I read this article the other day over at Mother Jones. It’s one person’s tale of working as a picker in a warehouse. She spend five days as a picker and writes an expose on the working conditions in the warehouse. I’ll say this once: I am an advocate for human rights which includes labor issues. But I have several issues with this article and this type of journalism. It’s a form of “poverty tourism” where middle class people tour the working class to gain insight and experiences that they believe will make them more enlightened.
This article is the epitome of the disconnect between middle class intellectuals and those of the other classes. I cannot speak from an upper class perspective, but I can speak from the working class. There is all this knowledge being created in the middle classes that creates the narrative of “good” and “bad.” This group gets to expound upon the horrors created by the upper classes onto those in the working classes while the middle class intellectuals sit by virtually blameless. Yet, they are the ones writing the article, selling books, and giving speeches on the classism they perpetuate and benefit from.
The disconnect between middle class is apparent from the outset. A middle class woman knowingly takes a job she doesn’t need in order to get a profitable experience. With unemployment at 8% or more, it’s shameful to take a weeks worth of wages from a person who needs them, but she and her editors did not even discuss the privilege or ethics of her taking this job.
Furthermore, her ability to obtain a genuine experience of the working conditions is questionable. There is a difference in the effects of manual labor on a person’s body. A person who has been working manual labor for many years may have less trouble adjusting to the working conditions than a writer. This is not to argue that the quotas and speed requirements are not troublesome, but the rawness of her pain may be exaggerated by her lack of current experience in the working class.
But this is all part of the disconnect between the middle class and working class. It is even apparent in the title “I was a warehouse wage slave.” The American middle class values the hierachary created by capitalism. Such phrases reinforce the middle class belief of what kind of work is “valued” and “fulfilling.” Read warehouse work is wage slavery and writing for Mother Jones is not. My mother, who is in her 60s, has been a waitress nearly her entire adult working life. She averages about 60 hours a week. Two year ago was diagnosed and treated for breast cancer During her chemo treatment, she cut down to 35 hours a week. She could have cut back more if she wanted to, but the fact is that she didn’t want to cut back–not because she needed the money–but she because she needed the activity and socialization. She finds value in her work in terms of how good of a waitress she is and the friendships she has made through the restaurant. Articles such as this, discounts the value that working class people may find in their jobs. The writer further dehumanizes working class people when she refers to them as “drones” because people are defined by their work which couldn’t possibly have meaning or value.
Ever since Upton Sinclair wrote the “Jungle” we have seen muckraking journalist trying to bring the plight of the working class to the middle to upper middle classes. My question is this: Is anyone really surprised by the working conditions? Do we as a society really believe that we can get our products cheap and fast without some kind of violation of human rights? We need to move beyond this type of expose and start thinking, talking, and writing about–not just what do we need to give up and what are we willing to give up in order to advance a human rights agenda–but how and why are we benefitting from exposing the oppression of working class people. Instead of focusing on the emotional manipulation of working conditions, we need to challenge people to think critically about capitalism, and its insatiable appetite.
I’ve been pondering my SSWR experience since returning from Tampa last week. I attend only a few sessions as I was also on a mini-vacation with my family. As a lover of research and applied research, I love the SSWR conference. However, I left Tampa last Sunday feeling a little disheartened. I attended a session where a prominent social work researcher lumped cultural healing practices in the same category as reparative and primal scream therapy. He made bold assumptions and offensive remarks about cultural healing practices such as Reiki, Ayurveda, and acupuncture. At one point, I was embarrassed of his lack of cultural awareness and his ignorance. As he preceded to rail against these practices, calling them bogus, encouraging lawsuits against MSWs who practice these techniques, he began to show screenshots of MSW practitioners who practice some of these techniques. As he went through each slide, he mocked these people and the audience roared with laugher. At one point, I thought of walking out, but I needed to see if anyone would bring up the cultural relevance of these practices. No one did!
I wanted to call him out. I wanted to say something, but here’s the thing: He’s a prominent researcher with several important positions. The power he holds kept me silent. I’m angry at myself for allowing the power to matter.
My issue isn’t specifically with his lack of belief in any types of alternative medicine. I am a notorious skeptic of non-Western medicine even as I have a partner who is studying holistic healing practices. I have four main complaints about this presentation and his power. First, he failed to understand the differences between cultural practices (i.e. acupuncture, Shamanism, Reiki, and Ayurveda) versus alternative therapies (i.e. reparative, primal scream, rebirthing, etc.). By lumping them together as the same types of practice, I question his understanding of the various methods. Second, his use of the word “bogus” to describe the alternative practices makes me question his ability to logically argue against them. Rather than presenting evidence against these, he used incendiary words. That’s just academically weak. Third, displaying the website of his MSW colleagues to mock them is an ad hominem attack and/or appeal to ridicule which are logical fallacies. Furthermore, by mocking these social work practitioners, he appears to disregard NASW Code of Ethics 2.1a and 2.1b of treating colleagues with respect and avoiding unwarranted negative criticism of colleagues in front of other professionals. Finally, I take issue with the power he holds. As a person who sits on a number of editorial boards of professional journals and grant reviewer, he hold a lot of power in determining the research that gets funded and published. I have great concern with someone who gets to be a “decider” who cannot logically and professionally argue his opinion but instead chooses to present it as evidence. I wonder how this affects his decision-making in the review process. I left SSWR disheartened by the fact that so much power is held by such a person.
One inherent assumption in many of the definitions about cultural competence, is that we are to teach, learn, understand other cultures so that we know how to work with them. The issue begins with this “we.” Who is the “we?” An issue with cultural competence is the assumption that workers need training to work with the “other” or policies need grooming to make them cultural sensitive to be acceptable to all. This “othering” is problematic for me. This “othering” is similar to the concept of stigmatization. By placing separate efforts/classes/trainings in cultural competency, we are stigmatizing the work with different population groups.
It makes me think about how unwelcoming professions, classes, and work places must be to these “others” if we have special classes and training on how to work with THEM. According to Link and Phelan, “labeled persons are placed in distinct categories to separate ‘us’ from ‘them'” which is what we are doing by creating separateness in teaching cultural competency.
It is well understood that the focus on cultural competence is to bring attention to the historical lack of focus on anything other than white, middle-class, male values in order to serve a wider population in the most effective and pertinent manner. However, when we teach how to work with the other, I wonder if we are teaching that others do not belong. So, my question is how do we incorporate all types of diversity throughout our education in order to prevent “othering?” Not specific classes on cultural competence or diversity, but inherently and explicitly acknowledge in all practice, methods, and research classes the differences and similarities in working with a broad or distinct population. The prevention of “othering” groups may increase the inclusion of more diversity within the professions which will continue to increase the mainstreaming of cultural competencies in general education and training.