What Can Happen When Dealing With Difference
Message from the Executive Director
Robert Schachter DSW, LMSW
It must be a very common experience: being in the presence of someone different from yourself, disagreeing with what is being said, and not feeling free to say anything in response. This recently happened in the NASW-NYC Executive Committee meeting, comprised of leaders of the Chapter. We agreed that we should find some way to address with the NASW membership what can happen when we are dealing with difference. I volunteered to write about it, but I worried that I was picking up a subject usually too hot to handle.
In this particular instance, the Executive Committee members were reflecting on the Chapter’s Annual Meeting, held just the night before. The overwhelming feeling was that the event was a great success, the 300 or so people in attendance had had a good time, and the keynote speaker provided a great deal of depth in her remarks about culture, the connection between Latinos and Blacks from the Caribbean, with common roots in Africa. One of our committee members shared that she had a problem with the keynote speaker’s remarks, but she did not elaborate, and the discussion moved on.
After awhile I suggested that we go back to the earlier comment and shared that I thought the speaker had said something the night before that could well have disturbed some, and possibly many, of our attendees. The speaker had made a brief reference to attending an international conference on racism several years ago in which a resolution was developed in regard to Israel. The speaker was making the point that the representatives to the conference from the United States had walked out in protest, and the speaker felt that they should have stayed and discussed the matter.
After I had pointed out the reference to Israel and the United States, our committee member who had raised a concern acknowledged that this was what bothered her and said that she appreciated our recognizing this. I think that we all realized at that point that if we had not acknowledged this, our colleague would have felt shut off from the committee, distanced from us. Perhaps others were having a similar experience among the group of eight who were present. Even though we did not analyze the comment about Israel and the U.S., some degree of reconnection among us occurred.
Hence, the focus in this column.
We have a big challenge in front of us as social workers. We cannot help but be in the presence of people who are different from ourselves, who may well have very different points of view.
When we do not acknowledge experiences related to racism, whether institutional, historic or personal, many of our Black colleagues feel shut down. We know this because we have been extensively discussing it. When we do talk about racism, some, possibly many, of our White colleagues may feel shut down.
Some of our Latino colleagues have acknowledged feeling closed off in the face of discussions about racism, feeling it has more to do with the African American experience in this country. But when we recently focused on issues that related directly to the experience of Latino communities, such as the enormous anti-immigration movement sweeping the U.S., the interest in addressing the nature of racism in the U.S. has become profound.
Not too long ago a leader in our field who I admire greatly, said something to me that I found disturbing. Perhaps it is because I am white and heterosexual that it struck me as it did (for me I was experiencing something new). He shared that his being both Black and gay, and openly writing about it, has cut off opportunities for leadership in the social work profession. Yet, people will not acknowledge that they are closing off to him. His point was that by NASW-NYC addressing the Black, Latino and Asian experience, along with the experience of LGBT social workers, people will not tell us that they disapprove or disagree. We simply won’t hear from them, and he was referring to a large group. I felt his sharing this to be chilling. I could not disagree, but I wanted to deny the possibility of this being the reality. NASW needs all the members it can get. Could we lose one group by accepting another?
Some might say that we opened a Pandora’s box by addressing difference, including racism and sexual orientation. In one sense we have. But in another sense, the box has always been open and this is where we live, not just NASW, but all social workers. What we have done at NASW is start a discussion, and the nature of the box has come more into our awareness, creating opportunities to become uncomfortable. Disagreement, disappointment, anger and fear may all be at play, which through professional self-awareness, can be managed.
What I am trying to write about here, more specifically, is that a problem exists in communication. I am not addressing how to resolve the disagreements. It is about ourselves closing off or closing off others, and what this does to all of us, creating distance instead of creating relationship.
At bottom, I think this is about validation. As social workers we can choose to create opportunities for validation or we can ignore this. This is a choice that we all have. Perhaps this is where our greatest skill is. To me this is where hope for addressing such hot issues can begin.