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.”