Race you to the end of our postracial society

3 05 2012

I’ve blogged about the role race plays in my work. Despite the fears of some, I didn’t explode, so I thought I would try it again.

They’re constantly on us to be more culturally competent in our work. Speak to people in their native language, address cultural differences in raising children and gender roles, talk to clients about their religion, have the national anthem of their homeland cued up for when they walk in the office door…there are lots of ways to do this. But in order to address someone’s culture, we need to know what it is.

At Anonymous Agency, we’re supposed to have the basic information from the start. There is a question for race, ethnicity, and religion information on our intake forms. I mark it in the win column if I get the name of all household members on those forms, so that information is rarely actually there.  It’s even more rarely accurate. Many times, I’ve been handed an intake that says a family is “Hispanic?” Awesome. Are question marks an option on the census?

This means that I have to ask people what they consider themselves to be, a pretty heady and personal question, within twenty minutes of meeting them. It’s a weird question to ask when you’re just getting to know someone, but if you don’t ask it then, it’s even stranger to ask three months down the line. Where is that coming from? I thought we were cool. Especially if they don’t give the answer you’re looking for. “Black? Anything else? Just because your last name is Lopez, so…what?”

It doesn’t help that many people don’t really know what I’m talking about. (I was once on a plane with a girl who wrote “caucasian” under “nationality” on her paperwork to be permitted to enter Ireland. She was an idiot. Customs was not amused.) I have a family that identifies as “Spanish.” I understand that to mean one is from Spain, but they’re actually Dominican. Sorry, let me correct you on your identity, ma’am.

Race and ethnicity are often conflated. I ask for race, people answer, “Puerto Rican.” A person can be Latino, but might also identify as black. This means that awkward questions follow. Often in terms that people aren’t accustomed to. Asking someone what their skin color is when you’re sitting across from them kind of makes you look crazy.

Technically, we all know race is a social construct. Knowing what we know now about human DNA and how mixed up we all are makes segregation sound not only morally repugnant, but also like a remarkably confusing waste of time.

The confusion of cultural terminology barriers was really driven home when I was called upon to help out with a phone survey of the elderly population receiving services at my first ever internship. On the first page, I had to ask three questions in a row: 1. What is your ethnicity? 2. What is your race? 3. Are you Hispanic?

An early one went like this.

BabySJ: What is your ethnicity?
ElderlyWoman: I’m Italian.
BabySJ: What is your race?
ElderlyWoman: My weight? You want my weight?
BabySJ: No, your race.
ElderlyWoman: My race? I just said I’m Italian!
BabySJ: OK…so white? Caucasian?
ElderlyWoman: I’m white, yes, put down white.

OK. I realize that at this point  I should have just moved on. But I was 23, and the only thing they told me was how important it was that I ask each and every question. People could die, SJ! They didn’t quite say that, but just about. I hadn’t taken research methodology yet.

BabySJ: Are you Hispanic?
ElderlyWoman: Hispanic? What are you talking about? I’m white, white, I said I’m white.

All right, cool. And when was your last routine pap smear, woman who could be my nana?

This actually wasn’t my first time dealing with this. In order to get all important funding at Anonymous Youth Agency, we had to fill out endless Excel spreadsheets noting the ages, genders, incomes, and of course races (I mean ethnicities?!) of the children we served. It was particularly important to identify Latino kids. The more Latinos we served, the more money we got. Bring on those wonderful little bastards! Whitey, you get in line.

Now, hearts were fully in the right place with this regulation. Latino kids made up a majority of the neighborhood, but they were very much an underserved population. Groups giving us money wanted to make sure we were doing what actually needed to be done.

But when categorizing a child, we had to pick only one box. We asked on our information forms what ethnicity and race people identified as. Some people wrote Puerto Rican or Dominican. Some were more broad, writing black, Hispanic, Latino, African American, caucasian, white, Native American. Some were more than one race, so I had to pick the one that was most convenient for our funding needs.

If it sounds a little creepy and wrong, good. Because it felt that way.

One little girl’s mother had written down that the child was black, but I knew her family and that they were also Latino.  We all have aspects of our cultural identities that are more salient than others. In spite of my firm belief in “choose your own identity” (not that I’m going to start spouting off my Pinay pride, however much I might like to) I nudged that kid into the Latina box. That was kind of the policy.

Apparently, it really pisses some people off.

Back in the River Styx social work school, we had this discussion. (Of course.) One woman, who was white and had mixed-race children, was adamant about telling her children not to give any racial information. “I sent them off for their first day of school, and my last words to them were, ‘Don’t check the box!'” She said this with passion and distress I thought was reserved for actresses trying to win Academy Award by portraying a Jewish mother in 1940s Germany being separated from her children.

I am not diminishing the importance of race. Or the general pain in the ass that being multiracial can be. People are weird about it. They ask inappropriate and insensitive questions about something that shouldn’t matter and is none of their business. I had to ask my (remarkably, extraordinarily) white college roommate why she insisted on using the term “mulatto” to describe a mutual acquaintance. This was 2002, if you were thinking I must have attended university in the very early 20th century.

It seems that, sadly enough, we can’t really win. I know that this mother was trying to protect her children in telling them not to check the evil evil box. But I also know that the reasons behind requesting the information weren’t bad. We can’t judge that things are getting better, and that marginalized people are being given better access to services if we don’t ask. We can’t pretend that race doesn’t exist, and doesn’t matter, even if we think it isn’t important.

I don’t think having to check the box is the problem. It’s indicative of the problem, sure, but it’s an imperfect way of trying to address it. So until we live in a society where that information is truly irrelevant, please check (as many as apply) clearly. Some poor sap is paying for a land called Honah Lee social work school by inputting that data.

‘Tis better to give than it is to etcetera.

7 12 2010

It’s that time of year. When we’re all freezing, our skin is dry, our heating bills are through the roof, but we’re still in kind of a good mood. (Most of us.) And people tend to be just a little more giving.

Trust me. My roommate is a kindergarten teacher. During the holiday season, she receives a year’s supply of scented body lotion and winter gloves. Not to mention the fact that we can decorate our apartment with Christmas tchotchkes and not have to pay for a single one.

Watch out. Santa and the bear are fighting for village domination.

We know teachers are innundated with these gifts. It’s part of the job. But it happens to social workers as well. Clients get to know you, (sometimes) they like you, no matter what you’re a part of their lives. At times like Christmas, or when a case is being closed, they might want to bring you a little something.

And I recall what I was taught in Tim Burton’s social work school. “I am a professional, not your friend, and as such I cannot accept. Thank you.” Or, “What is the meaning behind this gift? Let’s process your transference in our next session. Perhaps you see me as a mother figure.”

Ugh. Right?

Gifts are a fine line. Some could be inappropriate. I’ve never had a client try to give me booze, but if it ever happens I hope I’ll have to fortitude to turn it down. (I probably won’t.) I had an elderly man try to give me perfume when I was an intern. (If you’re ever looking for an example of ‘awkward,’ I’ll be doing that as a watercolor series.)

But sometimes, it’s ok. No, my clients are not my friends. I am a professional, and they are people that I serve. But we are all humans. (Except for the dinosaurs in clever human costumes, but we’ll get to them another time.)

Some occasions call for gifts, in normal human interactions. An eight year old girl who I saw for counseling for six months had her mom buy me play-doh, something we always used in sessions, when her case was closed. I said thanks. I suspect my casework professor got an urge to throw herself out a window, and didn’t know why. Ah, well.

Kids are notorious for this. I was recently strong armed by a three year old into taking the subway back to work with this.

The kid was giving everyone in the family huge, plastic hibiscus, and simply would not hear of me leaving without any. And those of you wondering why I didn’t throw it out on my way to the train–you really should be ashamed.

I was not permitted to turn down these sweet Silly Bandz (from the marine life edition.) I managed to get the kid to take some of my Batman bands in exchange, though.

It also works the other way around. One of my clients recently had a baby, and I went to see them when they came home from the hospital.

You don’t go see a new baby and not bring a gift. It simply isn’t done. So I went to the Children’s Place, fought the urge to buy every adorable, tiny thing I saw, and spent $12 on onesies.

Poppable collars, because infants can be preppy too.

A kid is a big deal, and I felt that it was right that the fact was acknowledged by the social worker.

My elderly clients always wanted to give me tea and cookies when I did home visits. They didn’t get a lot of visitors, and wanted to treat me like a guest. A kid is never prouder than when someone takes their gift, carefully selected from Family Dollar, and puts it on display like it’s the greatest thing in the world.

I had been taught that I was always supposed to say “no,” and sometimes you do have to. Elderly perfume? No. A mother taking from her food budget to buy her worker jewelry? Unlikely, and I’m sure we’d all turn that down. But sometimes that rejection is damaging. We’ve all learned from Hallmark and Lifetime movies that giving really makes the giver feel good.

In case anyone was wondering why my cubicle is decorated with children’s drawings, school photos, and a strangely oversized fake flower.

Junk food + TV – abuse=I leave you alone

11 11 2010

When I started working at my current agency, I inherited a case from a worker who was running away and leaving a social worker shaped hole in our front door offered a position at an agency closer to her home. I worked with the family for about a year. The kids were living with their grandmother, because their mother’s dedication for crack made everyday parenting tasks, like bringing the kids to school, rather difficult to accomplish.

Grandma’s house wasn’t perfect, but it was certainly adequate. The kids were traumatized, but they were getting mental health services. So I filed the necessary paper work, and stepped out. As far as I concerned, this particular family’s case had been closed.

Through the magic of bureaucratic databases, I was proven wrong.

The case was still considered open, because CPS refused to step out. (Because they were involved initially, they get final say. Bastards.)

I can hear it now. “Surely, SocialJerk, if a child protective specialist refused to step out, there must have been some serious safety concerns! That grandmother must have been at least borderline unfit.”

Um, how dare you doubt me. Have I ever steered you wrong?

When we finally got a phone call through to the the supervisor’s supervisor’s  supervisor (the next stop was Obama. Michelle, not Barack) we were told that there were, indeed, outstanding issues that needed to be addressed.

For one thing, the oldest girl needed new glasses. She had broken her old ones, and they had not been replaced.

As far as I know, this child had not been wandering off into the middle of the street, or putting herself at risk by running into stationary objects. But this was considered serious enough to warrant involvement by CPS and a preventive social worker.

It didn’t end there. The younger boy needed more dental work.

I had seen this child weekly. His grandmother had given me notes, documenting many dental appointments. I believe I mentioned elsewhere that I am not, in fact, a dentist. The kids teeth looked fine to me, and the dentist said the same thing. But CPS wasn’t satisfied. Perhaps eight year old boys not having porcelain veneers constitutes neglect?

Here’s the thing–grandma knew how to get these kids the glasses and dental work they needed. The kids had Medicaid, the girl even had a voucher for new glasses. But the grandmother had a lot to take care of, and these two things weren’t terribly high on her list. Ideal? No. But what the hell was I supposed to do about it? I don’t even have a car. I suppose I could sit on the bus with the family for a trip to Lenscrafters, but that doesn’t seem like the best use of anybody’s time.

I’m a social worker. I’m not a babysitter. If this woman didn’t do these things under pressure from ACS and family court, she wasn’t going to do them because I kept up with my weekly home visits. (Honestly, I’m a pleasant houseguest, she really would not have minded.)

There’s also the fact that glasses and teeth are important, but neither of these things compromised the children’s safety. They were otherwise healthy, they went to school, they were happy to be living with their grandmother. They got therapy weekly. If a kid breaking their glasses and going without for a while was reason enough to warrant CPS intervention, I think they’d be even more overwhelmed (and less effective) than they are now.

We see things like this all the time. People raise their kids in ways that we wouldn’t. Does that mean we have the right to step in? It doesn’t fill my black heart with delight to watch a mother feed her three year old Doritos and Windex-blue “juice” for breakfast. I don’t agree with allowing your boyfriend of the week to meet your kids. Watching TV while doing homework makes my skin crawl.

But frankly, those things are none of my business. If something is compromising the kids’ safety, I intervene as appropriate. If some behavior, like not allowing your teenage girl to leave the house unaccompanied, is contributing to the problems that brought a family in for services, I’ll address it.

But it’s not my place to say, “Well, this is how I would raise my imaginary kids! Why aren’t you breastfeeding, ma’am? You owe me an explanation!”

No family is perfect. Including mine. (Mom: just kidding!) Including all families of all social workers. We all have our bad moments, the things we wish we didn’t say, and the things we let our kids get away with. If we had a CPS worker or a social worker observing that, we would probably expect a little lee-way and understanding.

If we wait for perfection, we are going to find those caseloads expanding even more, and length of service growing and growing.

Then again. What the hell do I know?

“How are you?” “Why do you ask…?”

14 09 2010

As a social worker, you learn a lot about your clients. (Or participants, patients, frenemies…whatever we’re calling them this week.) You know about their childhood, their family history, their medical conditions, their friends, religion, favorite TV shows, and, quite often, more about their sexual practices than you care to.

What do they know about you? If Pee-Wee’s Playhouse social work school taught me correctly, nothing.

Well, not quite nothing. They get to know your name, and whether or not you’re licensed. Everything else, they have to pick up for themselves. How old do you look? Are you wearing a wedding ring? If you’ve hit the jackpot and actually have an office, are there pictures of your children?

When they inevitibly ask for more information, you are to give them a careful, smug knowing smile, and ask, “What meaning does that have for you?”

Then duck as they try to punch you. Because damn, is that ever obnoxious.

Some information, you don’t want to give up. I’m on board with that. Do I want to give my volatile clients with anger management issues my home address, along with a schedule indicating the hours that I’ll be there alone? Probably not. (Not again, anyway.) But it’s natural for people to have questions.

Often, people are getting at something with these questions. “Do you have children?” is probably the best example. I look young. Clients know that I went to graduate school, and assume that I didn’t start early in terms of popping out babies.

Because of this, “Do you have kids?” frequently comes out as, “You don’t have kids, do you? How can you tell me how to raise mine?”

How, you ask? I have a Master’s in social work. I’ve studied child development. Not having one’s own children doesn’t mean that one doesn’t have experience with children. Also, one of us is court-mandated to receive parent training, and it isn’t me. Having children doesn’t make you a parenting expert. I bought a skateboard when I was 13. It’s still in my dad’s garage. Does this mean I can compete in the X-Games?

Some people have other motives. When I was interning, and doing home visits with senior citizens, they always wanted to know about me. Not to be nosy (well, to be nosy a little bit) but because they were in their late 80s and I reminded them of their grandkids. They wanted to impart their words of wisdom.

“You’re what, 24? Don’t get married too soon. You finish college. Men hold you back.”
“Buy a house as soon as you can. I’ve been paying rent on this apartment for 40 years, I should own the building.”
“You know, you’re pretty sexy, you should try wearing skirts more.”

OK, that last one was weird.

A lot of people also just want to make conversation. They’re self-conscious constantly talking about themselves, and they ask about me to be polite. Asking whether or not I live in the Bronx might not indicate that they think we’re from different worlds, it might just be them asking if I have a long commute ahead.

I’ve heard plenty of workers try to relate to their clients, particularly with, “Oh, I have kids, I know how it is.” There certainly are shared experiences that can bring us a deeper understanding of what a client is going through. But is parenting, or marriage, or living in a certain borough, really a universal experience? There are so many variables involved in this life that it’s impossible to truly match what someone else is going through.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to get to training. The X-Games await.

Thanks, but no thanks. Oh wait, just no thanks.

25 08 2010

I’d venture to say that no one goes into any particular field expecting heaps of gratitude. None of the waitresses or bank tellers I know have said, “Hey, the pay isn’t great, but the general public are just so darn polite!”

Social workers are in the same boat. (Lawyers are in a similar yacht.) It’s hard to work with people. They are often unpleasant and demanding.

In mildly amusing euphemism social work school, people always said that we go into this field because we love people. I’m going to assume that we’ve spent enough time together for you to imagine my reaction to that.

Social workers try hard to help people. And it’s incredibly rewarding when we actually can. There are also plenty of times when we fall short. We can’t deliver services that we thought we could. Despite our best efforts, a kid ends up in foster care or the hospital.

Fortunately, the populations we work with are incredibly forgiving.

I used to work in a youth center, way back in 2006. One of our favorite times of the year was Christmas, due to our Christmas giving program. Businesses and wealthy people sponsored the children and families we served, to give them presents and food for a nice holiday.

Most families are extremely grateful for this. But then there’s always the ones that ruin it…

Our first day back from the Christmas break, an 11 year old girl who had received a van-load of gifts walked up to me to say, “I asked for Jordans.” Well, I asked for Ryan Gosling, kid, so I guess neither of us are happy.

A mother yelled at a co-worker of mine, because she felt that the brand new coat she had received was ugly. My co-worker was so flustered that she forgot her Spanish, ultimately trying to tell this woman she was ungrateful by calling her “graciosa.” (Babelfish that one. I’ll wait.) The woman probably did not get the message, but at least she left sincerely confused. And wearing an ugly coat.

Sometimes you expect these things, but other times you are caught off guard. I called an elderly man, back when I was an intern, to offer him a home health aid for the low, low price of free. This was a city funded service for low-income seniors, and there was an incredibly long waiting list. Putting 85 year olds on an indefinite waiting list…let’s just say a lot of people never got what they were waiting for.

I was excited to tell this man that he had finally been approved, and a worker would be coming over for an intake. Someone to clean your house and wash your ass–free! Do you know what people usually pay for that kind of service?

Instead, I got yelled at for twenty minutes. “Do you even know who this person is? I’m not going to let just anybody work for me. You better interview this woman. What are you trying to do to me?”

Sir, I’m trying to offer you a free service that you requested. FREE! Am I the only cheap person left?

You try to understand where these people are coming from. There are mental health issues, cultural differences, and feelings of shame at accepting help.

We can all be assholes sometimes. People who need help are not exempt from that.

Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar…j/k it’s definitely a penis.

6 08 2010

One thing I love about social work is that it combines so many different professions. We study psychology, sociology, child development social policy, community organizing (Republicans taught me that’s not a real job!) amongst other things. The goal is to work with the whole person.

In theater of the absurd social work school, therefore, one of the things we have to study is Freud. I don’t pretend to be an expert. I realize he had a lot of revolutionary ideas and had a huge impact, and knew more than I do. But I also realize that his views reflected the prejudices of the Victorian age. Plus, he did a ton of blow and was obsessed with the sex.

Some social workers put a bit more stock in classical psychology than I do. Translation: nothing is ever what it seems. Everything is complicated, and people certainly do not say what they mean.

This got me into a bit of a debate with a casework professor. She was explaining that we need to get to the meaning behind what everyone is saying. I don’t disagree with that. But I was told that, when someone comes to me saying they need concrete services because they are about to be evicted, I shouldn’t just refer them to a program. They don’t just want money. There’s something else behind them seeking me out. I need to engage them in conversation about how they feel about the impending eviction.

I think the response might be something along the lines of, “How the fuck do you think I feel about it? Pay my damn rent, crazy!” I’m just guessing here.

I was really unable to hold my tongue when she told us that little kids who we see for counseling might want to take toys from our offices. Makes sense, that’s what kids do.

No. They want to take the toy as a transitional object, to comfort them as they leave the safe environment of the office.

I’m not saying this is never true. Some kids will do this. But I have some badass toys. Might the kid not just be a little jealous of my sweet collection?

Apparently this was not possible.

“What if I’m seeing a kid, and I have the one Power Ranger action figure he’s missing, so he keeps trying to snag it?”
“That action figure has some meaning for him.”
“Yeah…it completes the set.”
“No, beyond that.”

It’s always beyond that.

I recently had a four year old girl in my office, and we broke out the family play figures. She told me, “I don’t know how to play family.”

Brilliant insight from this child! Her home is broken, and she is expressing this through the natural childhood language of play!

Or her mom has the TV running at all times, and the kid hasn’t developed much of an imagination.

Of course we need to read into what our clients are doing. It’s what we do. And people don’t always say exactly what they mean, or express exactly how they are feeling. Sometimes they don’t know. At the same time, I’d like to avoid pathologizing a kid because he has his eye on the slinky on my desk. (Side not: I guard that thing with my life, so don’t even try it.)

During a play therapy session with a little boy recently, he made a scary monster out of play-doh, and gave the monster a name.


If only I knew what he was trying to say.

If being a drunk old man is wrong, (you know the rest)

2 08 2010

The most nerve wracking part of starting social work school is finding out your first field placement. The internship.  Free labor for various social service agencies, in exchange for credit and the privilege of writing process recordings. If you’ve never written a process recording, give it a try–remember that hour long conversation you had today? Write it down. Word for word. When you’re done crying, analyze the discussion. How were you feeling? What conversational technique were you utilizing? Have your supervisor dissect it in front of you. Run screaming. Repeat 2-3 times per week.

When I got my field placement information that first year, I cried.

I was to  provide case management services to homebound senior citizens. Essentially I had to go to elderly people’s homes, take their psychosocial information (which is not nearly as wild and crazy as it sounds) and help them to get the services they need.

Does that sound like a party or what?

I wanted to work with kids. It’s what I went into social work to do. It’s what most people I knew went into social work for. I had only ever worked with kids. I knew how to engage them by folding origami cootie-catchers, I knew what they were talking about when they babbled on about SpongeBob and Webkinz. I had patience and was amused by their bizarre behavior.

I didn’t know seniors. I didn’t have grandparents. There was an old man who lived on the corner growing up who yelled at us for walking too fast by his house after school. That was my image of the elderly.

So I was shocked when I loved them.

Old people are hilarious. Especially the “oldest old,” those over 85. Most of them were well aware, and comfortable with the fact that they didn’t have much time left. They took what time they did have to get their affairs in order, spoil their grandchildren, and say and do whatever the hell they way.

Zero filter with these people. “Maybe if you took that ring out of your face you’d have a husband.” “You know you should wear a skirt, show it off a little, trust me, it won’t last forever.” I knew it came from love.

My personal favorite was an 86 year old gentleman, who I only got to meet once. I visited him at the end of my internship year, with my replacement intern in tow for training. We always had to ask the clients about their eating habits. This man told us that he had a light breakfast and lunch, and then “at 5, it’s happy hour.”

I’m sorry, but could you repeat that?

Oh yes. Every evening at 5, this World War II vet broke out the martinis and shrimp cocktail, and had himself a little party.

I could hardly contain my love.

The reaction from my fellow intern was decidedly different.

“I noticed that he said that he has a drink every day. That could be a health risk.”

You’re right. This man survived the Depression, the fuhrer, fifty-two years of marriage and two hip replacements.  It’s time to lecture him on eliminating one of the only remaining joys in his life. I like to think I talked her into a different direction.

I had numerous Holocaust survivors take me through their agonizing histories. I sat with people as they cried over their parents who had died forty years earlier. I saw more class pictures and dance recital videos than I can possibly remember. And, of course, I got to hear amazing stories that cracked me up beyond belief.

I’m back to working with kids (let’s face it, that’s where the millions are) but I hope to return to working with seniors at some point. It’s a field in a lot of need, and I really recommend it. If nothing else, you get to be served cookies on home visits and be a surrogate grandchild every so often.

And you walk away with some great stories.