Carol A. Hand
“Critical theory holds that … capitalist social organization is the overarching social problem from which most other social problems derive.” (Luske, 1998, 0. 118)
Living in the liminal space between cultures often provides a confounding but fascinating vantage point. It’s difficult to explain this to others who have had the comfortable privilege of growing up surrounded by only one perspective. Advocacy and teaching are challenging in such a context. How can one provide opportunities to raise awareness about alternative perspectives and meanings? Three rather divergent examples from my time in academia came to mind as I thought about this question.
Photo: Lac Du Flambeau Ojibwe reservation – 1923 –
My mother at 2 dressed by the wealthy Euro-American woman who wanted to adopt her
Photo: Lac du Flambeau Ojibwe reservation – 1928 –
My mother at 7 (her birth mother refused to allow her to be adopted)
Research that uncovers the powerful, seductive appeal of social status.
One of the resources I found helpful is an article that details the findings of a critical ethnographic study conducted by simulating social inequality in a college classroom: Are we all dumb cattle to be branded and corralled? – Social inequality and praxis in the college classroom (Luske, 1998). In a core social work course on the sociology of inequality, the instructor conducted what he describes as a critical ethnography. At the beginning of the semester, students were randomly selected to be in one of three groups – upper, middle, or lower class – “to simulate the accident of birth.” “Color-coded badges are issued to lower and middle classes, and each of the three classes is assigned different class-specific workloads, privileges, or liabilities” (p. 120). Students are required to keep a journal of their feelings during the project to analyze the effectiveness of the course in relation to the “readings and their own lives” (p. 121).
The instructor carefully explains the purpose on the first day of class, hoping that students would come together to challenge his authority and the system of inequality despite these socially constructed divisions imposed by his authority.
“… my main goal is to stir in each student a deep, even painful experiential knowledge of ‘unfairness’ as indicative of the systemic social inequality which essentially characterizes American society – or, if the student inherits upper-class status, to feel the direct sting of resentment or opposition.”
Are you curious to know what he discovered in this study of social work students whose ethical code specifically emphasizes the profession’s obligation to challenge social injustice?
The classroom revolution finally emerged in the tenth week of a sixteen-week semester when a group of four students, comprised of representatives from each social class, handed him a document: Declaration of Equality – “Are we all dumb cattle to be branded and corralled?” The revolution originated with one young women assigned to the lower class in the simulation who, through critical reflection about her own middle class experiences, recognized the source of oppression and wanted to do something about it. She was joined by another young woman from the upper class who questioned the oppressive classroom structure. They were joined by two young men, one lower class and one middle class who also were eager to address the sources of oppression and engage in liberatory praxis.
“There is no question that students in this particular … class develop exemplary critical insight (radical reflexivity). I want again to emphasize that I believe this happy phenomenon to be attributable mainly to the emergence of student leaders who embody an ideal concatenation of sociological imagination, self-reflexivity, strategic acumen, patience, and compassion. For just one important example, the leaders recognize their own first impulse is to punish the former upper class, but interrogate and interrupt this desire to establish instead radically egalitarian classroom policies that include the former upper class.” (Luske, p. 147)
This is a very superficial overview of a fascinating article. I hope you have an opportunity to read Luske’s full article. “Are we all dumb cattle to be branded and corralled?” – Social inequality and praxis in the college classroom. Perspectives on Social Problems, 10, 117-151. You can link to his bio and a list of his other works here.
Inequality simulation and raising consciousness about what “society” values.
If I ask you to review the following list of personal attributes and identify which ones society most values, how would you answer? How would you rank order them from the most valued attributes to the least valued?
And for this list?
Now, imagine you are part of a team, competing with other teams to answer a series of similar questions with the goal of earning the highest numeric score in order to win the game. The rules seem pretty straightforward. The names of the team are written across the black or white board up front. Each team is advised to choose a recorder and discuss each of the lists they are given, and rank order the items on the answer sheet from the most valued to the least valued. They enter the team’s top choice on the answer sheet and record the score when score sheets are handed out. When all the teams are finished, someone from each team calls out the team’s points and the instructor/facilitator writes the scores on the board.
Photo: Tug of War
This is when things begin to get interesting. Some teams ask “What’s going on? Everyone took this seriously and we all worked hard. Why are the scores for teams so different? How could our team get minus points?”
The second challenge, to choose the roles society most values, is even more discouraging for some of the teams when scores are tallied. Often you can literally feel the anger and frustration building. You can overhear comments. “Why should we bother! We can never win at this point!”
But they still remain engaged in the final round, to choose the professions society most values. And by now, the final scores are clearly skewed in ways that are impossible to believe for some teams. There is no way the winning teams could have earned that many points. “What’s going on?!!!”
Privilege gives some the ability to enjoy special advantages without ever giving it a conscious thought. The strange thing is that others have accepted the normalcy or appropriateness of these advantages as Luske’s study clearly documented. The preceding exercise is based on a simulation that was developed to highlight the taken-for-granted nature of gender inequality. It actually works to highlight the experiences of others who are also devalued in a society dominated by white Christian heterosexual “temporarily able-bodied” economically-comfortable males. Assertiveness is valued and appropriate for this group, but is it as valued when a Native Woman or Black man are assertive? What happens when White men are perceived as self-effacing or demure?
Debriefing the exercise was always fascinating. The score sheets were different – one version reflected points that society would award to white men, and the other version the points that women or other devalued groups would earn. Of course the points are arbitrary and depend on historical context.
This exercise has proven to be effective with undergraduate and graduate students, as well as with human services professionals. During debriefing, the “other” groups would talk about their anger, frustration, and resignation. (Only one “other” group out of hundreds gave fictive scores to record on the board – a creative solution in a clearly unfair context from my perspective.) The “White Male” teams were angry to find out that they had an unfair advantage. “We worked hard for our scores. We feel we deserve to win.” And really, what does “winning” mean in this context? No financial rewards or extra credit grade points were riding on the final outcome.
Role playing and raising consciousness about assumptions.
How often do we automatically assume that others, when the details about background are unspecified, are white, middle class, heterosexual, and without disabilities? It’s not something I really noticed until I taught interviewing skills to undergraduate social work students. I realized that students assumed that the clients they would serve as social workers would be just like them. This certainly hadn’t been my experience. So I decided to let them develop the details of their clients, but here is where the assignment becomes a little complex. I had learned through experience that it is quite challenging to design role plays that protect students from the risk of inappropriate levels of personal self-disclosure to their peers. The conundrum becomes how to construct role plays that are ethical, safe, and as realistic as possible – role plays that they will take seriously and may actually help prepare students to be able to work with clients and topics that would be challenging for them.
In order to increase the usefulness of the class for their future work, I decided to use case scenarios that a previous instructor had developed. The scenarios were vague, but listed the issues each client was dealing with and maybe a relevant detail like age or gender. I decided on some crucial pedagogical design features:
First, clients would be randomly assigned to students. (They picked the client number out of a hat.)
Second, each student would be randomly assigned to a three-member team (or in some cases, a four-member team depending on the actual size of a class with enrollment capped at 25).
Third, each student on the team would play all of the three key roles: social worker, client, and equipment operator/interview observer.
Fourth, students were all required to do a series of three interviews with their client over the course of the semester that followed the basic structure of an intervention. Forming trust and rapport (“engagement” in social work jargon), gathering information about problems, issues, strengths, and resources (“assessment”), and developing an intervention strategy (“action plan”) in partnership with their client.
Fifth, all interviews would be tape recorded and posted online so team members could have access to each other’s videos.
And finally, students would be responsible for analyzing their own performance as interviewers by applying what they learned through readings, homework, and class lectures.
It took me time to realize that the predominantly White students assumed that all of their clients were white, Christian, and heterosexual, unless other characteristics were explicitly noted on the case scenarios. There was one exception. In the case of clients with criminal justice issues, they were often seen as Black or Latino. This meant developing greater clarity and accountability for the client role players and “quizzing” students after the teams developed more details about their clients.
“Can you tell me more about your client’s background – ancestry, socio-economic status, religion, sexual orientation, etc.? Do you think you would need to change your approach if your client were Black, Latino, Native American, Muslim, Jewish, gay, etc.?”
Despite the relative homogeneity of the class composition, students rose to the challenge of portraying people who were from backgrounds different than their own in ways that were respectful, authentic, empathetic, and challenging for the interviewers so they could develop appropriate knowledge and skills. Perhaps the most important outcome was the self-awareness students gained about who they were and about their own skills and areas they identified as something they wanted to address in the future.
Luske’s study, the “Becoming a Person simulation, and teaching interviewing all helped me realize how easy it is for all of us to assume that the people we encounter will be just like us, that structural inequality is normal, and that there’s little we can do to change anything, even if we’re suffering ourselves.
The students in the interviewing class taught me how important it is be willing to take time for self-reflection – time to uncover our strengths and test our limits. This is a necessary foundation for being willing to risk leaving our comfort zone to engage with others who are different. It’s the only way we can really learn about other people and different ways of seeing the world. They also demonstrated how important it is to be willing to uncover our own biases and acknowledge things we take for granted.
Luske’s students and the feminists who originally developed the Becoming a Person simulation modeled the importance of thinking critically about the mechanisms and sources of oppression for all people. Much of what oppresses us is structural, but some of it is our internalized acceptance of the taken-for-granted paradigms that keep oppressive structures in place. And like Luske’s students, we need to be willing to build bridges with comrades in other positionalities to work together for our collective liberation.