The Meandering Social Worker

wandering : wondering : learning

Archive for the tag “indigenous”

Walk Me Home

Book Review:

Catherine Ryan Hyde’s “Walk Me Home” is the story of 16 year old Carly and her sister Jen, 12.  Since their mother’s sudden death Carly is terrified she and her sister will be separated by the child protection services and so begins a long walk from New Mexico to Northern California to find their previous stepfather, the last person Carly trusted.

It has underlying themes relevant to working with children & families that any social worker will recognise from early on in the text and contains some interesting thoughts on the child’s perception of trusting adults.

Otherwise it’s an easy novel to read.  It took me about four or five hours without really trying.  Good for a long journey (which is when I read it).

Published by Transworld Publishers, London – Black Swan edition 2013 ISBN 978-0-55277-801-5

Catherine Ryan Hyde is probably best known as the author of the book behind the award winning film “Pay It Forward”.




What do white people think of …. being white?

I was reminded of this question recently while reading The Emperor of Ocean Park by black author Stephen L Carter.

Carter’s main character, Tal, continuously uses the terms ‘the darker nation’ and ‘the paler nation’.  As a law professor Tal is a member of the black middle class, his recently deceased father a prominent and respected judge.  His upbringing was black middle class.  His wife is a prominent lawyer being considered for a judgeship.  The book suggests that although the university where Tal teaches is multi-cultural, black professors and black students are definitely in the minority.  At various times, particularly when faced with the arrogance of members of ‘the paler nation’, Tal experiences a ‘red mist’ of anger come over him.  As the reader of the story I perceived that the arrogance of ‘the paler nation’ is rarely overt prejudice, but rather something inbuilt, inbred and an unconscious feature of the characters of ‘the paler nation’.

Which is what brought me to the question: What do white people think of being white?  It’s one of the questions I sometimes use when undertaking Form F assessments with applicant foster carers.

There is a counterpart question:  What do black people think of being black?

I’m torn in what phraseology to use.  I like Carter’s terms darker and paler nations as they seem to better reflect the different nationalities and cultures of the world than the words ‘black’ and ‘white’.  I could as easily refer to ‘dominant cultures’ and ‘non-dominant cultures’.  In fact, the questions can be adapted to any particular culture, social class or disability.  So, if you will forgive me, I’m going to stick to just the terms, ‘black’ and ‘white’ for convenience.

But, before you read any further, ask yourself both these questions:  What do black people think of being black? And: What do white people think of being white?  It’s important, even for just a minute or two, and make a note of your answers to compare and follow up.

OK, I’m taking a chance on your answers here because now, for the purpose of illustration, I’m going to be making some generalisations.

Ask any black person the question, “What do black people think of being black?” and the chances are you will get a detailed response.  It may include issues relating to cultural heritage as well as knowledge or experience of racism, present and historical.  Answers will vary according to experiences of growing up, the cultural diversity of the societies they have lived in, experiences of prejudice, the experiences of family and friends, education and work among other things.  But the main thing is – there will be awareness.  Awareness of being black or mixed heritage.  Awareness of the issues facing, to use Carter’s term, ‘the darker nations’.

Ask any black person the question, “What do white people think of being white?” and the chances are you will get a similar response.  The issues may be different but there will be an assumption of awareness, an assumption that the white person knows they are white and possibly considers they are superior.

The response to asking a white person the question, “What does a black person think of being black?” is likely to be less consistent, mainly falling in one of three categories.  A few (hopefully a minority) will display outright prejudice, perhaps not even able to consider that a black person might be able to think let alone think about being black. Some may show an awareness of the difference in experience and opportunities, having a largely academic external understanding of the issues of prejudice and discrimination.  Others (I suspect a rather large proportion) will struggle with the question, unable to ‘put themselves in the others’ shoes’.

Asking a white person the question: “What does a white person think of being white?” will probably get a response that falls into one of two categories.  A few ‘white supremacists’ may well display an opinion of superiority.  These people exists, their views can be heard in the media from time to time.  But the majority of those asked are likely to be confused by the question.  The true answer is, “the majority of white people don’t ever think about what it means to be white, it never ever occurs to them.”  Of course there are exceptions, but I’m talking generalisations here.

I’ve thought about the question and I know the answer: Of course there are times when I think about it what it means to be white, writing this blog for example, in work and training situations, but generally, the unfortunate truth is, I don’t think about it; like most everyone else, it doesn’t occur to me to think about it.  Even as white social workers go, my multi-cultural work experience is probably average to good. I’ve worked extensively with foster carers from the Caribbean and African nations.  I’ve worked with asylum seekers from various different cultures.  I’ve worked with colleagues from different continents.  In a multi-cultural society my general awareness is reasonably good.  But as a white person I still have to admit that I find it difficult to think about what it means to be white.  It simply isn’t there.  It’s not something I grew up with.  That kind of thinking was never part of my education and culture (actually an assumed white supremacy in the form of British colonial history more a part of my childhood education).

Sometimes prejudice is very real, but even when it isn’t this thoughtlessness, ignorance and lack of awareness comes across as arrogance, elitism and supremacy.  It is the root of institutionalised racism such as rocked the British police in the late 20th Century, but which is still alive everywhere today.  It’s usually not intended to be malicious.  It’s lack of awareness.  But too often in our training and our discussions about anti-discriminatory and anti-oppressive practice we focus on how to learn about the ‘other side’, to understand and respect different cultures, to behave differently, to promote overcoming oppression.  But how often do we look at ourselves and be honest about what we think and feel, or don’t think or feel, and why?

How do your answers compare to the generalisations made here?  Do you agree or do you think it’s way off the mark?  Comments welcome (although due to limited internet access any responses may take a little while).

Mongolia: extreme cold forces families from traditional living to urban slums – IFRC

Outside of the city of Ulaanbaatar the Mongolian nomadic peoples live a lifestyle that has all but died out elsewhere in the world.  Their childlike curiosity and interest in visitors does not inspire jealousy or envy.  Their lives are hard, unimaginably hard, and you can see this etched on their faces.  Yet their lives have a simple quality: work to provide for their livestock and their families with little concern for what is not necessary.  Community spirit is alive in individual family groups of between two and five gers (their tented homes) working in conjunction with their neighbours to make the best use of the sparse grazing land.  Consumerism is not a good idea when you pack up all your personal belongings, furniture and heavy felt tent to “move house” every two or three months.  Just enough vehicles for you and your neighbours in your area to share makes more sense than having more than you need or can afford.  There is little in the way of “keeping up with the Joneses” here.  The few luxuries in recent years are solar or wind generated power to run a few lights and the satellite TV.  This is a form of living easily seen as “poverty”, but being forced to abandon your way of life to live in the slums of Ulaanbaatar, a sprawling city that contains easily a third of the entire population of the whole country, leads to a far greater poverty: poverty not only of low income, but now a social poverty borne of a loss of livelihood, independence, self-sufficiency, pride, family and community connections, and a whole way of life.

Mongolia: extreme cold forces families from traditional living to urban slums – IFRC.

Common Sense: Either or Neither and Can it be Taught?

[previously published online on Suite.101]

I’ve heard it.  I’ve read it.  I’ve said it.  But is it?  Is it common sense?  How common is it?  And is it sense?  Judging by the number of times it is said in a tone of exasperation, hardly ever either.

The topic has long exercised the minds of philosophers, such as Aristotle, Locke, Moore, et al.

Thomas Paine produced his pamphlet “Common Sense” anonymously as, in the 1700’s, his views in calling for American Independence were still considered treasonous and not yet common.[1]

The American Heritage Dictionary defines it as “sound judgement not based on specialised knowledge; native good judgement”[2]. And therein lies at least one problem.  Native.  Common sense is cultural.  With all the vagaries of the historical, social, experiential and religious context in which sense is meant to be common, it is not universally common.

Wikipedia[3] suggests the ‘strict construction’ of the term to be: “common sense … consists of what people in the world would agree on: that which they ‘sense’ as their common natural understanding”.

Maya Lin, in ‘The Right Words at the Right Time’[4], describes her parents as her mentors.  Whether we are conscious of it or not, for most people, our primary carers are all our mentors.  Sometimes their influences are more helpful than others, sometimes there may be conflicting influences, such as between carers and school, and in more modern times, from the media, but inevitably it is from them we first learn our culture – and our common sense.  Yet even they are not necessarily a source of the best of either common or sense.

Members of the generation now mostly grandparents will recall education was about the acquisition of knowledge, the proof of knowledge being the passing of examinations.  A generation who grew up without the Internet, when computers were still in their infancy, the electric typewriter was still a bit of a novelty, and the humble calculator was a huge chunk of something that sat on a desk.  A generation who was still getting to grips with the concept of colour television and for whom the CD, let alone the iPod, had not yet been invented.  A generation who had laughed at their own great-grandparents’ generation for passing a law (in England at least) that a man had to walk in front of a motor car carrying a red warning flag, in case the car travelled too fast and either the occupants or witnesses died of shock as a result.  Struggling himself with the technological age, my father often told the story of his grandfather who, the first time he heard it, refused to believe there was not a small man hiding in the box they called a radio.

Which must lead to the conclusion that the common sense today’s generations are learning from their parents’ generations is already flawed.  And the common sense we are indirectly passing on to the next generation will also, inevitably, be flawed.

Whilst history itself cannot change, the interpretation of history frequently does as political views change and humanity develops new knowledge, experiences and ideas.  However other areas of knowledge, particularly in areas such as IT and science, are out of date even before the text books are written.

As the American Heritage Dictionary also states that common sense is not based on specialised knowledge, and if that knowledge is out of date before it can be taught, surely it is common sense then that these things should no longer be taught in schools?  Or do I hear an outcry?  Does not common sense dictate that if children are not taught what is already known they will not have the basics on which to build new knowledge in the future?  Maybe children should be left to find out for themselves, not taught, but left in a place where they can find their own path to learning and inspiration, such as through Minimally Invasive Learning[5][6].  It seems that the answer to these questions depends on the common sense of the surrounding culture.   In many mainly developing cultures children are more likely to be left to their own devices and learn much by experimentation.  Yet, where children have already learned, through the common sense of their own culture, to expect to be ‘taught’, the freedom to learn independently may itself have to be taught first, while their learning may require some courageous non intervention by their parents.

Among nomadic Mongolian families it is common to see children as young as ten or twelve out on the steppes in charge of a flock of several hundred sheep.  If anything goes wrong, the family could starve.  What parent would entrust their whole family’s livelihood to a child?  Yet, those children have been learning the sense, or knowledge, that is common to their nomadic lifestyle since birth.  They already know how to competently ride a horse, often bareback.  They know where the best grazing is to be found.  They know that each animal native to their lands grazes the ground cover in different ways.  One nibbles the tips of the shoots, while others prefer to munch closer to the ground.  Whether sheep, cattle, camels or horses, their families have known for generations how to rotate the meagre growth this largely desert landscape produces, to ensure each animal gets the best from nature.  Often families work together, one group looking after the herds of several families.  They each move their ger home every two months, taking their particular charges with them.  Another family moves into their space with their, different, animals, and so it goes on.  It’s common sense – to them.

The nomadic lifestyle does not preclude children from formal education, and adult literacy rates are considered to be around 90%.  National culture and pride are a common thread through Mongolian education.[7]

In Westernised education, experiences are not common.  Parental poverty or wealth, jobs, educational levels, class, disabilities, will all affect a child’s world view.  Children from immigrant families may face a conflict between the common sense of their parents’ culture and the education they receive in the classroom.  Teachers and schools are different, some better than others.  Some children may need additional help to learn basic life skills, perhaps because of a social or learning disability, such as autism.  The lucky ones will have the social and intellectual skills to work out what is both common and sense for themselves.

The development of international social networking is even now affecting the influences in children’s lives and what they learn to be common sense.  It is inevitable that the common sense of the dominant cultures will prevail, although for some children there will be a conflict with the common sense of their families and cultures.  It may even be that with world globalisation common sense will become more ‘common’.

Perhaps more than anything this idea helps both illustrate and question the less simplistic definition of common sense given by Diana Coben when she quotes from Gramsci[8]: “common sense comprises the ‘diffuse , unco-ordinated features of a general form of thought common to a particular period and a particular popular environment’”, and “‘a chaotic aggregate of disparate conceptions, and one can find there anything one likes’”.


[4] The Right Words at the Right Time, Marlo Thomas and Friends, Atria Books, New York, 2002, p.198

[7] Based on Mongolian newspaper reports at the start of the school year in September 2010

[8] Common Sense or Good Sense? Ethnomathematics and the Prospects for a Gramscian Politics of Adults’ Mathematics Education, Diana Coben, Goldsmiths College, University of London,

Identity: getting stuck or making way for the new?

The Life Story Book provides a snapshot of history in time for children living in residential care, foster care, or adopted.  It can be referred back to in the absence of birth relatives to always be telling their story and is seen as a crucial element in the development of identity for children separated from their birth families.

But, unlike the life story book, our identity is not static.  Our sense of identity is more important and more fragile than we realise, evolving as our lives evolve.  Sometimes we are in control and make life changes that affect our identity, other times events are beyond our control.  And, for whatever reason, some changes are more difficult to assimilate than others.  Life changes that affect our identity can also affect our mood, and even our mental health.  How often do we, as social workers, really consider our own identities once we have passed through our initial training?

In a recent blog, Who are the non-indigenous? I wrote about the impact of identity on many people in North America, who grew up being taught to be proud of their ancestors, the pioneers who braved the wilderness of the vast lands of what is now the United States barely a handful of generations ago.  Sadly, in their pursuit of new lives in new lands, old lives and old cultures were being ended, being forced to make way for the new.  As time has passed the survivors of the old ways have managed to make their voices heard, and the atrocities their ancestors suffered are now recognised and accepted.  But it has left the non-indigenous descendents having to reassess some of the foundations of their identities.

As a child growing up in the 1960’s and 70’s it was great to be proud to be British.  The Commonwealth was still strong and we had been victorious in two World Wars.  In our history lessons we learned we had been pioneers of industry, pushing through the industrial revolution, inventing and developing the foundations of many of the technologies we use today.  But like the North American pioneers perceptions have changed and we can now see that along the way industrialisation may well have caused massive harm to our planet, as we raped the land of resources, changing the scenery forever in some places.

As a child born to parents from both England and Wales I had always been proud of my Celtic heritage and my identity as British.  But as British politics changed with the development of parliaments in both Scotland and Wales, I found myself turning to the identity of my country of birth.  I now call myself English first, British second and European third.

At first it felt like a loss.  When I tried to explain how I felt I found little understanding of my loss and instead I was made to feel foolish.  Aren’t we all meant to be Europeans now?  The truth is, against the experience of others it really is a minor point.  But I like to think it helps me empathise at least a little with others who struggle with their national identity, when their homeland is torn apart by war, poverty, starvation and natural disasters.  There is something precious about being able to have a sense of belonging.  In England there have been many discussions and arguments over the years about immigration, yet few voices have been heard calling out for the recognition that those who seek asylum do it out of desperation.  Their homeland is still the root of their identity.  That is why, when it is safe to do so, many willingly return.  But that doesn’t generally make the news reports.

Other events make for changes in our identity: reaching adulthood, marriage, birth of children, education and careers.  It’s easy to think of these as happier events, but as social workers know that may not always be the case for everyone.  Some people’s lives are mapped out by circumstances, in ways that leave them little choice or control over these events: such as the effects of politics, war and natural disasters; or events closer to home in religion, poverty, arranged marriages, health or just the impact of growing older.

The healthy mind grieves for losses, making the adjustment in identity the loss brings while rejoicing in gains where they occur.  Dwelling on unwelcome changes with anger and resentment instead lead to depression and emotional problems.  Of course, that’s a simplistic description.  Life is never that simple, especially when multiple changes occur together.  Or, where elements of identity conflict with society’s expectations: such as the young parent whose identity involves being part of a drug dependency culture.

I am challenged to consider how aspects of my identity compare with those I work with.  Professional status and income, sexuality and marital status, family relationships, children or not, hobbies and interests, life experiences, addictions or not – how do they compare?  Social work training usually deals with these thoughts and ideas but how often do we really look at ourselves and the changes we make, as the years go by?  Time to get out the timeline again?

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