Smith College: School for Social Work
Specific Concept and Brief Explanation I am choosing the concept of class, specifically classism, for this assignment, but will generously spill over into race, or racism, and gender, or sexism, as well. Laura Smith (2005), in “Psychotherapy, Classism, and the Poor - Conspicuous by their Absence,” describes classism as a system of oppression that constitutes prejudice and power. “Oppression can be understood as prejudice plus power,” a system that “involves domination and control of social ideology, institutions, and resources, resulting in a condition of privilege for one group relative to the disenfranchisement of another” (p. 5). Smith continues by explaining that the upper classes have the “institutional and cultural power” to impose their prejudices through oppression. This structural dynamic of the upper classes oppressing the lower classes is classism. Essentially race refers to skin color. From a genetic point of view, race does not exist, but culturally, communally, and socially, race is real; source of rich sociocultural differences as well as heart-wrenching injustices and cruel inequalities. Smith's definition of classism, as including prejudice plus power, can also be used to define racism. From a structural point of view, then, racism is the sin of white folk. Cheryl Harris, in “Whiteness as Property,” refers to whiteness as “not only race, but race plus privilege” (p. 10). Racism is the institutional – particularly economic and political – oppressive power that the white race exerts upon people of color. Gender typically refers to the masculinity/femininity continuum, though is often lumped together with sex. Sexism, akin to classism and racism, entails the structural advantage that men have over women, and the various ways in which women are oppressed by men. Sherry Ortner (1995), in “Is Female to Male as Nature is to Culture?” posits that the rationale behind the idea that men are superior to women lies in the idea that women are closer to nature and men are closer to culture, and because humanity dominates nature through culture – such as technology – culture is superior to nature, and thus men are superior to women. This cultural construct, according to Ortner, serves as a rationale for sexism. I use sexism and patriarchy interchangeably.
The Significance of these Concepts for Social Work Practice Social work strives to aid and empower those in need, particularly people from minority groups that are marginalized and oppressed. This work can be clinical, as in direct psychotherapy, and it can take the form of more mezzo and macro-oriented work, work that involves communities, agencies, institutions, as well as social policy. In both clinical and community work, classism, along with racism and sexism, deserve ample attention. Aiding the poor, the oppressed, and the disadvantaged through psychotherapy that aims to heal inner wounds and empower the individual, as well as through community work that aims at correcting discriminatory legislation and social policy, social justice work that aims at creating a level, more equal playing field, is an integral part of being a social worker. Social work can also entail working with privileged individuals, healing the wounds that come from being oppressors, creating allies out of privileged people. Social workers, then, must have keen understandings of the realities of classism, racism, and sexism. Our work as social workers involves intervening on behalf of the poor, on behalf of people of color, and on behalf of women, making an understanding of the systems that oppress these populations crucial. Even in our work with privileged individuals (who, as Friere in “The Pedagogy of the Oppressed” so aptly describes, fail to embody their full humanity due to being oppressors) we as social workers need to understand classism, racism, and sexism