Social work instructors assign cultural self-identity papers because self-reflection and self-knowledge is key to a good practice. Here, I share my self-identity paper for Social Work 505 at UBC (the University of British Columbia).
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First, the assignment: “Identity is a moving target. It changes over the course of one’s life and is constituted intersubjectively. That is, we experience ourselves differently in different relationships. Vectors of identity become more salient in some situations and contexts than in others, usually because of structural support or lack thereof. With this complexity in mind, use the frameworks presented in classes 1-4 to describe ways in which you have been ascribed privilege and advantage. Conversely, in what ways have you lacked or been systematically denied privilege and advantage? What has been the effect on your values and worldview of these structural realities? You may use Thompson’s PCS Analysis, Iris Young’s Five Faces of Oppression, or another framework of power and oppression to organize your paper. For example, you might use the PCS model to describe the ways in which you experience personal, cultural, and structural privilege with regard to race but are marginalized with regard to class. Spend the first five pages of the paper describing your experiences of advantage and disadvantage and the last page commenting on the adequacy of the framework you chose. In what ways does it help you make sense of your complicated identity and in what ways is it lacking?”
This assignment is for my Social Analysis for Social Work Practice – I’m in my first year of the MSW program at UBC (the Foundation year). If you’re thinking about getting your Master’s of Social Work, read How to Get Into Grad School – Master’s or PhD Programs.
Cultural Self-Identity Paper for Social Work Graduate Class
In this paper, I will use Iris Young’s Five Faces of Oppression (1990) to describe how my identity has formed and shifted according to the structural advantages and disadvantages I’ve experienced. Young describes exploitation, marginalization, powerlessness, cultural imperialism, and violence. Here, I focus on cultural imperialism to discuss how my advantages affect how I see and treat others, and marginalization and powerlessness to describe my experience with oppression. I will briefly discuss Ann Bishop’s view of oppression, especially as it relates to childhood. Finally, I will comment on the adequacy of Young’s theoretical framework.
My conferred advantages are standard and bland: I’m white, married to a white guy, heterosexual, and attend a Christian church (I always feel I have to defend myself by saying I’m spiritual, not religious! Or Catholic.). I have no visible differences or disabilities, no cultural traditions that set me apart. It’s not my privileges that make me interesting…it’s my differences.
According to Young, cultural imperialism “involves the universalization of a dominant group’s experience and culture, and its establishment as the norm” (page 59). I grew up in several small towns and cities that were dominantly white; I was born in Vancouver but raised in Saskatchewan. Indeed, we “projected our own experiences as representative of humanity” (Young, page 59) because that’s all we knew. But are small-town Saskatchewanites “culturally imperialist” or simply isolated from other populations and cultures? Or is it one and the same? When I went to university in Edmonton, Alberta, I was fascinated by black, Asian, and Indian people – I’d never come face to face with cultures other than Aboriginal. Does that make me an imperialist? I don’t think so. I think it’s the belief that one’s dominant culture is “better” or “right” or “normal” that makes one imperialist…not merely growing up in a dominant culture.
That said, however, my dominant-group, white, heterosexual, Christian advantages have blinded me to the difficulties people of other races, sexual orientations, cultures, abilities, etc. face. My advantages made it easier to pull myself out of a childhood of neglect, poverty, and despair. As a child, I was marginalized and powerless in many ways (welfare, food banks, single schizophrenic mom, foster homes, etc), and yet I managed to earn two undergraduate degrees, teach in Africa for three years, earn a living as a freelance writer and blogger for five years, marry a great guy, and buy a beautiful home overlooking the ocean in North Vancouver.
I overcame many hardships and difficulties, like many people have. This makes it hard for me to shake my attitude of “I did it – I pulled myself up by my bootstraps, I got out of poverty, I learned resilience, I’m healthy and happy, wealthy and relatively powerful. If I can do it, you can too!!” It’s taken me a long time to realize that even when I was marginalized and powerless, I was still advantaged because I’m white, able-bodied, and heterosexual (cultural imperialism).
I understand why people who are obviously disadvantaged or oppressed (eg, single moms, people with severe emotional or physical health problems, new immigrants, and many others who are “legitimately” helpless and powerless) have a hard time moving forward in life. But sometimes I don’t understand why people who grew up in foster homes, lived in poverty as children, or are female can’t get ahead. My advantages have made overcoming my disadvantages easier, and that affects how I perceive the struggles of others.
According to Young, “The powerless have little or no work autonomy, exercise little creativity or judgment in their work, have no technical expertise or authority, express themselves awkwardly…and do not command respect” (page 56-57). In Becoming an Ally, Ann Bishop refers to powerlessness in childhood: “Children’s experience of powerlessness at the hands of adults is so common, world-wide, that it passes for ‘normal,’” (page 63).
My mom was mentally ill for as far back as I can remember. Before I was born, she was having nervous breakdowns. She was educated as a teacher, but only taught sporadically due to her episodes of schizophrenia, shock treatments, and the effects of the medication. I was neglected, on welfare, and often at the food bank. My mother was hospitalized three times; I lived in three different foster homes from age 9 to 13 (she was a single mom; my dad returned to Israel when I was one year old; my mom didn’t want to go with him. I met him for the first time when I was 29 years old, when I went to Jerusalem and looked him up).
Most of my life, I was powerless. Young’s definition of powerlessness doesn’t include children, but it awkwardly fits. As a child I was at the mercy of my mother’s health, her doctors’ decrees, the social worker’s decisions, and my foster parents’ lifestyles. I had no autonomy or freedom – I was withdrawn, shy, unexpressive, and had no control over anything in my life.
And I was marginalized. I was illegitimate (it was a big deal back then), and had a “crazy” mom. I lived in foster homes, and changed schools all the time. I was constantly “the new girl”, and was always leaving, moving, trying to figure out how to fit in to new homes, schools, and groups. Being on welfare set me apart – because even if my peers didn’t know where my school supplies and food and clothes came from, I did. Again, Young’s definition of marginalization isn’t a good fit for my purposes, but she does say, “the provision of welfare itself produces new injustice by depriving those dependent on it of rights and freedoms that others have” (54). Marginalization isn’t just about poverty – it’s about not having access to the resources that others take for granted. As a child, I lacked so many privileges that I’ve always envied in other kids: security, safety, economic stability, choices, and at least one caring, responsible, emotionally available guardian.
The foster homes I lived in were good. The parents were fun and supportive, and my foster siblings weren’t harmful or destructive (to me). But despite the positive associations and happy memories, I’m still embarrassed and stigmatized because I was in foster care. I don’t recall being oppressed by my foster parents or peers…I oppressed myself. I internalized all the bad stuff that happened to me; I made it my fault. I let my situation colour how I saw myself.
As a result, I formed many negative beliefs about myself. For instance, I thought I wasn’t smart or “good” enough to go to university, and I wasn’t lovable enough to be in a healthy marriage. I turned the neglect, powerlessness, and marginalization I experienced as a child inward (internalized oppression). As an adult I realized I was wrong. I am smart enough go to university and I am valuable enough to have a happy marriage.
I always thought others should be able to overcome their disadvantages because I overcame so much…but I had more advantages than I realized. Overcoming my disadvantages was easier because of my privileges, which others may not have. But others have advantages and strengths that they may not even realize – and my goal as a social worker and counselor is to help them uncover and use their strengths to succeed. This is what empowerment is all about, isn’t it?
The Adequacy of Young’s Five Faces of Oppression
Perhaps I should have chosen Bishop’s Becoming an Ally to describe my advantages and disadvantages, because it fits better. I was drawn to Young because I liked how clearly she defined the different types of oppression…but it wasn’t the best framework for this paper.
In the assigned chapter, Young doesn’t discuss how the different types of oppression affect children. Maybe childhood is outside the scope of the chapter – but I think it’s worth a mention. Young’s focus is on adults oppressing adults, which is unfortunate because the roots of oppression are planted somewhere. It’s helpful and productive to be aware of the causes of oppression, because it helps us become “anti-oppressive.” For instance, I didn’t realize I oppress others by expecting them to be like me and fight to rise above their situations. That is one (dangerous) way oppression starts: unconsciously, innocently, naively. It’s insidious.
In Becoming an Ally, Bishop says, “Unhealed childhood pain seems to be a key mechanism for learning how to behave as oppressors and oppressed. Childhood scars leave a deep distrust of the possibility of safety and equality, and many of us as adults react by using and accepting ‘power-over’ by creating hierarchies wherever we go” (page 67). I hate to admit it, but I do this all the time. I grew up thinking and feeling that everyone is “better than” me, so I tried to gain power over them in emotionally manipulative ways. It’s destructive, and not easy to stop.
Being aware of how our childhood experiences affect our adult choices and expectations is crucial to anti-oppressive practice. We oppress each other because we were once oppressed; understanding why and how we oppress others is a step towards equality, social justice, and a healthy social work practice.
Bishop, A. (2002). Becoming an ally: Breaking the cycle of oppression in people. Halifax: Fernwood Publishing.
Young, I.M. (1990) Five faces of oppression, Justice and the Politics of Difference. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press: 39-65.
I welcome your questions or comments about this cultural self-identity paper below! And if you want to go to graduate school but aren’t sure how to pick a college, read 5 Tips for Choosing the Right College or University.