Saturday, September 26, 2020

GUEST COLUMN: White people, it’s time to listen and act

July 27, 2020
Portrait of Algeria Wilson, courtesy of Piper & Gold Public Relations
Portrait of Algeria Wilson, courtesy of Piper & Gold Public Relations —

By: Algeria K. Wilson

Algeria is the Director of Public Policy at National Association of Social Workers Michigan Chapter. She is also a Michigan State University alumna.

The COVID-19 pandemic is sweeping through communities of color like a thief in the night, stealing parents, grandparents, children, siblings and leaving behind grief, trauma, economic and educational instability. We continue to not only see but feel and relive time and time again, Black death and violence at the hands of white racists. We now have to add to the list of names we honor ⁠— Ahmaud Aubrey, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd. Every day, we have to worry about our physical safety, not only from a deadly virus but from white people all around us. We wonder if we are safe in our homes, on a jog, at the park or even while delivering a baby.

Yet, of the many ways to kill the Black body, the most successful has been systemic. COVID-19 exposed how our systems disproportionately impact African Americans and continue to keep us oppressed. African Americans have been blamed for their death, their chronic illnesses and even for protesting. But African Americans aren’t dying because they’re poor. They’re dying because they’re Black.

African Americans have been saying for centuries what we need — to stop being murdered, to be treated and seen as our whole selves and for our voices to be heard even as we scream for our last breath. But we continued to be seen as three-fifths, silenced or diluted. It cuts deeply that Black people still “need” our white counterparts to be able to share their power and examine their privilege in order to effect systemic change. We can rise up and rebel, but we still are locked out of various forms of power. When we turn to the traditional systems of listening — social workers, therapists, doctors, — we encounter a system not built for us. We experience a healthcare system rooted in providing us less care, and we stare at white faces. 

It falls upon those within the systems of oppression to help change the system, all while not becoming a part of it ⁠— including my primarily white counterparts in social work and healthcare, white academics, white students — to learn from their past and effect change. To examine their own implicit bias and its implications and to ensure the Black people hurting and fighting have access to mental health services and see themselves represented in the people providing care. The time for the mental health system to listen, learn and most importantly, act is now.

Whether dying at the hands of racist white people or due to systems constructed and upheld by white supremacy and patriarchy, Black death is something America has normalized.

When seeking mental health care services ⁠— on campus or elsewhere ⁠— finding someone of color who shares our collective experiences feels like an impossible search. Fighting racism comes in many forms. We experience sentencing disparities, selective enforcement of drug laws and constant surveillance of our communities, all keeping us entangled in the criminal-legal system. The lack of equity, justice, representation and the perpetuation of historical trends toward Black lives leads to continuous rage and a quest to be heard. Some call the acts of outrage riots, others an uprising for the freedom that we have desired for so long. Representation and mental health care from people who can truly understand is just as important as every other fight against injustice.

The ways in which we divest from our communities of color — not fully funding systems to support transportation, health, mental health, substance abuse, reproductive health and so many more systems — creates a daily struggle for survival for African American lives. It’s simple ⁠— the systems created and upheld by white supremacy in the form of inequitable policies simply kill us.

What Black people have learned is not to place our survivorship in the hands of others. Far too often, especially in the field of social work, we have seen the historical trends driven predominantly by white women to treat those of different ethnic backgrounds and lower socioeconomic status as if they must be saved from themselves, swooping into a community or a life for a brief time, playing white savior, and then leaving just as quickly. Little of this results in meaningful, lasting change. As a result, African Americans push our mourning to the side, work twice as hard, don’t rest and focus on getting the job done, doing what we have to do to get by, all while continuing the quest for universal freedom.

It’s time for white people ⁠— including students of all ages and backgrounds ⁠— to listen and to act in order to help end racism. We don’t need white saviors. It's time for students to consider and explore career paths and daily actions that will allow them to make change. We need people who will listen to the requests that have come from Black people for so long in the search for Black liberation and act based on what we say we need. Not to act in an interest that puts the focus back on white people, or to act in a manner that changes the outcome to one that perpetuates oppression. To act in a manner that is long term and systemic, not brief and for optics. 

The weight of this collective deliverance takes a toll. Far too often I walk into powerful rooms seeking to carve out a space of equity and justice for my community within the world of social work and healthcare only to be faced with the fact that I am the only person of color in the room. In those spaces I no longer have the privilege of speaking just for myself or my membership; I must use every identity lens I have and speak from a collective voice all while code-switching and making sure to balance an assertive tone with one that could be perceived as aggressive. 

I am aware of the level of responsibility that comes with working in social work. As a Black woman and mother it means I have even more of a responsibility. In order to care for my people, and for myself, I have had to learn how to speak up, to not be afraid to voice my opinion and to ask for clarity on policies within complex systems, including the healthcare and mental health spaces, to be able to properly advocate.

Being the lone voice in a room of powerful and well-intentioned white leaders focusing on issues affecting my community is an even greater responsibility. I need more allies in the room with me. I need you ⁠— students ⁠— to make your way to the table.

Because it’s exhausting. But it makes me work harder. 

Now it’s time for white social workers, caregivers, doctors, nurses and the entire health care system to work harder. Yes, it’s exhausting and you are already exhausted. I, of all people, understand the bone weary exhaustion of simply surviving each day. But there is more work to do, and it’s time for you to do it, no matter how difficult.

Listen. Learn. Mute. Lament. Examine. Study. Stop. Speak. Think. Analyze. Accept. You will never understand, and that is OK. But you must ⁠— you must ⁠— act. Thousands of experts around this country are telling you how. It’s overwhelming. It’s daunting. It seems too big to tackle. These feelings are life in my Black skin every day in this country. It is time for you to share the burden of exhaustion and work harder to dismantle our systems from within. It is time to act.

Editor's Note: This article is part of our Summer Mail Home issue. View the full digital issue here.

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