July 16, 2020 Managing the Now While Working toward a Racially Equitable Future: Advice from a Biracial Social Worker
Alexis Stribbling is a 28-year-old biracial bereavement social worker who—unlike many biracial people—identifies both as Black and white. After listening to her insights and stories during the NASW Virginia Town Hall on Racial Justice and Equality June 23, the chapter asked if she would share her experiences more widely through an interview. She agreed, and we thank her for her courage and candor. We encourage all social workers to read her advice for what white and non-Black social workers can do to better support Black colleagues.
“My biggest piece of advice is--if you approach your colleagues--hold on to those race questions,” says Alexis. “We as a Black community are tired. I've heard that from many of my colleagues and friends. It's all of these images repeatedly in the news on Facebook or Instagram of all this police brutality and Black people losing their lives on top of [being] isolated during a pandemic. You have to remember that's all [we] know as a group together.
“Just like with any training, … we don't go to someone who's mentally ill and say, ‘Hey, can you educate us on your variance?’ It's not on them to do the work. Don’t put pressure on your coworkers. They’re having to survive.”
She recommends turning to outside experts such as “social justice warriors” or people who’ve devoted their lives to discussing and leading diversity initiatives.
Using White Privilege to Support and Amplify Voices of Black Colleagues and Clients
Social workers are action-oriented problem-solvers. Here, Alexis shares some steps that white social workers can take to accelerate progress on racial equality.
Start with yourself. “Starting with self is super important, that self-reflection,” Alexis says. “Even being biracial, I and we all have bias. As social workers, we have bias, but [training] teaches us to be aware and check that bias, so it doesn't impact the clinical relationship with your client or patient.”
Get educated. Keep learning. “My parents are in the baby boomer generation, and even they didn't know about Juneteenth,” says Alexis, noting that much of the school-based history they learned was “white” and therefore “whitewashed.” “There's just so much about Black history that my dad being a Black man doesn't know himself.”
Encourage your employer to explore and act on ways to better support Black social workers. “If the conversation wants to be had,” support efforts in your organization to learn if and how anyone has felt racism and actions the employer could take to address it.
Alexis’ hospice organization, AT Home Care, for instance, does not accommodate requests for white-only staff coming into a client’s home—and Alexis was shocked and hurt when a favorite elderly client who did not realize she is biracial pulled her aside and told her that a new Black certified nursing assistant could not be in their house. While embarrassed when Alexis said she then could not be there, the clients still had made their prejudices known.
In another example, her organization had a Black chaplain who was visiting a patient’s home in a suburban area, and neighbors called the police because they thought he was trying to break in. Such stories have prompted an “awakening” at her organization, which realized it hadn’t thought deeply enough about diversity and racism. It has since launched several initiatives and is examining ways to better support Black coworkers.
Listen to the stories of African American people and peers who do want to talk. “Social workers will always want to be empathetic, and a great way to do that is to hear how African Americans and Black people are treated in this country,” Alexis suggests. “Listening to those stories, being curious, and asking from their perspective more questions about their experiences is a great place to start with self.”
"You can't legislate the heart.” “If someone has true hate in their heart, legislation isn't going to change that someone is really racist,” she explains. “We've seen that in our country. Black people are ‘free,’ but you still have white supremacy. You still have these systems in place that perpetuate racism, and you still see that hate wash out on social media and all the places where you can't legislate.”
Speak up when you see racism. Use that privileged platform to say when statements or actions are not okay.
Cut slack and give grace. “It's such a delicate time right now,” Alexis says. “I feel like if there is any other time you wanted to talk about race, maybe some Black people would be more open, but it's such a highly charged time between what happened with George Floyd and the scores of others coming out like Elijah McClain on top of a pandemic. You've heard the phrase ‘we don't want this to be a moment; we want it to be a movement,’ right? Hold on to that and maybe re-approach at another time because right now, Black and biracial people are there.”
Accept why Black people are not as shocked by the George Floyd murder as white people. “For me, it's that you become numb,” Alexis says. “Seeing people lose their lives in such a public forum in these videos where you're right on the ground, watching the person lose their life, and it's splashed in different news outlets and on social media. It gets all this hype, and then it dies down. Then it happens again, gets all this hype, and then dies down. People coming to [the Black community] and saying, ‘Okay, we want to make change.’ That's not going to happen overnight.”
“… If you're biracial or Black, you've had these conversations in your house,” she explains. “You've heard about the [police-caused deaths] that haven't hit the news or gone viral. …My dad lived in Chicago during the Chicago riots, and his mom sent him away to Michigan to work on a horse farm because she didn't want him being a part of what was going on in the city at the time…. Not much has changed from that. A man being kneeled on for almost nine minutes? My dad's in his 70s. I'm 28, and it's like we're having the same discussions.”
Her parents—a white mother and Black father—have “had to adapt to this world. They go into social situations expecting someone to say something dumb about their interracial marriage, my dad especially,” Alexis says, adding that he’s “not holding his breath” about authentic change.
Consider holding or attending education sessions or facilitated conversations whereby “on-the-ground” social workers working within systems where racism is embedded can talk about how the systems are structured and why they are racially oppressive. They could also share the resulting outcomes of racism that they’ve witnessed. “Once you understand these systems, you can start to dissect them and propose legislation or go to a board of directors … within your communities to undo the racism,” says Alexis.
Advancing with Hope
Despite the lurches and setbacks in the fight for racial equality, Alexis has moved from feeling hopeless to hopeful, especially after participating in the NASW Virginia Town Hall on Racial Justice and Equality, where much of the sentiment and anger she heard was for the first time.
“I was feeling very down, very depressed,” Alexis admits. “But all of that talk in the town hall gave me so much hope, just hearing people with all different backgrounds, all different ages--our profession really coming together in coordination with NASW.”
She looks to NASW to step up even more to lead on this issue: “NASW has historically been behind a lot of legislation. They’ve made a huge impact and have the respect within the United States as a well-known organization to put legislation through, which gives me hope that we're starting to have these conversations as a profession…. because a lot of us do work within these systems that perpetuate racism.
“… When I've been discriminated against, I've been silent, and I haven't called people out,” she says. “I've just dealt with it, and I'm finally to a point where I feel so hopeful that there are so many more people, mainly white people, who are finally behind this movement and willing to call it out for what it is.”
Social workers are doing amazing work on the front lines during the COVID-19 pandemic, to address systemic racism, and to support clients through innovative approaches and dedication. To share your story, please reach out to Executive Director, Debra Riggs, at email@example.com.