Born White

white-priv

Final Project

Before moving to Ann Arbor in late-August to begin graduate school at the University of Michigan, School of Social Work, I was in St. Louis, MO visiting my parents. I was walking my dog through my childhood neighborhood, a route I have easily taken hundreds of times throughout my life. As I walked down Hillvale Drive, I noticed a well-dressed African-American man peacefully walking on the other side of the street. The man was likely in his 50s, graying hair, wearing tailored khaki slacks, a collared shirt with a forest green V-neck sweater. We made brief eye contact, the man smiled at me and then we continued to walk in opposite directions. After a few more strides, I looked back. The man had already turned left down Audubon Drive and was out-of-sight.

I don’t remember seeing any other onlookers and the gentlemen likely thought little of this spontaneous encounter. However, to this day, I am mad at myself. Why did I feel the need to look back at this man? Did something strike me as odd about this guy? Did I really think this person looked suspicious or out-of-place? Sure…I grew up in an affluent and homogenous area of St. Louis, but this guy in all likelihood was a fellow neighbor. Regardless, my behavior and thinking was unacceptable.

Fast-forward to late September when I came across a video on my Facebook Newsfeed that made me think more critically about my personal identity, white privilege and the role I play in perpetuating racism.

The video was of San Antonio Spurs Head Coach Gregg Popovich (click on link to watch) talking to the media about white privilege and the need for more honest conversation about race. The press conference came in the wake of news surrounding continued racial inequality, police brutality, right to silent protests and Trump/NFL comments. Popovich made several key points but one especially stood out to me – “We [white people] still have no clue of what being born white means” (“Still Have No Clue”).

Popovich and recent current events inspired this project, which aims to increase awareness and understanding of race, paying particular attention to white privilege. Whites need to be more reflective and aware of their good fortune and of the amazing level of racism that still exists in the U.S.

Methodology

OVERVIEW

The results presented are based on the sixteen (16) photographs and thirteen (13) descriptions collected from University of Michigan graduate students and various professionals from Washtenaw County (MI). Details on the participation rate and demographic characteristics of the sample are provided below. It is important to remind readers that only Whites/Caucasians were asked to participate in this study. Initially, I had thought about including Blacks/African-Americans, but, after more thought, I decided it would be most compelling to focus on strictly whites.

DEMOGRAPHICS

Thirty-four (34) emails with project overview and instructions were sent to a mixture of University of Michigan undergraduate and graduate students, young professionals in Washtenaw County and a few individuals from out-of-state (Missouri, New York, Ohio, Texas). Of those sent emails, ten (10) females and three (3) males responded, yielding a total response rate of 38%. Females and UM graduate students are overrepresented in the sample. No out-of-state participants fully completed the project. The youngest participant in the sample was 23-years-old and the oldest was 47-years-old. Average age of participants was 28-years-old.

INSTRUMENT & DATA COLLECTION

Photovoice was utilized for this project. For those who are unaware of this methodology, Photovoice blends photography and social action as a tool for increasing awareness of social problems (Wang & Burris, 1997). “The heart of Photovoice is the intermingling of images and words…we humans have used different kinds of images and words to express what we need, what we fear, what we cherish, what we dream of and all sorts of other ideas for as far back as we know” (Palibroda et al., 2009, p. 8). Participants’ photos raise important questions and hopefully spark meaningful conversations.

For this project, participants were asked two questions: (1) what does being born white mean? And (2) what do white people take for granted? Participants were asked to capture photographs to illustrate their answers. Once photographs (maximum of three) were taken, they were asked to submit them via text or email with an accompanying open-ended written summary.

Each participant received the following email with project overview and instructions:

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Subject Line: Photovoice Project

Hi _____,

I’m currently working on a class project and am in need of participants. See project description below:

Project Overview: I’m hoping to learn more about the concepts of race, white privilege and color-consciousness through engaging in this activity. The data collected will be used for a Photovoice project for SW504: Diversity and Social Justice at University of Michigan, School of Social Work. (*Pseudonyms will be assigned to all participants to protect identities.)

Questions

  1. What does being born white mean?
  2. What do white people take for granted?

Instructions 

  1. Think deeply about the questions being asked.
  2. After carefully thought, take one or more photos (maximum of 3) that reflect your understanding of the questions. Use a digital camera, smartphone or other electronic device – whatever is easiest and most convenient for you.
  3. Email (rothmajd@umich.edu) or text (314-704-9094) photos to me along with a brief description. What did you photograph? Why? What does this represent to you? Did this project require much thought? How did this task make you feel? Anything else you’d like to add?
  4. I’ll then sort through all images/descriptions collected. I’ll share results with classmates and participants towards the end of Fall Semester.

Let me know if you have any questions and thanks in advance for your help.

Best,

Jonathan

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LIMITATIONS

There were no direct or indirect benefits to participants in this study. And there were no significant risks for participants in this study; however, some people may have felt uncomfortable answering certain questions. Additionally, it is important to note the limitations of this project. Sample size was small and all participants resided in a similar geographic location. It would be interesting and worthwhile to survey a wider age-range across the U.S. to compare/contrast data and potential trends.

Results & Analysis

Below are the images and verbatim responses received from all thirteen (13) participants. No participants’ names will be used to protect their identities. Following the data is a more reflective piece that outlines some general observations.

PHOTOGRAPHS & WRITTEN DESCRIPTIONS

Participant #1

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Here’s a photo in whiteness that I took last week for your photo voice project. It’s from a sporting goods store in Austin. All of the models on the TVs are white, as are the people watching them in the store. This represents whiteness to me because (1) it only uses white models to market products that should be for a universal audience, and (2) it reinforces a stereotype of only white people engaging in outdoor exploration activities. If the second point was to be taken further, one might ask about the implications that an activity that is intended to represent the freedom of exploring nature has become an expensive endeavor (i.e. it’s ironic that you need to pay a lot to experience what’s naturally occurring) that is marketed to a white audience.

Participant #2

Participant 2

I was planning on taking a photo while I was home for Fall Break, although I wasn’t expecting something as dramatic as I found. I live in the suburbs of Des Moines, Iowa, which is vastly white. As I was packing up my things at the end of the weekend, I looked out my window and saw three police cars in front of the house across the street. The only Black people I know in my neighborhood live there- a 20-year-old man and his grandparents. Immediately, my assumptions took over. I assumed the young man was caught for drug usage, or that someone they know had died, as the three cars seemed odd. I still don’t know what happened, but I can’t get that scene out of my head, and can’t help but wonder how much race factored into the reason for those cars. This photo to me represents police brutality against Black folks; regardless of what actually transpired that day, I am reminded of how disproportionately Black and Brown people encounter police and the historical interaction between people of color and law enforcement and the harm it has caused. It also challenged the biases I recognize I hold and the assumptions I made about what could have happened.

Participant #3

Participant 3

This is a sign I walk by everyday on the way to my office. The building I work in was named after Clarence Cook Little, who was president of the University of Michigan from 1925-1929, but he also actively promoted eugenics using University of Michigan as a platform. I photographed it because it worries me that the building still hasn’t been renamed.

Participant #4

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I think being white means that our history is not as painful, oppressive or disruptively present as it may be for others races. Sure, everyone has their familial and personal pains in their own histories, but as an overarching narrative of white populations in America, history is something we can often read about or hear about without truly cringing at the pain of what happened or how that negatively affects us today because it has mostly been to our benefit. In general, the history of our country has not directly oppressed us. If there is a felt wound, it often has to come through deeper, intentional reflection on the second-hand stories of others who have been on the underside of history.

 

 

Participant #5

Participant 5

I decided to photograph my own arm with a Band-Aid on it. I chose this because I think it is an accurate representation of the ease and simplicity that being white provides someone. To me, being white is being a part of the majority, it is being comfortable in most situations, situations as simple as having a Band-Aid that blends in with my natural skin tone. It is privileges, such as having a band aid to match my skin tone, that I have been blind to in the past, and that is the privilege that being born white has provided me.

 

 

Participant #6

One photo would be of my dog living so comfortably in my home. I feel like the photo captures living in a suburb. Many suburbs have great neighborhoods, infrastructure, resources, parks (even dog parks) for those in the nice areas. Because I was surrounded by people who had similar backgrounds/financial situations, I never understood the need or how incredibly privileged, safe, and sheltered my childhood was.

Another photo would be of Michigan – representing how white privilege/social class has been so helpful in my education. When I struggled in grade school or high school, my parents especially and some of my teachers would ensure I had the resources, support, and really stressed the value/necessity of doing well in school.

I think one of the most powerful things I read on race, particularly in this political environment, was an article in Mother Jones called “We Just Feel Like We Don’t Belong Here Anymore”. It makes me so disappointed, upset, and frustrated that Trump is president and people are feeling so oppressed and marginalized. However, I maintain hope that we can unite and progress as a country after truly opening up the dialogue, understand similarities and differences, work to solve needs, and support one another. We need to achieve racial equality and always pursue social justice.

Participant #7

The first image I took a photograph that contrasted my criminal record with my acceptance into prestigious programs. At 19 years old, I was summoned to court because I attempted to use a fake ID to enter a bar. I contrasted the image of my criminal record with two recent acceptances to graduate school and the Peace Corps. Despite the fact that I have had a criminal record, I have not been stopped from my ability to positively move forward with my life, education, and career. The framing around my use of a fake ID was seen as a “mistake” that I made because I was young. If I were not white, there would have been negative stereotypes about my criminality connected to my race. However, my white privilege has allowed me to move forward with my life.

The second image I took a picture of was the family portrait in my parents’ house. This image speaks volumes of what it means to be white. The picture shows my entire family wearing The College of Wooster shirts, a small private liberal arts college in Ohio. Both my siblings and myself graduated from Wooster and continued our education into Master’s and PhD programs. My parents stressed the importance of education since the time we were children. They spent their careers saving money in order to help pay for our educations. Their ability to save money and use it so their children came out of college debt free is representative of being white. For many people of color, the ability to save money is hard since avenues to things like sustainable jobs and affordable housing. This picture is hung up in my parents’ home which is also indicative of being white. My family has not experienced challenges of being denied the ability to purchase a home.

This project has been interesting for me to think about what being white means and some of the things I have been afforded because of it. At the time of going to court, I thought the sanctions against me were brutal. I lost my license, spent hundreds of dollars in fines, and have a record until May (5 years). But when I think about what my experience would have been if I were of a minority race, I know the outcome would have been different. The association between non-white races and crime would have changed the conversation of my experience. Additionally, as I have entered my 20s, I have become more and more aware of all the sacrifices my parents made to raise the three children they have. Thinking about my upbringing, I realize my experience has not only been impacted by my parent’s hard work, but is also associated to my family being white. Both my parents grew up in a large family that struggled to make ends meet from month to month. With my parents’ devotion to hard work and education, they pulled themselves out of a lower socioeconomic status and worked so their children would not experience what they did. For my parents, the American dream, of “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps” was possible because there were less barriers for them than minority races.

Participant #8

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The color of your skin means something different for each person, and it means something different depending on your geographic location. Growing up as a white person in Michigan, specifically in metro-Detroit, and being born white means that I am in the majority. Prior to graduate school, I had never really thought about my whiteness. It seems that white people have a much easier life than those of color, yet we don’t even realize it (or at least I didn’t). Being born white means that I don’t need to think about the color of my skin, I don’t need think about the fact that I might be the only “different” person in a room, I don’t need to feel as though I represent an entire population. In my opinion, white people take everything for granted, walking down the street, walking into a store, walking into a hair salon. Life seems easier for white people because it seems as though white people are (unfortunately) held to a different standard.

I chose to include a collage of TV shows from various timeframes that do not have a character of color as a main character. I thought it was really interesting to see that TV shows today have not added characters of color even with all of the awareness in the world now. Our generation looks at TV as a model of our lives, but so many of our peers are not represented in the shows-so how can they feel included.

Participant #9

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Being born “white” has been a confusing part of my own identify for my entire life. Aesthetically, I have appeared “white” and privileged in almost all realms of my life. I had opportunities to go to top-rated public schools in Oakland County, MI, in college I joined a majority white Panhellenic Sorority, and I was raised in an upper-middle class household. My neighborhood friends were Caucasian, my Barbies were blonde, and my educators where white. However, my parents are both immigrants, making me a first-generation American. My father is Hungarian, and my mother is Filipino – the mix has caused for racial ambiguity and confusion.

In the 4th grade, when taking the MEAP test, I was asked for the first time to identify my “race.” I was confused, because there were only so many choices… and I was told to circle only one, and I circled “Asian.” When I shared this with my parents at the end of a long test day, they were enraged. My Filipino mother scolded me, and told me that my skin is White- and I should be proud. I did not understand why I could not openly say I am a Pacific Islander. I chose to identify as white on tests and paperwork until high school, until more common “multi-race” or “pacific islander” status became available. For me, being born racially ambiguous and privileged has given me opportunities, and the ability to avoid both internal and external racial prejudice in America that my family has experienced.

When I was 12 years old, my family traveled back home the Philippines, and this was my first time being fully submerged in Filipino culture. Throughout the years, my family has been going to Filipino grocery stores, Halo-Halo and Adobo Chicken were staples in my childhood diet, and my family watched Filipino TV. I experienced some culture shock, but I was also able found similarities between the third-world country and my home country. Advertising was similar- billboards flooded the city, but one billboard caught my eye-  I saw an advertisement for Skin-Bleaching lotion. I had a flashback to the day of my 4th grade MEAP test, seeing my mother feel shame for her darker skin, flatter nose and curly hair, qualities in her that I thought made her the most beautiful and unique woman, but I had lacked myself because I was half-white.

I did not revisit the topic of “skin bleaching” until my teens, when I realized the magazines, movies, and TV shows dominated the media displayed people who looked myself, but not like my mother. I spent my entire life idolizing white Disney princesses, but found them just as gorgeous as my mother- who found little value in her own beauty. Although in the 21st century, American Media has worked to integrate people of color onto our television screens, it is still clear that we are a minority in comparison to the masses of mostly-white TV. Looking back, I understood that my mother did not see role models in women who looked like her- she has been a victim to her own internal racism- struggling to find her identity in white-washed America, while I have taken my racial ambiguity for granted. Whites take for granted their ability to see people of their own ethnic group on screen, and take for granted their influence of American beauty standards by dominating the entertainment industry.

Participant #10

Participant 10

One part of being white in my experience as a young student is to engage in critical thinking and feeling and then doing nothing to put that learning in action. It’s the inheritance of a world of oppression that is hard to own and breathe in. I took this picture while visiting Harvard University over the weekend. I went to a talk by Professor William Jennings on mass incarceration, and, in his speech, he mentioned that at educational institutions predominately occupied by white bodies – we learn to engage in radical thinking around ideas of race and equity, but never live them outside of the classroom. The ideas do not extend outside of the campus bubble, they do not permeate where we live after graduation or where we send our kids to school. This idea, and the picture of the edge of campus where the city of Cambridge begins, captures one facet of whiteness for me. Intending white folks who learn about injustice, bolster themselves with the Band-Aid that knowledge is a good enough remedy to the problem and then continue to live their lives in the same pattern that perpetuates the same problems.

Participant #11

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I photographed my closet full of clothes. I thought about the daily task of getting dressed, leaving my house, and going wherever I want without worry. Specifically, as a white person, I never have to worry about the clothes I wear and how they affect perceptions or beliefs about me. When I took this photo, I thought a lot about Trayvon Martin and how the dialogue defending his murder included that wearing a hoodie made him look threatening. As a white person, people don’t make assumptions about me based on my clothing or race. I never have to worry about being perceived as threatening, trespassing, being gang-affiliated, bearing a weapon, an illegal alien, or a terrorist. This project did not require too much thought but deciding exactly what to photograph, to best capture my idea was difficult. Reflection on the picture made me feel sad for the numerous people who have been murdered, assaulted, or wrongly convicted, by people or law enforcement. I have the responsibility to contest racial profiling and challenge people’s perceptions if they are discriminatory.

Participant #12

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Being born white means you are born with an undeserved privilege that people of color are not born with. Being born white means we are already at an advantage in this country, just because of the color of our skin. White people like to believe that “white privilege” is not a thing but as a white man I can tell that it certainly is. Not only am I white but I come from a family with money which adds even another layer of money. I decided to take a picture of my two laptops to show just how privileged I am. Most people do not even have one laptop, but I have two. I also included in the picture the University of Michigan flag. I have been fortunate enough to be able to get an education. Not only was able to attend undergraduate school, but I was also able to attend graduate school…twice.

Participant #13

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I took a photo of a speedometer. This represents my first real understanding of structural racism. When my boyfriend lived in Detroit I drove back and forth on 94 a lot…and realized that people that looked like me didn’t get pulled over, but those of the male gender, with dark skin, seemed to always be pulled over…no matter how much or how often I sped.

I feel like I try to keep myself mindful of my privileged regularly. It did cause me to reflect that this was also around the time where I became socially conscious, interested in social justice and then decided to become a social worker.

THEMES & OBSERVATIONS

I know oftentimes for Photovoice projects the researcher summarizes the data and generates themes using relevant theoretically frameworks. I want to let the images and text speak for themselves.

However, I wanted to include some type of reflective piece, so here are some general (and biased) observations. I first focused on the text. Based on the phrasing of my questions, my lived experiences and my biases, I was fascinated by the use of language. Some words and phrasing were quite visible while other words I was expecting — maybe even wanting to see — never appeared.

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Now focusing on imagery, I found it strange that only two participants (Participants #5 and #9) included a photo of themselves, though both photos were unidentifiable. Why did so few people include pictures of themselves, loved ones or friends? Is that surprising? Does this illustrate a greater societal problem – people separating themselves from discussions about racial discrimination and inequality?

Below is a self-generated list of themes that I thought photos referenced. Please note that photos can be sorted into more than one category. I am open to feedback, and would be curious if viewers agree with these categories or not.

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Final Thoughts

This project forced white members of society (including me) to think about their privilege(s), engage with complex issues and explore their un/conscious biases. My hope is that this exercise intensified participants’ attention to detail and awareness of inequality.

Continued reflection and questions to ask yourself:

  • Why are Americans so reluctant to discuss issues of race and racism in U.S.?
  • Why should you care about issues regarding race?
  • Do you have friends that look and think differently than you?
  • Do you refer to other people groups as “they” or “them”?
  • What is the connection between racism and power?

References

Paliborda, B., Krieg, B., Murdock, L., & Havelock, J. (2009). A practical guide to photovoice: sharing pictures, telling stories and changing communities. The Prairie Women’s Health Center of Excellence: Manitoba (Canada).

Popovich, G. (2017, September 26). We still have no clue of what being born white means. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5Cbtvzh8Voo.

Wang, C., & Burris, M. (1997). Photovoice: Concept, methodology, and use for participatory needs assessment. Health education & behavior24(3), 369-387.

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#LetsGetDigital?

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Word of the Day: Nomophobia (def.) – the irrational fear of being without your mobile phone or being unable to use your phone for some reason.

Let me preface this post by saying I don’t consider myself to be very tech savvy. I find social media to be a nuisance, but a trend I have to be somewhat aware of to appear normal and to maintain relationships with distant family and friends. (Full Disclosure: I do find Snapchat fun!)

Maybe it’s because I’m old-school. I have few devices. I don’t have an iPad. I currently have less than 15 apps downloaded on my iPhone. I dislike using Google-Calendar or Google-Drive. I Tweeted for the first-time in over 2-months last week for Thanksgiving. I don’t have Spotify – I actually still listen to the radio on road-trips. I prefer reading hard-copies as opposed to digital PDFs. And I still take all course notes by hand. These are just a few of my many quirks. Simply put, I could care less about keeping up with technology trends. But maybe I need to reconsider my thinking? Especially if it helps advocacy efforts and potential clients.

I understand the importance of social media. The power of language. The power of imagery. The power of autonomy. And the power of creativity. Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, among other platforms are free tools that allow people to connect with hundreds, thousands, sometimes even millions of people across the globe with the click of a button. Sure…that’s cool, potentially useful and highly entertaining, but, more times than not, I find social media to be artificial, distracting, impersonal and rushed. People shout-out their feelings and instigate petty arguments, rather than taking time to carefully craft original content. It also gives people an excuse to engage in impersonal conversation through a screen rather than more meaningful face-to-face interactions.

I will admit that technology is wicked awesome when it works, but it’s also scary. Everything we say, type, photograph, post, comment on, like or view can be traced, tracked, pinpointed. We are constantly judged by our digital presence, whether we truly realize it or not. I find the latter ironic – especially in the context of social work – as social workers are trained not to judge people, but to respect the dignity and worth of all persons and to uncover individuals’ true thinking, motivation and needs.

How do we balance human interaction(s) with the changing tech environment? I am not the only one thinking about this stuff. It has clearly been on many social workers’ minds for a while.

I recently had the opportunity to hear Dr. Janet Joiner, PhD, LMSW, Institute for Cyber Social Work speak at SSW. She lectured on the newly revised NASW Code of Ethics, the NASW and ASWB’s Standards for Technology and Social Work Practices, and the ever-changing role technology plays in our profession.

According to Dr. Joiner, The NASW Code of Ethics has undergone 8 major revisions throughout its existence, but none as major as the most recent. Nineteen (19) new standards and revisions were developed to address ethical considerations when using technology. Clearly, technology, digital advocacy and other applications are worthy of discussion.

Some brief thoughts regarding technology and social work practice:

  • Within clinical settings, I would discourage social workers from communicating with clients using technology for personal or non-work-related purposes. Maintaining appropriate client-worker boundaries is essential.
  • In terms of macro-practice, I tend to agree with Satariano & Wong (2016), “The offline tactics of traditional organizing are still the key components of your toolbox; social media is merely a way to enhance, reinforce, and amplify them” (p. 271). Social media is a great platform to increase awareness and connect to distant observers, but, in my opinion, nothing is more powerful than human contact – using your senses, engaging with another person, picking up on social cues, tones and body language.

As I wrote this post, I couldn’t help but think of some humanitarians and social justice icons. MLK, Ghandi, Harriet Tubman, Jane Addams, Rosa Parks didn’t have the ability or luxury to Tweet, post to Instagram or create Facebook events, yet their impact was still tremendous. Sometimes passion, wit, courage, commitment, drive, expertise, interpersonal communication, resilience and grit have the potential to out-perform modern-day algorithms. All it takes is a motivated critical mass of people, good timing and a bit of luck.

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Another good and relevant read: “Small Change” by Malcolm Gladwell.

Being an Ally

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I read “Chapter 8: Anti-Oppressive Social Work Practice at the Personal and Cultural Levels” in Challenging Oppression and Confronting Privilege by Bob Mullaly and watched “Module 7: What does it Mean to be an Ally?” on edX.org in preparation for this week’s blog. However, I have decided to only focus on the edX video here, as I found it particularly relevant to my course work and current events. I hope the following two examples generate some discussion:

(1) In SW560: Introduction to Community Organization, Management and Policy/Evaluation Practice, I am currently working on a community assessment and profile for DACA students in Washtenaw County. Issues surrounding DACA have been of interest since I began working in college admissions in 2013. I was fortunate to work indirectly with several DACA students during my short-lived admissions career, yet they were some of my most memorable students – witty, gritty, insightful, humble, brave with lots of untapped potential.

For those of you unfamiliar with DACA and current debates, let me provide a brief summary. The Obama-era’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program protects undocumented immigrants who were brought to the United States as children from deportation, and allows them to attend school and work legally in the U.S. There has been much written about DACA in recent months, especially since the Trump Administration officially announced its plans to end the program on September 5, 2017, after months of questioning and confusion. Much uncertainty still remains, as Congress has nearly two-years to find a possible solution before the program officially ends.

It is hard for me to imagine the confusion, panic, shock, fear, uncertainty and numbness DACA recipients, their families and friends are constantly feeling. That is partially what inspired this project for SW560 – I wanted to become more proximate to those affected most, DACA recipients themselves.

Though the project has only recently begun, I am already facing significant (but expected) obstacles. There are no real databases for DACA or other immigrant statuses, as data is extremely sensitive. And, at this political moment, that is probably not a bad thing. But…how do you advocate or become an ally for people who you know little about? And perhaps more importantly, how do you advocate on behalf of people whose visibility can be dangerous? I wish Dr. Jamie Mitchell discussed some of these more complex issues in her video. Open to ideas and feedback from classmates as I continue to search for creative answers.

(2) I frequently get emails and text messages from family and friends about current events, politics, pop culture, funny dog videos, recipes, etc. I usually like the animal and food emails best. However, in recent years – and it is partially because of age and maturity – conversations have become more serious. And the current political climate has only increased the number of emails and intensified emotions and commentary. For example, earlier this week I received an email from my mom. She sent it to the entire family, Subject Line: “Read this Article”. Attached was Charles Blow’s Oct. 29th NYT op-ed, “Checking My Male Privilege”.

The article discusses the recent accusations of sexual harassment and assault against Harvey Weinstein, George H.W. Bush, Mark Halperin (and, most recently, Kevin Spacey).

I’ve grown up hearing about how this behavior is unacceptable and should not be tolerated. Compared to some, I think I am fairly conscientious and respectful. But I still find myself occasionally making a crude or vulgar joke, or laughing at friends and teammates who take it a step too far. I sometimes interrupt and tell them to knock it off, but not enough. I need to be more active, more intentional and do more.

Similar to Blow’s remarks. I am a man. White. 6’3. 220 lbs. Able-bodied. “I move through the world with the privilege of never even considering the idea of being sexually assaulted or harassed.”

As Dr. Mitchell discussed, I need to listen, invest more of my time, seek to understand forms of sexism and oppression, and advocate for socio-cultural and policy changes that would make women’s lives better. I need to be a better ally. Every man must work as hard as every woman to eliminate gender violence.

Real Talk

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It is that point in the semester where I’m starting to feel a bit overwhelmed, swamped with work and sleep deprived. (Not a complaint, just a reality.) I was reminded of a funny “lesson” over the weekend that I remember my grandfather telling me during my high school years, and felt compelled to share. Hopefully, it also makes you laugh…

A little bird was flying south for the winter. It was so cold the bird froze and fell to the ground in a large field. While it was lying there, a cow came by and dropped some dung on it. As the frozen bird lay there miserably in the pile of cow dung, it began to realize how warm it was. The dung was actually thawing him out! He lay there all warm and happy, and soon began to sing for joy. A passing cat heard the bird singing and came to investigate. Following the sound, the cat discovered the bird under the pile of cow dung, and promptly dug him out and ate him.

Moral(s) of the story:

1) Not everyone who shits on you is your enemy.

2) Not everyone who gets you out of shit is your friend.

3) And when you’re in deep shit, it’s best to keep your mouth shut!

“Rabbit Proof Fence”

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I had never heard of “Rabbit Proof Fence” or the Jigalong community before seeing this assignment in the SW504 syllabus, but I was not totally surprised by its content. It was an educational film. I was full of mixed-emotion – anger, frustration, sadness, disappointment, confusion. But I was also deeply humbled by Molly and Gracie’s strength, stamina, bravery and resilience. An incredible story!

I had the opportunity to travel to Australia in winter/summer of 2016. I spent a week camping on K’gari (Fraser Island), one of the largest sand islands in the world, located approximately 150-miles north of Brisbane. (The eastern side of Australia, opposite from where this movie was set.) It’s a magical island, but it has a dark history.

Aboriginal Australians, the Butchulla people, were the first to occupy K’gari. However, Europeans soon brought massacre, introduced disease and devastated the Butchulla people and their culture. (Google the massacre at Indian Head – you have to look long and hard to find the real story. That is yet another problem. → It is very hard to dismantle hundreds of years of social construction. Acknowledging the atrocities committed against indigenous and/or minority groups does not fit with the current narrative and exposes the hypocrisy of nations.)

As Liz said in her recent blog post, another “heartbreaking (although not surprising) account of colonization…”. Some of the most beautiful places in the world have the darkest pasts.

Proposal: Final Project

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Background: I recently saw a video clip on my Facebook Newsfeed of San Antonio Spurs Head Coach Gregg Popovich – usually a man of few words – talking to the media about white privilege and the need for more honest conversation about race. The press conference came in the wake of recent news surrounding continued racial inequality, police brutality, right to silent protests and Trump/NFL comments. Popovich made several key points but one especially stood out to me – “We [white people] still have no clue of what being born white means.” (Click on hyperlink above to see video.)

As I continue to reflect on national events and news closer to home (e.g., Dana Greene’s #WhyIKneel demonstration on Diag), and my personal identity and privilege as a straight, white man, I want to do more. Dana Greene’s problem should be my problem. I want Dana and all others to always feel comfortable, supported, safe and engaged on/off campus. This project aims to increase awareness and understanding of race-relations. If individuals continue to ignore the amazing level of racism and misogyny that still exists in the U.S. and shy away from honest and uncomfortable conversation about race, American society will remain severely fragmented and full of tension.

Question(s)

  • 1a. For Whites/Caucasians: What does being born white mean?
  • 1b. For Blacks/African-Americans: What does being born black mean?
  • 2a. For Whites/Caucasians: What do white people take for granted?
  • 2b. For Blacks/African-Americans: What do white people take for granted?

Participants

  • 5-10 Whites/Caucasians: mix of UM undergraduate and graduate students
  • 5-10 Blacks/African-Americans: mix of UM undergraduate and graduate students

Purpose: You are being asked to participate in an anonymous and voluntary research project. (There will be no way to identify you.) I hope to learn more about the concepts of race, white privilege and color-consciousness through engaging in this activity. The data collected will be used for a Photovoice project for SW504: Diversity and Social Justice at University of Michigan, School of Social Work. Completion of this exercise is implied consent.

Photovoice Instructions:

  1. Pose question(s) to specific audience(s).
  2. Ask participants to thoughtfully engage question. After careful thought, instruct them to take one (or more) photo(s) that reflect their understanding of the topic.
  3. Participants can use their cameras, smartphones or other electronic devices – whatever is most convenient for them.
  4. Participants will then be asked to email or text their photos to me along with a brief description. What did you photograph? Why capture that image? What does this represent to you? Did this project require much thought? How did this assignment make you feel? Anything else come to mind?
  5. After photographs and descriptions are collected, researcher will sort through data and generate relevant themes.
  6. Results, analysis and conclusion will be shared via blog with classmates, and link to blog will be shared with all participants via email.

*Pseudonyms will be assigned to all participants to protect their identities.

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Oppression at Cultural Level

I read “Chapter #4: Oppression at the Cultural Level” in Challenging Oppression and Confronting Privilege by Bob Mullaly and Microaggressions and Social Work Practice, Education, and Research by Michael Spencer, and thoughtfully explored all questions posed. Several concepts stood out in the readings. My goal is to explore cultural expressions of oppression through what I think are a couple of relevant and personal examples:

1. The Power of Language & Discourse, E.g. Minimum Wage Debate

I recently had a conversation with my Aunt Laura via email. She sent me an article about minimum wage trends. In many cities across the U.S., minimum wage has increased. However, in St. Louis, Governor Eric Greitens announced this summer that minimum wage would drop from $10.00/hour to $7.70/hour.

This brief conversation is one of many examples that reminds me of the importance and power of language and discourse, especially in politics. In my opinion, part of the problem is republicans seem to think poor people are lazy, and that if the poor just worked harder, they would be okay economically. But part of the problem is also that democrats continue to let republicans define and control these issues.

Instead of talking about what the minimum wage should be, we should be talking about making sure that people who work 40-hours/week can make a livable wage. If we think that small businesses cannot afford to pay people a livable wage, then we need to provide a decent safety net so that those who aren’t earning a livable wage can have sufficient funds for housing, food, heat, clothes, etc. Anyone who doesn’t care that someone working 40-hours/week is unable to afford housing, food, heat, clothes, etc. is mean and selfish.

Democrats also need to be saying that the economy is stimulated more by spreading economic spending among large numbers of people at the lower end of the economic totem pole than by concentrating economic spending and wealth accumulation only at the top. You rarely hear democrats say anything beyond that minimum wage should simply be higher. Again…the importance of language, power and context!

2. Language Continued + Dominant Culture, E.g. Higher Education

“Educational institutions, churches, the mass media, the publishing industry, and other [cultural] agents serve as conduits of cultural reconstitution, by continually reproducing the language and symbolic universe of society” (Adam, 1978, p. 98).

“Language reflects culture, particularly dominant culture, and if the culture is oppressive, then one of the ways of changing it is to avoid words or language that reflect and/or reinforce the oppressive elements of that culture” (Mullaly, 2010, p. 115).

“…conscious and unconscious acts that reflect superiority, hostility, discrimination, and racially inflicted insults and demeanors to various marginalized groups” (Spencer, 2017, p. 1).

Until beginning at SSW this fall, I served as Assistant Director of Admissions at a liberal arts college in Ohio. My primary responsibilities included managing an assigned geographic territory, analyzing hundreds of applications, and corresponding with prospective students, families and counselors. I regularly conducted interviews and participated in recruiting events on and off-campus. My goal was to make all students and families I worked with comfortable and help them navigate the complex college search process.

My time in higher education was rewarding, exciting and frustrating. I was privileged to meet many incredible students from all walks of life. As I did the readings for SW504, I was reminded of a specific event:

It was spring of my second year working full-time in the office. Throughout the year groups of high school students would arrive from across the country to tour campus, meet with admissions officers and learn about liberal arts and the college search process. On this particular day, I was asked to help set-up for the arrival of twenty students and a handful of counselors from the Noble Network of Charter Schools in Chicago. Noble’s mission is to prepare “low-income students with the scholarship, discipline, and honor necessary to succeed in college and lead exemplary lives, and serves as a catalyst for education reform in Chicago.” I met and interviewed many Noble students in the past but had never helped with this program. I went to the library to prepare for their arrival, greeted them and quickly got the group situated and out on tour. I returned to my office to catch-up on email while they explored.

Later that day I returned to the library. I quietly sneaked towards the back of the room where one of my bosses was giving a presentation about the college application process and financial aid to our guests. (A presentation I had heard dozens of times.) I grabbed a seat next to one of my colleagues to observe and listen. What I heard was shameful and shocking. I saw my boss – a higher education professional who is responsible for working with diverse populations of individuals and preparing them to become leaders of character in a global community – further marginalizing and talking down to people who were financially and educationally disadvantaged. I felt extremely uncomfortable, and that feeling has never left me.

I want to believe this behavior was unintentional and non-malicious; nevertheless, it is an example of microaggression. This behavior, language, tone and delivery would have never been used or tolerated in a room full of members of the dominant culture.

3. Miscellaneous Notes

When I think of language and dominant culture, it is also hard to ignore conversations surrounding women’s reproductive rights, and mass incarceration and the U.S. penal system. I am not going to go into greater detail here, but would welcome others’ feedback in the comment section below.

#WhyIKneel

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I am usually an early riser. On Monday, September 25th, I woke up around 6:00 a.m. I brushed my teeth, showered, took my dog for a walk, made breakfast, read theSkimm, responded to a few emails, and then grabbed my bike and headed to campus. I took my normal route – rode approximately two miles east on Liberty Street towards S. State Street, where I turned right and cut through the Diag and eventually arrived at the School of Social Work. I made it the Diag a little before 8:00 a.m. and rode directly in front of Hatcher Library. I noticed a young African-American man kneeling behind the brass block “M” as two white women stood beside him, posing for a photo (that later appeared on Facebook; also seen above). It was striking and caught me off guard. However, within a matter of seconds I quickly put it into context. This was a student’s response to recent news and events (e.g., racial inequality, police brutality, right to silent protests, Trump/NFL). Moreover, a personal response to what has likely been a lifetime full of racial slurs, mixed-emotion, anger, frustration and a variety of other structural ills.

I made it to the School of Social Work and soon started seeing images and messages across various social media platforms, which eventually led me to Dana Greene Jr.’s public letter to President Schlissel. Dana, a Michigan native and current MPH candidate at the School of Public Health, took action and brought attention to the racial inequality and insensitivity that exists in this country and on UM’s campus. I am amazed and humbled by Dana’s courage and commitment!

I was in class most of the day and did not have an opportunity to participate in the protest until around 4:00 p.m. When I arrived, the scene had drastically changed since early-morning. I have never been great at estimating crowds, but I suspect a few hundred people (whites, blacks, international students, domestic students, faculty, staff and community members) were kneeling and sitting around Dana, facing in the direction of the American flag. (Side Note: “If you think kneeling is about the flag, you must think Rosa Parks was protesting public transportation!”) There were tents set-up to shade people from the sun and protect them from the bizarre, late-September heat. People were kneeling on yoga mats, backpacks, folded shirts and various other accessories. Students, staff and community members were passing around food and drink. It was clear that certain folks had been on the Diag for most of the day and had no intention of budging anytime soon. I could see Dana from a distance. I do not know Dana. I have never talked to Dana. But Dana had a presence – light blue shirt, knee-pads, towel around his sweaty neck. He was appropriately focused!

When I arrived with MSW classmates, we plotted ourselves down on the outer edge – went right for the shade. Jacob, Hailey and I took a knee while others sat on the ground. As I kneeled and observed, I overheard conversations about race, social injustice and other complaints about UM and greater society. I saw people taking photos and posting to social media. Some people clearly had better intentions and motivations than others, some just posted for the likes. And I met people – undergraduate and graduate students. I met Maddie, a senior in the School of Kinesiology who wants to pursue a career in physical therapy and recently returned from studying abroad in Australia. I met Melanie, a first-year MPH candidate from Fresno, CA who went to a liberal arts college in Pennsylvania. I met Emily, a post-doc in a geology lab who moved here from Houston, Texas last winter. These encounters and conversations would not have happened had I not been kneeling on the Diag.

I stayed kneeling from roughly 4:00 p.m. until 6:45 p.m. I eventually left to let out my dog (she had a long 10+ hour day home alone!) and to do work. I felt guilty when I left. I was proud of myself for staying 2+ hours but felt torn. Could I have done more? Am I doing myself or others a disservice by leaving? Furthermore, what else could/can I do to affect meaning change? I still wonder “what if”

As I kneeled, I also had time to think and reflect about Dana, structural violence, career goals, but, more importantly, my privilege and identity. While my attention to detail and awareness of inequality has intensified in recent years, I am still not sure if I truly understand the severity of what it means to be born white and the privileges that come with whiteness. I still have a long way to grow and many more uncomfortable conversations must be had along my journey. That is #WhyIKneel.

Pizza, Police & Protests

As many have seen, heard and read, exactly 1-week ago today (Friday, September 15) a judge ruled that former white police officer Jason Stockley was not guilty in the 2011 fatal shooting of African-American Anthony Lamar Smith. The ruling set off peaceful protests that turned violent throughout the weekend.

Though published 2-days ago, this article just popped up on my Facebook Newsfeed, and I felt compelled to share. Pi Pizzeria is one of my favorite pizza spots in St. Louis, and I believe every word of what Co-Founder Chris Sommers wrote. All the more reason to support Pi the next time I’m home.

Sad times! There is no excuse for police brutality! There is no excuse for racism!

Mo’olelo

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Son. Brother. Cousin. Nephew. Heterosexual. Colorblind. Jewish. Dyslexic. Able-bodied. St. Louisan. Third-generation American. I was born all of these things, and all of these identities have impacted my life. However, whether I truly understand it and appreciate it or not, my race and gender have most shaped my life – I am a 6’3”, 220 lb. privileged white male. I need to acknowledge my good fortune, especially given my interest in pursuing a career in social work, where my identity and voice might be questioned.

Family and friends have encouraged me to explore related fields for many years, as I have always had an interest in issues regarding social justice and advocacy. From as early as I can remember talk around our dinner table often included conversations about race, gender and religion in various realms of society.

My exposure and awareness of socio-cultural issues broadened throughout my college career. When I entered The College of Wooster, a small liberal arts college in Ohio, I thought I would major in chemistry and apply to medical school after graduation. However, I took advantage of a liberal arts education and exposed myself to the social sciences, specifically sociology. The courses and professors were engaging and thought provoking. I was challenged to analyze people, norms and behaviors using different methodologies and complex classical and contemporary social theories.

Whether professors at Wooster openly admitted it or not, many courses focused on the importance of diversity and social responsibility in America. Some of my most vivid classroom memories revolve around lectures about mass incarceration in the United States, urban development, racial and ethnic communities in the U.S., organ trafficking and the formation of bio-economies. In many classes, I was reminded of terminology I learned in a human rights course early in college. In Pathologies of Power: Health, Human Rights, and The New War on the Poor, Paul Farmer differentiates “structural violence” from “direct violence.” Structural violence is the violence often overlooked that is woven into social, political and economic structures. Whereas, direct violence is the blood and killing that happens in front us. Society has become fixated on direct violence – and worse – desensitized to it. However, since brought to my attention, I have remained most haunted by structural violence.

Hot topics including: mass incarceration and the U.S. penal system, sexual assault (on college campuses and in the military), poverty and income inequality, healthcare reform, human trafficking, and access to education are what led me to the University of Michigan, School of Social Work. I am intrigued, frustrated and enraged by decisions and social ills that surround these issues.

My micro-goal for this course is to become more reflective. To continue to evaluate my identity and place in society, and strive to become more proximate to socio-cultural disparities. My macro-goal is to acquire more practical skills that will allow me to better analyze systems and structures and the way they are organized to influence policy.

I recently completed reading Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson. It describes the humbling and deeply disturbing truths of the U.S. penal system and racial components of mass incarceration. It also provides testimony from prisoners on death row. Some who were poorly tried and others who were falsely charged with crimes they did not commit. These people would have likely died or suffered the rest of their lives in prison had it not been for the help of Stevenson and his team at the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI). There were many memorable quotes and excerpts in the book, but two lines grabbed my attention and stuck: “The opposite of poverty is not wealth. The opposite of poverty is justice.” My lived and work experiences have intensified my attention to detail and awareness of inequality. My hope is SW504 will serve as a stepping stone to developing a deeper critical consciousness, and becoming better educated and more sophisticated in ways of creating and honoring diversity and justice.