A Critical Stance to Understanding Race, Power, and Inequality

Fook and Gardner (2007) define critical reflection as “a process (and theory) for unearthing individually held social assumptions in order to make changes in the social world. It involves a deeper look at the premises on which thinking, actions and emotions are based. It is critical when connections are made between these assumptions and the social world as a basis for changed actions” (p. 14). This belief is broader than that of being self-aware or being open to others; it includes a social justice agenda. Just as importantly, a critical stance facilitates the ability to refute assumptions and to explore explanations that counter the dominant ideology of who benefits and who suffers. In this way, a critical stance informs our technique by helping us pose central questions to assess the conditions that produce inequality and oppression and to identify the barriers that exist for some to access resources. For instance, developing a critical lens provides a means to examine the complex interconnections among race, power, and inequality to maneuver clearer paths to structural change (Crenshaw, 2011; Delgado, 1995a; Dominelli, 2008). Our willingness to pursue increased understanding of our role and our professional power is an indispensable ingredient (Dominelli, 2004, 2008; Fook & Gardner, 2007; Ortiz & Jani, 2010; Reisch, 2011).

A critical stance seeks to uncover different conceptions of social justice and the seemingly invisible effects of structural racism that are ever present in our interactions and surrounding social systems; greater understanding of how social injustice manifests as unearned advantage and disadvantage; and how our own assumptions, personal and professional, are implicated. In this way insights about justice and the barriers preventing it are revealed. This notion embraces consideration of our, and our profession's, part in creating practices that divide us from those we serve—that is, barriers that enable inequality to persist and are created by our own efforts to serve (Foucault, 1994). It requires that we ask “What needs doing, who should do it and why? What allies/alliances are necessary? How will these alliances be formed and what targets need to be set? What blockages will be encountered? How can such barriers be overcome? Who will evaluate [and who will benefit from] the success (or its lack) of an action and how?” (Dominelli, 2008, p. 224).

For example, Ortiz and Jani (2010) propose that critical race theory aids our assessments and analysis by focusing our attention not only on an individual's or family's use of services, but also by considering the underlying assumptions embedded within the services proposed and whether the services address the needs of the community for whom they were designed. Taking this perspective enhances our understanding of the individual's or family's reaction to the services or interventions and shapes our understanding of the professional responses required on multiple levels of intervention to alleviate inherent injustice.

A critical lens, therefore, offers a way of looking at the situations presented for resolution through a structural analysis ofpower relationships and being prepared to reflect on our role in the equation for the purposes ofchange. These are different but similar processes and involve being able to ask discerning questions of ourselves and of the context we are in. Both accept the hidden influences ofpower and seek to uncover fundamental beliefs as a means of undoing the pernicious effects of oppression and racism. The growing understanding ofthese processes enhances notions of “professional use of self” (Fox, 2011; Urdang, 2010), from paying attention to our feelings, attitudes, and intersubjectivity to include examinations of how our own power, social location, and assumed statuses affect our work.

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