Having just completed the last two chapters of Mullaly’s text, I am left reflecting deeply about the relationship between privilege and oppression. As Mullaly writes in Chapter 10: “And if we want to understand oppression, we must understand privilege. Oppression and privilege go hand in hand (289).” If we take a moment to truly contextualize what he is saying, it then becomes more than evident that our current structural organizations aren’t doing enough to maintain anti-oppressive infrastructures.
In social work, there is an intentional focus on oppression. Of course, this is a necessary area of study if we aim to support those affected by the larger systemic issues in our country. However, Mullaly makes an interesting point that social workers invest most of their intentions in anti-oppressive work, without spending enough time identifying and considering the privileges (creating invisible privilege) that perpetuate oppression. Mullaly brings up a handful of studies that suggest privilege as a reason why society (and some social workers) might not take action when it comes to confronting oppression.
Privilege is deeply rooted when it comes to major structural level organizations in our country. Johnson writes that many of these systems are structured in three main ways: (1) domination by groups of privilege, (2) missions and vision align with norms of privileged group, and (3) attention is centered around privilege group mentality (294). What keeps these structural level groups from taking action can be found in three major behaviors outlined by Johnson. He says that some members of the privilege-focused organization (1) take the path of “least resistance,” (2) remain silent, and (3) work with oppressed groups but create an “other” factor. These three factors certainly make it hard, when rooted deeply, to overcome structural oppression.
Beyond the basic infrastructure of structural level organizations being grounded in privilege/dominant group mentality, there is another way that privilege takes a toll 0n anti-oppressive work. Mullaly notes that many privileged groups are not engaged with the issues of oppression, and even when they are, it is often for a short amount of time with little effect (296). Mullaly turns to the work of Johnson once again to explain how this is so. Johnson explains that avoiding responsibility by not seeing privilege as a problem is a serious threat to anti-oppressive work. He claims the following stances lend to this concern:
- Deny and minimize the fact that oppression exists to get off the hook
- Acknowledge the oppression but blame the victim and hold them responsible for the conditions they are in
- Call the oppression something else to disregard the serious nature of the oppression.
- Prefer the status quo and admit that life is better with the luxurious of personal privilege.
- Engage in micro-aggression rhetoric and claim that it was not meant to be a privileged slur aimed at another group.
- Make the case that even though privilege is evident, that not engaging in the act of hate makes the person innocent of oppression.
- Get upset when privilege and oppression are brought up because it upset the luxury of being oblivious.
When it comes to the profession of social work, Mulally notes that oppressive practices can actually be reinforced when the clinician has not quite come to understand his/her own privileges in the correct manner. Peggy McIntosh refers to the misinterpretation and/or inability to fully comprehend one’s privilege as the “invisible knapsack” (299). This would likely be yet another cause of what lends to inaction in anti-oppressive work.
Mullaly suggests that because everyone is confronted with both elements of privilege and oppression (the scales are tipped unevenly depending on the dominant culture for each individual), it is essential for social workers to personally and professionally explore this (309). I was not surprised to see the thwo ways that Donna Baines found social workers responded to their concerns of personal privilege. She says that social workers with a lot of privilege justify not fully understanding their story of self by the following ways:
- Fear about talking about privilege for the chance that they become subordinated, which has the effect of shutting down all discussion and confronting privilege.
- The tendency not to talk about one’s own power, but rather the attempt to belong to an oppressed group, or the flight to innocence.
I definitely think this could be an area of concern for a social worker wanting to work in anti-oppressive ways. I think that disregarding truth of self only lends to greater structural problems in the workplace and in leadership.
Dealing with oppression often leads to anger among both oppressed and dominant groups. Mullaly is careful to explain that not dealing with privilege while also considering the impacts and outcomes of oppression can perpetuate these frustrations among groups. I am going to suggest ways that Mullaly (infused with my own thoughts) believes that we can deal with our own emotions as individuals constructively in order to address this anger as social workers:
- Understand Dominelli’s three stages of privilege and openly work toward the egalitarian option: The egalitarian option in social work seeks “transformation of a society characterized by inequality and oppression to one that is egalitarian and inclusive of difference on equal terms” (309).
- Explore the dynamic of privilege in our lives fully in order to unpack our invisible knapsacks of privilege (self-reflection)
- Focus on privilege as much as we focus on oppression to ensure that structured invisibility of privilege is not reinforced in our work (288). We need to develop an awareness of the dominant culture in order to understand how it places strains on personal freedoms (277).
Maintain the rage (but do it wisely):
- “Anger is what will enable those of us who are committed to anti-oppressive social work to translate our social justice ideals into practice and to continue the struggle for liberation” (284).
- Overcome passive mentalities and apathy for social change by understanding and analyzing the community. Make sure it is in the benefit of what is most needed/wanted.
- Channel the anger/passion into short and long term strategies that actually seek to cause change.
- Acknowledge that stress is a part of this profession and there are definite disappointments ahead. It is important to understand that setbacks occur, being unaware of this can lead to burn-out.
- Deal constructively with the long-term effects of stress. Not doing so, will lead to feelings of anger and resentment at the efforts for anti-oppressive structural level organizations
Keep Up-to-Date with Current Ideas, Literature, Practices and Developments:
- In order to maintain professionalism, social workers must be curious in a life-long education. Keeping up-to-speed on the best evidence-based practices and interventions is a key aspect of reducing the anger/burn-out factor in social work
Although Mulally closes out the book by addressing the concerns for anti-oppressive practices at the structural level by harnessing the “invisible knapsack,” he also sees the massive opportunities in our daily and professional lives to participate in a constructive, productive manner. He closes out his book by suggesting conscious ways that social workers can unpack their invisible knapsacks and actively engage in the “What’s next?” mentality. He says (and I concur wholeheartedly):
- Reclaim the words: “If we are going to be part of the solution with respect to elimination oppression and all the harm it causes, then we must drop our defensive sensitivity to that difficult discourse and the reality to which it points: (312).
- Acknowledge that oppression and privilege exist: “Maintaining a cultural awareness of privilege takes commitment and work, and to hang onto this awareness we must make it part of our everyday lives” (313).
- Pay attention: “Developing an understanding of what privilege and oppression are and how they operate and how we participate in them is the first step in working for change… If privileged groups are to take their share of responsibility for dealing with issues of privilege, then we must listen, observe, ask, read, and listen again” (313).
- Learn to Listen: “Listen to what is being said. Do it seriously. Assume for the time being that it’s true, because given the power of least resistance, it probably is.” (315).
- Little risks-Do Something: “The more we pay attention to privilege and oppression, the more we will see opportunities to do something about them…we can help to make a difference include the following:
- make noise and be seen
- find little ways of getting off the paths of least resistance
- dare to make people feel uncomfortable, starting with yourself
- openly choose and model alternative paths
- openly promote change in how systems are organized about privilege” (316-7).
Alas, I conclude my post by saying: maintain the rage (but do it wisely). I just watched Selma today and I am definitely left sad thinking about the efforts and devotions of the thousands of lives during the Civil Rights in juxtaposition to our current times… I definitely think I am going to use this mantra to remind myself to constructively use anger to fuel my work (while following the tips I wrote about in this post) and pursue social justice.