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A social worker's reflections on power, privilege, and oppression.

The pursuit of social justice is a core social work value (NASW NASW National Association of Science Writers
NASW National Association of Social Workers (Washington, DC)
NASW National Association of Social Workers
NASW National Association for Social Work (UK) 
, 2007). Social workers promote social justice by engaging in activities that promote equality of opportunity, challenge injustice, and advance social change, particularly on behalf of vulnerable and oppressed populations. This is easier said than done. Oppression and systems of power are extremely complex, multifaceted, and saturate sat·u·rate
v. Abbr. sat.
1. To imbue or impregnate thoroughly.

2. To soak, fill, or load to capacity.

3. To cause a substance to unite with the greatest possible amount of another substance.
 our individual psyche and external environment. As social workers committed to social justice, how do we challenge and change these systems of power? How do we find a standpoint from which to act? Paulo Freire Paulo Freire (Recife, Brazil September 19, 1921 - São Paulo, Brazil May 2, 1997) was a Brazilian educator and is a highly influential theorist of education. Biography  (1970) stated that a commitment to social justice requires a moral and ethical attitude toward equality and a belief in the capacity of people as agents who can transform their world. Furthermore, he stated that to create social change and to promote social justice, we must begin this process with ourselves--through a self-reflective process that examines the contradictions between our espoused values and our lived experience. We must believe that all people, both from dominant and targeted groups, have a critical role in dismantling oppression and generating a vision for a socially just future. For if only people from oppressed groups take on this responsibility, there is little hope that we will ever achieve our vision.

As a social worker and an academic who identifies strongly with the profession of social work, I take these words of Freire and other scholars of social justice seriously. In 2001, I had the honor of participating in a presidential plenary panel at the Society for Social Work and Research Annual Conference. As part of this plenary, I presented an introduction that provided a reflection of who I am and how my social identities are affected by the dynamics of oppression and privilege. The speech was published later that year in Advances in Social Work (Spencer, 2001), and every year since I have taken the opportunity to further reflect on who I am at that particular moment in time. A lot has happened in the past seven years, and as my social identities have evolved and my understanding of them becomes increasingly complex, I find the need to contemplate again on the question, "Who am I?"

My interests in issues of oppression, power, and privilege began with my own experiences as a person of color Noun 1. person of color - (formal) any non-European non-white person
person of colour

individual, mortal, person, somebody, someone, soul - a human being; "there was too much for one person to do"
 who has experienced racism. I identify primarily as Native Hawaiian, but I also identify as mixed race. As a person of color, I am often placed in a position in which I must process the disrespect I perceive or the assumptions that others make of me. For example, I know what it is like to be grabbed by the arm at a campus restaurant on my way to the restroom and be asked to bring people their drinks. I also know what it is like to seek the support of a friend following this incident and be told, "That could have happened to anyone." The most painful thing about racism is its invalidation, even more so than the incident itself. I hope for reconciliation, but I recall that reconciliation requires "truth." We are just beginning to learn about the truth of racism in this country and, thus, are still far from reconciliation.

Among people of color Noun 1. people of color - a race with skin pigmentation different from the white race (especially Blacks)
people of colour, colour, color

race - people who are believed to belong to the same genetic stock; "some biologists doubt that there are important
, however, I have the privilege of light skin. I know this privilege has allowed me to be more trusted, accepted, and easily assimilated within the dominant culture. I have also been educated by the dominant culture and taught to think like the mainstream. I know how to speak "properly." Growing up as a Native Hawaiian educated in Hawaii under the U.S. educational system, I never heard the word "colonization." The spirituality of my ancestors was taught to me as mythology. Although I know there is much in my culture that I have lost, I still reap great benefits from my assimilation, including my ability to pursue higher education and ultimately my current employment at the University of Michigan (body, education) University of Michigan - A large cosmopolitan university in the Midwest USA. Over 50000 students are enrolled at the University of Michigan's three campuses. The students come from 50 states and over 100 foreign countries. . I was made palatable to the dominant culture.

My education has moved me from my status as a child growing up in an impoverished neighborhood in Honolulu to a middle-class professional living in Ann Arbor Ann Arbor, city (1990 pop. 109,592), seat of Washtenaw co., S Mich., on the Huron River; inc. 1851. It is a research and educational center, with a large number of government and industrial research and development firms, many in high-technology fields such as . I have the privilege of selecting the "right" neighborhood with the "right" schools so that my children will have the best chance in life. I remember the shame I felt about where I lived as a child and the shame of using food stamps and what people would think about me if I did not buy the cheapest brands. Today, I know what it is like to spend the equivalent of another family's weekly, or even monthly, grocery budget on one meal. Also, I have the means to buy fair trade goods and consider whether the clothing I am buying was made in sweatshops, but ironically I do not consider this on a regular basis or when it is not convenient.

As a man, I benefit from the objectification and subordination of women. I have been witness to the conversations of men who assess women by their body parts. I do not have to worry about whether I need to leave the office before it gets too dark or walk through the alley that is a short cut to the parking garage where my car is parked. One evening after work, as I was walking to this garage with a female colleague, I found it entirely inconvenient that she did not want to walk down the alley, the short cut. It did not occur to me that women have been sexually assaulted in this alley. I have the privilege of not needing to know this information. As a man of color not of the white race; - commonly meaning, esp. in the United States, of negro blood, pure or mixed.

See also: Color
, I often feel like I do not possess the same privileges of maleness as white men. However, that evening in the alley, I realized the privilege of assuming physical safety.

I also benefit from identifying along the male--female gender binary. I present very much as a man. No one ever has to wonder what pronoun to use with me. I also do not have to worry that if my fingernails or hair get too long that someone will realize I am not the gender I present. I do not need to bind my chest so tight I cannot breathe. The thought that someone would want to beat me, rape me, or kill me because of my gender identity and expression has never crossed my mind. No one will call the police if they see me in the men's restroom. I feel this privilege intensely when I attend Transgender Day of Remembrance and read the name on the card that is given to me. It is the name of a transgendered individual who was killed this past year. I shed tears and recommit re·com·mit  
tr.v. re·com·mit·ted, re·com·mit·ting, re·com·mits
1. To commit again.

2. To refer (proposed legislation, for example) to a committee again.
 to the understanding of transgender issues, but in my everyday life I rarely think about my gender.

More often than not though, I do think about my sexual orientation sexual orientation
The direction of one's sexual interest toward members of the same, opposite, or both sexes, especially a direction seen to be dictated by physiologic rather than sociologic forces.
 or at least how I present myself as a heterosexual individual. I own one pink shirt, the one my children laugh about. I like to sing and enjoy musicals, but I am thoughtful about who I share this information with. Growing up, the worst thing in the world someone could call me was "gay." Among my male friends, those were fighting words. Today, I am aware of the violence that the gay, lesbian, and bisexual (GLB (Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act) Enacted in 1999 and effective in mid 2001, the GLB stipulates that every financial institution shall protect the security and confidentiality of its customers' confidential personal information. ) population face on a daily basis. I deplore de·plore  
tr.v. de·plored, de·plor·ing, de·plores
1. To feel or express strong disapproval of; condemn: "Somehow we had to master events, not simply deplore them" 
 this and actively work as an ally. However, I still think twice before I pull out that pink shirt.

This past fall, I recall standing on the sidelines On the sidelines

An investor who decides not to invest due to market uncertainty.

on the sidelines

Of or relating to investors who, having assessed the market, have decided to avoid committing their funds.
 at my son's football game and hearing fathers refer to boys as "pussies" when they were not as aggressive as they should be. I should have said something, but I did not. I wanted to fit in with these men. I did not want them to call me "gay." I wanted to keep every drop of privilege that comes with being a heterosexual man. I chuckled a little, but with this chuckle, I perpetuated the discrimination of the GLB population and condoned the violence they experience. I did not need to say anything--just chuckle--because oppression does not require me to actively discriminate to perpetuate it; it just requires that I do nothing to stop it.

As an able-bodied person, I do not have to take into consideration the time it will take me to find an accessible entrance and figure out how I will be able to get to where I need to go. The snow along the sidewalk from the neighbors who did not shovel before leaving for work is a minor inconvenience. I have never had to ask for accommodations, for extra time to finish an exam, for large print, or for real-time captioning. I know the privilege of people assuming that I have full cognitive capacity based only on my physical appearance. As a person of color, though, I can relate to being gawked at and stared at by people who are not used to seeing "my kind." However, I can typically find places where I can blend in Verb 1. blend in - blend or harmonize; "This flavor will blend with those in your dish"; "This sofa won't go with the chairs"
blend, go

fit, go - be the right size or shape; fit correctly or as desired; "This piece won't fit into the puzzle"
 or where my difference is seen as an asset.

As a person who was raised as Christian and currently identifies as agnostic, I have the privilege of enjoying religious holidays associated with Christianity and know that no one will expect me to work on these days. No one wonders if I am associated with terrorists because of my beliefs or feels nervous if I am on the same plane with them. When I encounter carolers it does not offend me. In fact, I stop to listen. No one thinks I am from a cult, that I am going to cast evil spells, or calls me a hippie because of my spirituality. However, I do know what it is like for a child to throw paint on my child's new shirt in art class because he said he does not believe in God. But, these experiences are somewhat rare, and the times I have benefited from my Christian upbringing are countless.

As a social worker, I strive to be an ally. Adams, Bell, and Griffin (2007) defined an ally as an individual from an agent group who rejects the dominant ideology The dominant ideology, in Marxist or marxian theory, is the set of common values and beliefs shared by most people in a given society, framing how the majority think about a range of topics, The dominant ideology is understood by Marxism to reflect, or serve, the interests of the  and takes action out of a belief that eliminating oppression will benefit both agents and targets of oppression. These authors describe several different characteristics of an ally, including taking responsibility for one's own learning, acknowledging unearned privilege, and being willing to be confronted, to consider change, and to commit to action. The authors also describe allies as those who are willing to take risks and try new behaviors, despite their fear. In my years of striving to be an effective ally, I am struck by the amount of courage that this activity takes. Furthermore, the authors state that allies must be willing to make mistakes, learn, and try again. Allyship requires tremendous humility. It means never being truly culturally competent, but rather, recognizing that the pursuit of critical consciousness is a lifelong process. My reflection as a social worker continues, for I am still a work in progress, and I would like to encourage my fellow social workers to also continue with such reflection.


Adams, M., Bell, L.A., & Griffin, P. (2007). Teaching for diversity and social justice (2nd ed.). New York New York, state, United States
New York, Middle Atlantic state of the United States. It is bordered by Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and the Atlantic Ocean (E), New Jersey and Pennsylvania (S), Lakes Erie and Ontario and the Canadian province of
: Routledge.

Freire, P. (1970). Pedagogy of the oppressed Pedagogy of the Oppressed is the most widely known of educator Paulo Freire's works. It was first published in Portuguese in 1968 as Pedagogia do oprimido and the first English translation was published in 1970. . New York: Herder & Herder.

National Association of Social Workers. (2007). Code of ethics. Retrieved January 17, 2008, from http://www.

Spencer, M. S. (2001). Identity and multicultural social work research: A reflection in process. Advances in Social Work, 2, 1-11.

Michael S. Spencer, PhD, is associate professor, School of Social Work, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI 48109; e-mail:
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Title Annotation:GUEST EDITORIAL
Author:Spencer, Michael S.
Publication:Social Work
Article Type:Personal account
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Apr 1, 2008
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