by Sandy Bernabei, LCSW
Deep Denial: The Persistence of White Supremacy in United States History and Life, by David Billings, Roselle, New Jersey, Crandall, Dostie & Douglass Books, Inc. (www.cddbooks.com), 2016, ISBN: 978-1-934390-04-7, 294 pages, $23.95.
Note: David Billings' new book, Deep Denial, documents through history and personal accounts "the 400-year racialization of the United States and how people of European descent came to be called 'white.'”
As a social worker who is deeply committed to ending racism, I found Deep Denial a thought-provoking, disturbing, and highly useful read.
David Billings is a core trainer with the People's Institute for Survival and Beyond. He's worked with the Antiracist Alliance of Social Workers for more than a decade to build an Undoing Racism movement within social services in the New York City metro area. He is now my close mentor and friend. I asked Billings why, in his opinion, Deep Denial is relevant to those of us in the social work profession:
Bernabei: Let’s begin with some definitions. It’s hard to have a conversation about racism without defining it first.
Billings: Absolutely correct. Let me lay out a few key definitions here. First, racism. As we define it at the People’s Institute where I work, racism is much more than a negative feeling about someone with different skin color. That emotion is called prejudice. Racism is race prejudice plus power. In the United States, racism is structural. It is rooted in our country's history. Since early colonial days, white people have had the power to establish laws, structures, cultural mores based on our biased attitudes and beliefs about people of color. That means that even today, although legal discrimination is outlawed, white people continue to have dominant structural power. Despite what we may believe as individuals, our institutions are built with prejudice in favor of white people and against people of color.
The second key definition is antiracism. To be antiracist is to believe that all people can reach their full potential as humans only when our society transforms its institutions so they are no longer biased in favor of white people. Undoing racism, then, requires us to act! It means understanding how this country's history impacts us both consciously and unconsciously, and then working to end structural racism in all our institutions.
Bernabei: Why should social workers read your book?
Billings: Because their clients - especially if they work in nonprofit or public institutions – are increasingly people of color. So an understanding of race and class is essential if we are going to fully understand the racial disparities that show up in our organizations. Yet, very few schools of social work make an understanding of racism – and the race-constructed nature of our society - a core part of their curriculum.
Bernabei: How relevant is your book to the actual practice of social work?
Billings: Deep Denial talks about how the professional classes are often in denial about structural racism. Most professionals would say we are against racism. But we don't bring an antiracist perspective to our work. We rarely speak up about racial biases we encounter. For those of us who are white, we rarely utter a word about racism - and our silence inadvertently helps to keep structural racism in place!
Bernabei: You have spent all of your adult life working to end racism. How has your journey helped you to resolve the deeply embedded biases in both your family of birth and the white, working class southern culture you were raised it?
Billings: I would not say I have resolved those contradictions. I recognize that I still live with many biases, as do all of us in this country, both North and South. To become more effective as an antiracist in my actions and thought, I work together with other antiracist white people and I discipline myself to account for my actions to people of color who are working to undo racism, such as those in The People's Institute.
Bernabei: What role does the work of undoing racism play in mental health settings?
Billings: The effectiveness of mental health workers – when dealing with people of color - depends on their understanding of racism. Racism is itself a mental health problem. Social workers don’t often understand that.
Bernabei: There was a time when social workers collaborated with communities to seek social change. That changed after the civil rights era. Can you tell me more about that?
Billings: In the beginning, social workers worked closely with many constituencies in the community, especially those who struggled with poverty and discrimination. In the post Civil Rights era, the mental health field became more professionalized. Social workers began to focus on individual case management, on social service programs, rather than organizing with their constituents to challenge structural inequities. While we might argue that these programs are essential, they usually mean that mental health practitioners rarely address important cultural and historical factors relevant to communities of color.
Bernabei: Do you think today's clinical social workers have a role to play in undoing racism?
Billings: Yes, I think clinical social workers have a very real role to play. But first, a number of things have to change. White social workers need to understand what we at the People's Institute call “ internalized racial superiority.” They need to explore how this syndrome manifests itself in their lives and practice. They also cannot do this work alone! They need to come together with other antiracist social workers to speak out collectively against racism.
Bernabei: I am interested to know how long it took you to write this book. Why do you think it is being released now rather than a few years ago?
Billings: It so happens that the completion of my book corresponded with a sharp increase in the nation’s consciousness and conversations about race, however unwittingly. The racism that pervaded much of the election campaign talk has exploded the myth of a colorblind, "post-racial" society. We can no longer be in Deep Denial!
Sandra Bernabei, LCSW, is the recent past President of the National Association of Social Workers New York City Chapter. Sandy is also a founding member of the Antiracist Alliance, an antiracist organization of social workers.