card, my appearance doesn't create problems.
7. When I, or my children, are taught about history, people form my social class are represented in the books.
8. I can speak easily with my attorney or physician.
9. There are neighborhoods I can move to where I feel "at home."
10. There are places where I can be among those exclusively from my social class.
11. I can deny Social Class Privilege by asserting that all social classes are essentially the same.
12 Experts appearing on mass media are from my social class.
13. There are stores that market especially to people form my social class.
14. I can protect myself and my children from people who may not like us based on my social class.
15. Law enforcement officials will likely assume I am a non-threatening person once they see me and hear me.
16. Disclosure of my work and education may actually help law enforcement officials perceive me as being "in the right" or "unbiased."
17. I can speak easily to my child's college professors.
18. My citizenship and immigration status will likely not be questioned, and my background will likely not be investigated because of my social class.
19. I can be sure that my social class will be an advantage when seeking medical or legal help.
20. If I wish my children to attend private schools, I have a variety of options.
21. I can find colleges that have many people from my social class as students and that welcome me or my child.
22. If I apply for a prestigious job competing with people of a lower class, my social class will be to my advantage.
23. The decision to hire me will be related to my background and where I went to school.
24. When I watch TV or read the papers I can see people of my own class represented well.
25. The "newsmakers" are like me.
26. I deserve my status because of my accomplishments.
27. If I get offered a job over someone with more experience, it is because I deserve it.
28. My elected representatives share a similar background with mine.
29. Chances are, the person in charge in any organization is like me or is sympathetic to my status.
30. My child is never ignored in school, and if there are problems, I am called by the teacher or principal.
31. People are usually careful with their language and grammar around me."

I thought these are excellent examples of class privilege, though just the tip of the iceberg. What do you think? Do you think privilege affects your lives?

Monday, July 23, 2012


Greg was talking in education yesterday, about the five calender years (five *straight* years!) he was homeless.  He was talking about all the people he had known when he was using that helped him get sober, even if it didn't seem like it at the time (like the police or judges). One person he mentioned never thanking was a woman who, every Thursday, walked by where he was sleeping and left a bag of McDonald's for him. Every week, every Thursday. He doesn't know who she was, he never talked to her. Every Thursday. That kills me.

He's sober now, and spreading out, carrying the message farther to people who need it. Especially on Thursdays.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Yucky love stuff

Its important for social workers to maintain boundaries with their clients, and personal feelings about clients are a slippery slope, mostly something to be managed. The hiccup is that, as human beings and especially as social workers, our feelings are often the fuel behind our fire. They are very real to us, a large part of who we are, and can't just be dismissed.

Lancaster was my client, off and on, for several years, and he worked through a lot with me, I did a lot of work on his behalf. I really believed in him, that recovery and a better life were possible for him. Last October, he passed away; we're still not sure how. I was really upset when I learned of it, and one of my first thoughts was, "I don't think he knew how much I love him." That has no part in the treatment plans or case notes we write with and about clients. There is no evidence-based method for communicating something like this. I literally wished I could see him one more time to tell him. When I've thought about him these past several months, I've felt sad and regretful, mournful.

Last night, I think he came to see me in a dream. I was standing in a hallway, he was in a room. He was clean and calm, not all jittery and excited and loud like he had been in life. When he saw me he came straight to me, as though he'd been looking for me. We hugged tightly for a long time. Nothing was said, and that was it.

Now I feel like he knew I loved him, how much, and he was saying good-bye, maybe letting me know he was at peace. Maybe he knew I was grieving him. Now when I think about him, I feel peace.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Tables turn

Greg was sharing a bit of his story with a newcomers in our group therapy. "You know, it's rough out here on these streets. If you haven't been on the homeless trail - sleeping in the rain and the snow, carrying everything you own on your back, walking everywhere - if you haven't been on it, you don't know how hard it is." Another group member chimed in "It's a motherfucking job." Greg continued with a nod in his direction, "But you know, I was watching channel 9 the other night (the local public broadcast station) and you know, we are so lucky to be in America. People in other countries, third world countries, don't even have places like this agency, have electricity, have cell We are so lucky." Other group members were nodding their heads in agreement.

Greg is a two and a half-year sober illiterate crack addict living in a drug-ridden slum. He carries a picture in his wallet of himself in his using days - skinny, scabs on his face - and he tells us, weekly, about his abusive partner and his frustrated attempts to get away from her without raising the attention of the police and jeopardizing his parole.

He has a large heart, and can easily empathize with people in terrible circumstances. His own life could be worse, and he knows that. After all he's lived through, survived, he knows it could be worse. I thought about how many people couldn't imagine living in conditions like his, myself included, and count ourselves blessed not to be in his shoes.

Interesting how the tables turn.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Bob's Bounce Back

When I was hired with my current agency, I was coming off a one year contract with the Red Cross. I had been with the Red Cross when Hurricane Katrina hit, and my agency was one of the first in town to offer assistance to the many survivors who drove until they could find an available hotel room

There was one man who worked with us, Bob Foster, who proved to be particularly challenging. He'd had a lifetime of mental illness and, except for the six years that Bob served in the Army as a mechanic, he had lived his whole life in New Orleans, safe in the supportive nest of family and long-time friends who understood his mental illnesses and could check up on him and assist him as needed. More importantly, his employer understood how to work with him, and he was able to live independently with the means to support himself.

On the morning after Katrina pushed over the region, Bob got up to sweep the leaves from his porch that had been scattered by the hurricane winds. Suddenly, he heard a loud booming sound that was very upsetting to him, as it sounded almost identical to bombs that he had heard in the military. In the half hour that followed, he noticed that a great silence had spread over his neighborhood, as the dogs stopped barking, the birds stopped chirping, and no cars sped by on the local freeway. Within another 30 minutes, he could hear the voices of his surprised neighbors as they discovered that the water pipes in their apartment complex had broken. Several minutes later, the electric power went off.

Confused and in the dark, Bob and his neighbors attempted to make sense of the domino occurrences. Then water began to creep into the street, the parking lot, the yard. The water rose from the ground to cover the base of the apartment, and then slipped uninvited into the building. Cold water stung unprepared toes as it seeped into individual apartments and began to cover the floors. Over the course of that first day, the water rose past the first floor and began to flood the second floor and into Bob’s apartment. At first he tried to mop the water up, however, he soon realized the futility of his efforts as the water climbed, unchecked, over his possessions. To escape, he climbed from his balcony to the roof of the building where he sat without food or water for two days until he was rescued by the Wildlife Fishermen.

He was airlifted to safety and then on to Illinois, where he learned that the deluge of water was not caused by broken pipes, but by a breached levee. In fact, the bomb-like sound that he had heard was the sound of the levee breaking. His entire neighborhood was underwater. He did not know where his family or neighbors were, he did not have the medications he required, he no longer had his job and he knew no one. Bob’s nest had blown apart.

Bob came to town to receive the assistance that was beginning to be made available to Katrina survivors by various agencies like mine. Furthermore, he took advantage of various programs available to him to secure permanent employment. Despite this, for many years, he struggled. He had to build a completely new home, and this took a lot of time and patience, particularly trying to get his medication in order and his symptoms under control.

So many years later, he still comes in for lunch from time to time, and we greet each other like old friends. I rarely have the opportunity to know my guys over time, particularly who have recovered so successfully. He is lucid and logical, and it warms my heart to see how well he doing, knowing how far he's come.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Simple day

Yesterday was a peaceful day. I took a puzzle to the dining room and began working on it, inviting others to participate. One man joined me, new to our program, newly homeless, and we talked and cracked jokes about his current circumstances. Next to us was a small group of people who like to draw. They had pulled out the Center's supply of colored pencils and paints, and were discussing color schemes and creating different pictures. At the next table over, another small circle sat drinking coffee together, telling jokes and tall tales.
There was no treatment, no talk of trauma or using, just laughing and imagining. Just people. Just a community.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Watch out - gorilla crossing!

One of my guys came back to visit me today. He has long since stopped coming because he started taking classes at a trade school. I helped him write essays for financial aid applications to begin there, several of which he received, and we worked hard together before he left.

When he first began with me, got some clean time and started to make plans about school, he kept talking about "attacking" his schoolwork with everything he could, with such strength that would completely change his life. He said, "Look Miss Sarah - I got enough things going against me. I'm a felon, and I'm black. I need to start stacking the cards in my favor. I'm goin' in there to attack like a goRILLa, (with the emphasis on the second syllable)." As I'm also in school, he frequently used that description as I told him stories about it.

Throughout the past year, he'd drop by for lunch on occasion, and we'd greet each other by raising our hands over our shoulders in a flexing gesture and growling: GoRILLa. He's at the top of his class, and he has gained a lot of respect, especially for himself. We'd swap stories about projects or classes we were taking, and this characterization would frequently came into our descriptions.

To do your best at something, to attack it vigorously. I hope that for all of us.