Real and Faux Diversity-Mindedness

I begin this post with an excerpt from a manuscript that I wrote a few years ago:

There seems to be a vague belief that social work somehow becomes a part of reforms by defending them after the fact. For instance, the profession now proclaims its solidarity with black people. Yet while the battle for civil rights has been a major social issue in America since the mid-19th century, social work largely continued, right up through the 1960s and beyond, to take a paternalistic, out-of-touch stance that was rejected by blacks who demanded real change (e.g., Zeitz, 1964, p. 309; Stringfellow, 1966, pp. 145-146; Walker, 1968, p. 397; Walker, 1963, p. 231; Caplan, 1970, p. 60; Margolin, 1997, p. 118). Women’s rights, amazingly, is another example. According to Kemp and Brandwein (2010, pp. 344, 348), casework-oriented female social workers in the early 20th century generally supported traditional gender arrangements and opposed the Equal Rights Amendment. Even in the 1970s, “Social work’s institutional response to the women’s move­ment was incre­mental, piecemeal, and – as has often been the case with social work and social change – relatively tardy” (p. 352). Likewise, social work is now loud and proud on gay rights. Yet that is no longer particularly risky. That movement has been underway for more than 40 years but, again, social work was not among its early supporters (Poindexter, 1997, p. 608).

This pattern continues into the present. For example, even within schools of social work – even within a very prestigious school of social work – students and faculty who take an interest in (or who, themselves, have) physical or mental disabilities have reported to me, and I have experienced and observed, an exclusionary mindset. Far from being safe in schools of social work, these disadvantaged individuals receive much the same treatment as (if not worse than) they would receive in American society at large.

That is not new. To the contrary, it appears to cohere with what social work has always been. For example, a generation ago, when the rest of America was working toward making the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 the law of the land, Pendler (1986, p. 51) was reporting that the typical social worker still “knew nothing about mental retardation” and Skamulis (1986, p. 145) was observing that “[S]chools of social work provide little or no emphasis on developmental disabilities” – not that those situations have improved terribly much since then. The same is true in the area of ageism. In those same schools of social work, I have interacted with older students who have understood, as I have, that we were expected to think and act as if we were all in our early twenties – as if we did not have fifteen, thirty, or more years of life experience as adults.

In these remarks, I should clarify one thing. If you march into a school of social work and announce that you have a hidden disability or, better, that you are a member of a racial or ethnic minority even though you don’t look it, people may fall all over themselves to demonstrate their broadmindedness. The hard part is when someone might be special but is not perceived as being such — when, in other words, there is no extra credit for making a show of one’s acceptance of different kinds of people. In my experience, you are very unlikely to be loved, in a school of social work, if you go out of your way to befriend the individuals who are not accepted by the social trendsetters there.

What I am describing is obviously not the behavior of a profession that takes an active interest in human diversity. You do not have to hang around social workers long to realize that they are not generally inclined to welcome (much less adopt) unorthodox dress, atypical behavior, or dissenting opinions — unless they look tribal or otherwise exotic within mainstream white stereotypes. Margolin (1997, p. 51) calls it “the fundamental mundanity of social work: that social work fits in, is expected to fit in, and likewise expects clients’ accounts and experiences, both individually and socially, to fit in.” Margolin (p. 181) cites Lasch (1997, pp. 156-157) for the view that Jane Addams herself was “at heart profoundly conservative and conventional.”

We can sum up this situation briefly enough; it is actually pretty straightforward. Fitting in is simply not compatible with change. Social work is not a radical profession. The radicals in social work tend to be misfits, shouting into the wind. They belong elsewhere, and that appears to have been true during most of the profession’s history. A substantial majority of social work professors and practitioners advance socialist views, but they largely limit that to, again, the mainstream of liberal American culture. They are rarely trendsetters.

In short, this is not an intrinsic commitment to diversity. It is a commitment to looking like someone who values diversity. Another post develops the implications.

Let us not blame social work alone for this; once again, social workers are just fitting in, in a larger culture that does not encourage self-scrutiny. America is often a land of people who want to believe that they are Christlike when they are patently not; it is a home for those who think they are reasonably knowledgeable on matters that utterly elude them. The point here is that social workers may want to consider themselves supportive of human diversity, but they are just not receiving an education (see Stewart, Crary, & Humberd, 2008), or entering a profession, that strongly supports reasonable departures from its own traditions and preferences.

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  • SJS (@SJSworks)  On January 13, 2013 at 1:50 PM

    Perhaps it is not always the reality that matters but the intention. The forces that shape culture are powerful; I can’t imagine a profession that would be immune. Perhaps this is not a matter of conviction, but of execution.

    What you are so aptly describing has been recognized in cultures for sometime, I have heard it called spiritual materialism. It seems only natural that a cultural dominated by materialism would not recognize entrance into the spiritual variety. Still, spiritual materialism is certainly a step in the right direction. It is by mimicry and pretending that behavior and identity take root. I is not easy to throw off cultural habits, or any habit for that matter. Ignoring the valiant attempts that people makes does not seem like a good strategy for creating the sort of society that we envision. In fact that sort of attitude is self-defeating. Are we to say, unless you can be 100% real, 100% genuine, than your efforts are meaningless? By that standard only the very best of us would stand up; attempting to change would be irrational.

    Recently being in an MSW program, and having experienced enough of the rest of the world, I can safely say that there certainly is a difference in the attitude of the students and faculty. I cannot vouch for how that will translate as they venture out into the field, but this strikes me as a failure of the profession and its leadership, not its members and their convictions.

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