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Segregation in the South 1938

How We Talk (or Don’t) About Being White

By Jennifer Petersen

We have all, by now, been inundated with the news of Rachel Dolezal—a white woman who, for years, chose to live as black while pursuing a career in racial justice work. Undoubtedly, this story has undermined important real-time racial justice movements; but every story has its place and this one is no exception. I offer that social workers (and anyone who identifies as a white anti-racist) pull Dolezal from her undeserved media spotlight and into our public and private conversations about whiteness and how we carry that identity as social justice professionals.

I recently applied for a full-time position with a racial justice organization for which I ultimately was not hired. Feeling frustrated and defeated by this news, I wondered whether I would have had a better chance at getting the job (and others to which I’ve applied) if I were not white. Days later, a story surfaced about a white woman (Dolezal) who had transformed herself into an African-American, one of her motives being to reflect the profile of the people with whom she sought to work, advocate, socialize and parent. I felt an uncomfortable twinge of connectedness with her story and wondered if Dolezal’s dramatic transformation was somehow related to my own feelings as a white woman seeking and doing work in primarily non-white spaces.

White social workers often find themselves in professional settings where whiteness does not wield its usual privileges—applying for positions that would be best filled by a person of color, working in settings where white skin creates barriers and breeds mistrust from clients and co-workers, or frequenting neighborhoods where one’s skin color elicits uncomfortable stares, comments and presumptions that you are lost. These feelings are real and complex and isolating. On some level, I can understand why Dolezal wanted to be black (actually going through with it is another story). For years, I wanted to hide, to blend in, to somehow look and feel less…white. I wondered if I should even be doing this work, if my presence was causing more harm than good. And, if I’m really honest, I felt victimized and undeserving of such treatment. I am a social worker, after all. Isn’t it clear that I am here to help and be an ally? Isn’t that enough?

I gleaned two important lessons from (reluctantly) connecting Rachel Dolezal’s very public denial of her racial identity with my own inner struggle around white privilege. Firstly, as white social workers (and white people, for that matter) we must be brutally honest about the feelings that come up for us around race and recognize them as crucial to our own identity development. Let’s laugh at and speak to the ways we have tried to deny our whiteness. How we have postured to distance ourselves from the “embarrassing” kind of white that shows up in our family members or suburban neighborhoods or those conservative pundits on TV. How we have adopted hoop earrings and slang words and dance moves to prove that we are “down.” Let’s confess to those feelings of victimhood that arise when our intentions are questioned or we are denied our usual access to places and people.

Secondly, we must lean in and figure out how to be a different kind of white—the work Tim Wise describes as “messy as hell, and filled with wrong turns and mistakes and betrayals and apologies and a healthy dose of pain.” I don’t know the race of the person hired for the job I was denied but I’m certain that he or she has done more of this work than I. The reality was that I didn’t have the academic background in race theory or ethnic studies or the specific organizing experience required for the job. My feeling slighted came from a privilege-based assumption that simply desiring to do racial justice work (or having a social work degree) should warrant a white person the opportunity to do so. Leaning in to our whiteness requires we endure hurt feelings as we realize how many “normal” parts of our existence are in fact privileges based on race. It requires we put in effort—more than feels adequate–to earn the trust of people of color. It requires we educate ourselves on race and power through history books and academic articles and trainings and conversations.

As ironic as it sounds, by becoming black, Dolezal took the easy way out. She got to bypass living with the discomfort of being a member of the oppressor group in a system she wished to dismantle. But that is what white folks have to do—be completely who we are in a completely different way than we are used to. I say that with full awareness of the lack of resources for doing so and my hope is that this will shift as more white people engage in “the difficult work of finding a different way to live in this skin” (Tim Wise). And who better to spearhead this movement than those who are specialists in group work and community intervention and movement building all within the context of power, privilege and oppression? (I’m talking to you, social workers 🙂

References & Resources:

Mimicry is Not Solidarity: Of Allies, Rachel Dolezal and the Creation of Antiracist White Identity

White Fragility: Why It’s so Hard to Talk to White People About Racism

I Became a Black Woman in Spokane, But I Was a Black Girl First, Rachel Dolezal

The Truth About Rachel Dolezal That You Won’t See on T.V.

Implicit Bias in Social Work: #MacroSW Chat Summary

Implicit Attitude Test (IAT)


Photo Credit: By John Vachon for U.S. Farm Security Administration (Library of Congress[1]) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons


Posted by Jennifer Petersen

Jennifer Petersen is a Social Worker based in New York City. Most recently she worked in an employment program for formerly- incarcerated individuals and spent the summer consulting young entrepreneurs in Rwanda. Jennifer is currently kicking off her career in political social work working for Montana’s House of Representatives, a job she found through this blog.


  1. Jennifer, as always I am impressed with your comments. I was reminded of a party I attended, in 1970, in Compton, California. Everyone at the party was employed by the Compton Unified School District. Only my three Peace Corps colleagues and I were white. we were also newly hired by the school district to work with the large Samoan community in Compton. One of the female teachers at the party told us that since we were white, and she hadn’t gotten to know us, that she couldn’t trust us. She also implied that since we were white that we were automatically prejudiced against blacks and that since she was black that she couldn’t be prejudiced. In many ways we as a nation have come a long way from the way things were in the 50’s 60’s and 70’s. While that is true there is still much to be done. The incidents of the past year or so, most recently culminating with the events in Charleston, SC and the brouhaha over the battle flag of the Army of Northern Virginia, the Stars and Bars, shows us just how much still needs to be done.

    • Hi Phil! Thanks (as always) for your introspective comments. I’m sure your Peace Corps placement bred a lot of interesting stories and experiences. Curious to know what dynamics came up around race and whiteness and what kinds of resources you think would have been helpful.

  2. I have to say, as a white person but not a social worker, I come into these same questions within myself. The more close black friends I gain, the more I am aware of my white privledge in a variety of unimportant and important ways in comparison to what they and their families experience. For them racism and privledge have always been obvious differences, for me it’s something I’ve (gratefully) become aware of and have seriously questioned why it is and now see it throughout my own extended families. I can’t not see it anymore.

    I hope you continue on your journey and do great things as a social worker; effecting more positive change for those you rally for and the injustices you will fight against for them and yourself.

    • Michele, thanks for your honest reflections. One thing that struck me about your comment was the phrase “The more close black friends I gain..” One of my friends (a white woman) recently reunited with her friend from middle school who is black. Her friend distinctly recalled that a slumber party at my friend’s house was the first (and one of the few times) she had ever been invited into a white person’s home. Forming true friendships with people of color is such a crucial element in ending racism.

  3. I loved this article and found it very eye opening and honest about where we are and where we need to be as white people seeking to be trusted by people who are not white. It’s so crazy how our white privilege sneaks up in so many areas we aren’t ready for. But I hope to lean into it too and am grateful for how you pointed out how you did it in your own life!

    • Hi Kristen! Thanks for your comment. I feel very new in this whole “leaning in” (not the Sheryl Sandberg kind) process too. It took me this long to even articulate the feelings I’ve had all these years. Let’s keep the conversation going and stumble through this stuff together.

  4. I have a different perspective to share on this subject. I recently travelled to Malaysia and Thailand and never before in my life was I so keenly aware of my whiteness. Granted; when travelling outside one’s culture it should be expected to feel an outsider – yet I was met with the most incredible kindness from so many people who must yearn to trade shows with me. Never before had I felt as though I was supposed to be richer than I was, more attractive than I am, and smarter than I actually am simply because I am a pale-skinned American.

    The fact is here in Montana we lack much of the diversity that defines the modern metropolitan city, and many of us are shocked when actually put in a position to acknowledge who we really are. It was not that I held myself as an American exceptionalist whilst travelling abroad, yet that’s what the stark reality held for me. It was, frankly, uncomfortable. I like fitting in with those around me and I feel as though I fully understand what a lone black family in a white neighborhood might feel like much better for my recent experience.

    As important as it might be to read and fully understand our historical heritage it does no utility to wallow in it. Our ancestors built this great nation and invented the modern wonders through which we are able to communicate so conveniently upon the shoulders of the less well off masses which certainly placed blacks low on the personhood scale for far too many generations. Yet history does not last only a single generation, we can not instantly become colorblind and reassure ourselves that all has been righted in the world. It does no good to lay disdain upon black ghetto culture, which has emerged as distinct from traditional white culture as the hoodie generation which took over the tech industry.

    I believe actions such as the removal of the Confederate flag from the SC Statehouse was a step in the right direction. Yet to think that symbolic cleansing offers a comprehensive solution is foolish. Until we learn to develop a culture where understanding is celebrated, where we can be white and it does not matter that we are white in a multicultural group across socio-economic levels, I think that is a good goal. Perhaps I am looking at this with my own distorted lens, I am certainly not trained in social work. I hope I haven’t strayed too far off topic and someone finds interest in my own personal rant 🙂

    • Well stated/ it is very difficult for American to change if they are only willing to change negative symbol of racism. It is important for us all to develop a level of empathy when we can not understand what it feels like for a white social worker to be in a black community that has been label dangerous. All that person can think about is how can I end this visit and get out of this neighborhood. I’ m black and I have had those thoughts. Im also a social worker but I realize that my mission is to help those that are less fortunate than I am. If I’m face with harm I need to have done some of the preventive step first. Told someone where I am and call when the job is complete. Car any protective devices that your agency will permit. It is important to make you visit earlier in the day. To ask a co-worker to go with you or your supervisor to attend this visit because it could be hostile or late return.

      Social worker should be taught self-defense as course for undergraduate and it should be part of the curriculum for the program as a mandatory class.

    • Bridger–so much great stuff here and really poignant reflections. I love the way in which our feelings (the awkwardness of being put on an undeserved pedestal, for example) can point us to deeper systemic dynamics and I think this is probably the best starting point for white folks…just simply noticing our feelings in the types of situations you mentioned. Having always lived in pretty diverse big cities (aside from my few months in Montana) I often wonder what the best approach to this topic is in less-diverse regions of our country. Perhaps you would have some more insight there.

  5. Thank you for writing out these thoughts Jennifer! As I work on my MSW, these are kinds of questions I am wrestling with, and I feel really encouraged and challenged by this approach.

  6. Being a white social worker in the South, I’ve been called a “cracker” by African American folks who don’t know me, but “family” by African American folks who do know me. In 1988, during my first internship in the Atlanta Public Housing (projects), I realized that my clients told me their birth certificate names while their neighbors only new them by their nicknames. This was my first clue that they were editing content for the white chick. However, as people got to know me, they learned to trust me and shared not only their nicknames, but also their emotional vulnerabilities. I don’t think that anyone needs to pretend to be a different race, they just need to show consistent care and concern. Perhaps start out volunteering and work your way up.

    • Such great (and humorous) examples. Consistent care and concern is huge in this process of mending trust. Thanks so much for your comment.

    • I agree white chick, that has been my experience as well. However, I am going to take it a atep further and say i am not going to apologize for being white. It is just a skin color. However, my challenges lately has been being informed from my African american clientel that I am racist, because I am not providing them with the equipment they need upon SNF discharges; when the person doesn’t qualify for the equipment based on functional ability, therapy recommindations, and medicare/medicaid guidelines. These guideliens are the same for all my residents. That does not make me racist, it makes me stuck with medicare/medicaid rules. As a social worker, i don’t owe anyone anything, but my perception is that is where things are headed. Lately, i have been contimplating leaving the field; i meet everyone’s needs based on individual needs, not based on culture; lately, being white is an issue and is a huge barrier to providing care.

  7. THIS is the conversation we need to have! Cudos for the original post and comments;

  8. Thank you for this astute article, Jennifer! I was excited to read it and realize how my thoughts and yours are so in sync. My second novel, At the Center that is coming out September 15th, features a white social worker and her struggle to come to terms with her white racial identity in relation to Native Americans. I hope you will read it ad let me know what you think and maybe how we might work together in some way. My website is http://www.dorothyvansoest.com

  9. Meredith Swinford, LMSW August 19, 2015 at 9:55 pm

    Thank you so much for this post!! So much of it rings true for me. Several weeks before reading your blog post, I posted the following on my Facebook page. Thought you might enjoy the similarities. Keep up the good work!

    Privilege and Prejudice- My thoughts on being white in America

    This concept has been on my heart and mind since Trayvon Martin’s shooting, but has grown heavier and brought more uneasiness as the racially- charged events continued to occur over the last few years. I found myself thinking occasionally that I should apologize for being white, being unable to fully understand the people I was trying to support and help. The uneasiness came when I realized that I wasn’t really sorry I was white- because I’m not- I just didn’t want to be seen as someone who didn’t care about equality because I was a white middle-class Southerner. I didn’t want people to judge my character based on the color of my skin. Huh. Beautiful irony. I’m very grateful I’m white. And at the same time, I’m angry and resentful that African-Americans (not to mention other groups) are so often treated as if they are inherently less than I. I happened to be born as a white, middle-class, heterosexual, Christian child of two college-educated, white, heterosexual parents, both of whom are still alive and married to each other. All of that made me privileged. I am still privileged. I cannot change any of those identifiers, nor would I ever want to. I cannot change the fact that people that look like me and, most likely people that are related to me, were slave owners. Some of my ancestors helped settle Maryland, one was the first Governor, I believe. I’m proud of that- I think it’s kind of cool. That’s part of my heritage. I can be proud of the achievements, while denouncing the fact that they probably owned human beings. It makes me sick to think about. So what I finally concluded for myself is that being privileged does not mean that I should be sorry I’m privileged. Who would be sorry they were born privileged? And I don’t have to apologize for who I am in order to support others.

    As a social worker, as with any other trained counselor, I was taught and have experienced the power of validating another’s feelings. I realized that’s what much of this race relations bit boils down to- validating another’s feelings. When you validate that another has a reason for feeling the way they do, you begin to think and behave differently toward them. I did not own slaves. I’m sure I have family members that were slave owners and I’m sure I have friends whose family members were enslaved. I can never change that. The actions of my ancestors and representatives of my race do not represent me. The only thing I can control is what I do with my actions today and how well I love those around me. And as I’ve said before- the beauty of apologizing is that sometimes you’re not saying “I’m sorry I caused you pain,” you’re simply saying “I’m sorry there was pain.” So I say this to all of you: I am very grateful to have been born with the privileges I have. I cannot apologize for that. However, I acknowledge that that privilege is real. And many, many, many others were not born with some or any of that privilege. I acknowledge that many lives around me are different solely because of the color of their skin or their religion or their age or their disability. I am sorry that certain groups in this country are still subjected to the remnants of a system that we (white folk) told ourselves was abolished centuries ago. I hate that. And I would be really angry if I had to deal with many of the things some Americans deal with daily. I am so tired of hearing white folks say “Slavery is over…Jim Crow is over…Just get over it.” You are not apologizing for sins you didn’t commit! You are validating the feelings of oppressed people- because those are real. You are acknowledging your own privilege- because it is real. Physical slavery of African-Americans is over in our country, yes, but all is not equal. I think the healing comes when white Americans stop denying the oppression that was, is, and continues every day, individually and systematically. There is inequality everywhere, and though I will never pretend to understand what that feels like, I know it’s there and it affects more than we ever give it credit for. I will stand with those fighting for equality and justice, and will continue to examine by own thoughts and behaviors to catch subtle prejudices because it’s the right thing to do, it’s what God commands me to do, and because “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

  10. I found this article to be refreshing because in the field of social work, a lot of times the clients are minorities. I have found that in my last few positions that the client and workers were minorities and the white workers and clients were far and in between. I think that it is important for everyone’s experiences to be heard and understood even if it is not a popular experience. White’s do experience privilege but there are certain areas where they do not receive that same privilege. Surprisingly, minorities tend to have privilege when working with clients. Learning a different kind of white is important as well. There are times when although a white person may not have the power to change anything, a white person does have the power to speak up just as any other race. White’s having privilege is a tool that can be used to change the dialogue and to change the way certain people think about the world. It is important to find ways to be a different kind of white and to use your power in a positive way. There are opportunities for people of all colors to use their power in a different kind of way and to be a part of the change process.


  1. Checking Privilege: Resources for Cultural Competency in Social Work – Identity and Difference in American Literature Resource Collections

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