Share

With over a decade as a social worker in the mental health field, I usually serve folx that I may have some power over. I remember feeling uncomfortable by this dynamic even when still in graduate school …

Let me ask you a question: Has everyone had a career that has often meant ensuring ethical treatment for folx with less privilege, regardless of their personal feelings? 

I know the answer is no, not everyone has — but white leaders are particularly bad at it. 

With over a decade as a social worker in the mental health field, I usually serve folx that I may have some power over. I remember feeling uncomfortable by this dynamic even when still in graduate school, as I had no interest in policing how folx survived what I had come to better understand as highly oppressive systems. This is why I knew that ethical practice as a social worker demanded that I constantly reflect on these power dynamics — dynamics of privilege and oppression that may creep into my work if I wasn’t always trying to be cognizant of this.

Having held a variety of social work roles, I know that power can manifest differently. When I worked in the Women’s and Children’s Care Centre at a hospital from November 2010 to June 2011, one of my tasks was to follow up on birth alerts from the Children’s Aid Society. While framed as “supporting expecting parents,” my duties required that I monitor notices from organizations that claimed to protect children but have managed to tear apart Indigenous families more successfully than during the height of the genocidal residential school systems. Had I been in that role longer, I may have come to interrogate how Indigenous families were disproportionately targeted, in addition to other inconsistencies with my white colleagues. 

While I strive to act ethically in all my interactions as a social worker, I would be lying if I said that it has always been comfortable for me. When I provided individual therapy services to a poor white man who was unable to work, it was extremely disconcerting to hear him talk in detail in our clinical sessions about how he often dreamt of slaughtering Muslims like a butcher, especially after he shared that he knew what “they looked like” as that only convinced me that he actually did not. I doubt he knew that someone could look like him and follow the faith of Islam, just as well as they could look like me, or Oprah Winfrey, for that matter. Nonetheless, I was responsible for providing paperwork that would qualify him for government funding while he was too unwell to work due to the exacerbated mental health challenges he was navigating.

The bulk of my experiences during my social work career with white folx in leadership roles have been in stark contrast to the ethical practice that I pride myself on …

Despite my personal feelings about white supremacy, xenophobia, Islamophobia, etc, when my job was to provide mental health support to patients regardless of their beliefs, I often had to put my emotions aside — especially when I was often in a position to provide supporting documentation to the caseworkers and employers of patients who may not respect my humanity. 

Ethical social work practice has required that I unpack my personal feelings. 

Professional experiences like these are why I know that it is entirely possible to work through one’s feelings of discomfort when holding more privilege than another individual, even when they are saying xenophobic things that we really disagree with if invested in ethical practice. I am a brown woman, who is fat, queer, disabled, Hindu, and an immigrant, too. In the field of social work, it is predominantly white folx in positions of power, so much harm can be done if power dynamics are not constantly unpacked. Thankfully, you might be heartened to know that I have had the pleasure of working with multiple white arts administrators who do the same, even when I discuss white supremacy, despite how uncomfortable that may make them.

Unfortunately, it seems that these people are the exception. The bulk of my experiences during my social work career with white folx in leadership roles have been in stark contrast to the ethical practice that I pride myself on, which is why I am once again without a job following white supremacist workplace harassment, just like I first found myself, a few years ago in 2017. 

It did not start then though, but from my very first job as a social worker, I was threatened during probation by a white social work manager, who postponed her vacation time to schedule a meeting with me to discuss how she had heard that I was not happy in my role and notify me of her concerns that those feelings could potentially impact my performance on the job.

Back then, I was the only BIPOC social worker hired in a part-time capacity, despite having a Master of Social Work degree while my two white colleagues only had Bachelor’s-level training. I stayed in that job longer than I wanted to though because I lacked the financial safety nets of many of my fellow recent graduate peers who could rely on their parents. I also told myself that I needed to make the most of that opportunity (that is why I moved to a city that was an 8-hour long drive north — it was an attempt to develop the social work career that I had dreamed of.) 

In that meeting, my manager had unethically wielded her power against me, an employee who was still on probation. All I did was say that my role as the discharge planner had turned out to be different from what I had expected. All I did was answer when asked how I was enjoying my new job by colleagues. 

I remember sitting in my manager’s office, feeling violated — yet knowing that I was thousands in debt, in a year-long lease — so not someone in a position to openly share the view that I had done nothing wrong. 

Instead of engaging in ethical practices, however, most of the white folx throughout my social work career have responded to me by unethically yielding their power to threaten my job.

This was why I did my best to salvage that job — by placating her feelings — and that was even before learning that her family member was a representative for the union (shady, if you ask me). Of course, this is how power operates, so I assured her that although it may have taken some time, I had come to thoroughly enjoy my job (as I counted down the days till my probation ended and desperately applied for any position that I could find in the area in an attempt to manage my financial responsibilities). 

That white woman acting unethically based on such a subtle statement happened so early in my career — and the discrimination that I have since been subjected to should have not been a surprise, given how much more I started to openly discuss experiences of white supremacist ableist targeting. 

It often looks very similar, as I am regularly summoned to meetings by white folx with more power, who threaten my existence due to their own failures in putting their personal feelings about me aside. It is why I had a slew of outstanding grievances against Canada’s largest university before finally resigning in an attempt to salvage my health, as I suffered exacerbated migraines and sleep challenges in the aftermath of white supremacist workplace harassment. 

The work they have failed to do is the ethical practice that I have been committed to for over a decade, even when it feels uncomfortable — a practice I know is both necessary and possible. This practice means listening to individuals and believing them even when they tell me things that will make aspects of my job harder to confront. Sometimes, this practice even means acknowledging that I do not know the answer to a question or apologizing for an oversight on my part. This is the reality of the hard work that ethical practice actually entails. 

Instead of engaging in ethical practices, however, most of the white folx throughout my social work career have responded to me by unethically yielding their power to threaten my job. Often, that looks like summoning me to meetings, which are framed as offers to support me but are actually their attempts to silence, gaslight, and derail me. (When I work with individuals that I often have some authority over, I know better than to ever force them to attend meetings with me, especially if they have voiced concerns about doing so.) 

Until the most privileged folx understand this and invest in moving beyond performative allyship, the most oppressed of us will still suffer.

In fact, in my last role as an accessibility advisor, which I had for over three years, I usually tried to say to students early on that even if they miss all of their appointments with me and never respond to any of my calls or emails, it is still my responsibility to support them, should they ever reach out in future. I did this because I all too often have had others wield power against me unethically, and I never want to oppress someone else even when my job allows me to do so. 

When terms like ‘anti-oppressive’ and ‘trauma-informed’ are unethically used to describe their approaches, folx in leadership roles should be required to have greater accountability. If these leaders are unwilling to listen to those over whom they yield power when we share the ways in which they have failed us, their practice will only continue to oppress and cause trauma. 

Having held jobs in which I can do harm as well as where I have experienced white supremacist ableist violence, I know that it is both necessary and possible to do ethical work. 

Until the most privileged folx understand this and invest in moving beyond performative allyship, the most oppressed of us will still suffer. 

Krystal Kavita Jagoo, MSW, RSW

Krystal Kavita Jagoo, MSW, RSW

Krystal Kavita Jagoo (she/her) is a social worker, artist, and educator who prioritizes equity in all of her work. Her visual art was featured in Pandemic: A Feminist Response, and the zine, CRIP COLLAB. She has taught “Justice and the Poor: Issues of Race, Class, and Gender” at Nipissing University, facilitates Sustainable Resistance for BIPOC Folx writing workshops for Scarborough Arts and has facilitated Writing for Social Change workshops for the Saskatchewan Writers’ Guild. In addition to her reported writing, her personal essays have been published in Huffington Post, Healthline, Disabled Writers Blog, Best Health Magazine, La Libreta, Just Preachy, BlogHer, Verywell Mind, etc. Her memoir essays have been published in Radical: An Unapologetic Anthology by Women & Gender Nonconforming Storytellers of Color in 2020, and the Bronx Memoir Project: Volume V in 2021. She completed the Crossing Gibraltar program with Cahoots Theatre in 2021 and looks forward to performing “A Slow Death in Academia” in the SpringWorks’ Digital ShortWorks Showcase and participating in the Gathering Knowledge, Sharing Voices: Touring in the New Normal program with Ontario Presents. She was awarded Ontario Arts Council and Toronto Arts Council grants to work on her essay collection, entitled, “They Colonized Even My Tongue.” She can be found on LinkedIn and Facebook, so do not hesitate to contact her to discuss paid work disrupting the problematic status quo as she is freelancing fulltime to avoid a third traumatic experience of white folx in power apprehending her whole income the next time her equity work alienates them. 

Share