In March, the Boston College School of Social Work (BCSSW) hosted a series of five workshops for students, faculty, and staff to facilitate conversations on race. Intended to lay the foundation for ongoing conversations about equity, justice, and inclusion, the sessions fostered candid discussions and skills training to advance these values, a key strategic aim for the school.
More than 150 members of the BCSSW community participated in the workshops, led by acclaimed clinician, author, and trainer Kenneth V. Hardy, PhD, professor at Drexel University’s College of Nursing and Health Professions and director of the Eikenberg Institute for Relationships in New York City. The workshops, titled “Tips and Tactics for Talking about Race: A Toolkit for Social Workers in the New Millennium,” were designed to consider diversity—acknowledging and finding ways to appreciate differences—and social justice—recognizing that some voices are louder than others, that some people have greater access to power than others, and determining how to alter that, both in the classroom and in practice.
Hardy opened each session with four observations about race that served as launch points for discussion. The first is that race is a powerful organizing principle in our society. “There is no behavior that we participate in that is not, in some way, shaped by race,” he says. Second, there is an ambivalent relationship regarding race in the U.S. “It is deeply significant, yet we deny that significance,” he explains. “We also have difficulty discussing it, which exacerbates the awkwardness around such discussions.” Third, he discussed racial socialization—how we define ourselves and how we navigate race. “People of color have reported an explicit awareness of their race as early as age three, while white people report that awareness as occurring implicitly, and as late as in their 20s and early 30s,” he says.
“When we think of racial issues as outside of ourselves, it’s much harder to have meaningful, progressive conversations. It’s a deeper presence when we consider how it acts out in our lives; when we engage in self-reflection and self-interrogation.”
Finally, Hardy explored the difference between racial awareness (our knowledge and cognitive processes about race) and racial sensitivity (an affective intuition borne out of experience). “Awareness can be achieved by reading a book or watching a video,” says Hardy. “But you don’t have to dig and search within your insides. Your narratives aren’t put to the test. It’s possible to be highly racially aware and highly racially insensitive. And the goal is always to move us towards racial sensitivity.” This often can’t occur unless one is willing to challenge their own racial assumptions by interacting with and being challenged by others over deeply held beliefs.
At each of the five daylong workshops, Hardy guided participants through conversations and exercises to do just that: deeply engage in the very difficult, painful, and at times uncomfortable process of exposing the roots and perceptions of racism. “That’s what this work really involves,” he says.
He explained that an inherent drive toward action, the “doing,” which is often amplified in the social work field, can miss crucial steps. According to Hardy, time spent on “seeing” and “being” must come first. “Seeing is about how we begin to engage in processes that sharpen our visual acuity to see all the subtle ways in which race is seamlessly integrated into everything we do,” says Hardy. “Being is a process of self-interrogation. It’s hard to have conversations about race that are meaningful and progressive and sustainable if we have not spent time thinking about who we are racially and where our biases come from.”
Throughout each six-hour session, participants disclosed their racial identities and experiences, and discussed ways in which they have experienced and participated in bias. One white woman shared that white privilege had opened doors for her to educational and career opportunities. A black woman shared her experiences of being racially profiled at work; a white man spoke of his boyhood friendship with his black schoolmate, which was kept secret from their disapproving families; a Latino spoke of his exhaustion from studying in predominantly white spaces and feeling pressure to represent his culture at all times.
Hardy encouraged participants to share their feelings—not just their thoughts—while speaking and listening; to be open to the vulnerability that arises from discussing these deeply complex topics of race, power, and oppression. “Non-engagement is what we do all the time,” he says. “Let’s allow the needle to rest for a while on race, and take the risk of talking about it. When we think of racial issues as outside of ourselves, it’s much harder to have meaningful, progressive conversations. It’s a deeper presence when we consider how it acts out in our lives; when we engage in self-reflection and self-interrogation.”
Additional topics probed in Hardy’s sessions included the notions of a preferential hierarchy of skin color; the definition and promulgation of white supremacy; how unearned privilege paves the way for earned privilege; how academia is addressing racist incidents on campus; and how race influences the field and practice of social work.
Hardy thanked participants for their hard work as he wrapped up one session. “These are important, hard, painful conversations,” he says. “Many times, when we have conversations about race in our society they are relatively superficial, highly guarded, and we approach them with enormous trepidation.” Stepping out of one’s comfort zone, explains Hardy, is the first step in promoting a deeper and more progressive conversation.
Postscript: Hardy returned to BCSSW in May to follow-up with those who attended the initial workshops. A small group of faculty and staff are working on how to sustain trainings for new students, faculty, and staff, including the lessons learned from the Hardy sessions, to continue to advance BCSSW’s strategic direction on equity, justice, and inclusion, which endeavors to build a caring, respectful, and inclusive community that prospers and flourishes because of diversity.