I was about twenty-four years old before I began to think about privilege, and now I think about it almost everyday. Somewhere between reading Cornell West’s Race Matters and Tim Wise’s White Like Me and a few other coming of age events, I realized that this word, privilege, was very important in my process of gaining insight into how I’ve become the person I am. And now that I’ve had a couple years to continue reflecting on it, I see how being able to ignore the existence of privilege until age 24… is evidence of privilege itself. You see, when you have privilege — whether it is due to your race, gender identity, class, religion, sexual orientation, ability, or education, and whether you have a lot or a little — you don’t have to think about it. You can pay attention to your own experience, and not give a second thought as to whether the people you share space with — the people who sit next to you on the bus, the people who clean your office building, the people ahead of you in the checkout line — are having a vastly different and disparate experience.
We talk about these things a lot in school. But I don’t actually want to write about that kind of privilege right now… Maybe some other time. As we near the end of our first semester, I find myself reflecting on how we, budding bright-eyed MSWs, have once again found ourselves on the receiving end of a different kind of privilege.
Taking a moment for contemplation… there is something profound about being invited into the intimate reality of another person’s life. Most of us do not invite just anyone into our homes or our hearts. We do not freely share our struggles or our insecurities, nor do we reveal our deepest hopes or gifts. Most of us reserve these things for a select few who have proven themselves trustworthy, who have committed to reciprocate the same honesty and authenticity. This is mostly how I live my own life. This is my framework. And so dipping my toes into the social work experience, beginning to experience the dynamics of the helping relationship through my internship experience, I am struck by the privilege and the responsibility bestowed upon us.
The values and principles of social work still blow me away. Little did we know, when we accepted our offers to pursue this MSW degree, we also agreed to abide by a code of ethics, and thus to recognize the inherent “dignity and worth” of every person, to hold an “unconditional positive regard” for every individual we serve in our careers. We committed to be their advocates and allies. We committed to be on their side, to listen to their story and believe their recounting of their own experience.
We commit to uphold these values, we make this promise to ourselves and the people we will work with. And in return, we ask them for their trust. We ask them to let us into the intimate spaces of their lives. We ask to be partners in their healing, their overcoming. We ask them to invite us into their homes and lay all their cards on the table, assuring them that we will do all we can to help and support them.
And this same code of ethics says that this relationship between social workers and the people we serve will be inherently unequal in disclosure. We ask them to divulge their needs and fears and triumphs, while withholding the gritty details of our own lives. Because it is not about us. Everything we do is to be in service of their well being. And so we try desperately to allow our “selfs” to get out of the way. And yet, my “self” is the very tool I will use to do this work of helping. We are not saviors, nor healers… we are witnesses to the story as it is being written, as we assist our neighbors to make their voices heard in their own stories.
What an honor it is to be a part of someone’s journey. What a privilege to bear witness to another person’s pursuit of the best for themselves, their families and communities.