Racism is a socially constructed category of segregation that has been used in combination with capitalism and colonization to destroy communities of racialized people and their connection to land. Social work attempts to free people affected by social oppression from the systemic barriers they face, a task that has not proven successful due to systemic barriers consistently existing. A future of social work that is no longer complicit in oppression must centre connection and justice in its framework. Anti-racism and teachings from the land can guide the way in creating a visionary future that honours difference, recognizing that for ecosystems to exist biodiversity must be upheld, ultimately leading to the possibility of collective liberation for all life. In this paper I write from the location of a mixed Indigenous settler with white privilege. I begin by analyzing the work of radical and racialized people to display how anti-racism holds the potential of creating freedom beyond a societal structure that is built on racism in every aspect of its functioning. In social work theory this process towards freedom can be called emancipatory practice. As social workers and human beings living in the middle of a climate crisis, we cannot separate this striving for freedom from the liberation of the land. Racism has harmed the land in the same ways it has harmed the people, communities and our sense of connectivity. Therefore, as we search for guidance in determining a new future of living and a decolonizing social work practice we can find answers in teachings from the land. I will discuss the importance of following Indigenous teachings and leadership in piecing together an emancipatory future. Following the exploration of the relationship between anti-racism, community building and the land I will begin to imagine potential pathways for the restructuring of social work practice.
ANTI-RACISM AS COLLECTIVE LIBERATION
Collective liberation can only be possible when the differences that oppression thrives on are no longer understood as less valuable than any other difference. The co-creation of a changed society and the undoing of oppressive structures can be informed by the work of anti-racist leaders and supporters. Anti-racism is a resistance not only to racism, but slavery, colonization and the future of the massive inequality that racism guarantees due to race being the organizing principle of all societal structures (Wallis & Fleras, 2009). Anti-racism must be centred in movements away from oppression and towards social justice, as racism still exists within society and within the internal structures of our beings. Anti-racism refuses to ignore the fact that society prioritizes the interests of whites and that inequality is a result of race, thus showing that race-neutral ideologies are unable to create equality since they do not challenge the basis of structural inequality (Wallis & Fleras, 2009). Freedom can only be reached if all identities are included in the politics of freedom. Therefore, for present and future realities of non-oppressive, liberatory community there must be simultaneous actions of challenging racist ideology and building up structures that see difference as crucial components of thriving. hooks critiques and expands on Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream of a beloved community. She states that his vision was flawed in that it focused on forgetting racial difference as a path towards a beloved community where racism could be transcended (hooks, 1991). Instead she believes that this beloved community can be created through ties of care that connect us in our differences through the political actions of the transformative power of love (hooks, 1991). This is not a call for people, especially oppressed people, to drop their struggles and begin loving those who dominate them. Rather, it is a call for people, especially those with privilege, to begin working to develop reasons for people to care, love and trust them. It is about building a movement of solidarity based on relationship that sees difference as beautiful and necessary. Anti-racism deconstructs the separation tactics of oppression, promises political action and resistance against domination and holds the foundation of co-creating a liberated future for all life.
LOOKING FOR GUIDANCE—THE LAND
Racism and the struggles of the land cannot be separated. This separation is the work of systems of oppression that violently uphold the power of disconnection. Colonization is an example of an oppression that combines racism and domination of the land through establishing “political, social, spiritual, intellectual and economic” control over the land and the people woven with the land (Yellowbird, 1999, p. 282). The destruction of biodiversity is the same process as the workings of racism. According to Vandana Shiva, the more biodiversity present in an ecosystem, the more protected and resilient that ecosystem is (2015). We need differences for an ecosystem to be strong. In teachings from the land we can look to the harmony of nature seeing that each being has a role to hold in sustaining the overall functioning of the whole.
Oppression works to break the whole through separation and through the demonizing of differences. It needs to destroy the value of differences in order to weaken and dominate an ecosystem. It then becomes clear that disconnecting people who are Indigenous or were once Indigenous to a land base causes the severance of strength within interconnected communities, a strength that works to rebuild itself and is rebuilt by those who were dominated. Laboucan-Massimo, a member of the Lubicon Cree First Nation, outlines the outrage and grief of witnessing her land and her home turned into a resource extraction epicentre (2017). Colonization, that is racism, land theft and land destruction is an ongoing occurrence of overlapping violences. Turning to the histories of some settlers on Turtle Island can also expose the wounds from loss of land and therefore loss of tradition connected to land. Capitalism is said to be birthed from the 16th century witch burnings in Europe, where communal access to land was severed under privatization and communal villages were turned against each other in the demonization of witches— an underclass of racialized beings—leading to colonization and cultural genocide (Federici, 2014). Here the cycle of colonization replays itself where the dominated become the ones who dominate through racism and destruction of biodiversity.
If we, as a human species, choose to oppose oppression we must also begin to understand ourselves as part of a biodiverse ecosystem of species. The prophecies of Indigenous cultures, who are still connected to the land despite the ongoing efforts of colonization, tell of a time where all Four Directions, all four colours of people will come together to work for “justice, peace, freedom and recognition of Great Spirit and the sacredness of our Mother Earth” (Laboucan-Massimo, 2017). This is similar to hook’s and Martin Luther King Jr.’s depiction of a beloved community, where anti-racism becomes the foundational work for developing the potential for all four nations to resist together with the health of the land at the centre.
IMPLICATIONS FOR SOCIAL WORK PRACTICE
Social justice can no longer be separated from land justice in the midst of the current climate crisis. Anti-racism is a promise of action and resistance that can combine struggles for social justice with the resistance of land destruction. Social workers focus on structural oppression, the barriers people face due to inequality and supporting people through said barriers toward a sense of liberation, safety and healing. The current structure of social work opposes itself in that it does not allow for the liberation of oppressed people, but rather sustains the systems of oppression that hold people in spaces of domination. An implementation of co-operative power that recognizes imbalances of power while committing to working in collaborative relationship between social workers, service users, agencies and families is a core foundation of emancipatory practice in social work theory (Tew, 2006). Anti-racism must be employed for the naming of power imbalances and for the decision between collaborators to initiate the building of community ties based on solidarity and co-resistance. Anti-racism provides guidance to social work in the present while also visioning a future that has yet to come.
Environmental racism describes how people of colour and Indigenous people are disproportionately affected by the destruction of land due to the prominence of racism and its role in colonization (Muldoon, 2006). Anti-racism cannot ignore the interconnection between the social struggles of racialized people and the environmental catastrophes that continue to occur, causing suffering in racialized communities. In a liberatory future of social work I believe that co-operative power needs to be informed by the land and structures of biodiverse ecosystems. Respectful reconnection between communities of humans and between humans and the land directly opposes the separation tactics of racist oppression. One must earn their place in community through co-resistance, through trust building and through compassionate and radical love. As a practicing social worker I can start to restructure my role, seeing that I am part of a community where every living being has a purpose. I must align my work with environmental justice, with Indigenous resistance and with the work of anti-racism within and beyond the structures of social work. It is in the space of beyond that liberatory community is created, which can then inform the changes that must be fought for within social work structures. We are in a time of climate crisis that affects all varying identities and social locations, which holds the potential to be a binding force in connecting us in active resistance across differences.
The vision of an anti-racist future that upholds the importance, protection and resilience of difference as part of a healthy ecosystem is a hopeful vision of the future that many people are working to implement. The harm systemic racism has caused the bodies of people and the body of the land can only be remedied by returning what was taken—connection. This is a form of freedom. I uphold that the work we do as radical community resisting the reign of oppression and racism can inform the work we do inside societal structures such as, social work. A vision of beloved community or the coming together of all four nations does not ignore the differences of identity, but rather recognizes their importance as part of the greater whole. Berila states one reality for this nuance in visionary community where she says it is useful for groups to come together based on identity to focus on work that must be done and to relate to each other (2016). As the same species of plants grow close to each other, and also spread out across an a land base, we too can take time to simultaneously connect through our similarities and our differences. This paper is the beginning of a possible re-imagining of not only social work practice, but a way of being in the world that fights for liberation of the land, for the building of community and for the end of the violence of racism, all informed by teachings of biodiversity.
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